Europe on the Eve of the Holocaust, Seen Through a Child's Eyes

The lovely cards that Max Lichtwitz sent to his son, from February 1939 until the outbreak of World War II, encapsulate a story about a father’s love for a son he would never see again.

“Postcards to a Little Boy,” by Henry Foner (Heinz Lichtwitz), Yad Vashem Publications, 124 pp., 2013, $36 (Hebrew edition, Yad Vashem, 2014, translated from the German and the English by Danit Dotan and Bruriya Ben-Baruch, 166 pp., 111 shekels)

Uri Avnery’s memory as portrayed in his newly published memoir “Optimist” creates an alpine impression. His life is a novel teeming with deeds and heroes, not a short story or a novella, like the tale of most of our lives, and it’s hard to believe that a 90 year-old wrote it. (See “Ever the optimist,” Haaretz English Edition, April 25.)

For example, the chapter on the Nazis’ ascension to power is constructed from first-person stories and real-time interpretation. Avnery remembers what the history books tell us: the unemployment in Germany, the adulation of the armed forces in the Weimar Republic – which was allowed to have only a small army (“Children in Germany of the time loved uniforms. They saw countless pictures of the German army in previous centuries”) – the last democratic elections, the burning of the Reichstag, and so on.

He remembers well the teacher who began greeting his students with “Heil Hitler,” the boycott of Jewish businesses on April 1, 1933, and the day on which the class celebrated some historical German victory, when “all the students stood up and, making the Nazi salute, sang two anthems: the national anthem, ‘Germany Über Alles,’ and the Nazi anthem, ‘The Flag on High’… What should I do? I stood up, like everyone. But I did not raise my arm and I did not sing the Nazi anthem.” Afterward, his classmates warned Avnery: “If that happens again, we’ll break your bones!”

“Optimist” will probably be one of the last memoirs written like this – from the perspective of a conscious witness – about that era. The chapter on the Nazis’ accession to power joins a long list of works written by people who took an active part in history-making, such as Prof. Israel Gutman, the Holocaust researcher who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and survived Majdanek and Auschwitz.

Gutman, who died last October, was also one of the last surviving witnesses to appear at the Eichmann trial, where testimony was also given by fighters such as Abba Kovner and Zivia Lubetkin, and by public figures such as Mark Dvorzhetski from Vilna, Beno Cohen from Berlin, Adolf Berman from Warsaw and many others.

We will no longer hear living witnesses like these, but to their towering stories new, previously archived material is now being added. An example is the testimony of Benjamin Murmelstein, the head of the Jewish Council in Theresienstadt, in Claude Lanzmann’s most recent film, “The Last of the Unjust,” which consists largely of footage shot by Lanzmann nearly 40 years ago, and offers a broad perspective on the events it deals with.

New testimony of a very different sort is that which is rendered by objects: documents, books, items of clothing, toys and so forth. Such artifacts are the subject of a recently published book by Haviva Peled-Carmeli, “Silent Witnesses” (Yad Vashem Publications; Hebrew).

Those who remain among us are survivors who were children during the Holocaust, and it is their memories that fill most of the books containing first-hand accounts that have appeared in recent years. They have been prompted to speak by the fact that they remain sole witnesses – a development that is interconnected with larger sociological and psychological processes. And, as it happens, their small testimonies jibe with the current tendency to research and relate small-scale history, to present the Holocaust at a personal level. The importance of such testimony cannot be overestimated; in some cases it draws attention to small details that no one had noticed in the generation of the large testimonies.

“Postcards to a Little Boy” intertwines the personal memory of a child with the testimony of a rare document: the postcards received by the young Heinz Lichtwitz from his family, mainly from his father Max, after the son was sent from Germany to Britain in the wake of Kristallnacht, the massive pogroms perpetrated across Germany in November 1938. From then until the outbreak of the war, in September 1939, Max Lichtwitz sent his son charming colorful postcards, which are reproduced in the book in all their glory.

In the past, a book like this might not have been considered a “Holocaust book.” After all, Heinz (afterward Henry Foner; his adoptive parents in Wales were Morris and Winifred Foner) spent the war years in Britain, and the postcards obviously survived. Nevertheless, this book (and others like it) is like light on the edges of a dark cloud. It tells a self-contained story, with a beginning and a sad – or sad-happy – ending, and it is certainly moving.

Henry himself makes do with two pages; perhaps the sum total of his memories from this period need no more. But the story is backed up by a comprehensive historical afterword by Israeli scholar Judith Tydor Baumel-Schwartz about the children of the Kindertransport. This, for example, is one of the contributions made by the children’s testimonies, since not many people are acquainted with this successful and crucial rescue mission, in which 10,000 Jewish (and other “non-Aryan”) children were sent to Britain from Germany between December 1938 and the start of the war, the following September.

The afterword describes the course of events that led to the extraordinary agreement of His Majesty’s Government to accept the young refugees (one reason: so they would not go to Palestine). Baumel-Schwartz takes note of the debate that took place within the British Jewish community about whether to allow the children to be taken in by non-Jewish families, and she does not hide embarrassing details, such as that the foster families preferred the young, light-skinned boys and the good-looking girls, or the restrictions placed on some of the children during the war as “enemy nationals.” Still, the Kindertransport project is one of the successes in the rescue of Jews in that dark time.

Heinz Lichtwig/Henry Foner is one of those children. Born in 1932, he spent his early years in Berlin, where he was raised by his father and his grandmother after the death of his mother, when he was five. On February 3, 1939, at the age of 6 and a half, he arrived at the Foners’ home in Wales, and it was to their address that his father sent the postcards that make up the central section of the book.

Writing in large letters, his father sent him regards every few days, wished him well on Passover and Easter, and related domestic news from Berlin. There are also veiled references to more “important” matters, such as in a postcard that was sent from Hamburg, where his father helped Jews escape from Germany.

Time’s passage is keenly felt, and not only through the reports about the weather in Germany. On June 30, 1939, Max began to write his son in English and addressed the postcards to Heinz in his new name: Henry Foner. He thus seems to come to terms with his son’s new identity, as an English boy (and he too is transformed from the German “Vati” into its English equivalent: “Daddy). The father does not remark on the implications of this change, but the reader, able to surmise what happened in the end, can fill in the blanks: for example, what goes through the mind of a father who parts from his only child, knowing that he might never see him again. Indeed, in the last postcard received by Henry, dated August 31, 1939, his father wrote, in his imperfect English, “I’m glad that you are well and happy. I hope war will not come. If he is coming although, God bless you and uncle and aunty.”

That was the last illustrated postcard, but a letter reached Henry in August 1942, through the Red Cross, in which his father wrote, “I’m glad about your health and progress. Remain further healthy! Our destiny is uncertain. Write more frequently. Lots of kisses, Daddy.”

Years later, a letter that Henry’s father wrote to a friend – a “kind of farewell letter,” he called it – dated November 5, 1941, also reached the boy, in which the recipient is asked to convey to the Foners “my deepest gratitude for making it possible for my child to escape the fate that will soon overtake me … Please tell him one day that it was only out of deep love and concern for his future that I have let him go, but that on the other hand I miss him most painfully day by day and that my life would lose all meaning if there were not at least the possibility of seeing him again someday.”

Max Lichtwitz, Heinz-Henry’s father, was deported to Auschwitz on December 9, 1942, and murdered there a week later.

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