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What Jona Knew

By (January 1, 2015) No Comment

By Jona Oberski
Trans. Ralph Mannheim
Penguin, 2014Childhood

Jona Oberski’s Childhood, first published in Dutch as Kinderjaren in 1978, begins in darkness. Our narrator, a young child — hard to say for sure how old he is, probably four or five — wakes in a strange place. He hears a voice:

‘Don’t be afraid. Everything’s all right. I’m right here.’

The hand on my cheek was my mother’s; her face was close to mine. I could hardly see her. She whispered and stroked my hair. It was dark. The walls were wood. There was a funny smell. It sounded like there were other people there. My mother lifted my head up and pushed her arm under it. She hugged me and kissed me on the cheek.

I asked where my father was.

The situation is as new to the child as it is to us; we experience it along with him as he pieces it together. The child, then, is an investigator, and the tools of his investigation are his senses. He feels his mother’s hand on his cheek, senses her face nearby; he hears her whispered words and, in the background, the sounds of other people; he cannot see much as it is dark, but the walls are around him are made of wood; he smells something funny. The darkness, the unknown people, the funny smell: everything suggests that something is not right. The mother’s words suggest the opposite, but we don’t believe them. Why would she say them if there was nothing to worry about?

This is an intimate scene, yet one threatened by danger and loss. Mother and child are close; she embraces and kisses him, even makes herself into a pillow for him. But the narrator isn’t comforted by her plenitude. Like the Oedipal detective of Freud’s imagining, he asks where his father is. But not from envy or hostility — not, in other words, from the desire to have his mother to himself. Instead, from anxiety that the family triangle has been broken.

Our sense of uncertainty is heightened by the form of the book. It’s organized into short sections, not chapters really, more like vignettes or discrete scenes. It isn’t always easy to know how much time has passed between them. That uncertainty imitates a child’s perception of events. More importantly it makes us into children too, uncertain about where we are. But kinderjarenlike the narrator we are investigators too. The absence of context — the absence of an adult perspective against which to place the child’s — rouses the adult in us. We read not so much against the narrator as in addition to him. Where is this place the child and his mother have been mistakenly sent? We know only that there are other people there, many of whom are trying to sleep, so the child must be quiet; that mother and son left their home hurriedly, not even bringing any of the child’s toys; and that they came here by train. The train might make us suspicious. We know where people were taken in bewildering circumstances by train. But before we can develop this line of thinking, the child and his mother are suddenly, mysteriously returned home.

The glimpses we are given in the book’s next sections of the family’s home life prove that the intimacy of the opening scene isn’t false: the family is close-knit and affectionate. The mother and father kiss and cry when they are reunited; they celebrate the child’s birthday with gifts, after which the child crawls into the parents’ bed where they relax drinking tea. Even after the local shopkeeper refuses to sell groceries to the family any more, the three keep faith with each other, making “a circle of heads” to “give each other a kiss all at once.”

The very strength of their bond — which increasingly seems the result of being forced to turn inwards, to rely only on each other — makes us fear for it, especially because we are able to interpret more and more of the book’s clues. The shopkeeper’s son, for example, mocks the narrator’s “crazy Jewish coat.” (Later, the mother sews a star on it, saying brightly “Look, now you’ve got a pretty star, just like Daddy.”) Father and son ride a ferry across the Amstel; the captain congratulates the boy on his Dutch. In this way we learn that the family lives in Amsterdam but that only the child was born there. So we conclude they are Jewish refugees in Holland, almost certainly from Germany. And before long we learn that the place mother and child were mistakenly sent is named Westerbork, a camp organized by Dutch authorities to house the influx of Jewish refugees and later turned into a transit camp by the Nazis when they occupied Holland in 1940. We hear the name when the child does, when he is sent there again, this with both parents. Our suspicions about bewildering places where people arrive by train are confirmed.

