Their Childhood and the Holocaust

A Child’s Perspective in Polish Documentary and Autobiographical Literature

by Justyna Kowalska-Leder (Author)
©2015 Monographs 308 Pages


Children have a specific perception of the Holocaust: it did not destroy their earlier world view, but became the field of first experiences. This book focuses on the traumatic dimension of the Holocaust and how it is expressed (or left unexpressed) in children’s diaries. «Here and Now» under the German Occupation presents an analysis of diaries and school elaborations written in Polish by Jewish children during German Occupation. A Literary Return to Childhood during the Holocaust is dedicated to Polish retrospective literature, in which authors return to the experience of the Holocaust during their childhood years.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part One ‘Here and Now’ under the German Occupation
  • 1. An attempt at verbalising trauma: children’s writing from the Warsaw Ghetto
  • 2. Diaries of Jewish Children under the German Occupation
  • 2.1 “Through pain and suffering towards sunlight” (H. Mniszek) the diary of Renia Knoll
  • 2.2 “Even if I wanted to write just a part I am not able…” the diary of Dawid Rubinowicz
  • 2.3 Is this already the beginning of the end for me? the diary of Dawid Sierakowiak
  • 2.4 Two girls from the Łódź Ghetto
  • 2.5 Disintegration and emptiness: why Jewish Children kept a diary during the Second World War
  • Part Two A Literary return to childhood during the Holocaust
  • 1. In the domain of returning motifs
  • 2. Do children tell lies?
  • 3. Child narration – testimony as an event in itself
  • Conclusion
  • The child as a medium of the holocaust
  • Bibiliography

| 7 →


More all less half way through his diary, on June 26, 1942 Janusz Korczak makes note of a difficulty well-known to many readers of literature in the form of personal documents:

I read it. Understood it with difficulty. And the reader? No wonder that the diary is incomprehensible for the reader. Is it possible in fact to understand someone’s recollections, a stranger’s life?

It would appear that I should know without problems what I write. Indeed! Is it possible to understand one’s own recollections?1

Personal records created hic et nunc usually only to some degree are concerned with a stranger’s reading. The author of a diary, chronicle, or indeed letter is not mindful to portray the broad context of their comments, which especially after many years would make it easier to reach the meaning of the ‘communication’. That is why literature of this type is often an enigma for the reader, who attempts to comprehend it along the way, with the aid of ‘clues’ left behind by the author.

In a document written during the events it records, traces may be particularly obscure, often eluding interpretation, playing so-called tricks and unexpectedly confounding a hypothesis that has been put together painstakingly. It is often the case that the author’s notes, made as if on the run, do not have the aim of creating a coherent and exhaustive picture of their experience. Just as Korczak records something that in a given moment appears to be important, only to forget after some time what prompted him to do so in the first place. On the pages of larger personal documents such as diaries, which arise over a period of months or years, it is possible to observe the process of the author maturing and signals indicating the change in function of these entries. Such a dynamic of the diary record and the changes in the author themselves often represent a barrier to an unambiguous and coherent interpretation of the text. Other difficulties arise during a reading of short forms of commentary, individual letters or notes. For a deeper understanding that it is necessary to have more knowledge drawn from other sources and imagination, allowing the reader to come closer to these aspects of the situation, which the author of the diary does not turn their attention to, considering these to be obvious. ← 7 | 8 →

A text created with a chronological distance in respect to the events recorded is therefore a realisation more or less of a crystallised vision of the whole, regardless whether this is simply an account, a novel or even an interview, which after all (exceptions notwithstanding) is edited and read by the author before publication. The author of the text that is born post factum knows the course and finale of the events portrayed, which of course is not without influence on the nature of the story. In a testimony of such texts that have arisen already after the events recorded a certain built-in compositional plan marks the route of interpretation, along which is possible for the reader to make their way.2

An attempt to delve into the experience of the Holocaust through a viewfinder, a literature of the personal document, amounts to an unending Sherlock Holmes adventure, whether one has to deal with a diary or an autobiographical novel. On each occasion therefore the world is portrayed where during the Second World War it was wiped from the surface of the Earth. Each time it is also an attempt to speak about the most painful experiences, which usually it is not possible to simply portray but often can be pointed to, signalled – at least through silence. For this very reason an attempt to interpret autobiographical literature speaking about the experience of the Holocaust is one that forces the reader towards a close, in fact intimate contact with the text itself. At times it is necessary to linger over a minor, apparently insignificant clue, which may transpire to be the key to understanding the text itself. In this regard therefore in the first part of the study devoted to those with documents that arose hic et nunc, there has been a concern to as much as it is possible, examine closely the relevant texts, all the while bearing in mind that they are known to an incomparably narrower community of readers than the works discussed in the second part.

