Like a phoenix rising from the ashes of Hitler’s attempt to create a Judenrein (cleansed
of Jews) Europe, three Jews who were between seven and 10 when World War II broke out have written memoirs recounting how they survived. Theirs are stories of almost unbelievable hardships, deprivation and triumph.
Aharon Appelfeld’s The Story of a Life (Schocken Books, $23, 198 pages, with an excellent translation from the Hebrew by Aloma Halter) is the most literary of the three, a powerful, sensitive memoir of the soul. Mr. Appelfeld dwells less on facts, which enter the narrative at times almost as asides, than on his inner, psychological growth.
Aharon was nine when the Germans marched into Bukovina in 1941, the son of an integrated middle class Jewish family living in Czernowitz (now in Ukraine).
Deeply attached to his mother and grandparents, he was an observer rather than a participant. Aharon’s mother was murdered early in the occupation. The boy was forced to live in the Jewish ghetto, then marched across the Ukraine with his father to a labor camp. He escaped into the forest where he spent the rest of the war, living as a “small animal that had found a temporary shelter in a burrow, that fed on whatever it chanced upon.” He spent his time observing the natural world around him, often dreaming of his mother. When it became too cold to live outside, he would seek work from the Ukrainian peasants, pretending to be an orphaned Christian boy.
The reader is never told how Aharon’s mother died, nor when and how his father met his fate, nor are any of the details of camp life or the escape given. As he explains, “I have forgotten much, even things that were very close to me … and yet I can still sense those days in every part of my body. Whenever it rains, it’s cold, or a fierce wind is blowing, I am taken back to the ghetto, to the camp, or to the forests where I spent many days.”
After the war he wandered through Europe and eventually landed in Israel where he worked in a youth camp, joined the army and attended the university. It was while doing his military service that he came to realize that “the world [he] had left behind — parents, home, street, and city — was alive within [him].” Upon that realization, he “ceased being an orphan dragging his orphanhood behind him, and became someone who was able to confront the world.”
Mr. Appelfeld became a well known author. His “Story of a Life” is not a “Holocaust book,” but “segments of contemplation and memory,” as he puts it in the preface to his haunting book.
Ursula Bacon came of age under sometimes terrifying circumstances. Shanghai Diary (M Press, an imprint of Dark Horse Books, $24.95, 267 pages) begins in 1939 when the pretty, blonde 10-year old, living in idyllic upper bourgeois circumstances in Breslau, Germany, is sent to Gestapo headquarters where she is given a bloody burlap bag with her barely breathing beaten father inside. She drags the bag to the waiting, chauffeur-driven car and within days, father, mother and little Ursula are on their way to Shanghai, the last refuge for Europe’s Jews who had the foresight and finances, but not the foreign visas to emigrate.
The China which awaited the family was not the land of delicate, lovely ladies, flower gardens and butterflies of Ursula’s picture books. The Blombergs’ exile started and ended in Hongkew, first in a miserable shelter for arriving refugees and later in the restricted area where the Japanese occupiers ordered the 18,000 refugees to live in an already overcrowded slum, described by Ursula as “cement garbage bins with heavy iron lids hulked against the wall every sixth row [of houses] to accommodate the tenants’ refuse. Boiling under the hot sun and steamed by the humidity in the air was the combination of rotting fruit peelings, spoiled leftovers, raw bones, dead cats, drowned puppies, carcasses of rats, and the lifeless body of a newborn baby, all fermented with human feces and sprinkled with urine from chamber pots, plus clots of blood and lumps.”
Yet, Ursula made the best of life, learning the local dialect, making friends among the Jewish refugee community, finding jobs to earn a little money, including teaching English to the three beautiful concubines of a Chinese official. She rescued a new-born infant from a garbage can, swam across the fetid Whangpoo River to help rescue the crew of an American bomber and began a life-long friendship with a wise “beggar pilgrim.”
Ursula fell in love with the son of another refugee family, married him after the war ended and finally arrived in America, along with her parents in 1947. Unlike Aharon Appelfeld, Ursula had her parents with her throughout those difficult years. Her father’s oft-repeated mantra kept her going: “If you don’t have anything better, then this has got to be the best.” In the end, as she sails from Shanghai on her way to the United States, she looks back at the city and sees it as a place of excitement, adventure and growth, “forever grateful” that she is one of the ones who survived.
Fear was the pervasive emotion that animated Gerda Bikales’ existence during the war years, “constant, icy, unyielding. Fear held [her] in its grip during these painful days, weeks and months of late 1942 and early 1943.” Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (iUniverse, Inc., $16.95, 163 pages) is Gerda’s story.
Also born in Breslau of parents who originally came from Poland, Gerda’s odyssey began when she and her mother fled to Antwerp in the summer of 1939, her father having left for the United States on a temporary visa in 1938.
Unfortunately, Gerda’s parents missed several opportunities to avoid Nazi clutches: They chose not to go to Palestine in the mid-1930s; they turned down a temporary visa to the United States for Gerda’s mother when the father received his; they opted for useless Cuban visas rather than visas for Chile; and from France, Gerda’s mother decided not to flee to Spain where they would have been safe.
After the Nazi invasion of Belgium, they continued to move, now accompanied by Srulke Mandelman, a Jewish refugee and friend of Gerda’s mother who became their protector, from Belgium into France down to Lyon, on to Marseilles, back to Lyon. They lived in unheated, cheap hotel rooms, starving and almost penniless, without proper identity documents, always afraid of informers, of the knock on the door or arrest on the street.
Desperate, the three managed an arduous escape on foot over the mountains in the dead of night to unoccupied France. A short respite in Grenoble, then under Italian control, followed. But once Germany occupied all of France, the ordeal began again. Gerda was finally smuggled into Switzerland where she remained until she was reunited with her mother after the liberation of Grenoble. Ultimately, mother and daughter made their way to America.
Like Ursula Bacon, Gerda had the security of a loving mother by her side; the war and the unspeakable living conditions made both girls grow up quickly. But unlike Ursula, Gerda lived with the ever present fear of being caught by the Nazis and shipped off “to the East.”
“Through the Shadow of the Valley of Death” is a straightforward account of a harrowing six years of flight and hiding. It has neither the poetic insight of “The Story of a Life” nor the rich detail of “Shanghai Diary,” but the account is sufficiently dramatic in itself that little else is needed.
What strikes the reader in all three memoirs is the strength of children in the face of great hardships. Ursula and Gerda asked themselves, as do all of us who managed to escape the Nazi killing machine thanks to fate, fortune or family foresight, “why did I survive when six million did not.”
Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.