We learn, in short, that Childhood is based on Oberski’s experiences as a very young child. Born in Amsterdam in 1938 to parents who had escaped Germany, Oberski was deported trwith his parents first to Westerbork and then to Bergen-Belsen. Like his protagonist, neither of his parents survived the war; under the protection of a family friend, he made his way back to Holland where he was raised by foster parents and where he still lives. He began writing in the 1970s, publishing two other novels after Childhood, but, like a more famous Holocaust survivor turned writer, Primo Levi, he made his living as a scientist.

But if the narrator’s experiences are so similar to Oberski’s why didn’t he write a memoir? The answer, I think, has to do with Oberski’s daring experiment with point of view, which defamiliarizes our expectations of Holocaust literature. The chief accomplishment of this highly accomplished book is its careful use of limited first-person narration. Look again at the opening scene:

The hand on my cheek was my mother’s; her face was close to mine. I could hardly see her. She whispered and stroked my hair. It was dark. The walls were wood. There was a funny smell. It sounded like there were other people there. My mother lifted my head up and pushed her arm under it. She hugged me and kissed me on the cheek.

The sentences are short and syntactically simple (“I could hardly see her,” “It was dark”). The diction, especially the “funny smell,” is a child’s. We are kept close to the child’s perception of things, a perspective the book never strays from. There are no sophisticated metaphors or images. Later, describing the ferry ride, the boy tells us, simply, plainly: “Everything was creaking and pounding, and the engine was making a terrible noise too.” Only that final “too” even hints that the first part of the sentence might be metaphorical. Perhaps in a nod to the author’s later career as a scientist, Childhood emphasizes the boy’s sensory perception of the material world. We learn what he sees, hears, touches, smells, and only rarely how he feels.

VWoolfWavesThe idea that children are acutely sensitive is a familiar literary premise. Usually that idea is presented retrospectively by the adult the child has become — that’s what we get from Wordsworth or Proust, for instance. But even when, like Oberski, writers stick to the child’s point of view, they usually retain the conceptual sophistication of adulthood. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves (1931), for example, with its poetic, even arcane invocation of sensory experience, offers this description by one of its child characters of taking a bath:

Mrs Constable, girt in a bath-towel, takes her lemon-coloured sponge and soaks it in water; it turns chocolate-brown; it drips; and, holding it high above me, shivering beneath her, she squeezes it. Water pours down the runnel of my spine. Bright arrows of sensation shoot on either side.

The sentiments might be a child’s, but the language (“girt,” “bright arrows of sensation”) is not. Woolf performs virtuosic experiments with narrative voice — her six first-person narrators write as though in third person; they sound the same in infancy as in old age — but they are different from Oberski’s. His narrator feels his “father’s rough cheek and tickly hair,” notes the colours of his parents’ dressing-gowns, dips his hand in lukewarm water, puts his cold hands in his mother’s warm ones. Most of all, he sleeps. Or rather, he awakens or is woken from sleep. Many sections, like the book itself, begin with this coming to consciousness. Later, on the transport that takes him from Bergen-Belsen to an uncertain future, he sleeps for five days. Later still, he falls ill, probably with typhus, and sleeps feverishly for another five days, about which he can only say, “There was a dark hole in the time.” The description is noteworthy because it is the most metaphorical statement in the book, the one that could most plausibly come from an adult version of the narrator, yet even it is literalized and kept in the child’s consciousness by the phrase “in the time” rather than the more general or abstract “in time.”

