The Warsaw Ghetto Boy is not yet ten years old.
I’ve read that historians know this because he is not wearing the white armband with a blue Star of David that Warsaw Jews were forced to wear over the age of 10.
In the famous black-and-white photo, the boy’s arms are raised above his head in surrender, as men, women and children are forced out of a ghetto bunker by armed German soldiers and then deported to a concentration camp. He has dark hair and wears a newsboy cap and shorts that highlight his skinny, starvation legs. An SS officer points a submachine gun in his direction. His face is unbearably frightened.
When I was 10 years old, it broke my heart to notice that the Warsaw Ghetto Boy looked a little like Adam, my fifth-grade crush. Sweet. Cute. Someone I might shyly ask to borrow a pencil.
Four decades later, I cringe with fear when I see the photo. My husband doesn’t know that I sometimes search for it online, usually late at night when he is asleep and my laptop screen is the only light on in the house.
I don’t really know why I look at it. Maybe it’s a test to see how much I can stand, knowing I can quickly click away. Maybe it’s to remind myself that unlike that small, terrified child, I am safe.
My husband is not Jewish. I doubt he has ever seen the photo of the Warsaw Ghetto Boy.
When I discover all of the other things he does not know about the Holocaust, however, I am shocked. The Eichmann trials? A blank stare. The Mengele experiments? His head shakes no.
I grow more shrill. “What about Kristallnacht?” I say, my voice rising, my hands gripping the dining room table. “The Night of Broken Glass?”
“Treblinka? Dachau? Bergen-Belsen?” Now I feel like I am shrieking.
No. No. No.
“Auschwitz?” The “witz” hits a crescendo.
Yes. I know what Auschwitz is.
That doesn’t count. Everyone has heard of Auschwitz.
I am in the hallway of my Orthodox Jewish elementary school. It is April, 1979. I am 10 years old.
I stand in front of an oversized poster of the photo of the Warsaw Ghetto Boy.
It is Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
To commemorate the death of six million Jews, black-and-white posters fill the school’s hallways, documenting the entire timeline of the Holocaust.
The journey begins with images of the book burnings and boycotts of Jewish businesses. Then, ghetto uprisings and mass shootings and trains that transported hundreds of thousands to concentration camps. Gas chambers disguised as showers. Ovens. Electrified fences. Death marches. Finally, the liberation of the concentration camps, where Allied forces photographed thousands of skeletal, naked bodies piled like kindling.
The posters remain hanging, it seems, for weeks, until they are finally removed to make way for Shavuot, the next major observance on the Jewish calendar, which commemorates the revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai to the Jewish people.
Colorful images of biblical spring harvests and smiling children carrying Torah scrolls replace genocide.
I don’t observe Shavuot anymore, or any other Jewish tradition. I stopped keeping kosher in college and, after divorcing the nice Jewish boy in my mid-30s, abandoned even the tiniest modicum of ritual-keeping.
These days, my husband and I eat at the Manhattan home of my Orthodox parents on the High Holidays and on Passover. There is always a family get-together on Hanukkah. That’s all.
When we first started dating, I tried to break down everything he might need to know, from Sabbath dinner and Purim to why I could never, ever, EVER put up a Christmas tree in my home, even if I had married a goy.
After a while, though, I found it draining to explain…everything.
But what does it mean that my husband knows nothing of the Warsaw Ghetto Boy, or a thousand other Holocaust facts that I thought were common 20th century knowledge?
My brain feels like a ghetto. Every part of my body, the entire surface of my skin, every vein, every cell, feels crammed with, diffused with, all things Tribe. The Holocaust, especially, is a kind of horrible perfume that permeates the air and my entire being, so that I smell it everywhere.
Around Yom Hashoah, I often come home after school with something new to be scared of, like soap, or lampshades (didn’t Germans make them out of Jewish skin?). I grow wary of showers. Gas would surely start pouring out of the showerhead, or Hitler would drag me down the drain.
During the endless weeks that the oversized posters remain hanging in the hallways, I sometimes run past them into my classroom so I don’t have to look too closely. Sometimes I feel rooted in place and cannot turn away.
Sometimes I hide in the bathroom, with an eye towards missing the requisite school assembly, where we might hear from a Holocaust survivor. Like the father of a classmate who narrowly missed being captured by Nazis by hiding beneath a straw-thatched roof. Or the old woman with the faded number tattooed on her forearm.
My husband thinks I have a kind of PTSD from seeing the posters when I was so young, year in and year out. I wonder if it is just a kind of brain tattoo, when something is imprinted so strongly on a young mind it can never be removed.
I feel guilty focusing on my own tiny corner of trauma. After all, no one in my family died in, or survived, the Holocaust. Both sides immigrated to America well before the 1930s, to escape the early 20th-century pogroms in Eastern Europe. They saw the writing on the wall.
But in the 1970s, it felt like Jewish children were a symbol that Hitler’s greatest wish, the Final Solution, had failed. In my school, we were taught that we were the ones, just a generation removed from the liberation of the camps, who would make sure the world did not allow the memory of the six million to be lost.
Was it preaching to the choir to drill every gory detail of Jewish extermination into our heads? Was it wrong to send terrified elementary school children home to have sweaty Nazi nightmares?
Maybe. I assume they felt it was the price that needed to be paid to make sure we really knew. Perhaps that’s why I never told anyone, even my parents, about my fears. I had not suffered like the Warsaw Ghetto Boy. My only responsibility was to know. And never forget.
I have not forgotten, but my childhood terrors have left me mute. And the result feels like an uncrossable boundary between my husband and me.
He can never fully understand the unshakeable grief that has cloaked his wife’s people for thousands of years. I can’t scrape off the scabs of tribal suffering now, any more than I would have been able to hide my Jewish identity in 1943. If I was 10 years old back then, I would have worn the yellow star.
The Warsaw Ghetto Boy looks terrified and confused. He is not yet 10 years old.
Image Credit: mihi_tr/Flickr Creative Commons