Childhood by Jona Oberski, translated by Ralph Manheim

January 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

Born in Amsterdam to Jewish parents, Oberski was just a year old when World War Two broke out. He published this slim autobiographical novel in 1978, almost forty years after the events in it, and it is a truly astonishing accomplishment.

oberski pushkin

The novel opens in Bergen-Belsen, with the four-year-old narrator being reassured by his mother:

There’s been a mistake, but everything will be all right. We’ve gone away for a few days with a lot of other people, but we’ll be going home soon and Daddy will be there too. They’ve made a mistake, so we’ll have to stay here for a few days, visiting the way we visited with Trude a while ago.

The mother’s words seem to be setting up the most terrible kind of dramatic irony. We are sure we know how this ends, and it certainly isn’t with them going home. But somehow, mysteriously, a week later they do go home. “A few other people went,” writes the boy, “but most stayed.” This matter-of-fact reporting of the situation is one of the most astounding features of Childhood. Somehow Oberski has managed to capture a wonderful and realistic child’s voice, rooted firmly in the moment and barely concerned, even at such a time, with events that will have an enormous impact on his life. Or perhaps he didn’t have to try; perhaps what happened was seared into Oberski’s memory so deeply that these memories were unable to be later tainted by adult knowledge, hindsight and the desire to ponder what-ifs. Either way, this technique is used here flawlessly and successfully.

After the mistaken trip to the camp, short chapters describe how the narrator celebrates a birthday, experiences an instance of bullying because he is Jewish, is taken by his parents on a trip on the ferry, during which he is allowed to drive for a brief moment, and goes to work one day with his father, where the boss helps him use the typewriter. These give us a rapid, blinkered view of the narrator’s world, and furnish details about the time period and the family’s life. The birthday celebration excepted, each of these instances shows the reader how hyper-aware Jews had to constantly be of their position in society. First there’s the grocer’s son who stamps on the boy’s mud pies and taunts him, and when his father goes to complain, the grocer tells him in a telling non-sequitur that “it couldn’t have been his son; he said he’d always sold us everything we wanted, which had got him into plenty of trouble.” Then there’s the ferryman, who merely compliments the boy’s grasp of Dutch without rudeness or hostility. The recognition of difference is there, creating suspense, but nothing happens. And finally, the day the narrator goes to the office with his father, he mentions that “My mother had sewn a yellow star on my coat. She said, ‘Look, now you’ve got a pretty star, just like Daddy.’ I thought the star was pretty, but I’d rather have gone without.” He then moves seamlessly onto something of more pressing concern: “We had a long way to go. Luckily my father lifted me up on his shoulders now and then.”

oberski penguin 2

I give all these examples to try to show all the different currents moving around the boy, who remains largely unaware and seemingly uninterested. His parents, devoted to him, are trying to protect him from the worst, trying to build up his self-esteem (for example with the star) in situations where other people are intending to destroy it (even when the grocer’s son stamps on his pies, the worry that lingers is the loss of the mould to build them).

Throughout the novel he’s resolutely just a boy growing up. His perspective is narrow, short-sighted and short-term; he does not try to think things through or come to terms with his situation or with other people’s inhuman cruelty. Things happen, but he does not become precociously wise or develop feelings of inferiority. There is no need to reflect on his own self because he is still too immature to understand that the world doesn’t revolve around him, even while he seems resigned to the fact that in his world he is in control of nothing. Others take advantage of his innocence, even in the camp, when he and his parents are permanently interned after their brief reprieve: a group of older children egg him on to thumb his nose at a guard, and later encourage him to sneak into the morgue. When children take it in turns to clean the cooking pots, he doesn’t understand that this is a way of sneaking them extra food. It’s potato peelings, not dinner, and in any case, he doesn’t have a spoon.

Despite the lack of analysis, or inserted reflection on what his parents must have been feeling and enduring, this is a stark yet deeply profound book. The reader is drawn in by the skilful contrast of what’s important to the boy and what we know—from history and from the context of the novel—he should be worried about. And that should is an interesting word. Should he be worried about anything? Is it better that he is cocooned from the true understanding that so many people wish him deliberate and dreadful harm? Or is this refusal to understand, almost but never quite disingenuous, a mechanism to protect himself? The narrator certainly does not flinch at reporting how his own selfishness at times puts his family in grave danger.

Childhood provokes a great many interesting questions. It’s a book about the Second World War, something familiar to us from so many films, novels, first-hand accounts and so on. But this child’s perspective, at once determinedly unself-conscious, detached, and heartbreaking, is worth reading.

Other reviews of Childhood:

John Self at The Asylum

Dorian Stuber at Open Letters Monthly


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