Such feelings of disorientation affect us as much as they do the child. We struggle to understand alongside him, but we come to conclusions he cannot. In the brief time between deportations, his mother wakes him from his nap so he can watch the window washer:

I climbed up on the bench across from the bookcase. The window washer waved at me through the window. I waved back. My mother brought me a cup of hot milk. It was dark outside. The window washer was dressed in white. He wet the windows with a sponge and rubbed from top to bottom and from right to left. Now and then he’d scratch the pane with his fingernail. Then he did the same thing with another sponge that he dipped in a different pail. He pressed the wet sponge flat against the glass. Streams of water zigzagged down the pane. He wiped away most of the water with his black wiper — right, left, right in big circles. He took a chamois out of his white pail, squeezed it out and folded it. Left, right, left, same as with the wiper, but this time it was harder. I heard it squeaking on the glass. My mother looked up from her ironing board. She turned the music louder. “Do you like this music?” I nodded. She began to sing. It’s Mozart. That’s the name of the composer. Remember that name, Mozart.

Note once more the simple declarative sentences, piled with sensory descriptions. Note again how closely we stay with the child’s perception: the only word that might not be in his vocabulary is “chamois.” But being limited to his perspective doesn’t mean being limited to his knowledge. Where Woolf used adult language to offer childhood perceptions, Oberski uses child-like language to describe adult preoccupations. What distinguishes this description from Woolf’s —in both, children are fascinated by something as simple as a soaking wet sponge — is the danger that always threatens this hypnotic, cocoon-like idyll (the sleepy child, the hot milk, the repetitive movements, the classical music). It’s hard not to hear an insistent, even desperate tone in the mother’s lesson about Mozart: as if she wants to teach him as much as he can of a world he’s about to lose. It’s hard not to be reminded, in the description of the washer’s repeated movements, of a quite different “right, left, right” that will soon be central to his reality, the barked commands of the concentration camp.

ConcenTo hear that intimation is to be guided by expectations developed from our experience of the Holocaust in literature and film, where the traumatic destruction of a loving and meaningful world is a staple of the genre. Yet almost nothing else is. Holocaust literature typically emphasizes the depersonalization of the new arrival (the Zugang in the language of the camps). Paradoxically the bewildering nature of the experience — shouts, blows, lunging dogs, the loss of clothes, hair, and name — is always expressed with great clarity. Oberski’s narrator isn’t depersonalized, because he’s hardly yet a person. Childhood is hardly the first book about young people dropped into the terror and misery of the world of the camps. But these stories are usually about adolescents, not children, and invariably they are narrated with a strong sense of retrospective reflection from the adult the child survivor has come to be. An important exception is the Nobel laureate Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness (1975), a fictionalized version of his own experience as a deportee in the terrible summer of 1944 when so many hundreds of thousands of his fellow Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz. Kertesz almost never breaks from the naïve, almost blasé perspective of his fourteen-year-old narrator, Gyorgy, who perversely admires Nazi efficiency and organization.

Yet Oberski sets himself an even more daunting task than Kertesz. For Kertesz’ narrator is ten years older than Oberski’s, and his book ends with his return to Budapest, where he is forced to reflect on his wartime experiences, even to devise a philosophy of sorts about them. Oberski’s narrator, by contrast, is so much younger, so much less experienced in the world. In fact, the camp is soon the only world he knows. And the only thing we know about his life after he returns to Amsterdam after liberation is that friends of his parents agree to adopt him. We can hope that Oberski’s own successful future will be the narrator’s, but that is to rely on the novel’s poignant dedication: “For my foster parents, who had quite a time with me.” The book itself is strict with us: we only know the narrator as a child, a childhood that ends at age seven.

maisieWe can gain a better sense of Oberski’s accomplishment by comparing it to another literary experiment with a child’s perspective. In his preface to What Maisie Knew (1897), Henry James considers his decision to tell the story of a small child, about the same age as Oberski’s narrator, whose parents go through a bitter divorce. At first, James thought to limit his presentation to what the child understood. Yet that decision was too limiting — “my subject strangled in that extreme of rigour” — and he decided “to stretch the matter to what my wondering witness materially and inevitably saw; a great deal of which quantity she either wouldn’t understand at all or would quite misunderstand — and on those lines, only on those, my task would be prettily cut out.” But here too James found himself stymied, unable to restrict himself to the child’s perceptions. He realized he needed, indirectly, to show the reader what the child could not:

Small children have many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them; their vision is at any moment much richer, their apprehension even constantly stronger, than their prompt, their at all producible, vocabulary. Amusing therefore as it might at the first blush have seemed to restrict myself in this case to the terms as well as to the experience, it became at once plain that such an attempt would fail. Maisie’s terms accordingly play their part – since her simpler conclusions quite depend on them; but our own commentary constantly attends and amplifies.

