The Children’s Block

  • Review
By – August 8, 2020

Ear­ly in his nov­el based on his own expe­ri­ences as a Jew­ish inmate of the Auschwitz death camp, Otto B. Kraus observes that there is no such thing as the Holo­caust of six mil­lion but rather six mil­lion sep­a­rate Holo­causts, each dif­fer­ent from the oth­er, each with its own suf­fer­ing, fears and scars.”

With poet­ic pre­ci­sion, Kraus seeks to con­vey his char­ac­ters not as a mass of vic­tims, but as indi­vid­u­als whose expe­ri­ences are dif­fi­cult to encap­su­late in lan­guage. The ruth­less hon­esty of the sto­ry is the only pos­si­ble response to ques­tions that have no answer: why have Jews been his­tor­i­cal­ly the tar­gets of per­se­cu­tion? How can peo­ple make moral deci­sions under threat of death? Can polit­i­cal, reli­gious, or philo­soph­i­cal belief sys­tems sur­vive in the utter­ly degrad­ing world of Auschwitz?

In a mov­ing intro­duc­tion, Kraus’s wid­ow, Dita, describes the real sto­ry behind her husband’s book. (Dita Kraus’s own expe­ri­ence was the basis for Anto­nio Iturbe’s nov­el The Librar­i­an of Auschwitz.) Kraus sur­vived the infa­mous children’s block of the camp, which was built by the Nazis to deceive out­side observers, such as the Red Cross offi­cials (who had been eas­i­ly con­vinced that There­sien­stadt was a mod­el camp” where pris­on­ers were treat­ed humane­ly). Although some of the chil­dren were vic­tims of Josef Mengele’s exper­i­ments, and all were mur­dered with­in months of their arrival, they were nev­er­the­less grant­ed cer­tain min­i­mal priv­i­leges and were men­tored by adult coun­sel­lors” dur­ing their time on the block. Dita Kraus explains that most of the novel’s char­ac­ters were based on com­pos­ites of dif­fer­ent peo­ple, and that the cen­tral char­ac­ter, coun­sel­lor Alex Ehren, along with his diary, were inven­tions of the author.

This diary is a secret doc­u­ment in which Ehren and oth­er pris­on­ers record their thoughts, so that they wouldn’t van­ish from human mem­o­ry, like a word torn away by the wind or a let­ter writ­ten on run­ning water.” Ehren learns that the Nazis plan to liq­ui­date the block on a spe­cif­ic date not far in the future, yet he has some hope that an upris­ing may change the course of events, or that some pris­on­ers will be sent to forced labor camps. A few of his fel­low inmates remain attached to their reli­gious beliefs, while oth­ers believe that Zion­ism will pre­vent dead­ly anti­semitism in the future. Com­mu­nists hold that class strug­gle and rev­o­lu­tion will ren­der eth­nic­i­ty irrel­e­vant and remove any stig­ma from being Jew­ish. The peren­ni­al dis­cus­sion of why so much of the world hates Jews is a hydra of a ques­tion.” Are they pun­ished for hav­ing intro­duced the moral demands of the Ten Com­mand­ments, the psy­cho­log­i­cal insights of Freud, or Einstein’s explo­ration of the uni­verse? Noth­ing can explain the tor­tured log­ic of mass exter­mi­na­tion, nor the fact that camp guards can laugh and clap at the children’s pup­pet show before trans­port­ing the same chil­dren to the gas chambers.

Those chil­dren are at the novel’s core. While some adult pris­on­ers col­lab­o­rate with the Nazis by work­ing as kapos, oth­ers try to help. The coun­sel­lors” are for­bid­den to edu­cate the chil­dren, although they may engage them in com­mu­nal activ­i­ties. The twist­ed log­ic of this rule leads to cre­ative sub­terfuge: Zion­ists, com­mu­nists, and reli­gious pris­on­ers assigned to the children’s block all attempt to bring some com­fort to their young charges. Lack­ing books, some of the lead­ers recall sto­ries from mem­o­ry and cre­ate a care­ful­ly struc­tured pro­gram to bring lit­er­a­cy through recit­ing these texts: The teach­ers recalled nov­els they had read before they were tak­en to the camps. They pre­pared a list of books, which they would tell the chil­dren in dai­ly install­ments.” Since the char­ac­ters have been robbed of any oppor­tu­ni­ty to act, their dilem­mas are almost entire­ly psy­cho­log­i­cal. Ehren ques­tions his mis­lead­ing actions, meant to reas­sure the chil­dren, yet he feels com­pelled to con­tin­ue his tem­po­rary defense of their innocence.

Read­ers of The Children’s Block are left with a sense of dis­be­lief; although the facts of Nazi sadism are well-doc­u­ment­ed, Kraus’s intense descrip­tions remove any bar­ri­ers between these facts and their recep­tion. The author has undoubt­ed­ly accom­plished the pur­pose of the hid­den diary by bring­ing the pris­on­ers to life in this remark­able book.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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