Girl: My Child­hood and the Sec­ond World War

  • Review
By – May 16, 2016

Alona Frankel, author of the best-sell­ing Once Upon A Pot­ty, now offers read­ers an insight into her own child­hood. Her par­ents were edu­cat­ed, Pol­ish Jew­ish Com­mu­nists— non­re­li­gious Jews,” as her father put it. Alona was only two years old when the Nazis invad­ed Poland. When the ghet­to was liq­ui­dat­ed,” a Chris­t­ian fam­i­ly agreed to hide her moth­er and father in a work­room in their apart­ment, but wouldn’t allow them to bring their baby; a young child could make noise at the wrong moment and get every­one killed. So Alona’s par­ents paid a woman to pre­tend their daugh­ter was Chris­t­ian and board her in the coun­try­side. Alas, when her par­ents’ mea­ger resources ran out, the deal end­ed. The woman sim­ply dropped off Alona at her par­ents’ hid­den room where she wasn’t allowed, forc­ing Alona to hide from both the Nazis and from her par­ents’ host fam­i­ly. Still, the three of them sur­vived and after the war restart­ed their lives in what became social­ist Poland. This might have been a good fit for a pair of Com­mu­nists, except the anti-Semi­tism prob­lem hadn’t dis­ap­peared like it was sup­posed to. In the end there was only one viable option — aliyah.

The sto­ry of a girl hid­ing with her fam­i­ly in a secret room dur­ing the Holo­caust, nat­u­ral­ly brings to mind Anne Frank. But Frank was a teenag­er, con­fid­ing her thoughts and feel­ings to her diary. Alona was so young, she had to be taught a sim­pli­fied, sur­vival ver­sion of real­i­ty: there was a war in the world,” and there was an Aryan side of the world,” where Aryans had life but Jews got death (except she was not to use the term Zyd” or Jew, but the chil­dren of light” instead). While her family’s faith that Tovar­ish Stal­in” would save them was painful­ly iron­ic, it did stave off despair, which helped them sur­vive. So there is a trag­ic dif­fer­ence between Anne Frank and Alona Frankel as well: the Nazis mur­dered Anne Frank, so she nev­er had the chance to revis­it her expe­ri­ences from the per­spec­tive of an old­er woman, as Alona did.

Frankel tells her sto­ry in the voice of a child. Sig­nif­i­cant events are repeat­ed­ly retold, retold, and retold before the nar­ra­tive moves for­ward, as if obey­ing some recur­sive sto­ry­telling rule nev­er to go for­ward with­out tak­ing a few steps back­wards. As she recalls var­i­ous inci­dents, she repeats key phras­es (“I cried, cried, and cried”) three times, recall­ing the three wish­es in fairy tales. Her reluc­tance to tell every­thing at once, a sort of stub­born with­hold­ing, almost pre­pares read­ers for her unpleas­ant sto­ries. From the cof­fin” she sleeps in, to her fas­ci­na­tion with the fleas and lice and roach­es and bed­bugs she lived with, to the pair of mice she and her father trained,” or the dead rat she adopt­ed, the facts of the sto­ries are reit­er­at­ed again and again, each time with anoth­er detail added.

We are remind­ed that there is noth­ing lin­ear about the process of mem­o­ry, espe­cial­ly when it car­ries such enor­mous emo­tion­al weight. The trau­ma Frankel went through was real, even if it wasn’t acknowl­edged. It seeps out every time she describes the sur­vivors who came to her par­ents’ apart­ment, who rolled up their sleeves so the num­bers showed, and told the sto­ries of the loved ones who did not make it. As Frankel says, it was exhaust­ing, depress­ing, repel­lent, bor­ing. And it always made me feel guilty.”

Like many Holo­caust mem­oirs, Frankel’s is filled with unre­solved pain, but there is some­thing about her child­like wis­dom that makes us listen.

Relat­ed Content:

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions