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  • “Do You Know What ‘Auschwitz’ Means?” Children’s Literature and the Holocaust
  • Adrienne Kertzer (bio)

The question of my title is asked by the mother of Piri Davidowitz in the penultimate sentence of Aranka Siegal’s fictionalized memoir, Upon the Head of the Goat: A Childhood in Hungary 1939–1944. The reader never hears the answer to the mother’s question; Siegal’s final sentence reports that before Mr. Shuster can respond, the German guard yells and the train door clanks shut (214). The sequel, Grace in the Wilderness: After the Liberation, 1945–1948, begins in Bergen-Belsen at the end of the war. Presumably Piri, having survived Auschwitz, now knows the answer to her mother’s question, but the reader is never given this answer; coherent, conclusive statements are not part of the meaning of Auschwitz. That meaning is not just hidden from the reader; it is denied. If Piri cannot know for certain what Auschwitz means for her mother, in that Piri survives and her mother does not, what meaning can the reader possibly construct? The unanswered question, in effect, becomes the meaning. For the mother’s unanswered question is what the reader is left with: Do you know what Auschwitz means? Auschwitz is what I cannot narrate.

Part of what Piri cannot narrate is the death of her mother, a death that she guesses occurs shortly after the arrival at Auschwitz. Piri’s need to understand the mother’s final words to her two older daughters as “her last act as our mother, setting an example to last us a lifetime” (Grace 70) is itself ambiguous, for Piri had come to notice in the ghetto what a good actress her mother was. Are the mother’s final words, “Be brave and look after each other” (70), part of a continuing act of motherhood, a mother acting as though maternal gestures make sense on the ramp of Auschwitz? The very idea of motherhood as protective, powerful, and nurturing cannot survive the boarding of the trains, as is evident when Mrs. [End Page 238] Davidowitz orders the German soldiers not to touch her daughters, and despite her ability to speak in both German and Hungarian, her maternal voice is powerless. She can protect neither Piri nor herself. Even as the train door clanks shut, Mrs. Davidowitz must pull “her head back just in time to avoid being struck by the door as it closed with a loud metallic clank” (Upon 214). It is the sound of machinery, not the human voice, that triumphs in the final sentence of Upon the Head of the Goat.

What bears notice is that this brutal diminishment of maternal power and maternal voice happens before the train door shuts. It represents the end of what can be narrated. The mother’s head pulls back to avoid being struck by the train door; what happens when she is pushed, the reader assumes, into the gas chamber? For Siegal’s two subtitles are deceptive; appearing to cover a nine-year period, they omit the time between June 1944, the shutting of the train door, and spring 1945, the moment of liberation. Piri may say in the sequel, “I could not get my mind away from Auschwitz” (Grace 69), but the narrative focus on post-war events indicates that as a traumatized survivor, Piri can neither express nor consciously think about what her mind dwells on. In Grace in the Wilderness, fragments of memories, details of nightmares, will occasionally convey that Auschwitz is synonymous with the mother’s death, “I choked up at the mention of Mother. I could not get my mind away from Auschwitz” (69), but the mother’s question remains unanswered, as impossible to narrate as the moment of her death.

Memoir, like fiction, is obviously constructed; the writer in retrospect gives a shape to her experience; she recalls or gives emphasis to events that she now sees as significant. Yet to do so is not necessarily to explain those events, or to conclude that there is a lesson about the triumph of the human spirit in the words of her story. The writer may see a pattern and a redemptive meaning in her...

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pp. 238-256
Launched on MUSE
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