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The story behind the iconic Warsaw Ghetto photo

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A black-and-white photo of a young boy wearing a hat and a coat, his hands raised above his head in surrender. He is at the foreground of a group of people being led out of a bunker in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Who is the boy? Who is the young woman standing on his left looking back, perhaps at the SS man, his rifle in hands. Who is the little girl? What were the circumstances that led them to this moment in time?

Dan Porat, a professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wondered all of this. After hearing rumours that the boy was alive and well, and now a doctor living in New York, Porat decided to research this photo and the people in it.

The result is The Boy: A Holocaust Story (Hill and Wang), which despite its misleading title is an engaging narrative about five people, three Nazis and two Jews whose lives intersected.

But many readers will be puzzled by what I consider to be the misleading title. To be fair, Porat points out in the prologue, this book does not identify the boy in the photograph. However, he says, it is beside the point.

“Is the lost life of the little boy more important than that of the little girl at the left-hand side of the photograph? Are the lives of this little boy and girl in the photograph more significant than those of children or adults outside the photo frame? The answer is simple and absolute: no.”

Maybe not, but there’s no doubt people will see this book with the iconic photo on the cover and, understandably, think this is about him.

It isn’t.

Instead through meticulous research and interviews, Porat weaves a narrative history of the Warsaw Ghetto through the lives of five people.

• Josef Stroop, the supervisor of the Warsaw Ghetto’s liquidation, whose  report the author used as a major research source for the book. With the report, there were some 50 pictures, which included the original photo of the book’s title.

• Franz Konrad, who as head of the ghetto’s confiscation division was in charge of all items left behind by Warsaw’s Jews transported to Warsaw. He became known as the Ghetto King. He took many of the photographs included with Stroop’s report, quite possibly including this one.

• Josef Blosche, an SS soldier, is the only person definitively in the photograph. He’s the SS soldier in the photograph, holding the gun behind the boy.

• If the woman at the boy’s left in the photo lived to tell her tale, it would probably be similar to that of Rivkah Trapkovitz, narrated here – only with a tragic ending. Trapkovitz, a young Polish woman from Lodz, was captured and sent to the Warsaw Ghetto. A brave and courageous woman, she escaped from a train transport and managed to survive the war. She moved to Israel afterward.

• And finally, little Tsvi Nussbaum who was seven in 1942. Orphaned when the Gestapo killed his parents, he lived clandestinely with his aunt and uncle in “Aryan” Warsaw before he went to the Hotel Polski, where Jews who were hiding were gathered, believing they were going to be traded by the Nazis for German nationals abroad. It was all a ruse and Tsvi, along with the rest of the Hotel Polski Jews, were sent to Bergen-Belsen.

Tsvi survived the war and became an ear, throat and mouth specialist in New York. He became convinced that he was the boy in the photo and that the photo was in fact taken outside the Hotel Polski, not the Warsaw Ghetto. It is a highly unlikely scenario.

To his credit, Porat writes a good story. He admits to filling in descriptive gaps where necessary, but insists this is not historical fiction. The book also contains around 60 photographs, many of which were taken during the Ghetto’s liquidation and included in Stroop’s report.

So don’t let the title fool you. This is a good book, a historical narrative of the Warsaw Ghetto, well worth reading, but don’t expect this to be a story about the boy in the photograph.

* * *

Hitler often made the claim that his World War I experiences were the most formative of his life, but in truth what we know about his role in the war comes mostly from his exaggerated claims in Mein Kampf and from highly unreliable testimonies from cronies trying to curry favour during Hitler’s rise to power.

There is very little contemporary material available of Pte. Hitler’s time as a dispatch runner in the war, and historians know next to nothing of Hitler’s supposed formative years.

Thomas Weber’s Hitler’s First War  (Oxford) instead focuses on Hitler’s regiment, RIR 16, also known as the List Regiment, and takes us through all the battles and experiences it had during the war in an attempt to reconstruct a fairly accurate image of Hitler from this time.

Hitler’s First War is an extremely detailed but never tedious narrative of his Bavarian regiment’s war role and debunks several of the “Hitler myths,” including why he was awarded the Iron Cross and discusses the origin of Hitler’s “stabbed-in-the-back” conspiracy (the idea that the German army did not lose World War I but was instead betrayed by its home country) and his antisemitism.

Fans of 20th-century history and specifically World War I will love this book.

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