On "Heroic Children: Untold Stories of the Unconquerable"

Review of a book that will change your ideas of children's capabilities while recounting a gripping aspect of the Holocaust that has never been put to paper. You will not be able to put it down.

Rochel Sylvetsky,

OpEds Rochel Sylvetsky
Rochel Sylvetsky
]Yonatan Zindel Flash 90

One and a half million innocent Jewish children did not survive the German barbarians and their willing helpers in Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania and other European countries. Neither did millions of loving Jewish parents who did not live to raise their children.

Hanoch Teller, famed author of over two dozen books on Jewish and historical themes, a Yad Vashem docent and researcher, has written a new book that rivets the reader, no matter how many books about the Holocaust he has read.  It adds a new dimension to our knowledge of the human spirit by tracing the true stories of young Jewish children who met the vicious Nazi beast head on and went on to win their fight for survival.

Parents who have been blessed with healthy children spend nights worrying about whether they have done the right thing when disciplining, guiding, encouraging or criticizing. None of this is relevant to a parent whose only pressing issue is what decisions may best keep his starving child alive in an environment where the murder of a Jewish child is the norm.

And every parent or educator has had to deal with children's needs, talents, progress, demands, tantrums, sibling rivalry. Not one of these is relevant to a frightened, lonely child whose every minute is spent trying to remain alive in an environment where murdering him in cold blood is a goal in itself.

Even Satan is incapable of avenging the blood of a young child, wrote Israel's national poet Chaim Nachman Bialik in a poem about the 1903 Kishinev pogroms.  Hanoch Teller's painstakingly researched and fascinating "Heroic Children, Untold Stories of the Unconquerable" (NYC Publishing Co.) does not try to do the impossible, but it does leave the reader with a sense of pride, somewhat akin to a bittersweet revenge, because those few Jewish children who managed to survive by their wits in a living Hell prove the uniqueness of the Jewish people, proof that Am Yisrael Chai. 

Srulik, who had recently turned Bar Mitzva, aches to pray with the tefillin rumors claim are in the camp, but the Chuster Rebbe fears that will endanger the intrepid youngster. Srulik is led by a former milkman into defying the Germans and manages to bake matza for the seder, joins a brotherhood of boys who make a pact to survive no matter what.  Eight-year-old Michael Thaler reads his first words from a Christian Bible and prays for his parents on his knees in the house of the devout gentile friends who hide him.  Gutta, crammed in an oven with three others, drinks ammonia to allay her thirst and somehow remains alive, is one of the seven survivors of the Vittel camp.

How did they do it? How did baby Dolly survive life in a rubbish bin, how did little Esther keep her baby brother alive and quiet in Bergen Belsen for two and a half years? Miracles, incredible miracles.

One of the youngsters is a brilliant violinist, another  a prize-winning prodigy at the piano. Overnight, they turn into victims of the country that produced both Beethoven and the SS, their hands cracked and blistered, their talent now a reason to fear being recognized as they pretend to be non-Jews.

The parents of the children are beyond belief.  Their willingness to endanger themselves and sacrifice their own lives in frenzied and often futile efforts to save their children attests to a love that surpasses the reality we know.

And those seemingly young children are fountains of strength and will, those of them who are observant Jews filled with pure faith in the Almighty.  All of them are capable of constantly reassessing their situation and adopting alternate plans throughout the war; some, larger than life, manage to care for siblings.

My friend and neighbor in Jerusalem, the late Albert Sharon, was one of the children whose bravery is described in the book. A warm, smiling father and husband to my dear friend Lynn, he never evinced any scars from the ordeal he endured with his family.

In fact, all the children in the book built normative lives for themselves – the pictures of their descendants and their post war histories, summarized at the end of each chapter, attest to that. The author did readers a great service by including what happened to these young heroes after the war.  It is thought-provoking to see that their adult lives belie current concerns over the effects of childhood trauma and children-at-risk.

The book does more than chronicle the harrowing stories of the children. The author clears up the question of why Jews did not fight the Nazi troops, a question which in the early days of the Jewish state – a country delirious at the successes of the first Jewish army since the Bar Kochba rebellion - was often framed as a near accusation. His careful analysis of the fiendishly clever way the Jews were rounded up, lied to and starved into submission puts an end to any thoughts of their ability to resist.

He also gives the Germans no license, describing their barbaric  and unmitigated cruelty to the weak and innocent, and putting the lie to German civilians who claimed to know nothing –  such as those who observed with equanimity the ragged, starving, tortured  - and often murdered on the spot - Jewish prisoners repairing  railroad ties in the center of their towns.

I could not put this book down. It made me even more proud of the Jewish people than I am already, in its well-written, loving and carefully detailed set of true stories that had me on the edge of my chair.

Expect to find your eyes wet with tears as I did.  The stories of these children are simply awe-inspiring. May we remember those who survived and those who did not and lead our national and individual lives so that we are deserving of their sacrifice.