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From Partisan to Maccabee

Rokhl’s Golden City: Literary lessons about the Jewish child survivors of the Holocaust

Rokhl Kafrissen
December 10, 2020
Still from ‘Undzere Kinder’ (1948)
Still from ‘Undzere Kinder’ (1948)
Still from ‘Undzere Kinder’ (1948)
Still from ‘Undzere Kinder’ (1948)

How does a child partisan become a Maccabee? It takes a small-scale act of national imagination. And like the Hanukkah (or Khanike, in Yiddish) narrative, it’s a complicated story of military conflict, straining at the boundaries of what we think of as children’s literature.

In the period immediately after WWII, the small number of Jewish child survivors in Poland became the subject of intense interest to Jewish community leaders. Thousands of these children ended up in a network of children’s homes and other institutions for child survivors. There was intense competition between Zionist homes, which prepared them for immigration to Palestine, and those that believed there was still a future for Jews in communist Poland.

The devastation of the war meant that these children were, quite literally, the future. The lives of child survivors consequently became an important topic in the Jewish community. Child survivors were depicted as tough, resourceful, and psychologically resilient enough to work through the horrors of yesterday and become the leaders of tomorrow.

The 1948 Yiddish movie Undzere Kinder (Our Children) is a good example of the discourse around child survivors. It was co-written by Rokhl Oyerbakh, a pioneer in collecting survivor testimony, and filmed in Poland in 1946-47. Undzere Kinder was shot in a semi-verité style using real child survivors. Its visual style reads at times as downright Hitchcockian and its imagery, whether intentional or not, veers toward the Freudian. By night, two visitors creep about a home for Jewish child survivors. Unseen, they observe the intimate conversations of the residents of the home, adults as well as children, as they reveal the dark stories that cannot be spoken in the daylight.

In contrast, Menashe Unger’s Yiddish short story “Der kleyner makabi”(1950) also deals with child survivors, but its scenes are alive with color, and the story reads something like a modern-day fable. Despite its ripped-from-the-headlines characters and plot, the story makes explicit its appeal to Jewish mythology.

Dovidl is a 13-year-old Warsaw Ghetto escapee who spent two years living in the forest with a partisan unit. Though he’s now happily established at a kibbutz near Tel Aviv, his sense of self is fractured. In just a few pages, “Der kleyner makabi” employs transhistorical dreamwork, the dramatic stage, as well as the field of combat, to completely shatter Dovidl’s psyche and put him back together as a Zionist whole.

The story appears in Unger’s collection of stories and plays for children called Gut Yom-Tov Kinder (Happy Holidays, Children). Though it was written and published in the United States, Unger was a Poyle Tsiyen (Labor Zionist) activist, and he played a role in the now forgotten chapter of Yiddish language postwar Zionism.

Der kleyner makabi” takes place at a kibbutz at Hanukkah time. Hanukkah, a once minor festival, was rehabilitated by the Zionist movement to serve as a narrative of national liberation of the land. Zionists shifted the focus of the Hasmonean story from the physical redemption of the Temple to the human triumph of the Maccabees, encouraging those settling in Palestine to think of themselves as Maccabees, too.

When Dovidl arrived at the kibbutz the year before, he was given the nickname Dovidl Partizan, on account of his eagerness to share tales of his time with Jewish partisans in the forest. Dovidl assisted in their heroic work, searching out Nazi hiding spots. Disguised as a Polish boy, he slipped into nearby towns to gather information on Nazi soldiers. To avoid revealing his Jewishness, he pretended to be deaf and incapable of speech.

When the children of Dovidl’s kibbutz are told of an imminent Arab attack, they are given orders to evacuate to Tel Aviv. Dovidl protests. He had fought alongside partisans and gone on life-threatening missions. How could he abandon his new home? No, he would find a way to stay and fight.

