Childhood, Bare Life, and Memory

Childhood, Bare Life, and Memory

For quite some time now, like the foetus inside a womb, a terrible knowledge had been ripening within me and filling my soul with frightening foreboding.

— Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen


On September 23, 1943 children of the Theresienstadt concentration camp performed the premiere of Brundibár, an opera written by Jewish composer and eventual internee at Theresienstadt Hans Krása. Over the course of the next year the opera was presented numerous times, at one point for Red Cross officials who had come to inspect the conditions of the camp and also eventually utilized for a Nazi propaganda film that aimed to depict the “exemplary” circumstances that Jewish prisoners were subject to. Following filming, the entirety of the cast and crew were deported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. Utilizing the opera, its reincarnation in children’s book form, and other media that addresses childhood and camp life, I aim to explore mobilizations and memorializations of childhood as significant to the proliferation of Nazi mass killings and our memories of them today. Looking to images, memoirs, letters, film, and poetry by and about children I hope to put forth an important corollary to contemporary Holocaust scholarship.

This age-centric study centralizes the role of children and figurations of childhood as integral to the Nazi discourses of racialized and gendered ideology that made possible the extermination of millions. I find it necessary, therefore, to counterpoise constructions of Jewish childhood with those of “Aryan” children; specifically asking what, to play with Giorgio Agamben’s theoretical terminology, made Jewish children “exception-al.” I use Agamben’s notion of the exception triply; to question the manifestations of bare life for children in the camps, to underscore the delegitimation of childhood as innocence, and to highlight the numerous agentic repudiations of Nazi control eminent from the operas, plays, drawings, and writings of those children. In doing so, I am particularly attuned to the mechanisms of gendered performance on display both in the camps and out. Childhood, in Nazi occupied Europe seemingly took on a new orientation, not only to racially targeted groups, but the new responsibilities allocated to “Aryan” children as well. While once the child was invested with unquestionable promise, a heralded futurity, under the Nazis, the Jewish child instead was saturated by the specter of death. How this process was mobilized and later recuperated serves as the central interrogative of this paper.

The plot of Brundibár revolves around two children, Aninka and Pepíček a brother and sister who after discovering their mother to be gravely ill, must go to the marketplace and get her fresh milk to cure her condition. Having no money they devise a plan to sing for change, but encounter an evil organ grinder Brundibar who the town folk all throw their coins at and who continually thwarts their attempts to help their mother, acting as the central villain of the opera. Brundibar’s character clearly a Hitler-esque figure, whose “teeth-chattery bone-rattley horrible song” has enticed the townspeople garnering their money and their allegiance. Here, the dual meaning of an organ grinder as both a musician (particularly one without any talent beyond turning his music box, which the children remark upon) and the literal destruction of flesh serve the anti-Nazi logic of the opera and its later incarnations.

I utilize Brundibár and several other examples of texts and images either made by or for children to highlight the normalizing and subversive possibilities of each. Whereas a significant amount of Holocaust literature demonstrates the mobilization of children (both physically and figuratively) by Jewish prisoners and refugees, Nazi officials, and townspeople of occupied territories, very rarely are those children ascribed any form of agency. Children can be hidden, protected, lost, murdered, gassed, pitied, or ignored but their relationship to the adult is almost always one of passivity, seemingly even of objectivity. What these texts demonstrate is an alternative politics and indeed an alternative ethical possibility for the child. Children performed in Krasa’s incarnation of Brundibár, they also depicted the desperate scenes they were witnessing at Theresienstadt, images catalogued in the book, …I Never Saw Another Butterfly… As ethicist John Wall has argued, “childhood has had to borrow its senses of meaning and humanity from those thought to embody them in some fuller, more advanced, or more important way.” Taking to heart Wall’s claim, this project hopes to envision childhood as a haunting presence. A spectral interlocutor that Jacques Derrida urges us, “in the name of justice… to speak of the ghost, indeed to the ghost and with it.”

What then do we make of a humanity at its least human? Children’s lives were particularly precarious under the Nazi regime; seemingly serving no productive purpose in terms of labor they were often the first to be exterminated. Indeed, some of the first “flirtations” with mass killing by the Nazi’s were aimed at mentally or physically handicapped children and over the course of Nazi rule, “the Germans and their collaborators killed as many as 1.5 million children.” It was out of a long lineage of eugenic policy that children became targets of the Nazis, not simply during the later period of extermination camps. To get at the “endgame” of the killing centers one must trace the gendered biopolitics that facilitated a cultural acceptance of genocide.

