UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133D Homepage > 133D Book Essays Index page > Student essay

“Children’s Unimaginable First-Person Accounts of the Holocaust”

Book Essay on: Laurel Holliday, Children in the Holocaust & WWII: Their Secret Diaries:
( New York: Pocket Books, 1996), 432pages.
UCSB: D804.3 .C45 1995

by Morgan Zemen
March 26, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at Amazon.com

About Morgan Zemen

I am a fourth year communication major. I became interested in the Holocaust when I first learned about it in Hebrew school. Being a practicing Jew since I was a young girl, I find it important to know about my history. I have been fortunate enough to visit several Holocaust museums, as well as the concentration camp, Dachau, in Germany. I chose this book because, in the previous history courses I have taken, we did not discuss World War II in depth, and we never learned anything about children’s experiences or viewed the war from a child’s perspective. I enjoy reading memoirs, and the diary entries of this book provide detailed thoughts and horrific eyewitness accounts of atrocities we cannot even imagine.

Abstract (back to top)

Laurel Holliday’s book, Children In The Holocaust And World War II: Their Secret Diaries is a compliation of legacies that children left behind; these diary entries are a powerful collection of haunting first-hand accounts from a child’s perspective. The diary entries of 23 children showcase that whether living in ghettos, being sent to concentration camps, or being confined to hiding, their positive adolescent experience of childhood was replaced with horrifying encounters of brutality, and feelings of despair and isolation. Most of them wrote in their diaries for their own self-expression and to tell the world the importantance of human freedom. Not only did the expression of their feelings on paper aid children with loneliness, it helped them gain the courage to live another day, and helped them resist their desire to end their own life. These diaries have been a major addition to the literature of World War II, which will continue to educate future generations.

Essay (back to top)

World War II took away the common experiences and opportunities for children. It robbed them of their childhood, and they were neglected from education, family relationships, and play. Some estimates claim that 1.5 million children were murdered during the Holocaust. Just because they were children did not mean they were not targets of violence and did not undergo the cruelty and pain of the war. Surviving diaries provide horrific first-hand accounts, and serve as a way to learn about the children’s lives during wartime. Laurel Holliday’s book, Children In The Holocaust And World War II: Their Secret Diaries, gives readers the opportunity to look into the chilling lives of children who have left a powerful legacy behind. The diary entries of the 23 children showcase that whether living in ghettos, being sent to concentration camps, or being confined to hiding, their positive adolescent experiences of childhood were replaced with horrifying encounters of brutality, and feelings of despair and isolation. Most of them wrote in their diaries for their own self-expression as a means of coping, and to tell the world how important human freedom is.

When one thinks of children in the Holocaust, Anne Frank usually comes to mind. The famous diary she kept while in hiding has shown the world only one perspective of the hardships and innermost thoughts of children during World War II. Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries is the first collection of diary entries of children from the Holocaust. From children living all across Europe, we learn about their startling thoughts and encounters during wartime Before each child’s journal entry, Holliday provides a brief summary that includes their name, place of origin, age, family information, and whether or not they survived.

Children should have dreams and aspirations; they should be excited for their future and work hard for their goals, yet children living in Europe during World War II had a different outlook on life. In many of these writings, children expressed feelings of despair. They lost hope as they witnessed cruelty and lived in constant fear due to their Jewish heritage. Something so trivial in today’s society had caused them to wish for death. Sarah Fishkin was a seventeen year old who lost “hopes and dreams of the Jews.” (Holliday, 335) Her family was broken apart when the Nazis buried her younger brother and sister alive in a pit, and her father and older brother were sent away to a different death camp from her. She wrote:

All thoughts of staying alive become shrouded in great sadness. I feel in my heart the desire to perish together with my family, to end my young life beside my parents… How much more cheerful can one’s heart grow when we are commanded to leave the place where we are and the same kind of end awaits everyone… I must give up forever my thoughts of future goals and the fantasies I hoped to see. Emptiness and desolation, saddened aching hearts, are our present constant companions. There seems to be no future for the Jewish population. (Holliday, 337-338)

Sarah’s outlet for expressing her feelings was her diary. She used her diary in attempt to express her feelings about Jews and their future. Their lack of freedom and rights have led her to want end her life. Through the disarray of losing her family, she articulated her emotions the best way she was able to under her circumstances.

