I suppose that within every adult there are the memories of childhood living inside, struggling to get out. If the childhood has been a healthy one, then the adult and the child within live together in peace. If the childhood has been horrible, then the struggle never ends.
This is a book of poems by an adult, who lives with the constant presence within her of an unimaginably awful past. These poems describe what life was like for a child who lived in the Warsaw ghetto where you had to hide every time there was a knock on the door, and you were not allowed to sneeze or cry or make a noise until it was quiet outside. These poems describe what it feels like to be an adult who, when she was a child of three, was given away for safekeeping by her mother to a Polish neighbor, and whose mother taught her how to pretend to be a Christian before she left. These poems recall what it was like after the war to be the only Jewish child in a Polish school, and then what it was like to be a foreigner in an Israeli school at a time when the other children in your class simply could not understand what it was like to come from a world so unimaginably different from theirs.
The genius of these poems is that Chava Nissimov never exaggerates and never expresses self-pity. She never says: “Look what I went through!” She never says: “Wasn’t this awful!” Instead she simply tells what happened to her as she remembers it in a matter-of-fact tone, and the sheer simplicity of her account makes the unbelievable believable and makes the account even more awful. And then, when we get to the last line of some of these poems in which she tells us what she feels now when she thinks back to those days, we wince with pain and with surprise at the contrast between the lines that just describe what was and the silent scream that comes at the end.
It is hard to choose between these poems for so many of them shake and shock you, but let me choose just these examples:
“From today, I am a new girl.
My mother places a small chair on the table.
She seats me high on the chair.
She cuts my hair short, with bangs.
I look in the mirror. My bangs come out a bit crooked.
Then she dyes my black hair blond. My eyebrows too.
But when she tried to dye my eyebrows, she didn’t succeed.
I am wearing a new necklace with a pretty little cross.
I also have a completely new name.
From today, I am a new girl.
A Polish girl. A Christian girl.
I must not tell anyone I am Jewish.
My mother teaches me how to make the sign of the cross,
Like Christians do.”
That last line comes at you like a body blow. It says that the little girl is sweet and innocent and trusting and docile as her mother prepares to let her go—but that at the same time she knows who she is, and who she is not. In three short words, she captures the plight of this little girl. She makes use of the writing skills of her adulthood to express the bewilderment of the child inside.
Or consider this one about the child in the Polish public school after the war:
The teacher asks:
“Who are the children whose parents are in a difficult
situation and who want to eat lunch at school?”
I put my hand up.
The teacher asks:
“Who are the children whose parents are in a good
situation and can donate clothes to other children?”
I put up my hand.
The teacher doesn’t understand.
She asks aunt.
Aunt doesn’t understand either.
But all I want is for the teacher to like me.”
Again it is the last sentence that hits us and hurts us. Till then, this has been a straightforward reminisce by an adult of what happened, and then the last line opens us up, not only to what happened but to what it felt like to be that child. And it opens us up to what it must be like to be the adult who can still remember the loneliness and the isolation that this last line conveys.
Or this one in which a recollection of innocent childhood turns into a horrific realization by the adult in just one simple line:
“My little cousin also went away on the trains.
I am happy when they tell me that she has left.
I ask my mother, since she is gone,
If I can have her red patent-leather shoes.
I want them so much.
But when she went on the train, she was wearing her red patent-leather shoes.
When as a living witness, I accompany groups of young people
to Poland and before my eyes are spread the endless shoe-filled
streets of Auschwitz, I search for the red patent-leather shoes of my little cousin—
but all the shoes are gray.”
The last line is the grim realization by the adult that the fantasies of the child are not true. The world is composed of shoes that are all gray and dirty and that have no owners anymore, and the red patent-leather shoes that the child wanted to inherit are no more.
There are more gems like these in this book and they can teach us, not only about the awfulness of the Holocaust, but about how to balance the innocence of the child within with the realism of the adult we now are.
Rabbi Jack Riemer is the author of prayers that appear in the High Holy Day Books of the Conservative and Reform movements in America, Israel and Europe. His latest book is: “Ethical Wills: How to Read them and How to Write them” edited with Dr. Nathaniel Stampfer and published by Jewish Lights.