Reactions to the onslaught of the Nazis were as diverse as the Jews who were confronted by it. Some fled, some fought-and most had no chance to do either. But some hid- and many children were placed in hiding by their parents. In some cases, these children were hidden away, like Anne Frank. Others were hidden in plain sight, given new identities like those in a witness protection program. Which, in a way, they were.
The testimonies of two dozen such witnesses are finally being given, in the new book Out of Chaos: Hidden Children Remember the Holocaust. Some of these testimonies take the shape of narratives, while some are poems. Some are made of scraps of impressions and snatches of memories from childhood by people now in their late sixties to early eighties.
These "Hidden Children" were hidden all over Europe. In some cases, they were shuttled between countries; one crossed the Atlantic in the doomed ship SS St. Louis. All are in conflict with themselves; one asks, "If I am a Jewish child, where are my Jewish parents?"
And where were they hidden, specifically? In the opening poem, "Child Survivors," Marguerite Lederman Mishkin lists a dozen places, including "orphanages, convents, haystacks, cabinets, holes," and even "sewers."
The book is movingly illustrated with photographs, drawings, and documents. It closes with two very helpful appendices-a glossary of Jewish and Holocaust-related terms, and a timeline of the Holocaust that weaves in significant milestones from the life stories in the book. There are also biographies of all of the contributors, almost all of whom have grandchildren.
The survivors who shared their memories live in the Chicago area and are members of Hidden Children/Child Survivors Chicago, now it its 20th year. The book's editor, Elaine S. Fox, is a labor attorney, of counsel at the Chicago office of Seyfarth Shaw LLP. The book was published by Northwestern University Press as part of its series "Cultural Expressions of World War II and the Holocaust: Preludes, Responses, Memory." The series was created by Phyllis Lassner, a professor in that school's Writing Program and Gender Studies and Jewish Studies departments, who has written the introduction for Out of Chaos and assisted the survivors in expressing their thoughts.
Fox explains that she grew up hearing about the Holocaust, but was too young to appreciate more than that there was "something awful happening in a faraway place"- even as her sister was called a "dirty Jew" here in America. Then she learned that her mother's family had been almost entirely annihilated. A few years ago, she was approached by a friend who was a member of the Hidden Children group, who asked if she could help them compile their experiences into an anthology. "Our editorial group became a support group," she said, as memories, and tears, flowed.
In her introduction, Prof. Lassner notes that these writings "create a graphic panorama of Holocaust experiences, responses, and memories." She explains that even what is missing- the "gaps, lapses of memory, inability to find the concrete language"- relates to each survivor's unique and "singular experience."
We knew that our lives depended on… making ourselves invisible. We learned to disappear in order to survive." But they realized that they were "the last and youngest eyewitnesses to the Holocaust," and that "little research had been devoted to us as a group." So they decided " simply to stand up-for ourselves, each other, for the millions who were murdered, and for those honorable individuals who risked everything for us." Ultimately, they the process left them "no longer feeling that we needed to be invisible."
In expressing how children coped with losing everything but their very lives, Mishkin poetically writes: "In sadness we remembered joy/ In drabness we envisioned beauty/ In the air we wrote our life stories." Thanks to Out of Chaos, the stories are now inscribed in a form far more enduring.