that it is January 30, 1933. A ten year old Jewish boy, Leslie Frankel, is
coming in from the cold where he has just been ice skating with his friends. He
enters his house, begins to remove his mittens and scarf, and his ear is caught
by the sound of the news on the scratchy radio in the other room. Entering, his
parents are there, listening intently. His mother sees him and pulls him close;
with a child's intuition, Leslie knows that everything is not right. He looks at
his father for strength, but the man's head is bent in his hands so his face is
hidden. Could he be crying? Leslie has never seen his father cry. "What is
wrong, what has happened?" the little boy asks. He is met with silence,
until, finally, his mother says, in a voice that is strangling, "Hitler has
Frankel remembers the
moment like this. "When I got home, we heard that Hitler had become
Chancellor. Everybody shook. As kids of ten, we shook." (Gilbert 31)
Perhaps nothing is
more sad and touching than a child's awareness of a grim world, the dim
perspective which a child has of evil times. Children, who are so fresh from God
and the womb, have a uniquely different outlook, and, also, a different
experience in this world.
Since the time of
Martin Luther at Worms in 1543, who urged the burning of Jewish synagogues, and
imprisonment of Jewish people, anti-Jewish propaganda was not uncommon in Europe
(Gilbert 19). But the Holocaust, and the years preceding it, from 1933 until
1945, take their place as the darkest in the history of European Jews.
whose German village, Biblis, was next to Worms, would not be a child any longer
by the time of mass Jewish extermination, the torture of the Jewish children did
not begin with concentration camps: the Nuremberg Laws went into effect in 1935.
These laws were the equivalent of segregation laws, and German Jews, which had
heretofore enjoyed prosperous social and business activity, were now segregated
in every sphere of their daily lives (Gilbert 48).
For Frankel, and thousands of children like him, this meant daily humiliation
amongst their peers and at school. Jewish schoolchildren were not allowed to sit
at the same benches as Christian children, and suffered abuse and ridicule from
both teachers and classmates. Myths characterizing Jews and cultish and
bloodthirsty murderers were widespread (Gilbert 53)
In 1939, German
troops rolled into Poland with railway cars painted with pictures of big,
hook-nosed Jews that read "We're off to Poland, to thrash the Jews."
When the Germans took
Poland, any Jew over the age of nine was required by law to wear a four inch
armband with a blue star of David, which identified them publicly as Jews
(Gilbert 98). Imagine a thousand Jewish mothers, fastening armbands with
trembling hands onto their children, and listening helplessly to their children
cries. 'Why, mommy? Why must I wear this?"
Six years younger
than Leslie Frankel, in 1939 Halina Birenbaum was ten years old. She was a
little Polish girl about to enter her third year of elementary school, and she
wore such a blue star. Daily, Birenbaum remembers looking for reassurance in the
face of her mother. But, soon, she "slowly stopped believing in (her)
mother's assurances." (Birenbaum 8)
Indeed, her mother's
assurances would not save Halina Birenbaum from what was to come. In Warsaw, the
city where Halina was born and raised, the Jews, whose population made up one
third the total population of Warsaw, were forced to move into an area less than
two and half percent the size of the total city (Gilbert 127-28). This area was
called the Warsaw Ghetto.
For children living
in the ghetto, life took on a strange form.
"The yard on Muranowska Street was my world of games and
daydreams. In the ghetto these yards served as garden, school, reading room,
playing field." (Birenbaum 11)
children like Halina struggled to uphold the semblance of a normal youth,
children were also perishing by the scores. A young Jewish historian named
Emmanuel Ringelbaum wrote:
"The most fearful sight is of the freezing children.
Little children with bare feet, bare knees, and torn clothing stand dumbly in
the street weeping." (Ringelbaum 233)
also recalled a night when seventy children froze to death on the steps of a
ghetto house. (Ringelbaum 233) And Birenbaum affirms that, "There were no
children in the real meaning of the word in the ghetto." (Birenbaum 20)
Yet, hope, for the children, had to persist.
