Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 235-236, 1989
Pergamon Press, Printed in Great Britain
George Eisen, Children and Play in the Holocaust: Games Among the Shadows (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), 153 pp.
By Barry Mehler
Ferris State University
Children and Play in the Holocaust is a compelling study which breaks new ground in Holocaust historiography. The subject, too long overlooked, is both tragic and fascinating and Eisen's interdisciplinary methodology combining history, psychology, and anthropology enhances the effect of the treatise. He is particularly concerned with how children handled the burden of existence and how they coped with the terror around them. While the main theme of the book is children and play in the Holocaust, the study is also an attempt to offer a general explanation of play under adverse circumstances such as the stress conditions of war. Eisen attempts to find 'a rationale for children's play in war everywhere' (p. 9).
Traditional understanding of play as recreational activity breaks down when viewed from the Holocaust. Take for example, the fifty-five year old woman 'literally running the race of her life, while being timed with a stopwatch by an SS doctor, because those who came in last were taken away and liquidated' (p. 7). Children played games such as "tickle the corps" or 'Breaking into the Hiding Place,' and 'Masacre in Ponary.' These games re-enacted the atrocities the children witnessed.
Eisen contends that adult play was distinctly different from the play of children. An important thesis of the book is that children's play is an instinctual activity carried on even under the most extreme conditions. Indeed, Eisen describes children playing at the portals of the gas chambers. Thus portraying play as frolic, levity, or frivolous is a misrepresentation of its true nature.
Play is serious business in which one learns to adapt - even to death and suffering - by enacting them in a play setting. Play is not divorced from reality rather reflects it and helps develop survival skills. Play not only helped to create a world of refuge for the children but it also helped them practice essential survival skills. Of course, and ability to play was no guarantee of survival. Nevertheless, few children committed suicide in the ghettos and camps.
I have been studying the Holocaust for over twenty years now and have been lecturing on the subject for over a decade. My own field of specialization is the science of genocide which includes a careful study of the gruesome and sadistic Nazi medical experiments. My own studies are by no means light reading. Yet, I must say that I admire Eisen's courage and strength. It is not an easy task to study the fate of children under the Nazi regime. At the same time, the children's story has the power to strengthen us in a way that few other stories of heroism can possibly accomplish.
The readers of this journal are no doubt familiar with numerous accounts of heroism in the face of Nazi oppression, but the collected accounts in this small study are among the most powerful I have ever read. The children's 'vitality, ingenuity, and fight for life surprised even their executioners' (p. 22). There are probably no acts of courage so moving as that of little Ettie, a five year old orphan from the Lodz ghetto comforting her rag doll:
Don't cry, my little doll. When the German's come to grab you, I won't leave you. I'll go with you, like Rosie's mother...(p. 97)
Or, the story of Gabriele Silten who entrusted her favorite teddy bear to a gentile friend. Her grandparents had committed suicide and Gabriele did not want to subject her beloved teddy to the unknown terrors ahead. Or, the story of the dying child who told her sister she would like to see a leaf, to hold something green. Her sister, risking her life, went to the Aryan side of the city, to pick a leaf and bring it back. The 'little girl lay there, sucking her thumb, smiling. And then she died' (p. 60).
My one major criticism of the book is that Eisen has failed to use any comparative historical analysis in this work. One of the questions that came to my mind as I read Eisen's extremely provocative musings on the meaning of play in the Holocaust was the extent to which his study might not be universal at all, but rather, represent a uniquely Jewish response to extreme conditions.
Isaiah Trunk has shown how the response of the Judenrat to the Nazis was based on traditional Jewish methods of dealing with oppressors. Could it be that Jewish children too were calling upon traditional Jewish responses to oppression?
For example, Eisen describes Jewish children in the ghetto using play as a cover for illegal activities. Children played to distract German soldiers while they or their parents smuggled food into the ghetto or as a cover for school activities which were punishable with death. If Nazis guards appeared the books would disappear and a cover game would be enacted. I was struck by the fact that this is exactly how the game of Driedel became a part of the Chanukah festival. Jewish children studied Torah under the threat of death. When the Roman soldiers appeared the Driedel would replace the scrolls.
To what extent were Jewish children calling upon traditional Jewish responses to extreme conditions? To answer this question Eisen would have had to look at play in other settings of extreme conditions or to examine the response of non-Jewish children to the Holocaust - the experience of Gypsy children, for example. Was their response the same?
If, as Eisen believes, the response of Jewish children was instinctual, it behooves him to look beyond the Jewish experience. There is no attempt in this work to reach beyond the ghettos and camps. Nor is there any attempt to compare the Children's response in the Holocaust with Jewish children's response at other periods of extreme stress.
Play in adverse situations has never been adequately studied. With regard to the Holocaust it is a glaring void. Eisen has made an excellent beginning in what we can only hope will be a major field of Holocaust and genocide research.