- - Tuesday, October 18, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

GIRL: MY CHILDHOOD AND THE SECOND WORLD WAR

By Alona Frankel

Translated by Sondra Silverston

Indiana University Press, $25, 259 pages, illustrated

Reading this searing account of a hydra-headedly horrible childhood endured by Polish-born Israeli children’s writer Alona Frankel reminds one just how complex that loaded term “Holocaust survivor” is. Mrs. Frankel’s devastatingly frank autobiography has been compared to “The Diary of Anne Frank” and to the writings of Primo Levi, but, of course, they both were inmates of Auschwitz, a fate avoided by the eponymous “Girl.” Yet after finishing her account of the travails — and this word seems woefully inadequate to describe what she went through — saying that she was lucky compared to them somehow sticks in one’s throat.

For the madness that swept over so much of Europe in the early 1940s and hit this author’s native land so especially hard brought many varieties of suffering, not all of them limited to death camps. This is not one of those books which celebrate the good Samaritans who provided the pitifully few points of light in a dark time. The greedy Polish woman who agreed to shelter the 2-year-old girl (pretending she was not Jewish) did so only for the money and when that ran out, turned her over to the household which had “kindly” agreed to harbor her parents but only without their child.

Life in the home of “Mr. Juzef Juzak, carpenter and alcoholic,” as Mrs. Frankel drily describes him, was in some ways being cast out of the frying pan into fire after her former protector “shoved me hard over the threshold”:

“They were always with me. The lice, my lice … When Hania Semeret took me out of the village where I was hiding, pretending to be a Christian child, and dumped me at my parents’ hiding place, I learned for the first time the difference between head lice and clothes lice — an important and meaningful difference.”

Yet even at her tender age, this girl, to whom “everything was natural. Sleeping on straw in a coffin that was a bench by day and a bed by night,” knew she might have been worse off than she was in her pitiable state:

“Hania Semeret had wanted to get rid of me for a long time, but even so, she didn’t throw me onto the street like she did Daniel, the sweet boy she had left at the ghetto gate after his parents were murdered in an AKTION and there was no one to keep him in the village.”

Just as in Dante’s “Inferno,” there were circles in this hell on earth.

Not all the villains in Mrs. Frankel’s tale of woe are Nazis, Christians. The wealthy Jewish family who briefly take her in are cruel to her and the orphanage where they dump her is awful. With characteristic understatement, she writes, “war isn’t healthy for children.” But perhaps the key to preventing her spirit from being quenched is not just her acceptance of how dreadful her circumstances are but, in some deep sense, not merely acknowledging but actually embracing their awfulness. After describing the crumbling clothes the wealthy family made her wear when there were many perfectly whole untouched ones in the house, she writes:

“The rags continued to disintegrate on me, and the rolled-up sleeves of the scratchy wool jacket continued to weigh heavily on my wrists. They weigh heavily on me to this very day.”

One of the qualities that makes this book so remarkable is its author’s honesty, her remembrance of terrible things past which, despite everything, did not destroy her.

Even after the war ended with the defeat of Nazi Germany, things continued to be tough for the young Alona. There is not the space here to go into all the hardships that befell her. Suffice it to say that being reunited with her beloved parents helped her beyond measure. She clung to books and other objects for much-needed comfort, but most of all to her mother and father: That the trio had managed to survive at all was a blessing all too rare in the grim time and place where fate had consigned them.

The real miracle shining from Mrs. Frankel’s terrible story is that she not only survived, but that her spirit was not crushed by the horrendous experiences she had lived through. Useless to pretend that it was not affected, but the extraordinary success of her life in Israel — a husband, two children, and writing a staggering 50 books — shows that its flame burned brightly. And it should be said that the new state of Israel, where she arrived in December 1949 when it was little more than 18 months old, provided the necessary oxygenation for that torch and the girl, (still only 12 years old by the calendar if not by experiential time) who would now be able to hold it — and herself — proudly high.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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