Children’s Book Week #2: The Holocaust Diaries

Hans Robert Jauss says that “the more stereotypically a text repeats the generic, the more inferior is its artistic character and its degree of historicity” (89). Many haredi texts follow the format of a genre beyond just conforming to generic expectations. They become stereotypes of themselves, repeating the generic formula with no variation. According to Jauss, this makes their artistic character inferior.

And in fact, this is true. They are not feats of artistic success.

But that’s not their purpose. Haredi fiction, including children’s fiction, does not concern itself with artistic qualities. It’s difficult to say that haredi literature is artistically inferior, because creation of art is not one of its purposes. Its goal is almost always pedagogical, meant to teach lessons about life, about Judaism, about faith and community and family, etc. 

For example, the individual books of the Holocaust Diaries series, published by CIS, all follow the same format. The books in this series are intended for all ages, but most of them have been abridged and repackaged for adolescents. The books are easily abridged because they follow the same format: At the beginning of each book, for 3-5 chapters, the narrator tells us about their life in pre-war Europe. There’s a clear demarcation that sets off this idyllic pre-war life and the beginning of the Holocaust. The years of the Holocaust are narrated in detail, and this section ends with liberation, searching for any surviving family members, surveying the damage done, and resolving to build a new life. The final section details post-war life, usually in America or Palestine.

The abridged versions simply lift the clearly demarcated middle section for a self-contained story about the Holocaust. 

The repetition of the genre allows the lesson of the series to be laid out clearly in each book. The beginning emphasizes the innocence and beauty of pre-war life. Very rarely is there mention of conflict in these early sections. The middle emphasizes suffering, sacrifice, and saintliness; and the final section emphasizes survival and rebirth. Each book tells the story of suffering and survival, and as a whole, the series and the genre hammers home the lesson that the Jewish people lead a cyclical existence of suffering and survival, and that faith sustains them. 

Sisters in the Storm: Chanka’s Holocaust Story

Anna (or Chanka) is a young teenager at the beginning of the war. She alternately describes herself as a “teenager” and a “child,” in fact. When explaining why it was safer for her than for her father or brother to go out in the Nazi-filled streets, she says, “They were looking for men they could put to work, not teenage girls” (24). Just two pages later, describing the family’s reaction to their Polish neighbor’s sudden rage and attempted attack on their father, she says, “We children were shocked beyond comprehension” (26). She also paints herself as a child when she narrates her first encounter with marching German soldiers and her Polish neighbor: “I was too innocent to be frightened by the Germans, so I ran after the marchers so I could watch, too” (22). 

Throughout the book, including the opening chapters of the abridged version, Chanka is one of the strongest in her family. She gets things done. She is the one who goes to the agency to get a horse cart for Mammeshe when they’re forced to move into the ghetto. She is the one who wakes up in middle of the night to witness Mammeshe’s suffering, she is the one who tells her older brother that they must find a new place to live, and she goes with him. She is constantly unafraid – but rarely with “innocence” as she claims here. No, she understands exactly what is happening, and she is full of rage. So why does she call herself “innocent” here? Why does she call herself a child? Why not just call herself an aware and angry teenager consistently? 

The answer to that may lie in the conceit of the book. It is an autobiography, presumably. But there is a possibility that this was ghostwritten (I have been trying to contact CIS with no luck – if anyone has a lead and can put me in touch with them, I would be very grateful). Either way, though, this book was written decades after the events, and the voice is not of a teenager. Although the series is called “Holocaust Diaries,” the format of the books does not attempt to mimic diaries. It is, instead, a rather straightforward historical account. The narrative focuses on a main character, but very little character development happens.  

According to the publisher, Rabbi Yisroel Yosef Reinman (the same man who wrote the Ruach Ami series under the name Avner Gold), the purpose of the Holocaust Diaries series was “to assemble an organized body of holocaust literature written from the Orthodox perspective, a unified body of literature that would stand as an everlasting testament to the invincibility of the Jewish spirit nurtured on Torah, mitzvos and unstinting devotion to the Ribono Shel Olam” (17).

