Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 13, 2016

A Childhood (1978), by Jona Oberski, translated by Ralph Manheim

a-childhoodThe blurb tells me that this slim book is a novel (a novella really, it’s only 137 pages long) but there is an awful veracity about it and it seems more like fragmented memories from real life.

Jona Oberski (born 1938 in Amsterdam) is a Dutch writer.  Wikipedia tell me that his parents fled Nazi Germany the year before he was born, but they were deported to Bergen-Belsen some time after the Netherlands were occupied in 1940.   The child who narrates this story is about the same age as Oberski would have been at the time.

The book consists of five parts, each with a few brief episodes, told in the simple language of a child, and entirely from his limited perspective.  In that respect it’s a little like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006) by John Boyne, but it does not share that troubling plot line: there were no children in Auschwitz because they were gassed immediately so Boyne’s story has to be read as a not-very-satisfactory fable which runs the risk of sanitising history.  (IMO The film is even worse in this respect).   Bergen-Belsen, however, was a concentration camp where Jewish hostages were held pending prisoner swaps with the Allies: when the boy’s mother in A Childhood talks about having the exit papers to go to British Palestine, it is because a couple of hundred of hostages who had these permits were actually traded.  Knowing this explains her comparative optimism even though conditions when they were evacuated were terrible, and towards liberation typhus was rampant in the camp and thousands of people died.

The story begins with the family being arbitrarily moved to some kind of transit camp, (which turns out to be Westerbork) and the parents are separated.  The mother reassures her child that it is some kind of ‘mistake’ and that Daddy will sort it out.  And he does, (presumably by making the authorities aware of their value as hostages though this is not mentioned because all we have is the limited perspective of the child).  They are able to go back home and celebrate his birthday.  He’s an only child and there are lots of presents, so many that his parents set some aside to give to him later so that he doesn’t become overwhelmed.  But in the next chapters the reader learns that shopkeepers are starting to deny them custom and that they must wear yellow stars on their jackets, but again there is no real explanation.

(And this assumption that readers will recognise the story elements and join the dots makes me worry, because we have had another instance of a Hitler dress-up, this time approved by a teacher, and this time awarded a prize for having the best costume, and this time taking place in the presence of exchange students from a Jewish school.  So as well as a family creating an environment where this costume was thought to be ok (for Book Week, no less, promoting Mein Kampf for primary school children?) there is a whole crowd of adults from class teachers to judges to the principal who should have intervened, and didn’t.  Unless all of these people were acting with anti-Semitic malice, there is worrying ignorance about the Holocaust.)

When the story moves on to internment in the Belsen-Bergen camp, things are more incomprehensible to the child.  Again, his parents are separated, but in time he is taken to see his father – who is unrecognisable.  There is an horrific scene in which other children dare the boy to go into the Dreadhouse (the Deadhouse, which is where the corpses are stored); it is even more horrific when this boy fails to understand that his mother has died (probably of typhus).   As we read this we are drawn into the enigma of the Holocaust…

The child finds it incomprehensible because he is a child.  He narrates as a child who has no knowledge of the Holocaust, only what is happening to him and his secure world … and there are elements of this naïve ignorance which we realise that adults around him would have shared.  Until the full horror of the Holocaust was known after the war, even adults caught up in it did not understand the evil scope and intention of it; they only knew what was happening to them.  But although we as adult readers in a post-Holocaust world understand what is going on in this story, when we reflect on the Holocaust at this distance in time we still find it incomprehensible, as incomprehensible as the child does, though in an entirely different way.

There is a remarkably thorough analysis of this book by Dorian Stuber at Open Letters Monthly.

Author: Jona Oberski
Title: A Childhood (Kinderjaren)
Translated from the Dutch by Ralph Manheim
Publisher: Pushkin Press, 2016, first published 1978
ISBN: 9781782270676
Source: Pushkin Press subscription series

Available from Fishpond: A Childhood



  1. An excellent overview Lisa.
    I found an old tatty paperback copy of A Childhood ages ago at a charity bookshop. I was intrigued by the blurbs – Tom Keneally, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Harold Pinter and Chaim Potok had all sung its praises. I finally got around to reading it recently and was amazed why such an important book was not more widely known.
    Like you, I was also reminded of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas but Oberski’s book blows it out of the water. A Childhood is about lived experiences, for one, AND, despite being narrated from a child’s perspective, never stoops to the cutesy faux-naive tone that makes Boyne’s book so difficult to accept. The pared-back writing has the true quality of a fable, which is something Boy in the Striped Pyjamas aspired to, but failed to achieve – not least due to its manipulative plot devices and liberty with the historical record.

    Kudos to Pushkin Press for bring it back into print.


    • Yes, indeed, Evan, it’s surprising it isn’t better known. As Bill says, Anne Frank’s dairy (also from the Netherlands) comes to mind, and it has something of the raw honesty of that book too. In a way they are both coming of age novels, even though the boy is of course much younger.
      It’s a very long time since I read Empire of the Sun, but what I remember from that was the wilfulness of the boy, (which stood him in good stead) and that he could still make choices in a way that this boy could not. It is our awareness of the inexorable power of the Nazi machinery that makes A Childhood so awful.


  2. Did you think the child’s-eye view (the author’s reconstruction of a child’s-eye view) was valuable? I’ve read Anne Franks’ The Diary of a Young Girl of course, but this seems more comparable to JG Ballard’s novel of his time as a boy interned by the Japanese in China, Empire of the Sun.


  3. Does anyone know the name of the kid in the book? or even just the last nam would be helpful


    • It’s a good while since I read this, but maybe someone else will know?


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