In 1941 Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels commissioned what would become the only film made about a concentration camp. Titled, The Fuehrer Gives the Jews a City, the film aimed to showcase the “model” conditions that the Jewish internees were subject to and discount any of the heinous ideas about what was happening to Jewish prisoners throughout Europe. The film is an unabashed look into both the propagandizing mechanisms of the Nazi war machine, as well as an interesting lens through which one can read against the grain of Nazi intentions. The film constantly relies on an acknowledgement of how fortunate Jewish persons have been and continue to be, juxtaposed against the travails for Germans during wartime. It is, however, the notion of the gift that I am most intrigued by. Specifically I view the utilization of an imagery of the gift explicit to the film as evocative of a more horrific gift of death, whereby the Jews become “responsible” for their own deaths, complicit in their own otherness that dehumanizes them.

Derrida argues in The Gift of Death that “One must give without knowing, without knowledge or recognition” for if “it [the gift] is touched by the slightest hint of calculation, the moment it takes account of knowledge…or recognition…it allows itself to be caught in transacting: it exchanges, in short it gives counterfeit money.” The idea of the calculation, of exchange, referred to as debt in its relation to death presuppose an economy of life and death. The calculation being made here is not only by the Nazi’s in their attentiveness to the prying eyes of the world in their misdeeds, but of the prisoners themselves. In particular, Derrida’s invocation of the gift and sacrifice are instructive. In this vein Derrida asks “What is the relation between se donner la mort and sacrifice? Between putting oneself to death and dying for another? What are the relations among sacrifice, suicide and the economy of this gift?” As Derrida argues, the gift of death is not a transferrable object, nor can one escape their own eventual death. The decisions made by those within the camp (what little “choice” they were ever afforded) are always calculations that could or could not end up saving one’s life. The participation of Jewish prisoners in the film did not end up saving their lives, most were eventually sent to Auschwitz anyway, but in the moment one tends to cling most dearly to any possibility. Perhaps it is only through mourning the lives lost at Thereisienstadt and elsewhere that one can extract any sense of justice, however meager and unfulfilling.A kind of mourning that sacrifices that which is most dear, “without knowledge or recognition” would be necessary to enact a form of justice that Derrida calls for. I will return to this a discussion in highlighting the relation between trauma, memory and justice later in the paper.

Nazi racial policy relied on an intersection of racial and gender ideals to propagate the so-called Aryan population. Necessarily, from the vantage of many Germans, this also required a strict policing of women’s bodies and reproduction. Drawing on the “health” of the nation Nazi eugenics sought “to appeal to forces that want to exclude factors of biological degeneration and to maintain the people’s hereditary health. It thus aims to fortify the health of the people as a whole and to eliminate influences that harm the biological growth of the nation.” Not only were undesirable populations such as Jews and Roma subject to surveillance of their sexual lives, but even “Aryan” women within Germany. The Nuremberg Laws of the mid-to-late 1930s made explicit the illegality of marriage and/or sexual contact between Germans and Jews, these laws “reinforced the patriarchal character of the German family” and stressed “the importance of delivering healthy Aryan babies.” What we see in the policing of racial lines under Nazi law is both the insistence on the superiority of “pure” Germans and the role of women in making sure that purity remained intact. Not only were Jews considered lesser than their “Aryan” counterparts, they barely qualified as human.

One text that demonstrates the ferocity with which the cultural maintenance of racial division was secured was the children’s book Trust No Fox on his Green Heath And No Jew on his Oath by Elvira Bauer. This book included children in the policing of race lines and the denigration of the Jewish people. With section titles like, “The Father of the Jews is the Devil” and “The Führer’s Youth” the book made plain the “evils” that Jews had inflicted on the German people and the righteous path German children must take if they were to recuperate a new proud Germany. “The Führer’s Youth” is a particularly instructive example of a literary indoctrination of German youth into a Nazi ethics. A section from the text goes as follows:

The boys who are true Germans
To Hitler’s Youth belong.
They want to live for their Führer,
Their eyes are fixed on the future.
Bigger and stronger they have become.
The German heritage is theirs.
The great and sacred Fatherland
Stands today as it ever stood.
From this picture may be seen,
Hitler Youth in splendid mien,
From smallest to the biggest boy.
All are husky, tough, and strong.
They love their German Führer
And God in Heaven they fear.
But the Jews they must despise!
They’re not like these boys,
So Jews must just give way!