Another account of desolation and hopelessness is by an anonymous boy and his sister. He wrote, “My little sister complains of losing the will to live. How tragic. She is only twelve years! We are so tired of ‘life’. I was talking with my little sister of twelve and she told me: ‘I am very tired of this life. A quick death would be a relief for us.’ O World! O World! Truly, humanity has not progressed very far from the cave of the wild beast.” (Holliday, 400) Their childhood activities, and future dreams are replaced with the knowledge that today could be their last.

Eva Heyman, a thirteen year old who lived with her family in Hungary, often foretold her own death. Her best friend had been shot and killed by the Nazis and Eva was convinced that they would murder her too, no matter how much she wanted to live. She wrote how she always dreamt about her friend Marta who died:

I don’t think much about Marta, but yesterday I dreamt that I was Marta and I stood in a big field, bigger than any I had ever seen, and then I realized that that field was Poland. There wasn’t a sign of a human being anywhere, or of a bird, or any other creature, and it was still, like that time we were waiting to be taken to the Ghetto. In my dream I was very frightened by the silence and I started running. Suddenly, that cross-eyed gendarme grabbed me from behind by the neck, and put his pistol against my nape. The pistol felt very cold. I wanted to scream, but not a sound came out of my throat. I woke up and it suddenly occurred to me that that is the way poor Marta must of felt at the moment the Germans shot her to death! (Holliday, 121)

Children were in a state of misery and their writings convey that even as children with youthful innocence they could not dream and hope about survival and freedom. Although it is not certain if all children wrote in their diaries for themselves or for future historical references, but people should be grateful for these diaries as they provide great historical facts and information about the anguish children underwent, and share with the world the terror of their situation. Optimism was something individuals have to dig deep inside themselves for; it was extremely difficult for these children to find it while their dreams and future were replaced with pain and oppression while enduring the effects of war. The Holocaust robbed children of their childhood, thus forcing them to struggle with death and loneliness.

Despair is not a difficult emotion to feel when a child undergoes beatings, and witnesses family members or even strangers dying. No matter where one was located in Europe during World War II, torture and slaughter were extremely common. As these diary entries serve as a startling first-hand account, readers are provided with chilling images and cannot help but feel extreme sorrow for what these children experienced. The most poignant entry of brutality was written by a girl named Macha Rolnikas. She was fourteen years old and grew up in Lithuania. Her diary entries were written while she was in the ghetto, as well as in Stutthof concentration camp. While at the concentration camp, Macha was ordered to undress the dead and pull out their gold teeth. In her entry she wrote that a dead woman was lying at her feet, and with a shaking hand she cut the dress, but the corpse fell backwards and knocked against the floorboards. In her mouth she saw gold teeth but could not get her self to pull them out. She quickly closed the mouth and as a result the supervisor yelled, “You silly fool, what are you doing? She starts hitting me with a club. She always aims for my head. It seems as if my skull is splitting in. And she doesn’t stop. There is blood all over the floor. She beat me until she herself was out of breath.” (Holliday, 196) There were no other options when one disobeyed the rules; the result was abuse. Macha later wrote, “In order to feel my powerlessness a bit less and not to think of torture that is caused by each step, I go on mentally writing in my journal.” (Holliday, 197) To clear her head and find as much comfort as she possibly could, she poured her emotions out on paper. As a child experiencing the type of dehumanization that Macha did, it was vital that one was able to express their feelings as a way to cope.

While Macha experienced first hand brutality, Mary Berg, a fifteen year old with American citizenship living in Poland, witnessed horrors of friends, family, and neighbors in the Warsaw Ghetto. Macha described how “Warsaw looked like an enormous cemetery.” (Holliday, 218) She looked out her window and observed revolting incidents such as:

A man with markedly Semitic features was standing quietly on the sidewalk near the curb. A uniformed German approached him and apparently gave him an unreasonable order…Then a few other uniformed Germans came upon the scene and began to beat their victim with rubber truncheons. They called a cab and tried to push him into it, but he resisted vigorously. The Germans then tied his legs together with a rope, attached the end of the rope to the cab from behind, and ordered the driver to start. The unfortunate man’s face struck the sharp stones of the pavement, dyeing them red with blood. Then the cab vanished down the street. (Holliday, 220)

While living under Nazi persecution, it is evident that youths revealed atrocities and unimaginable horrors. No matter what type of torture one experiences, a child, especially, cannot emotionally understand it at such a young age. They needed an outlet to convey their emotions they felt from experiencing or witnessing these gruesome and appalling actions, and in doing so they transmitted them to their diary.