In other words, to do what he wanted to do, James couldn’t write in first person. He needed the extra authorial license of third-person narration (“our own commentary”) to show how a child might not just rise above terrible situations but transform everyone involved in them. (Maisie’s parents each remarry, only to have their new partners begin an affair spurred by a shared love of Maisie.) For James, Maisie is a heroine who needs his own heroism to voice her gifts: “even though it is her interest that mainly makes matters interesting for us, we inevitably note this in figures that are not yet at her command.” Like the narrator of Childhood, Maisie’s childhood is over too quickly, in her case despoiled by the intrigues of the adults in her life. Yet her innocence — James‘s preferred term is “wonder” — can never be ruined: “she treats her friends to the rich little spectacle of objects embalmed in her wonder.” “Embalmed” feels ambivalent, at once preserved and destroyed, like a mummy, but James’s appreciation for his child character is unambiguous:

[S]he has the wonderful importance of shedding a light far beyond any reach of her comprehension; of lending to poorer persons and things, by the mere fact of their being involved with her and by the special scale she creates for them, a precious element of dignity. I lose myself, truly, in appreciation of my theme on noting what she does by her ‘freshness’ for appearances in themselves vulgar and empty enough. They become, as she deals with them, the stuff of poetry and tragedy and art; she has simply to wonder, as I say, about them, and they begin to have meanings, aspects, solidities, connexions – connexions with the ‘universal’! – that they could scarce have hoped for.

themastLike James, when we talk about the physical sensitivity of children, we are really talking about their moral refinement. This dimension of literature’s use of childhood is absent in Childhood. The narrator has none of Maisie’s “freshness,” doesn’t make the world or the adults around him better, even by showing us how bad they are. (To call them “vulgar and empty enough” would be an understatement.) He is the sole source of our impressions, and as such it is difficult if not impossible not to identify with him. And of course the situation he finds himself in is so overwhelming that we worry for him a lot. But mostly, I think, we are fascinated by him, sometimes even horrified. He is not ennobled by the terrible events of his life, nor does he ennoble anyone else. His situation is one in which nobility has no meaning.

Wonder, dignity, poetry, tragedy, art: none of these terms apply to an experience that is reduced to the brute physiological struggle for survival of bodies pushed to their limits. Yet here too Oberski challenges the expectations of the genre. The narrator’s struggle includes more than pain, disease, death: it includes sex too. In her astringent and brilliant Holocaust memoir Still Alive, Ruth Klüger claims that what preoccupied child victims of the Holocaust like herself — the thing they desperately needed to know about even as their elders kept that knowledge from them — was, in her words, death not sex. Oberski, by contrast, makes both sex and death central to the child’s efforts to understand his grim new world.

A pair of extraordinary scenes a third of the way into the book make this coupling evident. Unlike at Westerbork, at Bergen-Belsen the narrator and his mother are separated from his father. The family reunites only once more. The mother manages to make an extraordinary arrangement to spend a few minutes together with her husband on his birthday. She brings him a “cake” of potato scraps and bread crusts scavenged from her and the child’s meagre meals. The boy doesn’t recognize his emaciated, shaved father; when he begs to ride on his father’s shoulders, the man is too weak to carry him for more than a few moments.