The autobiographical novels here above all are those whose authors after a considerable period return to their childhood marked by the Shoa. These works are discussed with particular regard to returning motifs and their means of implementing literary devices, for the purpose of a child’s reconstruction of the events portrayed and their associated use of language. Before any commentary ← 8 | 9 → regarding the criteria used for selecting the above texts under analysis is entertained, the issue of methodology needs first to be addressed.

The concept of a personal document arose in sociology from the work of Florian Znaniecki, who in autobiographical texts saw an important source of investigation and consequently created the so-called method of biographical documents. He went on to apply these in the work together with William I. Thomas, Chłop polski w Europie i Ameryce.3 This methodology was consequently developed in the research of Józef Chałasiński, Jan Szczepański and Witold Kula. The conclusions and methodological postulates advanced by Znaniecki found cross pollination in literary criticism in the person of Roman Zimand, creator of personal document literature as a concept, to which he enlisted texts which were very varied in genre as for example accounts, diaries, recollections, letters and autobiographies.4 In his opinion, the above discussed literary genre is characterised by a particular fluidity between the boundaries of genres and the tension between ‘truth’ arising in such texts as a result of their referential nature and ‘inventiveness’ – a consequence of the realisation of defined rules of storytelling.

The most known concept in recent years in regard to a definition of autobiographism is the extra-genre concept of the ‘autobiographical contract’ proposed by Philippe Lejeune, where a text in which such a contract has been made in regard to the means of reading between the author and reader begins to be received automatically in categories of non-fiction, drawing as if behind it the making of a referential pact.5 All the texts in this study tend towards such a reading, though at times this is not entirely according to the intention of the author themselves. The issue of ‘truthfulness’ of child narration on the Holocaust is taken up in the second part of the study, Do Children Tell Lies? and this very problem of credibility appears in many places in this work.

The decision on the one hand, to include into the common field of discussion short written forms on the part of children incarcerated in the ghetto and on the other, work of a strong narrative nature is justified above all by the fact that each of these forms is said to provide a background for an authentic childhood in the Holocaust. Moreover, it is in fact through the prismat of this experience ← 9 | 10 → that each of these was, and is, read. Whether it be the work of Jerzy Kosiński Malowany ptak or Chleb rzucony umarłym by Bogdan Wojdowski, it is endowed with an autobiographical aura, which the authors themselves have no intention of dispersing; even when they warn that their work was embraced rather more through literature itself than a document. Apart from this if a literary return to childhood is rendered in narrative fictional terms, then both of these aspects need to be consistently found in diaries and letters.

Already a cursory review of the concept of personal document literature – at times variously named and defined – reveals the difficulty scholars face in regard to the above-mentioned category. Foremost this concerns the credibility of sources that would allow for an utmost objective account of the state of affairs – an issue that is a nightmare, especially for historians.

In recent years in the field of historico-philosophical discussion, one school of thought that has gained enormous popularity is that of Hayden White, who points to the rhetorical dimension of historical writing. In this context White argues for a narrative construction that helps the scholar provide meaning to the events described and at the same time, never realising the postulate of their objective description.6 In this respect Frank Ankersmit continues a narrative concept of the philosophy of history, differentiating the ‘discourse of history’ where the scholar tells a story about the past with the use of metaphors from that of the ‘discourse of memory’, where one speaks of past events with the aid of metonymy:

Metonymy favours simple closeness, respects all unexpected tribulations of our recollections and as such is a decided opposition to a proud, metaphorical expropriation of reality. The metaphor reserves the privilege of finding its way directly to the heart of the matter, while metonymy on the other hand, indicates the movement towards what is adjacent to it – and so on ad infinitum. Instead of forcing (past) reality into the mould of the metaphorical expropriation of reality, metonymy is characterised by a network of associations dependent on our personal experiences with many others.7

As Jacek Leociak notes, the discourse of memory ‘does not destroy the aura of inexpressibility and respects this reality that cannot be named, one we have been ← 10 | 11 → accustomed to associate with the Holocaust’.8 Metonymy dominates in highly valued testimonies of the Holocaust in the view of Ankersmit, which by verbalising traumatic experiences, join their expression to a repeated experience of an extreme situation. This in turn makes it possible for the individual concerned to domesticate information that has been repressed through a belated interiorisation of painful experiences. In this regard there shall be an extrapolation of the mechanism responsible for a re-actualisation of trauma in autobiographical stories at the end of the second part of the study, Child Narration-Testimony as an Event in Itself.