"We daydreamed of the good food, fruit and candy that had
existed before the war, and which we now yearned for. We talked of distant
forests, sweet-smelling meadows and rivers, now accessible to us only in books
and from our elders' tales." (Birenbaum 12)
Halina's words, one can see how the outside world, with all its pleasures,
dissipated almost completely from the Jews locked in their ghetto. And for
children especially, who had known the world such a short time, there was hardly
a consciousness of any better world.
ghetto was not the worst yet in store for the Halina and her fellow Jewish
children. In 1942, round-up began in Warsaw. A railway had just been completed
between the ghetto and Treblinka (Gilbert 387). The concentration camps awaited.
At the concentration
camps, children were less likely to survive than teenagers or adults for the
simple reason that they were not as strong and thus not as useful for slave
labor. If you could work, you could hope to extend your life. When Halina
Birenbaum was deported, her mother instructed her to always, no matter what, say
that she was eighteen (Birenbaum 18). Birenbaum also recalls how mothers, during
the deportations, would sometimes suffocate and kill their own infants in order
to escape detection from the Nazis, as a child's cry could give away a hiding
place (Birenbaum 22).
deportation and that she
"envied rats and mice ... they were not so helpless as
we, that night on the monstrous Umschlag, as we awaited the train to the
extermination camp of torture." (Birenbaum 66)
she did reach the "camp of torture," she lost the rest of her family
immediately. She then allowed a fellow prisoner to chop off all her long hair
with the "utmost indifference." (Birenbaum 81) Halina, like other
little girls in the concentration camps, was leading an existence devoid of the
best parts of being a little girl. Surrounded by death, one's hair-style
suddenly became a triviality.
Mass killing of
children occurred all the time in the camps. In the Birkenau Camp, on October
20, 1944, 650 boys "were put through a process called
"selection." They were all ordered to get undressed and were examined
by SS guards. 600 of the boys were gassed, 50 were spared (Gilbert 749). Halina
Birenbaum herself was spared only due to an accident in which the Nazis ran out
of poison gas (Birenbaum 93). Birenbaum remembers:
"I just could not comprehend that there still existed
another world in which people were allowed to move around open spaces not
cordoned off with barbed wire, and in which children played!" (Birenbaum
Halina Birenbaum would one day rejoin that other world. She was moved from
Treblinka to Auschwitz, where she was liberated at the end of the war. Halina
survived. Halina Birenbaum was a child survivor whose childhood never unfolded
in the way that her mother and father must have expected it to. When they
cradled her as an infant, swathed in pink in their arms, could they have known?
Could they have predicted the horror?
Yes, Halina Birenbaum
survived. Leslie Frankel survived. I have chosen to dwell on the survivors
because they are the ones who Hitler failed to silence; their words are the ones
that must resonate now and forever more. As Birenbaum says,
"The number tattooed on my left arm--personal evidence
from Auschwitz--today attracts the attention of many people ... it is a kind
of certificate of maturity, from a period in which I experienced life and the
world in their naked forms, a desperate struggle for a piece of bread, a
breath of air and a little space . . . I got out of hell thanks to the victory
of the Red Army. I was fifteen at the time. Fortunately, not every owner of a
certificate of maturity of this type pays for it through the loss of family
and childhood through daily association with death, through a store of
terrible experiences and incidents. Yet such was the lot of thousands of
Jewish children, hounded down and murdered by the Nazis." (Birenbaum 201)
the Nazis were defeated in 1945, but the nightmare of the Jewish Holocaust lives
on. And for the children who perished at the hands of Hitler, there could be no
future except that of remembrance. The memories of those children, each one of
their individual, sad, incredible stories, and the conglomerate horror of their
fate, can never be forgotten. All in all, it is estimated that 1.2 Jewish
children were murdered during the Holocaust. While similar extermination has
been occurring in Bosnia and Rwanda in this decade, one can only wonder what it
means to be a mature adult, what it means to use mature free will, and, if these
questions remain unanswered, what sort of "certificate of maturity"
might someday be demanded from our own children?
Birenbaum, Halina. Hope Is the Last to Die: A Coming of Age Under Nazi Terror.
New York: M.E. Sharpe Inc., 1971.
Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy. London: Fontana Press, 1986.
Ringelbaum, Emmanuel. Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto: the Journal of Emmanuel
Ringelbaum. Ed. Jacob Sloane. New York: Schocken Books, 1974.