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Stories of trauma

Roni Sarig reads about the Second World War in Israeli and Japanese children's books

Roni Sarig  |  Winter 2005/06  -  Number 200


Children’s literature can be a vital tool for exploring the past and the narratives it generates in society. Books conveying their messages in clear and even simplistic forms often give children their initial sense of national history. Such messages often become the most influential ‘stories’ and ‘truths’ about the past, and shape the way people see their own society and the world throughout childhood and beyond. Do the discourses about the past dominant in society find their way into stories for young children, and if so how? And, if society influences children’s literature, how far in turn does such literature influence children as they go on to become adult members of society?

The Holocaust still deeply effects the present in Israel, and is often used for political purposes. Japan’s greatest trauma of the Second World War – the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – still has a powerful influence on the way Japanese society sees and narrates its past, and thus on political and social developments today. Both nations experienced atrocities during the war, and both rebuilt themselves after the war, severing themselves from certain aspects of their past, while putting others centre stage. The results of this process can be seen very clearly in children’s literature.

Israeli children’s literature about the Holocaust

In 1962, Fredka Mazia – a writer and Holocaust survivor – wrote Chaveray Haktanim (My Little Friends; Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad). It is based on events which Mazia witnessed or was told about and brings together a number of stories of children during the Holocaust. Published at a time when children’s literature was only just beginning to address the Holocaust, the book enjoyed considerable popular success.

At the heart of the stories are children whose bravery and human values overcome the evil around them, even if they eventually meet death at the hands of the Nazis. Although the stories often have no obvious connection to Zionism, all reflect the standard Zionist narrative of the time, at least in their framework or symbolism.

‘Harry – Shlosha Chaverim’ (‘Harry – three friends’), for example, tells the heroic story of three boys who stole weapons from the Germans in order to use them in a ghetto rebellion. One is caught, tortured and sentenced to death. Though he suffers terribly, he does not betray his friends, but sacrifices his life for them. The epilogue tells of Harry’s two friends who survived:

After many days [Gideon and Jacob] managed to cross the frontiers, arrived in Israel in the middle of the War of Independence and joined the IDF. Gideon became a colonel. Who knows what our Harry would have become, had he remained alive and not died a hero’s death at the hands of the enemy?

Here, as elsewhere in the book, we see the inevitable connection between the story of the Holocaust and the dominant Zionist vision of that era in Israel. The ‘New Jew’ in the new Jewish state was brave, active, fighting – even at the risk of his life – to save his people and state. The emphasis on the heroism of the IDF is part of the wider glorification of power in the Israeli army and society, which was seen as a moral of the Holocaust. As Idith Zertal argues in her book Hauma Vehamavet (Death and the Nation; Or Yehuda: Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir, 2002), the existence of the army was believed to redeem the victims of the Holocaust, its just but retrospective struggle (against an ‘Arab enemy’ compared with the Nazis) seen as almost holy. Israeli discourse in the 1960s and beyond stressed both victimhood and heroism: Israel has become a victim which must fight a demonic enemy in order to survive. What went undiscussed were the narratives of the ‘other’, notably the perspective of the Palestinians on the Zionist-Palestinian conflict.

Another story in Mazia’s book, ‘Miryam – Ima Ktana’ (‘Miryam – a little mother’), tells of how a little girl tries to save her baby-brother Moshe from the Germans, but after much hardship and suffering fails to do so. Both are murdered by the Nazis. The names of the children, as well as direct allusions, link their story with the Exodus, a story of Jewish suffering which ended in the return to the homeland:

Those children, too [Miryam and Moshe], lived in times of hardships for the Jewish people. In one of the great powers, in Germany, an evil, vicious man reigned. And he, too, like the Egyptian Pharaoh, wanted to destroy all the Jews.

The epilogue to the story spells out the Zionist message:

Many years have passed since then. My little Miri might already be a good and devoted mother to her own children . . . and Moshe, if he had had the chance, would be a grown man - a soldier, a general in the Israeli Defense Force, a farmer in the Negev, perhaps a scholar? But the evil German soldiers caught them . . . and killed both of them.

Even ‘Ima, Hamutar Kvar Livkot?’ (‘Mother, Is It Allowed to Cry Now?’) is connected by a framework, detached from the main events, to Zionist discourse. This is based on a true story, told by Abba Kovner in his testimony at the Eichmann trial, which also inspired Nathan Altermann’s famous poem of the same name. At the end of the war, a mother and her 3-year-old child emerge from the ruins where they had hidden for years, and where the little girl was not allowed to cry, for fear they might be discovered by the Germans. When they are finally safe, she asks: ‘Mother, is it allowed to cry now?’ This is universal tale of the human struggle to survive and save one’s offspring. Yet Mazia’s book connects it explicitly with Zionism through an opening where she says that she heard the story from a friend, a partisan and

a very brave person. An old soldier, who also took part in our War of Independence here in Israel, and was a leading officer. From his childhood he was known for his brave spirit.

This partisan’s story forms a Zionist preface to the main narrative:

[He and his friends] didn’t want the war to happen. They were educated in a Zionist youth movement and wanted to immigrate to Palestine and become farmers, members of kibbutzim; they wanted to live here and build their homeland. But it was hard for them to watch the great suffering of their family, and the suffering of the Jews, and they thought that it was up to them to fight the evil-doers and avenge the suffering and death of their relatives and people.