Then something happens that the child doesn’t understand. The parents whisper together, the father protests a little, the boy is sent out of the room to be watched over by the shadowy man who has facilitated this desperate rendezvous:

I heard my father and mother in the room. I asked the man if I could have a little water to drink, but he said no. I couldn’t understand what my father and mother were saying. But it sounded as if they were quarrelling. My father’s groans and my mother’s screams got louder. I stood up and started to go in. “Not there,” the man said. “Go sit down.” I started to cry … He got mad and knocked on the door. My mother yelled that it couldn’t be time yet. He yelled back that they’d have to let me in because my screaming would give everything away. My mother came out and told me to keep quiet. My father yelled that she should bring me in with her. “You can stay with us, but then you must sit over there and keep your eye on the door and tell us if somebody knocks.” I said I would. She went over to my father. They whispered. Then I heard my mother breathing hard. My head turned in their direction. My father looked over my mother’s shoulder. He had his arms around her. They were moving up and down. My father said to me, “Keep your eye on the door.” But my head stayed turned.

At first blush, we are a long way from Henry James here. Yet although the language is more direct than anything in What Maisie Knew, the subject — forcing sexual knowledge on a child — is in keeping with James’s book and thus connects to an earlier tradition of representing children in literature. But this moment also ruptures that continuum. The sex isn’t consummated — not just because of the fascinated child, not just because of the man keeping time outside, not just because of the whole extraordinary situation, but because the man simply can’t do it. He is too sick. Not even the child’s fascination, if that is what it is, can turn the scene to wonder. The events exceed the child; they aren’t redeemed or made significant by his presence or interpretation of them, as Maisie’s presence does to the inappropriate things she experiences.

What, in the final analysis, is the child experiencing here? How should we understand that stark final sentence: “But my head stayed turned”? What is he feeling? The narration keeps us resolutely outside his motivation, limits us to physical description. We want mind, but we Honly get head. And even that description is odd. Why “my head stayed turned” rather than “I looked at them”? The scene is literally oblique. We don’t know if he is angry, or afraid, or fascinated. We don’t know if he wants to sabotage the tryst, or simply observe it. The only thing he seems to know is that there is something here he shouldn’t know. But even adult readers, with our different knowledge, don’t know what to make of this scene. It’s beyond our understanding; I can’t think of anything like it in the vast literature of the Holocaust, which is filled with extraordinary, unlikely events.

Although this scene is a valuable corrective to the saintly, disembodied idea we have of Holocaust survivors, the most striking thing about it is not that desire flourished even in the camps, not that the book is unwilling to condemn the parents for seeking to satisfy that desire, but that the narrator’s description of it is not so different from his description of another extreme scene. The father dies soon after the unconsummated conjugal visit. The next day the narrator is trapped in the camp mortuary by a group of older children he is trying to befriend. Locked in a dark room filled with dead bodies “thrown in helter-skelter,” the narrator wonders if his father is among them:

I went in and stepped over the first bodies. I climbed up on the pile and looked into the topmost bundled sheet. All I could see was an arm. I started to unwrap the sheet. … I pulled out the arm. The hand was like my father’s. I tugged at the sheet until I could see the face. The face was black with beard. I climbed down off the pile and saw a body to one side. It wasn’t getting much light. I looked at the face. The eyes were black. The cheeks were thin. The beard was short like my father’s. The nose was like his, too. I looked at the hands. They were like my father’s. But the body wasn’t at all like my father’s.

Here too the child can’t look away; here too his senses are the only way to even begin to understand the world he’s been plunged into. Yet here too he doesn’t find the knowledge he’s looking for. (Remember how the opening passage ends with a question to the mother: “I asked her where my father was.”) He didn’t know then, and he doesn’t know now. (Ironically, he might well have been there: his horrified mother tells him the bodies were piled up because the men who bury the bodies in the woods didn’t come that day.) Nor his mother who dies several months later.) The brute facticity of this passage, the sheer materiality of his encounter with these corpses — their anonymity a sombre metonym for the Holocaust — challenges any redemptive readings. The child doesn’t lose his innocence here; innocence is part of an idea of childhood the book repudiates.

