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Review: Such Good Girls

Review: Such Good Girls

Title: Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust’s Hidden Child Survivors
Author: R.D. Rosen
Published: 2014
Length: 257 pages

My star rating: ★ ★ ★

Sophie’s mother smuggled her out of a Polish ghetto and made her pretend to be a Catholic girl until she forgot that she wasn’t. Flora hid with other Jewish orphans at a French convent across the street from suspicious Nazi officers. Carla spent three years avoiding the windows in a small Dutch apartment. Ed worked as a transient farmhand while fighting with the Dutch Resistance. Theirs are only some of the thousands of stories of the Jewish who survived the Holocaust by being “hidden.” R.D. Rosen follows the four of them into the present day and examines how these and other hidden children have coped with their experiences and their losses.

Oh boy. I really struggled with this book.

First of all, the title—Such Good Girls—is rather misleading. Most of the first third of the book is concerned with the story of Sophie Turner-Zaretsky. The stories of the other titular girls—Flora Hogman and Carla Lessing—have about thirty pages each devoted to them, though Carla shares her space with a fourth “hidden child” survivor: her husband Ed Lessing. Mr. Lessing is, of course, not a girl (good or otherwise); nor are up to half of the other survivors whose stories R.D. Rosen recounts, albeit briefly, later in the book.

“Well that’s just stupid and nitpicky,” you say?

Not quite. The inaccurate title belies the unfocused nature of the book as a whole. But I’ll get to that.

The author, Mr. Rosen, is Jewish. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, but it plainly affected the way he approached the entire subject. He kept trying to make it personal. No offense to him, but it isn’t. He makes it quite clear that he and his parents grew up as privileged, comfortable, upper-middle-class Chicagoans with little real awareness of the Holocaust. In fact, before he met Sophie, he admits that he had never even spoken to a Holocaust survivor. Yet because he’s Jewish, he claims the Holocaust was “a disaster I hadn’t emotionally confronted in my life.”

When I read that line to my dad, he blinked and said, “Have you confronted the Great Famine emotionally?” (My family is half Irish, and it’s possible though not at all certain that we had ancestors who perished in the Famine—which itself was arguably genocide and which killed or displaced fully a fourth of the Irish population.)

I think that sentiment sums up my issue with Rosen and his biased approach: the Holocaust was a great tragedy, not only for the minorities the Nazis targeted, but for humanity as a whole. However, that does not mean that it affected Rosen personally.

The actual narratives are harrowing, if somewhat…embellished for my taste. Sophie, then Selma, was a five-year-old living in the Lvov, Poland ghetto when her grandparents and father were killed. Her desperate mother Laura—whose good looks and fluency in German had already allowed her to put off deportation an unbelievable four times—escaped the ghetto with her daughter and sisters. Using false papers, she passed them off as Catholic Poles and went to work for an SS officer. Her daughter spent the next six years as a Catholic girl named Zofia Tymejko, only learning the truth when they fled to England.

Flora Hillel was also five and living in Nice, France, with her mother. When Mrs. Hillel was deported, she sent Flora to a convent to hide. She was then moved three times before finally being adopted by an eccentric Frenchwoman and her Swedish husband.

Carla Heijmans went into hiding with her mother and brother hid at eleven. They lived alongside a Christian family of nine in the Netherlands for three years. Her future husband Ed moved from farm to farm fighting for the Dutch Resistance while his family hid in a small cabin in the woods. His mother was discovered and sent to Bergen-Belsen, but miraculously survived.

There are still more moving anecdotes scattered throughout: a young mother in the Lublin ghetto who begged a Catholic woman to care for her newborn, saying, “You believe in Jesus, who was a Jew. So try and save this Jewish baby for the Jew in whom you believe.” A little girl raised from infancy by loving Christian parents, only to be kidnapped at four by her traumatized mother, who had survived Auschwitz, and later abused by her psychotic older sister. The hundreds of children raised by Christian parents with no knowledge of or connection to their now-destroyed biological families.

Yet as terrible and heartbreaking as these stories are, they would have been better-served if Mr. Rosen had told them in a journalistic manner. Instead, he writes like a novelist. I find it strange how many people complained about his “dry” style in their reviews, because to me, he writes quite colorfully—too colorfully. Yes, he interviewed all three women (plus Ed) at length, but nevertheless, these are not his memoirs, and thus he has no way of knowing what their thoughts and feelings really were. Yet he writes as if he does know. He writes without qualifiers (i.e., “she probably felt [x]”). It bothered me.

Moreover, the book just isn’t all that well-written. Rosen’s style goes abruptly from personal to detached, then becomes suddenly personal again (since he occasionally inserts himself and his experiences). The prose itself is sloppy, repetitive, and poorly-edited in more than a few places.

