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The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.1 (2001) 155-167

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Trauma Inherited, Trauma Reclaimed: Chamberet: Recollections from an Ordinary Childhood

Bella Brodzki

One and a half million children died in the Holocaust. Put another way, only eleven percent of the approximately 1.7 million European Jewish children under the age of 16 alive in 1939 survived. Those children managed to stay alive under a variety of strange and harrowing conditions. With the exception of the truly miraculous few who survived concentration camps, for the most part they were hidden in convents, orphanages, haylofts, forests, caves, attics, cellars, sewers, for months and years, sometimes with their families (like Anne Frank). Often, as in the narratives of Nehama Tec (Dry Tears) and Yedudah Nir (The Lost Childhood), however, they had to fend for themselves: wandering in search of food and shelter, on behalf of, or separated from, their families; placed with strangers from whom they often had to disguise their true identities; having to assume different names, indeed, whole new identities, in order not to be discovered as Jews. 1 Involved in an extensive network of deception, vigilance, ingenuity and remaking, hunted and threatened with death, terrorized by betrayal and self-betrayal, they had to forge new familial relationships, practice other religions, speak other languages, pretend, impersonate, lie, conceal, remain silent. As so many of the titles of their memoirs testify, they lost their childhoods.

Their lives, of course, could not be reconstituted. In many, many cases, they were never reunited with their parents, who had starved in ghettoes, who were themselves discovered trying to pass as Aryans or in hiding, or who were killed in camps. After the war, thousands of displaced orphaned children were detained in camps in France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany. Thousands of others were sent to England, France, Canada, Israel or, occasionally, the U.S.A. to live with relatives or families willing to take them in. Sometimes, following the war, surviving parents returned to Poland or France or Belgium to locate their children, some of whom had been baptized, converted, or adopted by Christian families or members of the clergy (Saul Friedlander's When Memory Comes recounts such an experience). 2 There are countless stories of returning deportees whose hidden children no longer recognized them or refused to reclaim them as parents, for any [End Page 155] combination of complex reasons. Arguably, for every rupture there was a conscious or unconscious covering over of the void--whether by repression, collusion, consensus, or imposition. It is perhaps because of this phenomenon, coupled with a lack of understanding of early trauma, that the experiences of child survivors--who were almost by definition hidden children--have been overlooked in clinical and historical studies, even by themselves. For decades, their experiences were eclipsed by their parents' generation's overarching suffering.

Over the last decade or so, as enabling conditions for both transmission and reception have increasingly converged, the stories of child survivors have been coming out at a remarkable rate. As they approach old age, a particular sense of urgency haunts them as the last survivors, compelling them to bear witness to the world at large--and to subsequent generations. But if this explains why child survivors are providing oral and written testimonies now, how can we explain why they did not do so before? One reason may be the transnational, diffused nature of their atomized, disparate experiences. The youngest survivors--the most extreme cases--literally, do not know "who" they "are," let alone what happened to them. Others have jarring, disjointed memories; inaccessibility or repression was compounded by the refugees' and survivors' post-war dispersion, absorption and assimilation into new cultures. Since the 1990s, in a collective, emblematic way, these survivors have begun to organize, to seek each other out across linguistic and national boundaries, to represent themselves, and to establish an international community based on what might be called a shared sense of estranged invisibility, as the 'forgotten ones.'

At the end of Totem and Taboo, Freud poses the question, "What are the ways...


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