Holocaust Children's Objects: Ordinary but Powerful

By Edward Rothstein

Exhibition Review | 'Life in Shadows'

New York Times, 24 January 2006


In the exhibition "Life in Shadows: Hidden Children and the Holocaust," which opens today at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, there is nothing intrinsically remarkable about the objects on display. What, after all, is the interest in a stained short-sleeve lime-green sweater that might have been worn by any 8-year-old girl? What is so important about three wooden stubs with ink-drawn faces stored in a battered pillbox?

Yet despite this exhibition's shortcomings, these ordinary objects have an unmistakable aura, as powerful as that of an imposing artwork. Their mundane appearance is loaded with implication; their stains and signs of wear haunt the mind if not the eye. The very fact that they look as if they were plucked from a rummage heap contributes to their power.

For the sweater, with its flimsy lacelike neckline, was worn by Krystyna Chiger in 1943 in the sewers under the streets of Lvov, Poland, where she and her family spent 14 months in hiding as the Nazis liquidated the Jewish ghetto above their heads. And the wooden stubs were made by Jurek Orlowski and his brother - "toy soldiers" with which they played Robin Hood - in a dark flea-infested cellar where they were hidden by a Polish family, before they were discovered and sent to Bergen-Belsen.

The fact that these objects are disposable, worn and crude is also a precise reflection of how their owners were viewed in that nightmarish time and place, an era whose every perverse fold has yet to come to light. The hidden child: is there another more potent sign of a depraved culture? If innocence is under threat merely for existing, then what hope do knowledge and experience have? Everything is rummage.

We think of children in hiding as part of a game, a game that Freud wrote about as if it were the archetypal act of childhood: the child makes things come and go, appear and disappear, affirming some power over the looming, threatening world. What greater power can there be than to make oneself disappear? Hiding also opens new possibilities, in which the solitary child imagines or discovers a new world - lions and witches revealed in the backs of wardrobes.
Only here, of course, everything is inverted: hiding is the sign of absolute powerlessness. There is even a wardrobe here, as grand and fine as the one imagined by C. S. Lewis, but it belonged to a Polish Catholic family that used it to hide a 5-year-old boy, Frederik Steinkeller, from the Gestapo, which had offices in their building.

What power there is, in fact, isn't latent in the objects but in the stories behind them: the face of one girl in a photograph of a Catholic orphanage is scratched out because she looked too Jewish and might give away her protectors; a cookbook contains conjugations of the verb "to hide" because Suse Grünbaum, hiding under the floorboards of a barn, couldn't put her benefactors at risk by writing a real diary about her situation; a photograph of what is presented as an 11-year-old girl is really a photograph of an 11-year-old boy, Dawid Tennenbaum, who spent the war disguised as a girl afflicted with mental problems that prevented her from attending school.
The stories are also important because we have access to so few of them. Anne Frank's is the most famous, but perhaps, for that reason, the least typical. In September 1939, the exhibition informs us, there were about 1.6 million Jewish children in the territories that Germany would eventually conquer. By the war's end, between one million and 1.5 million of them were dead; 216,000 children were sent to Auschwitz alone, and 451 survived.

Adults hid from the Nazis, of course, but death was the promised penalty for concealing Jews, as one 1942 Warsaw poster here proclaims. Children, who demanded fewer resources, and might be inducted into another life, may have been the easiest to find places for: in convents, garden sheds, cellars. In some cases, when they were welcomed into other families, even surviving relatives had difficulty reclaiming them after the war.

Given the power of such material, some of which will be new even to those well versed in the horrors of the time, the unfortunate thing is that this exhibition so often fractures and abridges the stories themselves. Is this because it is a traveling exhibition on its last stop, carved from one originally presented in 2003 by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington?

Whatever the cause, this makes the exhibition much more work than it should be, and lessens its impact as well. Even the physical layout prevents the stories from being clearly told. The path through the exhibition can be confusing, as can the links between various objects on display. Piecing together the story of Alfred Münzer, for example, requires maneuvering through various objects and organizing a chronology without much help from the labels; the Washington museum's Web site (www.ushmm.org) has a far clearer narrative: while two of Albert's siblings were betrayed to the Nazis, he was brought up by an Indonesian immigrant who treated him like a son.

From the labels, too, one can only guess at a relationship between Jurek Orlowski, the Polish boy who carved the wooden soldiers, and Uri Orlev, who is identified as their current owner. Jurek survived to become Uri, but this fact is not explicitly stated or explained. In some cases, one has to come across someone's name in the exhibition's video interviews to realize that the account is connected with objects already seen. Many stories are incomplete, not always out of necessity.

This is even true when dealing with so well-known a figure as Simone Weil, who is identified here as a 20-year-old who "smuggled many youngsters and teens out of the desolate, vermin-filled Rivesaltes camp to foster families and Children's Aid Society homes," without identifying her as the French writer, political activist and Christian mystic who became a cult devotional figure for later generations.

Documents on display - diaries, a cookbook, a police order - are also often referred to in cursory fashion without enough translation. One would have liked, for example, a more complete explanation of a remarkable "life calendar" that Tsewie Herschel's Dutch father gave to him as an infant in 1943, when he was taken in by a Christian family for safe-keeping. Tsewie's parents were deported to the Sobibor killing center, but the calendar was a father's optimistic prophecy of what might lie ahead for his son in better times, envisioning his emigration to Palestine, his marriage and the birth and circumcision of a grandson the parents could not have hoped to know.

These objects should be seen, even if, at this exhibition, the stories behind them must be constructed. Ironically, that makes everything seem even more precious.

"Life in Shadows" continues through June 25 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, 36 Battery Place, Battery Park City; (646) 437-4200