On the decision to present these stories as autobiographies, little rationale is given, other than that the collection would be limited to “distinguished autobiographical accounts by survivors, with as wide a variation of experience and locale as possible” (17).

Earlier on this same page, in discussing Sisters in the Storm specifically, the “wide variation” is somewhat negated: “Sisters in the Storm is a story that is remarkable in its typicality, a highly readable story that provides deep insight into the thoughts and feelings of all those who passed through the inhuman crucible of German fiendishness, of those who perished and those who survived” (17). 

The difference, I think, is where the variation occurs. Yes, the series provides wide variation of “experience and locale.” But precisely because the experience and locale vary so much, the uniformity of the “thoughts and feelings” is emphasized. There is, after all, a formula to these books.  

And that formula exists for a specific purpose – to provide a Torah-focused narrative, to combat the secular genre of Holocaust literature. As Rabbi Reinman writes in the introduction to Late Reflections, the first book in the Holocaust Diaries series: “It is accepted without question that we must record the awful events of the holocaust as an everlasting testimony for posterity…but somehow, when all is said and done, this secular holocaust literature falls short of the mark” (12).

The question Reinman asks of these secular texts is “after we have turned the last page and shed the last tear, what remains with us, what do we take back with us into our everyday existence?” He anticipates the answer of “never again,” and goes on to ask rhetorically “Are we to remember in order to prevent a recurrence of this tragedy? How? By appealing to the conscience of the gentile world? Bitter experience has taught us the futility of such hopes” (12).

Ultimately, after positing and rejecting a few more possible outcomes, Reinman concludes that “Judaica holocaust literature does give substance and meaning to the memories we must record for posterity” (13), and that

Judaica holocaust literature teaches us that the holocaust was a war between the Jewish people and the German Amalek-incarnate. It was a war of the carnal brute against the sublime spirit, the profane against the holy. And in the end, the Jewish people emerged victorious, because the Germans could only destroy their bodies but not their souls and spirits.

Late Reflections, 14

The point of The Holocaust Diaries series is clear: to show the sacred triumph of religious Judaism and to solidify the idea that all non-Jews are untrustworthy – that no matter how friendly they are, non-Jews by definition hate Jews, and especially religious Jews.

In Sisters in the Storm, Chanka’s Polish neighbor, once neighborly enough, chases her father with a wooden beam and informs on him to the Gestapo. When Chanka and her sister Sarah return to their home in Lodz after the end of the war, their non-Jewish landlord Karol is surprised to see them. After finding strangers living in their family home, the two sisters walk through the courtyard. Upon seeing them, Karol exclaims, “Why, I thought you had died long ago! But why are you here? What do you want here?” (176-177), proving (according to the text) that the war had brought to the fore all the anti-Semitism and hatred that always lies just below the surface.

Earlier, when Chanka and Sarah have been liberated and are being taken care of by a kind German benefactor, Chanka muses, “if only a few more gentiles would have been as kind as this one-eyed peasant woman, many more Jews would have managed to survive the war” (164).

The full book of Sisters in the Storm, as with all Holocaust Diaries books, follows Chanka and Sarah for years after the war. The sisters move to Israel and set up a new life, with a new family. But the abridged version, the text packaged specifically for adolescents, ends on the line, “I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I became determined to find some way to leave Poland and to make my way to Eretz Yisrael” (189). The last few pages talk about attempts to rebuild life in Poland, with girls living in crowded apartments and trading horror stories from the past years, and with brief accounts of the dangers they faced in post-war Poland, at the mercy of their Polish landlords who (allegedly) killed at least one of their roommates.

Ending the book for teenagers on this note helps further the ideology of isolation, rejection of an outside world presumed to be hostile, and a focus on Israel as the only safe place for Jews.

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