As the truck carrying his class slowly rumbles away, Dovidl hops off unnoticed, returning to the kibbutz. But where to hide? He heads to the empty theater, to hide among the costumes and decorations. Still on the stage are props from a play they performed about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Dovidl had played the role of Mordecai Anielewicz. Anielewicz was a member of Hashomer Hatzair and in the Warsaw Ghetto, he led the Jewish Fighting Organization (known by its Polish initials, ZOB) in a heroic battle against the Nazis. As Dovidl settles in for the night, he is reminded of his performance as Anielewicz: “Don’t give up! Let us die with dignity!”

Falling asleep, he dreams first that he is Anielewicz, leading the ghetto fighters. Then he imagines he is Berl, the partisan leader, planning an attack on a Nazi munitions train. Then he is Yehude Makabi, fighting the Greeks. But it is not just Greeks he is fighting, but Nazis, Arabs, the English—all have joined together to attack the kibbutz. And it is Dovidl who is there to drive them away.

He is woken by an alarm. Haganah fighters have arrived to defend the kibbutz against attack on three sides. But how to help? Dovidl looks around at the discarded props, a Ghetto Uprising paper cannon among them. He remembers how the partisans would use a mock cannon to draw Nazi fire. The kibbutz paper cannon, painted brown, would look real enough from far away. He drags it outside, to an undefended spot, among the cactuses. Miraculously, his plan works, and the attackers rain precious ammunition on the paper cannon, much to the confusion of the Haganah. The kibbutz is saved!

After the battle, Dovidl is found with a bullet wound in his leg and taken to the hospital, in a room with other wounded Haganah fighters. The Haganah commander finds him there, feverishly shouting: “Death to the Nazis! Drive out Antiochus! Drive the Greeks from the Temple!” The commander beams with pride. No longer shall you be known as The Little Partisan, he says. From now on you will be known as The Little Makabi. The other kibbutz children, on their way to the Hanukkah celebration, pass by his hospital window exclaiming, “There he is, the Little Yehude Makabi!”

It’s quite a story. Part of Dovidl remained in Poland, in the forests and towns where he took on roles normally considered too dangerous for a child. Partizan wasn’t just part of his identity, it was his very name. In order to truly belong on the kibbutz, he has to travel back and forth in time. He performs the role of ZOB leader Anielewicz, which leads directly to his decision to use the prop cannon to fight a real battle. In his dream, too, identity is flexible. His wartime exploit as an undercover spy reinforces the point. The past holds trauma, but it also offers endless individual mutability, and redemption.

It’s interesting that when Dovidl arrives at the kibbutz, he is open with his wartime story, so much so that it becomes his kibbutz persona. But in real life, the propriety of having child survivors tell their stories was up for debate. And the children themselves were often reluctant to talk. Historian Boaz Cohen notes that “some teachers in the DP camps objected to soliciting testimonies from their students on the grounds that” it would interrupt the healing of old wounds.

As Cohen writes in “The Children’s Voice: Postwar Collection of Testimonies from Child Survivors of the Holocaust,” Benjamin Tenenbaum was a Hashomair Hatzair activist who took on the mission of collecting and publishing the stories of children, stories which he felt showed the wartime experience more honestly than those of adults, “free of apologetics.”

Tenenbaum took to this work with a single-minded determination, describing it as a “dybbuk” that had entered him. Thirteen-year-old Shmuel Krol was just one of the “autobiographies” he collected. As quoted by Cohen, Krol wrote: “From far away shines the sun of Eretz Yisrael. There I’ll be a faithful son to my homeland and if need be, I’ll die for her.” Defending himself against charges that the children were merely repeating propaganda, Tenenbaum believed ideological inculcation was itself therapeutic. “Zionist education gave children hope for the future, which facilitated their rehabilitation.”

When Rokhl Oyerbakh handed over the first cache of Oyneg Shabes documents in 1942, she included a note conveying the rawest anger: “I want to stay alive. REVENGE REVENGE remember.” After the war, she channeled that anger into her collection work, part of which was used to try Adolf Eichmann.