[Photo: Yad Vashem]

[Photo: Yad Vashem]

Yet in limiting its focus so strongly to bodies, dead or alive, the novel risks decontextualizing its events so radically that it paradoxically approaches the values it otherwise deems empty. I am struck by one particular detail in the scene in the morgue — the corpse’s nose. The narrator says it is like his father’s, which isn’t unusual: the beard and hands are too. But I can’t help but think about the caricature of the Jewish hooked nose. Not because Oberski is indulging in anti-Semitic slander, but because he almost never mentions the Jewishness of the family or any of the other victims. By placing so much emphasis on corporeality and so little on identity, Oberski risks universalizing his characters, threatening to reduce them to the status of generic victims.

But this tendency in fact turns out to be historical, in two ways. First, it accurately describes the experience of many Jews, especially assimilated Western European ones, who were Jewish only to their oppressors, not to themselves. (The narrator’s parents do seem to have a minimal Jewish identity, but it is secular and Zionist — we see them attending clandestine Zionist meetings in Westerbork, when they still believe they will be able to go to Palestine.) Second, it could well hint at the character’s — and perhaps the author’s—destiny. The orphaned child, who returns to Amsterdam after liberation, having himself nearly died of typhus, is adopted by one of his father’s former colleagues. We don’t know whether the foster parents are Jewish, or what the narrator’s own relationship to Jewishness will become. (We don’t know whether he is raised Jewish, for example, or whether he self-identifies as such. Again, we know him in the time before identity.) It makes sense, then, that the book ends by once again scrutinizing a physical body — this time, the narrator’s own.

Unable or unwilling to adapt to his new home, the boy refuses to eat. His foster mother forces him to finish his supper, saying, “You’re almost eight. You’re not a baby anymore.” This is the only time in the book anyone names the boy’s age. She’s right: he’s not a baby anymore. But neither is he a child. His childhood is over, without wonder, without freshness. As soon as the narrator takes a bite of his food he begins to vomit:

It came splashing out on the floor. It spattered her legs. She said, ‘Now look what you’ve done. Just clean it up. You’re not a baby anymore.’

She gave me a cloth. I started wiping it up.

These are the book’s final words: a beginning (“I started”), to be sure, but hardly triumphal. Into this brief scene are condensed so many intimations of the future, all of them painful and difficult. We see how the child’s struggle with adults will continue, even when those adults attempt to look out for him. We see how misguided the foster mother’s efforts are, how laced with malice, even as we share her frustration. We see the reduction of the world to low bodily functions and rote menial labour (“I started wiping it up”). Most of all we are forced to think: this is survival, to feel it at once as the most significant thing there is — after all, even and especially in this vomit, here is life — and the most unexalted.

wieselnightLike the book as a whole, the final scene is hard to take. Childhood is deceptive, its straightforward prose masking stringent interpretive and emotional demands. It challenges our false and damaging expectations of what it means to survive an event of overwhelming and traumatic magnitude. It refuses to allow us the consolation of taking a lesson from the Holocaust. The book ends in the darkness with which it began. We want survivors to offer us meaning, the same meaning we have assigned to children, at least since Romanticism: that they lend significance to a world that nourishes itself on their innocence, even as the story of their growth into adults is also taken to be one of maturation and development. Yet the real lessons of Childhood point in the opposite direction. The child is not the adult’s moral compass; the Holocaust is not about the triumph of the human spirit. This is a lesson that the popularity of certain narratives of the Holocaust — Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Elie Wiesel’s Night come immediately to mind — shows we have yet to learn. But the reappearance of Oberski’s novel is a chance for us to do so. If it is not too grotesque to speak of luck and the Holocaust — and Holocaust literature tells us again and again that, with the possible exception of a strong constitution and some knowledge of German, luck above all determined survival — then we are lucky indeed to have this book among us again. May it have a thousand readers.

Dorian Stuber teaches at Hendrix College and blogs about books at eigermonchjungfrau.