- Limitations as Possibilities:Uri Orlev’s Holocaust Narratives for Children and Young Adults
Relating to his experience as a survivor writing about the Holocaust, Uri Orlev—the most esteemed Israeli author of Holocaust literature for young readers—observes,
I don’t know if writing about the past helps me to get over it. What I do know is that there is no grown-up way to talk, tell, or think about the things that happened to me. I have to remember them as if I were still a boy, with all the strange details—some funny, some moving—that childhood memories have and that children have no problem with. As a grown-up, I can’t imagine my own children living through what I did. I can’t even begin to think about it without cutting off the thought. It’s like walking very carefully on a frozen lake. If I were to take a sudden step—I mean, if I were to think of what happened then as the 65-year-old man I am today—the ice would break and I would tumble through it without being able to climb back.(The Sandgame 55–56)
This quote from Orlev’s autobiographical children’s book The Sandgame indicates a self-aware insight crucial to our understanding of his narratives. In it, the author reveals himself as a self-conscious grownup whose depths are bared precisely in the recognition of his limited ability to remember and recount as an adult. The depiction of the delicate oscillation between childhood/adulthood and awareness/nonawareness in Orlev’s narratives, and the means by which it enables personal and ideological coping with the traumatic past, lie at the heart of this essay.
Born Jerzy Henryk Orlowski in Warsaw in 1931, Uri Orlev survived the Holocaust with his younger brother—first in the Warsaw Ghetto, then in hiding, and finally in Bergen-Belsen. When the war ended, the two youngsters made their way to British Palestine, settling on Kibbutz [End Page 1] Ginegar.1 Orlev’s first publication was a lyrical autobiography for adults, The Lead Soldiers (1956); two other adult books—Until Tomorrow (1958) and The Last Summer Vacation: Stories (1968)—followed in its wake. After these early works, Orlev dedicated himself to children’s literature, the first of his children’s books appearing in the mid-1970s. He only began writing about the Holocaust for a young audience in the early 1980s, after he had established a reputation as a children’s author, with nine published books and many Israeli prizes to his name. Today, he is one of Israel’s most esteemed children’s writers and the most prominent author of Holocaust literature for young readers. His children’s books have also received critical acclaim worldwide, as indicated by the numerous awards and prizes they have won. He is also the first—and thus far, the only—Israeli children’s writer to have received a Hans Christian Andersen Gold Medal, awarded by the International Board on Books for Young People in 1996.
In recent years, the discourse regarding the literary representation of the Holocaust has largely revolved around issues relating to trauma and atrocity: how can the unspeakable—which by definition defies construction as a “closed,” causal narrative and precludes the drawing of any meaning from events—be written about?2 Children’s literature seems to lie beyond the bounds of this discourse, as the cognitive and emotional limitations of its audience demand that the stories they read are structured, coherent, carry a clear plot, are optimistic, have a good ending, and convey a lesson—or at least a “making of sense.”
As Hamida Bosmajian and Adrienne Kertzer both argue in their discussions of children’s Holocaust literature, writing for children necessarily restricts or restrains representation of the atrocity, since the educational requirements imposed on children’s literature and the need to protect the child lead many to assert that children must be spared from exposure to its horrors. Children’s Holocaust literature is thus generally distinguished from that meant for adults by the fact that “what is distressing is softened and what is traumatic is made coherent . . . what...