Meine Kinder, by Lena Kuechler
Children of Poland
Meine Kinder (“My Children”).
by Lena Kuechler.
Editions U.P.J., Paris. 336 pp.
The modern parallel to Aycha, the Book of Lamentations, has come to be known by the Yiddish term Churh’n-Literatur. The phrase is correct but inadequate. This literature does not deal with “destruction” in the abstract, but with the kind the Nazis created and its impact upon European Jewry. How Jews responded individually, what collective ethos they evolved—these are its concerns. The contrasts to Lamentations are significant. Our contemporary account is told in many languages, by children as well as adults. Neither one literary type nor one mood predominates: The dreadful objectivity of The Black Book of Polish Jewry, Mordecai Gebertig’s poignant lyric “Esbrent, Briderlach,“ Anne Frank’s whimsical, almost too perceptive journal, are only a few of the theme’s variations.
Most relevant is the idea of suffering. Aycha sees suffering as a divine retribution for Judah’s sin of pride in her days of prosperity: “Chet chata Yerushalaym“ —”A grievous sin did Jerusalem commit.” Chastisement would produce a saving remnant to rise purified and strive for the holy millennium. But for the Jewish survivors of the Nazi trauma, there could be no workable identification of the Nazis as God’s rod of wrath, and no explicit choice of dying Al Kiddush Ha-Shem— the absolute destruction of any causal relation between what a man is and what happens to him may be said to absolve him not only of atonement but of guilt as well.
By definition we are morally committed to these writings; they call forth immediate assent rather than evaluation. If some touch of art here and there facilitates our response, so much the better; but response there cannot fail to be.
Lena Kuechler offers us in the present volume verbatim accounts of their wartime experiences by nine Jewish children of Polish birth who, at the telling in 1946, were bound for Israel. Their stories have now been translated into Yiddish but were transcribed in the original Polish by Mrs. Kuechler, one of the founders of the Jewish children’s home in Poland where they sought temporary asylum soon after the German defeat. She presents to us a document “poshet un kuntsen”— “simple and straightforward”—confining her editorial intervention to a sensitive introduction, informative notes, and a division of the children’s narratives into five sections dealing with experiences “on the Aryan side,” in the villages, in the ghettos, in the camps, and among the partisans in the forests. (A concluding portion shows the efforts of two Polish governesses to save their Jewish charges at great peril to themselves, and indeed there runs throughout the book the thread of Gentile heroism on behalf of Jewish children.) This editorial self-effacement has its disadvantages; if Mrs. Kuechler had been willing to guide the children with sophisticated questioning, they might have been able to present their experiences with more insight. I have had no access to the original Polish text, but the vocabulary of this volume generally lacks the ironic understatement of even the simplest, most concrete Yiddish. But these un-manipulated narratives have their own special impact.
Molly Strasbourg tells how at five years old she denied kinship with her murdered father:
Plutsling hob ich derhert shossen. . . . Ich gib a kuk, es geyt a sheygetz un trogt dos bild fun mayn taten. . . . “Men hot im dershossen,” macht er. “Du kenst im?” Ich hob nisht gevolt zogn as ich ken im, vayl er volt zich glaych ge-chapt . . . un volt alemen tsuploydert, az ich bin a yiddish kind. Hob ich im gezogt: “Neyn, ich ken im nisht. . . . .“ (Suddenly I heard shots. . . . I look up, and there goes a Pole carrying my father’s picture. . . . “They shot him,” says he. “Do you know him`?” I didn’t want to say that I knew him, because he would have gone babbling to everyone that I was a Jewish child. So I told him, “No, I don’t know him. . . .”)
Eva Schauder, a professor’s child, at six years old betrayed her father with the truth:
Oib ich vel zogen a lign, hob ich zich getracht, vel ich hobn a zind, vayl men tore kayn lign nisht zogen. Der tate flegt mìr shtendig zogen, az men muz nor zogn dem emes. (If I say a lie, I thought, I’ll have a sin, for you mustn’t lie. Daddy used to tell me all the time that one must only tell the truth.)
Guilt pursues her like a fury, and her distress is strong throughout her story.
Lies bred distrust; Yorick Goldman, in his early ‘teens, asserts: “Ven ich hob bakent di menshen un dos leben in lager, hob ich shoyn tsu keynem kayn tsutray nisht gehot.“ (“When I got to know the people and the life in the camp I didn’t trust anyone.”) He lived in constant fear that his being a Jew would be discovered during a delousing session: “A shreklich opkumenish iz far mir geven dos boden zich . . . naket, ven men . . . flegt unz bashpritsen mit Flit.” (“A ghastly experience for me was bathing naked, when they would spray us with Flit.”) Yorick sees his denial of Jewishness as a crime: “Mayn ‘far-brechen iz bashtanen darin vos ich bin a yid un ich shpil di role fun a Polak.“ (“My ‘crime’ was that I am a Jew and played the part of a Pole.”)
Yanka Varshavska’s pattern of survival is the most striking. At ten she had become an enterpreneur, engaged in smuggling food and clothing, for a high price, into the ghetto and concentration camp near Krakow; against the camp’s timeless non-utilitarian existence, her industry and “ambition” became a parody of the dignity of labor. This potential capitalist exercised her moral sense by organizing hiding places for Jewish children, but her own salvation lay in activity. When the ghetto was Judenrein and the camp had danced its last Todestanz, and when the Germans had fled before the victorious Red Army, then she broke down and wandered incoherently through the empty streets:
Ich hob gevolt antloyfen, mir hot zich gedacht, az di daytchen vein mich chapn, opnemen di s’choyre . . . dershissen. . . . Epes hot mich a klem getun baym hartzen. Ich bin gegangen mit di gassen un geveynt. . . . S’hot zich tsu-samengekliben bay mir alts vos ich hob ibergelebt, vos andere hoben ibergelebt and oysgeliten. . . . Alts vos ich hob gevust, afile di kleynste narishkayt, hot mir itst azoy shreklich vey getun, az ich hob kiseyder geveynt. S’iz epes geven azoy vi ich volt ersht itst alts bagrìfen, vi ersht itst volt sich mayn veytig ongehoyben. (I wanted to run away. I thought the Germans would catch me, grab my stuff, shoot me. . . . I was scared. I walked around the streets and wept. All that I and others had lived through suddenly came together . . . all that I had known, even the smallest foolishness, now hurt me so much that I couldn’t stop crying. . . . It was as if I understood it all for the first time, as if only now my pain would begin.)
To compare these children with Anne Frank is unjust. They are in different worlds. Anne Frank in her long confinement achieved an outlet by writing, and in the process became an artist. She could describe her moods with a quotation from Goethe, and she could write, “We all have our uses.” These children, beleaguered by unrelenting and incomprehensible threats, had to expend themselves in evasions and untruths; the pressures were those of the body, stubbornly material, and there could be no thought of “our uses.” By good luck and sheer drive, they survived as Anne Frank did not. Many, perhaps, survived out of mere spite. One of them writes: “Mir iz gornisht gegangen azoy vegn lehen, nur ich hoh zich nisht gevolt lozn chapn. Ich hob di daytshen nisht fargunen dem fargnignen oystsushlepen mayn lebn.“ (“I wasn’t really so keen on living, but I didn’t want to be caught. I didn’t want to give the Germans the satisfaction of wiping out my life.”) Thus the ultimate terror meets the ultimate resistance.