Figure 1: “The Führer’s Youth”


The book actively equates health, virility, and masculinity with a “pure” German race, charging young Nazi boys with the survival of the nation. Just as the children at Theresienstadt were enacting a subtle repudiation of the Nazi racial ethos, “Aryan” children were being inculcated into a racial hierarchy, one that they were not only charged with protecting, but actively proliferating. Groups like the Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls actively gendered children so as to make them productive to a racially pure reich, they were in effect the lives worthy of living and reproducing, while others were deemed unworthy.

Giorgio Agamben in his foundational text Homo Sacer outlines a biopolitical argument in examining the Nazi policies of extermination as a means to German sovereign power. He says, “The concept of ‘life unworthy of being lived’ is…a political concept in which what is at issue is the extreme metamorphosis of sacred life – which may be killed but not sacrificed – on which sovereign power is founded.” Therefore, to Agamben, the eugenic policies of the Nazis, including the constraints on female sexuality facilitated the expansion of “Aryan” German life and concentrated political power. We can see this argument spatialized in Hitler’s rhetoric regarding lebenstraum, or living space, for the German people as their sovereign right to extend beyond the marked boundaries of Germany outwards. Likewise, the German people were supposed propagate themselves so as to populate these new German realms. Those “unworthy” lives of Jews, homosexuals, Roma, etc., however,  proved exceptions to this new racial utopia. Or to put it another way, Nazi power was codified by its very ability to decide who was worthy of life, or in fact who even constituted a human being.

So seemingly, I have drifted from my original exposition on the importance of childhood and the child’s voice in crafting a nuanced view of Holocaust agency. Agamben’s assertions, however, are crucial, particularly his idea of the state of exception, a politico-juridical logic that made possible the concentration camp itself, as well as the Muselmann /Homo Sacer inhabitants within. For Agamben, the Muselmann “no longer belongs to the world of men in any way; he does not even belong to the threatened and precarious world of the camp inhabitants who have forgotten him from the very beginning. Mute and absolutely alone, he has passed into another world without memory and without grief.” The Muselmann is devoid of life, or as Primo Levi describes, “one hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, they are too tired to understand.” Within both Levi’s account and the theorizations of Agamben, the Muselmann is always the tired, dejected, lifeless man. Levi talks about working with a teenager who simply goes through the motions, about to die at any moment, to which all the other prisoners avoid him and Levi is stuck working with him. Beyond that, however, the camp Homo Sacer is an adult man, without fail.

The realm of childhood bare life at least in the camp may be foreclosed for some obvious reasons, namely that most of the labor camps and their corresponding kill centers eliminated children from their arrival. In fact, “because children were generally too young to be deployed at forced labor, German authorities generally selected them, along with the elderly, ill, and disabled, for the first deportations to killing centers, or as the first victims led to mass graves to be shot.” There were some instances of children in camps, however, and even the dearth of younger children in concentration camps doesn’t explain the gendering of “bare life.” What then do we make of Agamben’s mobilization of “bare life” in light of the exceptionality of certain populations, children included? For Levi the Muselmann was bound to his unproductive labor capabilities, to a failure of the body and mind, might we figure this also as a kind of failed masculinity?

My intention, however,  is not to simply ascribe “bare life” to the childhood inhabitants of Theresienstadt or other corresponding camps, or even to extend the logic of Homo Sacer to a child subject. Instead, in glossing Agamben I have sought to underscore the biopolitical impetuses towards exceptionality that help to explain Nazi policy and prisoner reactions to those regulatory regimes. In furthering this claim, Agamben writes that the “state of exception” is a political undertaking not an ethical one, to which I raise a strident opposition. Though the massive mobilizations of bare life certainly served Nazi political purposes, the exceptionality of deviant bodies, including but not limited to children, presuppose also a racialized ethics. The German relationship to and elimination of the Jewish Other cannot be limited to a biopolitical frame, but also must be reconciled with a desire operating outside of machinic logic, or as Levinas would argue, in a face-to-face encounter that necessitates murder or submission. Continuing down the path that Levinas has set forth for us we find that, “the approach to the face is the most basic mode of responsibility…The face is not in front of me…but above me; it is the other before death, looking through and exposing death.”

