A Certificate of Maturity

By Jenny Feldman
Bel Aire, Florida


 

Imagine 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 become Chancellor."
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.
Although Frankel, 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." (Gilbert 84)
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)

While 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)

Ringelbaum 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)

From 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.
Unfortunately, the 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).
Birenbaum remembers 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)

When 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 88)

But 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)

Thus, 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?


Works Cited

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.

 


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