The carefully selected child testimonies Tenenbaum published, however, lacked “hate or passion for revenge.” He explained that bringing the children into the Zionist project had channeled that potentially destructive energy “into one redemptive channel: dreams of building and creativity.”

As I was thinking about this story, an Israeli friend mentioned an interesting connection between “Der kleyner makabi” and Israeli children’s literature of the same time: 1950 was also the year the first of Yigal Mossinson’s Hasamba adventure series books appeared. In it, a group of Jewish boys and girls take part in various battles against Israel’s enemies, as spies and combatants. Two of them even die in service to the new state.

I know that Tenenbaum truly believed he and his colleagues were giving child survivors a dream of “building and creativity.” They were, after all, providing a new life for young people who had nothing, and had seen their families and homes consumed in fire. But the fiction of the time was more honest about the reality into which these children were entering, one in which child soldiers were held up as an ideal, both in Hebrew and Yiddish literature. As “Der kleyner makabi” shows, the survival of the Jewish people meant that one enemy had merely been exchanged for another.

Though Unger writes a sparkling, candlelit nighttime scene for Dovidl’s happy ending, he betrays himself by its construction. The injured Dovidl is confined to his room, forced to observe the activities through a window, separated from the life around him. His Hanukkah victory comes at a high price, too high, perhaps, for a child to ever fully comprehend. If Hanukkah often feels impossibly complex to explain to children (just what the hell is a Seleucid again?), Dovidl’s story succeeds in reflecting that perplexing truth.

LISTEN: My friend Mark “Jew of Oklahoma” Rubin just dropped a brand new Khanike track in collaboration with the Panorama Brass Band of New Orleans and it slaps exactly as hard as you would expect … In my first Khanike column, way back in 2017, I intended to share one of my favorite non-klezmer Jewish albums with you. Somehow that bit got cut at the last minute. I’m fixing my oversight now as a last bit of 2020 tshuve. As an ’80s kid, it’s practically a sacred duty. Like I intended to say in 2017: “I may not love Christmas, but I adore Rick Moranis, and so should you.”

ALSO: Isle of Klezbos will perform live from Brooklyn for a virtual menorah lighting party on Dec. 13 at 7 p.m. … My gorgeous and talented KlezKanada friend, Heather Klein, is also the cantorial soloist at Temple Sinai in Las Vegas. She’s combining her passion for art song and Yiddish with a new program of original work called Rooted Lullaby. Temple Sinai is hosting a live virtual performance of Rooted Lullaby, during which Heather will be joined by the also brilliant Cantor Becky Khitrik and Joshua Horowitz. Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m. … I’m thrilled to say that my dear friend and sometime Hawaii husband Shane Baker is being honored with the Adrienne Cooper Dreaming in Yiddish award this year. The ceremony and concert for the DIY award is always incredibly moving, and even though it will be a “virtual” event this year, it is guaranteed to be an unforgettable evening. You’ll even be able to catch yours truly speaking about the honoree. Sunday, Dec. 27, as part of the Yiddish New York program. Buy your ticket here … On Jan. 5, Alex Weiser (YIVO director of public programs and 2020 Pulitzer Prize finalist for music) will premiere three new Yiddish songs about New York City, based on poems by Morris Rosenfeld, Naftali Gross, and Reuben Iceland. The program, In a tunkl bloyer nakht (In a Dark Blue Night), is scheduled for sunset time. More info here … The class list for the YIVO-Bard Winter Program on Ashkenazi Civilization is up and it looks phenomenal. You can spend January learning with scholars like Timothy Snyder and Miriam Udel. But you have to register. Some classes will have limited enrollment … Like many others, last month I was stunned to learn that historian David Schneer had passed away at an unthinkably young age. Though I didn’t know Schneer personally, I long admired his scholarship and his innovative approach to Jewish studies, especially his collaborations with Jewish artists. You can celebrate his extraordinary life on Dec. 13, when Yiddishkayt LA and the Yiddish Book Center will present a memorial event featuring many of his friends and collaborators. Zol er hobn a likhtikn gan eydn

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.

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