In the context of the above mentioned concept of personal document literature, particularly in regard to its subjective nature, it assumes a special value9 as it allows one to follow the means by which a given event can be ‘read’ and understood from the perspective of a specific reader-author or a defined category of such, as for example children. It is worth repeating in this place after Florian Znaniecki that the subjects of humanist sciences are only the facts that exist in the action and experience of specific individuals.10 In this respect it should be continually remembered that in researching testimonies it is not a question of testimonies as such, but their linguistic record in which the culture and practice of speaking in the case of the author play an enormous role.

Not only the literal meaning of words but also their material form is present in traces of experience of these testimonies. These play an enormous role especially ← 11 | 12 → in handwritten personal documents in which authors often unknowingly leave various additional pointers of interpretation such as for example crossings out, notes on the margin or indeed drawings. Acknowledgement in this study of the material dimension of text has arisen from the field of language anthropology. This study therefore is concerned to link the tradition of the method of biographical documents and the perspective drawn by such scholars in the anthropological canon in respect to language such as Bronisław Malinowski, Claude Lévi–Strauss, Jack Goody and Walter J. Ong.11 Their main argument postulated that the fundamental condition of understanding a given communication is to see it as a particular practice in a particular context, realised with the use of a specific medium and conditioned by culturally shaped models of expression.12

In the case of records created hic et nunc, the aim of this practice would appear to be easily captured. As the study shall demonstrate in the first part, the authors of texts with the aid of the diary were concerned with an intellectual and emotional means of coming to terms with the chaos that the German Occupation in Poland presented. In their notebooks these children searched for a means of overcoming their isolation and accordingly transformed their diary into a surrogate confidante. The personal notes taken therefore represent an appropriate field for the realisation of various forms of language practiced such as for example confessions out of concern or complaints of a cruel and unjust fate. Moreover, they provide an opportunity to let off steam as it were in the case of painful emotions, as well as a particular form of self analysis that often leads to the process of constructing and verifying the nature of their own identity through the notes ← 12 | 13 → kept in the diary. Further, the word itself, in relating a period of appalling events and threats to the author’s life, is often already in the intention of the writer given the function also of a testimony of events and means of recording their own life.

On account of the traumatic nature of the Holocaust experienced by children, equally in recollections, some of the following functions are realised: preserving the memory of events, preserving traces of those who have passed, self therapy, work dealing with the author’s identity and finally, a provocation as a challenge to those who do not know or do not wish to know what the Holocaust was.

So as to capture the specific nature of the texts under analysis in this study, it is imperative to make precise the very nature of trauma, as Bruno Bettelheim argues: ‘If man has passed through an extreme situation then for one or other reason he can no longer return to their previous life and to their former self’.13 The above relate to among others, experiences of the Holocaust and can be transposed from the psychology of the individual to that of the history of culture as proposes Dominick LaCapra.14 In his work History and Memory after Auschwitz LaCapra goes on to argue that in both cases it is a question of a strong trauma destroying the hitherto image of the world and mankind. In consequence everything falls asunder that could constitute a reference point of orientation and support.

In this respect many psychologists dealing with trauma understand its mechanism as a particular form of psychological overload as a result of which a person is unable in their awareness to establish experiences representing the source of the trauma. It is therefore maintained in an unprocessed, raw form and has a significant impact on the life of those affected by trauma.15

Psychiatrist and historian Robert Jay Lifton, for the past many years researching the effects of mass trauma, points out that the source of trauma is above all a sudden intrusion into the experience of an individual who faces the prospect of death. This is all the more destructive in its impact on the psyche the longer it stretches over time and the more grotesque and absurd the forms that it ← 13 | 14 → assumes.16 It should be noted that the absurd appears already in the description itself ‘survivor of the Holocaust’, which is not a purely metaphorical notion. Despite first impressions ‘to survive the Holocaust’ is not an oxymoron. German Nazis deprived Jews of the right to life, sentenced them to their death and subsequently gradually and with great effect, they carried out this sentence. Death itself for an individual sentenced to it (for example as a result of a court judgment or a fatal illness) assumes a central place in the experience, for everything heads towards it and everything becomes illuminated through it. The individual in this situation whilst still alive in fact is on ‘the other side’ and from this perspective begins to see their past and present. During the German Occupation along with the increasing episodes of oppression, among Jews this type of awareness began to develop. Every subsequent threat, news of murders taking place, every death in the immediate environment, would increasingly throw those still alive into the land of the dead. Thus slowly but surely, a black emptiness would systematically spread and physically consume in the end, 6 million individuals.