Although people in hiding probably never witnessed abuse of other people, hiding was not a simple solution to the war, and for some children it was actually ann indirect form of brutality by the Nazis. Ephraim Shtenkler was forced to live in a cupboard from the age of two to seven. Before Ephraim was saved, he was “hidden in a cabinet where he was unable to even stand up, his feet were twisted backwards and it took months of medical treatment before he was finally able to learn to walk at age seven.” (Holliday, 21) At eleven years old Ephraim wrote about his experiences, and they were later published in a Jewish magazine. Hiding lasted for years and came with the lack of human interaction. He wrote that he “lay either in the cupboard or under the bed…and one day the elder daughter [of the family who was hiding him] had gone to play outside and I wanted to cry, for I envied her. It was already three to four years that I hadn’t gone out of the doors.” (Holliday, 25) The war made some children grow up hiding thus not allowing them to experience daily events such as attending school or socializing with children of their age. Childhood activities were replaced with boredom and pain. Ephraim’s story, although written after he was saved, still portrays the childhood experiences that were deprived from him. Writing his memories four years after he was saved was still a way for the young Ephraim to find meaning of his experience during the war, and to share with the world his experience, and the importance of freedom.

When a child was sent to a concentration camp, the ghetto, or confined to hiding, often times they were physically as well as emotionally separated from their loved ones. When experiencing isolation, these entries demonstrate that they turned to their diary as a friend whom they were able to share all of their thoughts, ideas, and emotions with. Evan Heyman constantly wrote in her journal as though her diary was a person. For example, in the middle of an entry she addressed the diary and wrote, “Dear diary, I’m taking you along to Aniko’s house. Don’t worry, you won’t be alone; you’re my best friend,” and when Aniko left Evan, she wrote “I’m so sorry that she is leaving us.” (Holliday, 103) Social interactions are an essential part of a child’s life experiences and mental development, and by creating her diary as her best friend it was a way of coping with her experience of loneliness and isolation

Through years of hardships from the war, Eva had turned to her diary to express her emotions and conveyed her fear of dying multiple times. She wrote to her “best friend,” “Dear diary, until now I didn’t want to write about this in you because I tried to put it out of my mind, but ever since the Germans are here, all I think about is Marta. She was also a girl, and still the Germans killed her. But I don’t want them to kill me! ... I don’t want to die, because I’ve hardly lived.” (Holliday, 101) Evident from previous diary entries from Sarah and the anonymous boy, children were writing their thoughts about death. Writing down their emotions served as a coping mechanism, well as a way of self-expression. Many used it as mental strength to survive another day, while others used it to discover that they rather leave the world they were in and join their family members and friends who had already passed on.

These legacies that children left behind are a powerful collection of horrific first-hand accounts from a child’s perspective. Compared to the conditions that adults were forced into, not a lot of information is known about the lives and treatment of children during the Holocaust. These diaries provide another dimension to the suffering that a specific group of individuals underwent. The deprivation of childhood experiences that were replaced with brutality, isolation, and despair, led the youth to write and use their diaries as an outlet to express their emotions as a means of coping. Not only did expressing their feelings on paper aid children with loneliness, gain the courage to live another day, or help them learn about their desire to rather end their own life, but these diaries have been a major addition to the literature of World War II which will continue to educate future generations.

Works Cited

Holliday, Laurel. Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries. New York: Washington Square Press, 1996.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 11/21/10)

Book Reviews

  • Edward Malone, Magill Book Reviews August 1996.

    Edward Malone wrote in Magill Book Reviews that this volume of diaries and memoirs document the many different experiences of children during the Holocaust. It details three different children’s accounts during the war, giving readers a taste of the vivid and horrific entries that assemble this book. She contrasts it to the famous Anne Frank Diary which archives only one child’s fears and thoughts in World War II, compared to the twenty-three children’s extracts that “illustrate the devastating effects of war on children”.