There are some valuable things to be found in the rest of the book, though. My heart broke reading about the “hierarchy of suffering,” in which “adult survivors…often treated hidden child survivors as the second-class citizens of Holocaust suffering.”

But Such Good Girls is quite short, so Rosen glosses over statements that he should instead expand on, such as the fact that “[a] 2000 study of 170 Holocaust survivors…concluded that survivors hidden by foster families scored significantly higher on several of the measures of distress than survivors of the camps…” What were these measures? How can Rosen just make a throwaway mention of something like that and never return to it? It was endlessly frustrating to me.

He also entertains the idea that the memories of hidden children are partially unreliable due to both their young ages and the nature of memory itself. Yet in spite of the serious memory blocks suffered by two of his subjects (Sophie and Flora) and blatant inccuracies in Flora’s account, he ultimately claims that all hidden children’s memories should be believed without hesitation or skepticism.

I don’t say this to be insensitive, nor do I think that most survivors’ accounts are inaccurate. But if you’re writing a piece of scholarship based on adults’ sixty=year-old memories of their childhoods, you must acknowledge that children are extremely unreliable witnesses and that their memory—more so than that of any other group—is fallible, especially given the desperate straits the hidden children were already in. Scholars can (and ought to) be both sympathetic and skeptical.

That is the nature of the second two-thirds of this book: largely unfocused and vague. Rosen tries to tackle way too much in one volume. What is his thesis, his argument, his “point”? I just don’t know.

What frustrated me the most, however, was the way he discussed the hidden children’s struggle to reconcile their religious and ethnic identities. He focuses on it specifically in one chapter called “Am I a Christian or a Jew?”, but he spends a good deal of time on the subject throughout the book. This, to me, was where his bias came across most clearly.

To me, Judaism is primarily a religion. (One of my high school history teachers felt very strongly about that.) While I understand that there are ethnic and cultural components to “Jewishness,” I refuse to call Judaism a race. As far as I’m concerned, such language only plays into the kind of antisemitism exploited by the Nazis.

Or maybe I just don’t understand since I am not Jewish.

Nevertheless, I was extremely aggravated by the message that kept slipping through in this book: these hidden survivors needed not only to “find” or “reconnect” to their Jewish heritage; not simply to acknowledge that their families were Jewish, but also that THEY, themselves, were Jews (and all that entails); that they needed to become Jewish. After leaving Poland, for instance, Sophie was forced into a Jewish group at school despite still identifying as a Catholic. And this even though her mother, Laura, had been an atheist even before the war:

[Laura] felt a strong ethical compulsion to reunite [her daughter Sophie] with her original faith. (65)

“Original faith”?! Hungry, confused, frightened five-year-olds don’t have “original faiths,” especially if their parents are atheists! But at eleven or twelve, Sophie was genuinely a Catholic. She had learned the traditions. She went to Mass. She believed in Catholicism.

I am of the opinion that parents should always put the needs and well-being of their children first. That said, though I don’t understand why Laura (and so many other Jewish parents) tried to force their by-then-Christian children to accept their “inherent Jewishness” (perhaps to deny Hitler any more victories?), I cannot fault them considering the trauma they had been through. I am, however, critical of the way Rosen writes about it, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. If you’re born Jewish, he seems to think, then you simply are Jewish. That bothers me in particular—as I see it, everyone ought to choose their faith and their path unburdened by a sense of obligation to parents, family, or “race.”

Rosen must be onto something, though, considering many hidden children—even those who became Catholic priests—felt that they simply “were Jewish” and eventually returned to the faith of their ancestors. Again, maybe me not being Jewish just means I can’t understand their mindsets properly.

For all its glaring faults, however, I will say that Such Good Girls puts a lot of things into perspective.

The next time someone on the internet claims they were “triggered” by a picture of food or of a person looking into the camera, I’ll remember the woman so traumatized by her experiences at Auschwitz that she cannot “select” vegetables at the supermarket. Or I’ll think of Sophie, for whom “sirens, crying babies, stray animals … [and] every separation causes anxiety” and sometimes “hours of anguish.”

I feel bad for being so critical of this book, but I think that Sophie, Flora, and the Lessings would have been better-served by a more neutral and professional writer, perhaps even an actual historian, than by Mr. Rosen. A lot of the disjointed topics he covered—psychological and emotional trauma/PTSD, religious and ethnic identity crises, discrimination by other survivors, sexual abuse by “hiding families,” American perceptions of and reactions to the Holocaust, and more—could and probably should have whole books devoted to them rather than a few pages in a larger work.

Needless to say, it isn’t the survivors’ stories themselves that I’m giving three stars.

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