The unequal relationship that the face implies lends itself to our reading of an ethics of childhood exceptionality during the Holocaust. Even in physical stature we can see a hierarchy delineated, the adult always looking down on the child. In both the opera and children’s book version of Brundibar this relationship is visualized rather apparently. All of the adults within the text dismiss the pleas of the children because of their lack of money looking down on their inability to produce anything of value beyond a song. The character Brundibar too exudes superiority over the children, but in his case we see the true heinous possibilities of the face as the other before death. Brundibar acts as a stand in for Hitler the ultimate face from above that predetermines the children’s deaths both because of their Jewish heritage and their age. While Brundibar appears as a gigantic monstrous face in his dismissal of the children he is eventually run out of town by the children and their animal compatriots, lowly and debased. The children succeed in inverting the relationship between themselves and Brundibar by riding atop giant blackbirds placing themselves far above Brundibar and the town.

Clearly the children who found themselves in Theresienstadt, as well as those in other camps and in hiding faced a multitude of threats. I have thus far outlined the exceptionality of the camp child and a Nazi ethos that occluded them from even a most basic form of humanity. What, then, did this experience do to them, how did children cope with the horrors of war and the ever present threat of extermination, and how is our remembrance of the event implicated in an ethics of childhood? Cathy Caruth’s formulation of the traumatic seems to be one useful way to get at each of these questions. As Caruth argues, the pathology of trauma exists “solely in the structure of its experience or reception: the event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belatedly, in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it. To be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or event.” Seemingly Caruth is arguing that the traumatic comes after the event, not in the initial experience. How then do we talk about the experiences of those who have no after, the millions who never made it out of the camps. Is trauma an improper language to ascribe to their experiences?

The artwork that we see in the pages of I Never Saw Another Butterfly perhaps provides a partial answer to this question of experience, trauma, and time. While most of the children whose drawings appear in the book did not survive, their poems and illustrations have. We can, therefore, read these texts as indicators of an unfolding trauma not only from the violence and mistreatment in the camp, but the separation from family and friends, the forced relocation to a distant location, and the loneliness one often finds in these images. Moreover, if “the impact of the traumatic event lies precisely in its belatedness” as Caruth asserts, not only can we insinuate this artwork as a reaction to former traumas, but this also opens the possibility to read trauma across time, to highlight the traumatic effects of the Holocaust archive on contemporary populations.

Brundibar and I Never Saw Another Butterfly are only two examples of a continually revitalized memorialization of the holocaust that specifically addresses the figure of the child. Films like Sarah’s Key and Schindler’s List in addition to the diaries of Anne Frank and Miriam Watternberg resonate to this day with audiences, playing on the centrality of childhood to the experience of the holocaust. What is unique, at least in the cases of the diaries and the artwork of I Never Saw Another Butterfly about these artifacts is their authorship and the childhood perspectives they present. As Gabriele Schwab expounds, these documents “often bear the traces, gaps, and lacunae of trauma like raw scars” thereby implicating a kind of “transgenerational haunting.” Continually, if as she says “where there is no grave, one cannot mourn properly” and “one remains forever tied to a loss that never becomes real” the pages of Anne Frank’s diary, the songs of Brundibar or the artwork’s of I Never Saw Another Butterfly can become alternative sites of mourning. The works of children lost to Nazi killing centers then can become crypts in their own right, enacting a form of what Marianne Hirch has called postmemory and refusing the erasures that the concentration camps sought to instill. Mourning, through this process becomes a mode of both recognizing past and present traumas as well as a means to a partial catharsis.

In recognizing the abundance of primary source material made by or about children we can refuse a legacy that sought to erase entire peoples from history, even while acknowledging the actuality of their deaths. I spoke briefly before about a Derridean form of justice one can glean letting the ghosts of the past speak. The artifacts I have examined seem to provide a perfect soundboard for that hauntology, in which the voices of children, so often construed in the passive sense, made out only as victims, are allowed to project their experiences to a future they have in another sense been denied.






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