Many such survivors over the years who lived their lives pointed to this emptiness. According to Robert Jay Lifton, survivors were haunted by feelings of guilt arising from the conviction that they did not do or experience what in their opinion they should have in extreme situations. The heart of the matter as psychological studies have shown, is that an individual’s natural defence mechanism in such a situation is to initiate an emotional separation from the source of the trauma. This can be said to be a type of psychological numbness, which makes it impossible for any action and experience of emotions whatsoever.

The consequences of traumatic experience is not only a sense of guilt, but also a symptom coined by Zygmunt Freud as ‘repetition compulsion’, which is manifested by the individual as if by reflex, constantly returning to images, gestures and behaviour that arose in an extreme situation. So as to free themselves from this condition, the individual must undertake the effort to work through their trauma, thereby allowing those images and emotions into their field of consciousness, which in a self defence reflex were removed beyond its borders.17 This is a painful process, one that is long-term and requiring the help of others, and often one that does not have a happy finale. As Lifton argues, such a ← 14 | 15 → process may finish in a sense of helplessness: ‘liberation from the subjugation of the dead’.18

The category of trauma therefore, one drawn from psychoanalysis, can be said to be appropriate for the phenomenon that the Holocaust was. This is not only because it was responsible for the enormous gap in the biography of individuals, but also because an analogical phenomenon can be observed in the structure of culture itself. The Shoah therefore could not be described, expressed, understood or emotionally and read and intellectually assimilated at the time when it took place. In respect to the number of victims and the means of their murder, culture, which is after all the various forms of coming to terms with death, this time proved to be helpless. This can be seen in the paralysis of language and the disturbance to the fundamental forms of the symbols. The lack of relevant representative media that led to silence in this matter is characteristic of extreme experiences. Thus the first sign of trauma is a void, absence and non-existence. According to Dominick LaCapra this is known as a hole in existence.19

The above to a certain degree reflects a situation that every death evokes. We shall never know therefore how those dying experience this – but after all not only they become ‘overtake the’ by this phenomenon. Those affected are also close friends and family for whom death in this very moment appears as above all, an emptiness that comes after the passing of someone close. This sense of loss in fact, absence, becomes the source of suffering. The person left behind by the one who has passed faces the challenge of mourning, which in contrast to melancholy, allows though slowly not without difficulty, to find a direction in life elsewhere then the one marked out by personal loss.20 The immediate environment of the individual in mourning plays an enormous role in this process, one that helps them again take part in the community of those living. After the Second World War there was a lack of community support that would have made it possible for survivors of the Holocaust to begin the process of working through their trauma.

There were many reasons for the post war silence on the Holocaust in Poland. The most important it could be said was the situation in which the Polish nation ← 15 | 16 → found itself during the Holocaust – the imposed role of being witness to mass genocide. As a result, a sense of guilt arose for not helping Jews or not sufficiently giving them support. Moreover, survivors’ accounts could only have served to deepen the sense of a troubled conscience. This affected both the advocates and sympathisers of prewar anti-Semitism who dreamt at that time of a Poland cleansed of Jews, for example through emigration. The fact that such dreams materialised in such a monstrous form led to a noticeable sense of shame and fear. Both these emotions, no doubt fear being the stronger, also accompanied witnesses of the Holocaust, for whom the dramatic situation of Jews and subsequently their disappearance became a source of various benefits. This relates not only to those Poles who took over abandoned houses and apartments but also those who became wealthy for example by selling ghetto residents staple food products at horrendous prices. In this context, Kazimierz Wyka, emphasising the responsibility of Polish citizens for their behaviour in the face of crimes aimed at their neighbours, argues:

The means by which the Germans murdered Jews became part of their conscience. The reaction to these means, however, becomes part of our conscience. A gold tooth pulled out of a cadaver will always bleed, although no one by now will remember its origin.21

Finally, it is necessary to note also the open enmity towards Jews or in fact acts of brutality aimed at them as a symbol of the Jedwabne case. All of this came to place a shadow over Polish memory of the Holocaust and in fact bequeathed an unwritten, unsaid agreement of silence.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
Trauma Warsaw Ghetto Lódz Ghetto Diaries of Jewish children
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 308 pp.

Biographical notes

Justyna Kowalska-Leder (Author)

Justyna Kowalska-Leder is an assistant professor in the Institute of Polish Culture at the University of Warsaw. Her main field of interests are Polish memory of the Holocaust, Polish-Jewish relations during World War II and personal documents written by Jews during the German Occupation. She has also won the FNP Award of Excellence for a monograph, Foundation for Polish Science (2009) and the Majer Bałaban Medal of Distinction for the best doctoral dissertation, organised by the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw (2010).


Title: Their Childhood and the Holocaust
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
310 pages