- The Holocaust and Children:Lived Experience and the Study of History
Many children died en route to the concentration camps, and those who survived were eliminated almost immediately by whatever means possible, for they obstructed, in the German view, the working routine of the camps. . . . An inmate in her writing categorized the children into four groups: those gassed immediately upon arrival; those murdered in their mother's womb or immediately after birth; those born in the camp who were left alive (a rare occurrence); and those who were tall enough to pass as adults. Quite often pregnant women were sent either directly to the gas chamber or to the hospital for forced abortion. It is little wonder that in the Auschwitz/ Birkenau extermination complex, at least until the end of 1943, only one Jewish child was to be found (in the Women's Camp).(Eisen, 16)
This was the fate of children once the doors of the transport trains were shut. Not accounted for in this toll-taking were the children who died of disease and starvation in the ghettos of eastern Europe. Children continue to experience the terrors of human history; they are corrupted, victimized and killed. Ironically, it is just because they are powerless to defend themselves that they are also perceived by adults as being peripheral to historical events. The child is in the middle of things, but is not seen there. Yet, it is remarkable how frequently witnesses evoke images of children, perhaps of only one child remembered at a particular moment. If such shards, such chance recollections were not gathered by historians, the children's suffering would be lost along with them.
George Eisen's Children and Play in the Holocaust and Barbara Rogasky's Smoke and Ashes set out to correct this historical injustice. Eisen' s study focuses on children's universal need to come to terms with their [End Page 164] world, even if that world is the killing world of ghetto or camp; Rogasky's book intends to inform and make vigilant the young people of our time who live in relative safety. Eisen writes for the adult reader; Rogasky for the young adult student of the Holocaust.
George Eisen came upon his subject by an "accident of research" (xi): "The material I stumbled upon, tragic and fascinating as it was, had never been explored" (xii). Contained within that material are powerful new images of young people at play that offer us original insights into the situation of children during the Holocaust. But, inadvertently, his book also takes on interest as a scholarly text by a writer torn by ambivalence towards his subject: he centers the child within the context of a large event, but repeatedly feels impelled to justify the focus of his research, as if he never quite freed himself of the notion that the theme of children and play, especially within the context of the Holocaust, is somehow a trivial concern. As a result, the reader becomes as involved with Eisen's attitude toward his subject as with the subject itself.
Children at play during the Holocaust—the image troubles Eisen deeply, as it should anyone. Eisen responds to the pathos of the image and defends the children he writes about almost as if he expects us to criticize young people who dared to engage in play under such circumstances. His tacit assumption is that such behavior, while it may be deemed necessary for the child, is nonetheless not likely to be considered "approved behavior":
Children's play and the Holocaust confront the untrained observer with a perplexing contradiction. The question of whether mass murder and play could exist side by side was acutely pertinent to people then as it is today—in the Vilna ghetto, for example, the central issue occupying a large segment of the population was that "the graveyard is no place for merriment." Mass murder signifies ultimate evil while play, at least in popular imagination, speaks of a measure...