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Feb 2007 Journal

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Speaking again: hidden children of the Holocaust (Review article)

Ce n'est qu'un nom sur une liste, mais c'est mon cimetière: Traumas, deuils et transmission chez les enfants juifs cachés en France pendant l'Occupation
(It's Only a Name on a List, But It's My Cemetery: Trauma, Grieving and Transmission among Jewish Children Hidden in France during the Occupation)
by Yoram Mouchenik
Grenoble: La Pensée Sauvage, Editions, 2006, 173 pp., 20 euros

Eight-year-old Janek Weber was smuggled out of the Cracow ghetto in a suitcase. It was March 1943, when the ghetto was about to be liquidated. Many inmates tried to escape through the sewers, but most were caught. 'One of my last memories of my father was him holding me in his arms queuing to go down a manhole', Weber recalls. 'Then he changed his mind and we went back to our room and he told me I would be put in a suitcase. He made holes so I could breathe. I remained in the suitcase about two hours.'

Most of the remaining inmates were deported to Plaszow. Weber's father was killed, but his mother survived Plaszow and Auschwitz and was eventually liberated from Belsen. Reunited with her after the war, Weber learned that his parents had bribed a carriage driver 'with a kind face' and told him there was a child in the case who should be let out between the ghetto and Plaszow. Indeed, Janek jumped from the carriage, put his hands in his pocket and started whistling a Polish tune, realising that he should look 'like any Polish kid'. As instructed, he went back to the block of flats owned by his well-to-do parents, where the devoted Polish caretaker sheltered him. As she had only one room, Janek had to hide under the bed whenever anybody knocked.

After several days, Janek's parents made contact with another sympathetic Polish family and he was taken to a semi-secluded villa outside Cracow, where he was given the room of the grandmother who had recently died. The youngest child of the family was told that nobody was allowed in grandma's room and it was locked. Janek remained hidden there for nearly two years until the Russians liberated Cracow in January 1945.

The plight of children hidden during the Nazi era, like Weber, has not lacked attention and this powerful new volume by Yoram Mouchenik, chronicling encounters with children in hiding in wartime France, makes a valuable contribution to the literature on the subject. With an acknowledgement to his parents for having remained alive, Mouchenik, a psychotherapist born two years after the war, has focused his work on 16 children of deportees who, like his parents, were on a certain 'Convoy Y' from Loiret in 1942. These 'hidden children' and many others have formed an association to preserve the memory of the relatives who never returned. The haunting title of the volume is taken from one of Mouchenik's interviewees, with the list in question compiled by Serge Klarsfeld, the researcher engaged in documentation of the Holocaust.

What is striking is Mouchenik's ability to penetrate the surface and explore the trauma suffered by many of these individuals, not only as a result of their experience during the war but of the fractured family life which often persisted even if a parent had survived. For some, to mourn their loved ones would be to make them die once again. Others have consciously felt their despair transmitted to their children. As a psychotherapist, Mouchenik's interviews have often proved healing. 'Eliane', for example, an elderly woman living in Israel, managed, as a teenager during the occupation - through a series of unpredictable 'miracles' - to save not only herself but her younger brother and sister and a small cousin, who, to this day, refers to her as 'maman'. Mouchenik was the only person to whom 'Eliane', who suffered a breakdown after the liberation, has been able to speak fully of her travails. Unusually prescient, she had heard a BBC broadcast in June 1942 informing of crematoria built at Auschwitz and begged her mother to escape before the round-ups, only to be roundly slapped. One of the problems she brought up with Mouchenik is the anger she feels towards her mother.

The association has provided adherents with a new 'family'. After the war, children reunited with a surviving parent often found a broken creature needing care. This was the case with the fathers of 'Odile' and 'Sylvie', the latter erecting a stella in the house to his wife's memory. Other children suffered from the remarriage of the surviving parent to someone less than sympathetic. It would appear, too, that even the association, with all its benefits, has not been immune to the rivalries and politics afflicting most organisations, something from which 'Sylvie', a baby at the time of the deportation and an active founder member, has suffered. Nevertheless, Sylvie's work in interviewing a number of her fellow child survivors has, like Mouchenik's, proved a source of healing.

While Janek Weber initially had difficulty in speaking, as he hadn't spoken for two years, he claims not to have suffered post-war trauma and to have seen his experience as a kind of adventure. Like animals desperate to survive, he and others like him had been unaware of the enormity of the tragedy. He spent two years in the Belsen DP camp, where his mother remarried. He got on well with his stepfather, who also had a surviving son, and the couple had another son. In 1947 the family moved to Belgium. Weber has kept in touch with the Polish family who saved him. The parents (posthumously) and the caretaker have been honoured at Yad Vashem.

Unlike Weber, who considers himself extremely lucky, many of Mouchenik's hidden children had not fully recovered from the misery they experienced, which was exacerbated by their inability to unburden themselves. 'To speak ... [would be] to risk death once again', Boris Cyrulnik perceptively acknowledges in his preface, concluding that Mouchenik's book is a way of giving them their voice, at last.
Emma Klein

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