Two Trains Running

Survivors: Children’s Lives after the Holocaust | Rebecca Clifford | Yale

By Dorian Stuber

In The Truce, a memoir of his experiences after being liberated from Auschwitz, Primo Levi, an Italian chemist and writer, describes a remarkable figure he encountered among the former internees who remained in the camp while authorities determined what to do with them. Hurbinek, a boy of about three years old, is “a nobody, a child of death, a child of Auschwitz.” But neither Levi nor anyone else in the ruins of the camp knows where he comes from, what he’s experienced, or how he’s still alive because the partially paralyzed child cannot speak. Levi calls Hurbinek “the little sphinx”—a fitting epithet, the sphinx famously having posed a riddle: What walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three in the evening. The answer, of course, is a human being—just what the Nazis claimed their victims were not. 

Hurbinek lived to be liberated, but not much else: he died shortly thereafter, “free but not redeemed,” a tragic fate which eliminates him as a suitable subject for Rebecca Clifford’s brilliant, eye-opening new book, Survivors: Children’s Lives after the Holocaust. Clifford’s research, though, allows us to take a different position than Levi’s. To his question—how does this most poignant of victims allow us to define ourselves—she adds another: how does the child define himself? What would happen if we thought of children as subjects rather than objects, stars in their own life-story rather than bit-players in others’ machinations? 

Clifford’s melancholy conclusion is that her subjects survived more than life in hiding, incarceration in ghettos and camps, or separation from loved ones. They also survived their survival. The decisions adults made for them upon their release shaped their entire lives. 

It’s estimated that about 150,000 Jewish children and adolescents survived the Nazi genocide, out of a pre-war population of 1.5 million. Of that already small number, Clifford narrows her focus to 100, whom she interviewed in their old age. Her subjects were ten years old or younger at the end of the war and settled outside Europe, such that geographical upheaval was added to their already disrupted lives. Most importantly, these subjects had already provided some sort of testimony about their experiences. By comparing the archival record to her present-day interviews, Clifford is able to note changes in the (self) descriptions of her subjects. 

Liberation was a painful and ambivalent time for all survivors, but it hit children the hardest. Their wartime life was the only life they had known. They had no hope of returning to a life interrupted, as adults did, but instead lost whatever precarious place they had in the world. Quickly adults swooped in to define, analyze, and marshal them. 

Clifford puts these adults into three categories: interviewers, testimony gatherers, and believers in child psychology. The interviewers, who mostly worked for aid agencies, focused on specific, immediate goals, such as searching for surviving relatives. The testimony gatherers wanted to compile evidence to put perpetrators on trial or educate the world about the extent of Nazi persecution. Both groups regarded children as incidental to adult needs. By contrast, the child psychologists—childcare experts and care workers, largely influenced by psychoanalysis—believed that children mattered intrinsically. Yet here too, Clifford shows, adults served their own needs and allayed their own anxieties before the children’s.

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Child survivors couldn’t win. Adults viewed as emotionally broken, abnormal, even delinquent to the point of psychopathology. But these same adults also thought them too docile, too unnatural, not enough like ordinary children. Damaged goods, either way. Even when cherished as precious remnants of an almost-destroyed people or admired as resilient survivors who would surely overcome their terrible pasts (one of the best things Clifford does is reject the concept of resilience, which too often is fetishized as a way to excuse past injustices), child survivors were treated as projections of adult fantasies rather than participants in their own lives. 

This made care homes where child survivors lived together extremely important. Clifford tells of an institution at Taverny, near Paris, where children were supervised by adolescents who had also survived Nazi persecution. In later life, this institution’s former inhabitants described their relief at living with people who experienced similar trials.

Yet places like Taverny weren’t immune to outside pressures. Even as they helped the children, the best adults still unconsciously conscripted them into ideological battles. For example, in western Europe at least, caregivers valued the nuclear family over collective living. They thought of children’s homes as way-stations on the path to adoption.  In fact, child survivors who lived at Taverny spoke heartbreakingly of Sundays, when the children who had relatives or other interested adults nearby were allowed off the grounds for the day, leaving the other children behind. The problem wasn’t, as we might expect, that only some kids got to go. Those chosen were as unhappy as those left behind. The problem was that that they couldn’t be with each other.

