- Children Writing the Holocaust
In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in publishing on the topic of children and the Holocaust. Scholarship has focused on the historical experiences of children during the Holocaust, the diaries they kept, the emotional legacy of child survivors, the retelling of their life stories, the treatment of the Holocaust in children's literature, and more. My own book, Imaging the Child in Modern Jewish Fiction (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), highlighted writing by Jerzy Kosinski, Aharon Appelfeld, and David Grossman as I explored representations of consciousness and the depiction of children's points of view in adult literary texts. That study drew on Bakhtin's theories of the "dialogic imagination," noting that polyphony is inescapable in texts that mediate children's voices through adult narration or editing. In Children Writing the Holocaust, Sue Vice works with a similar set of assumptions and analytical tools to examine a wide range of authors and types of publications. She sets herself two main goals. The first is to identify a series of narrative features distinctive to texts, aimed at an adult readership, that deal with a child's-eye view [End Page 164] of the Holocaust. The second goal is to determine whether there is substantial literary material that treats the Holocaust from a child's perspective.
This book is at its finest in the skillful stylistic analyses it offers. Vice scrutinizes an impressive array of texts, bringing a sharp interpretive eye and nuanced readings to a variety of memoirs, autobiographical fictions, diaries, and more. Among the writers she considers are well-known figures such as Saul Friedlander (When Memory Comes) and Georges Perec (W or the Memory of Childhood), as well as numerous others who have received less recognition and critical attention. She discerns the following elements in much of this writing: "Defamiliarization; errors of fact and perception; attention to detail at the expense of context; loss of affect; indefinite or divided temporality; irony of various kinds; the confusion of developmental with historical events; charged relations between author, narrator and protagonist; and age-specific concerns with the nature of writing and memory" (p. 2). Relying on Bakhtin as her central theoretical model, Vice weighs how narrative strategies and narrative structures convey personal and historical trauma in this literary corpus. In the process she makes many good observations. Of note is the discussion of fragmentary narration, a kind of storytelling that combines detail with historical gaps. Of special interest, too, are diaries. As she rightly points out, this category of writing has, till now, received too little formal, stylistic analysis. A particularly fascinating topic is choral narration—a phenomenon found in fiction, biography, and autobiographical texts that express collective experiences. Examples cited here include Karen Gershon's We Came as Children, a compilation of children's remarks based on a series of interviews; Henryk Grynberg's Children of Zion, an anthology of testimonies; and Clara Asscher-Pinkhoff's Star Children, a collection of short stories. Vice is consistently excellent at teasing apart the components of narrative voice and pointing out ways in which Bakhtin's ideas of dialogic discourse illuminate the literature at hand.
Regrettably, for a study that focuses so intelligently on dialogics, Children Writing the Holocaust does not always engage adequately in dialogue with other scholarship. Vice is well versed in Holocaust studies, but her book does not deal sufficiently with work that takes parallel approaches to narratives of childhood and adolescence. She does not, for example, engage with my book, other than to list it in a bibliography. Had she been more in conversation with the ideas expressed there, she might have dealt more satisfactorily with the question of distinctiveness in the material she analyzes. While she emphatically downplays points of comparison between children's-eye views of the Holocaust and other literature featuring child protagonists, I argued that the concept of the dialogic imagination applies aptly to a range of texts exploring societal shifts, cultural discontinuities, and Jewish self-conception. Debate on [End Page 165] these matters could define more thoroughly the...