  • Samuel Totten, Social Studies Vol. 87(5) Sep/Oct 1996. p. 232.

    Samuel Totten, a professor at the University of Arkansas with a research interest in Holocaust and genocide education, characterizes Children In The Holocaust And World War II: Their Secret Diaries as a unique book in which the “voices, words, and images are haunting; the information, detailed and profoundly telling; the stories, memorable and often sorrowful”. He has “conducted extensive research into first-person accounts of genocidal acts” and has read numerous accounts of atrocities, but he states that he “rarely has come across as many powerful, detailed, thought-provoking, and heartbreaking accounts” as he did in this book. He compares and contrasts Holliday’s book to Anne Frank’s diary, as well as describes why a “majority of the diaries could be used as resources for a classroom study of the Holocaust”. Although he found the book to be very strong and remarkable, he also describes several weaknesses as well; For example, he is unclear about why two of the entries were not diary entries, but were pieces that were written about four years after the actual even, and states that he thinks the book would have been better if the editor had annotated the diaries.

Books and Articles

  • Alexandra Zapruder, Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust New Haven, Yale University Press, 2002. 504 Pages. Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust. UCSB: D804.48. S28 2002

    This is a compilation of 14 diaries of teenagers and their families living through the dangers of the Holocaust. Some were sent to concentration camps, some fled the homes and were on the run, and some were experiences regarding the horrors of the ghettos. Similar to this book, the author provides a short biography of the child and background information. Publishers Weekly states that this “book deserves to become a standard in Holocaust studies classes, particularly those aimed at youth or focusing on individuals”. The writing is so vivid that it is hard for readers not to feel for these children and their experiences.

  • Livia Bitton-Jackson, I Have Lived A Thousand Years: Growing Up In The Holocaust New York, Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, 1997. 234 Pages. UCSB: DS135.H93 J33

    This Holocaust memoir was written by Livia Bitton-Jackson as an adult, but reviews mention that she has done a miraculous job in vividly retelling her story as a teenager during the Holocaust. This book is a “bittersweet chronicle of the power of faith and perseverance”. It describes the horrors that she and her family suffered during “roundups, transports, selections, camps, torture, forced labor, and shootings”. This is a book of hope where a teenager and her mother help each other survive during their journey of terror.

Relevant Websites

  • A Teacher’s Guide To The Holocaust, "Children" (5 May 2005).

    This page on the children living in Europe during the Holocaust describes the experiences that children underwent during the war. It provides information about children that were subjected to slave labor, forced into hiding, hid their identity while living with Gentile families, and many more. Not only does this site describe children’s different experiences due to where they were forced to live, but within each category previously mentioned, it provides multiple links of important words, dates, places, which if clicked, supply additional information in understanding and learning about the Holocaust.

  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, "Life In Shadows: Hidden Children and the Holocaust" (13 July 2007).

    This site is written by Steve Lucker, the co-curator of Life in Shadows: Hidden Children and the Holocaust. He provides background statistics and facts about the children in the Holocaust, and stories and pictures of children who survived. Not only does he write about what lives were like for children during the war, but he provides information about problems that an individual dealt with after the war such as torn identity, new religion, etc.

  • Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, "Voices of the Holocaust" 2004.

    This online exhibit provides extremely detailed and very interactive information for viewers. It presents stories of four child survivors, and includes their testimonies, many pictures, a glossary, and maps. It starts with a video with footage of soldiers, Hitler, concentration camps, and more, while a narrator provides details and facts about the war. Within this video, the four child survivors tell their story of living through this genocide.

  • Jewish Virtual Library, "Hidden Children and the Holocaust"

    This website gives a brief introduction of the Holocaust but provides great detail about different issues that Jews were forced to deal with when they were in hiding. For example it explains about false papers, circumcision, hiding under a different religion, separation from family, abuse, and many more interesting issues. Within each issue there are words hyperlinked, so if viewers are interested in finding more information about a certain topic, place, person, or name, they can simply click on it and will be given a new webpage with numerous links about that subject.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Morgan Zemen on 3/26/10; last updated: 11/21/10
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