But the nuclear family wasn’t the only concept western experts valued. As the children aged into adolescence and adulthood, the experts who adjudicated their lives increasingly emphasized the idea of trauma. Social workers and psychologists who had previously defined trauma as short-term injury now saw it as a chronic condition, a philosophical sea-change brought on by the restitution scheme the West German government offered victims of National Socialism in the 1950s and 60s. Once again Jews found themselves judged by Germans. All victims faced this indignity, but child survivors suffered in particular ways, unable, for example, to claim redress for lost earnings in careers they hadn’t yet begun. Most painfully, they were asked to convince authorities that though they might not be able to remember everything that happened to them at the hands of the Nazis they nonetheless suffered. 

Child welfare experts came to their aid by arguing that the full impact of traumatic events did not make itself felt until years later and often could never be fully overcome. Yet just when it seemed that child survivors were finally being taken seriously, they were again punished by the preconceptions of others. These former children—now entering their prime years—had to endure the suggestion that as victims of trauma they were unable to live normal or productive lives. Clifford notes a bitter paradox: the more experts listened to child survivors the more they deemed them damaged or incompetent.

The vogue for Holocaust oral history projects in the 1980s and 90s created a similar double-bind. Clifford distinguishes two kinds of testimonial projects: those, like the Shoah Foundation, funded by Steven Spielberg after the success of Schindler’s List (1993), that sought redemptive narratives (interviewers would conclude by asking the survivor to appear with their descendants), and those, like Yale’s Fortunoff Archives, that elicited “narratives that reflected on the lasting consequences of trauma.” Clifford favors neither, rejecting the very term “testimony,” which, with its legal connotations, demands consistency on the part of the “witness.” She prefers “oral history interview” because from her point of view interviews are performances informed by the circumstances in which they are given. For example, what can’t be said is as important as what can.

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Testimony requires what Clifford calls “composure”—the demand that victims present their stories coherently—leaving no room for “discomposure, “which happens “when a speaker cannot align his or her subjective experience with collective discourse” and is the result of a fragmented self. The difference between survivors who have told their story many times before and those who have not is stark. “Discomposed” stories are hard to follow, even incoherent, a jumble of names, places, and elided events told in halting, non-chronological fashion. If we believe the point of telling such stories is to teach others, we might even say such stories aren’t very useful. Yet even more than adult survivors, who at least learned to navigate the world before it tried to destroy them, child survivors lacked narrative competence.

Added to these difficulties were the ones of legitimacy; other survivors regularly challenged their right to the term. They were always secondary victims (even calling them “orphans” suggested the death of the parent was more important). What kind of story can you tell about yourself when the ruptures of that self are your story? As one of Clifford’s interviewees poignantly puts it: “I and my past are like two trains. It’s gone that way, and I’ve gone this way.”

Yet in affirming the meaningfulness of a shattered identity, Clifford contradicts herself. She understandably wants child survivors to have control over their own stories. Yet such willpower implies coherence she argues they don’t have. She repeatedly reminds her reader that even in the immediate postwar years children found ways to stand up for themselves. The war, she argues, taught them about “crafting and re-crafting their identities, and presenting parts of themselves for adult consumption while hiding others from sight.”

Her examples don’t always convince. In telling the story of Fritz Friedmann, a six-year-old brought to a care home in England who lied to the matron when she asked him why he cried at night (he told her he was thinking of his mother but he was really fretting about two older boys who were bullying him) Clifford seizes upon the boy’s ability to tell the adult what she wanted to hear. But she could as easily have emphasized the boy’s unwillingness to rat out his peers, and his fear of what they might do to him. Either interpretation would offer evidence of Fritz’s willpower. But Clifford chooses to highlight the boy’s relation to the adults in his life, rather than to other children. As brilliant and illuminating as her arguments are, she is caught in a paradox: to do justice to child survivors is to keep them children forever. Clifford is at her best when she concludes that it is impossible to disentangle children’s desires and beliefs from not just the expectations of others but also the willingness or need of children to conform to them.

Such nuance helps us understand what Levi might have meant when he enigmatically said, of the doomed child Hurbinek, “He bears witness through these words of mine.” Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Doesn’t Levi bear witness to Hurbinek through his words? But that would mean Levi would always be speaking for the child. Levi’s counterintuitive statement meshes with Clifford’s wish: to hear, through careful attention to both the historical record and the gaps in it, the voices of Holocaust child survivors themselves, beyond all adult discipline and control. Both Levi and Clifford imagine children speaking through adults, for themselves above all.

It is remarkable how child survivors, so long dismissed, are now held in such esteem. Yet that too is another cloak society has projected on them. The moral power of Survivors lies in Clifford’s desire to do justice to the children themselves. Yet the paradox of how to honor the child without confining it to a lifetime of childishness is one she can’t quite resolve, even in this wide-ranging, accessible, and important book.

Dorian Stuber teaches English at Hendrix College and blogs about books at