Here Mazia’s book, published shortly after the Eichmann trial, follows closely the discourse which had become dominant in Israeli society since the end of the war. Active struggle against the Nazis was emphasized and glorified through the ‘adoption’ of the rebellions in the ghettos and the struggles of the partisans. Since the majority of Jewish victims and survivors did not have a place in this narrative, they were either criticized for their ‘passivity’ or, more often, ‘forgotten’ and excluded altogether.

This tendency was, of course, not unique to children’s literature, but also characteristic of more formal educational settings. ‘Materials for the Teacher’, published in Jerusalem in 1963, offered the following recommendations about Holocaust Memorial Day:

As the Memorial Day to the Holocaust and Heroism on . . . 21 April 1963 is approaching, these pages bring together examples of Jewish resistance and heroism during the Second World War. The first part is devoted to a description of the Jewish rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto, to mark the twentieth anniversary. The second part describes deeds of heroism and rebellion in other ghettos, in the camps and in the forests (my emphasis).

The text also connects the Holocaust to the long history of Jewish victimhood from slavery in Egypt, through the threat to destroy all Jews in Persia (as described in The Book of Esther) and the pogroms in Europe. According to this booklet for teachers, heroism and rebellion are the Holocaust, or at least the parts which it is important to teach the students.

Yet the summary gives a somewhat different perspective. Entitled ‘On Heroism’, it discusses many kinds of heroism and argues that emphasizing only the heroism of the Warsaw Ghetto is wrong, since

every day there were in the camps countless deeds of passive heroism, of mutual support, of human dignity. Such heroism without weapons was no less important than the heroism of armed resistance.

So, although the dominant discourse stressed activism, heroism and power, it was not monolithic. Other voices were heard even within the educational mainstream, though such voices were as yet marginal or apologetic.

Almost twenty years after Mazia’s book, Uri Orlev’s Savta Soreget (Grandma Knitting; Tel Aviv: Massada, 1981) offers a completely different narrative of the Holocaust. This is a fable with a universal message, which excludes Zionist ideology and could happen anywhere, to any minority group in any society.

Orlev’s book is unique. By the 1980s children’s literature about the Holocaust was common, yet most books (such as many of those by Deborah Kipniss) followed the narrative patterns I have already described in Mazia’s book. But Orlev’s Savta Soreget stands out not only from the other children’s books published in the 1980s, but from those published afterwards and even today.

Grandma Knitting is written in verse and tells of how Grandma arrives at a little town with nothing but her two knitting needles, with which she creates a beautiful home and two knitted grandchildren. The problems start when the children go to school. Society rejects them because they are different. They are expelled from school and then, after their grandmother fights for them, by the higher authorities of the state:

The president and the ministers to each other whispered,

Checked the kids, both were examined.

Children made of little holes and a little thread?

All made a face and said:

‘The mayor and the teachers are wrong? Never!

There is no place for threaded kids here, ever!’

The only solution is for the grandmother to unravel everything she has made, leave the town forever and wander the earth until she finds a land where knitted children are accepted, so she will be able to knit them again.

Orlev is a bestselling writer, whose books on the Holocaust are distinguished by their humour, imaginative worlds and adventures - elements which provoked criticism. Yet his popularity shows that, within the context of mainstream Zionist discourse, children’s literature can tell different stories.

In the children’s literature of the 1980s and 1990s the standard Zionist narrative remains dominant, although the stories start to be more open to other perspectives. It is when we reach the new century, however, that different tones begin to be heard more clearly and widely. Illustrated books about the Holocaust, aimed at much younger children, are a fairly new phenomenon. Yet alongside didactic texts with a strong Zionist narrative, stressing the motif of ‘Holocaust and renewal’ through ending in the creation of new life in Palestine or Israel, there are books which abandon the Zionist tone and tell more personal stories.

Perhaps the most outstanding of these books is Hamegera Hashlishit Shel Saba (Grandpa’s Third Drawer; Tel Aviv: Miskal, 2003) by Judy Tal-Kopelman. Told in simple and poetic language, the story is built round the revealing of a secret. In the first half, the narrator, Uri, describes his grandparents’ home, a special, harmonious and lovely place. In grandpa’s work room there is a desk with three drawers. In the first are writing tools and a colouring box, in the second childhood toys, which were kept at his neighbour’s house ‘when grandpa was deported from his home in Germany, because of the war’; the third drawer is locked and it is forbidden to open it. The secret of the locked drawer creates the tension in the story. Only in the second half of the story is the secret revealed: the child opens the drawer without permission and, although his grandfather is angry, he eventually agrees to tell his childhood story, of which memories are hidden in the drawer. So Uri gets to hear about the deportation of the Jews to the ghettos after the Nazis came to power; the wearing of the yellow patch; the prohibition on playing with toys.

Among other things, the third drawer contains a rag doll, which once belonged to the grandfather’s sister Anna (made by their mother for her to play with instead of toys), and a game of dominos made by the grandfather in the ghetto. There is also the diary kept by Anna until she was taken away and never came back. At the end, grandpa and Uri play dominos together, like grandpa and Anna did as children, and – through playing the game - become closer to each other. ‘I never knew that grandpa was such a brave boy. I didn’t know he went through such things. Now I love him even more’ – with this Uri concludes the story. There is no moral, no overt discussion of good and evil.

In sharp contrast with Grandpa’s Third Drawer, Bat-Sheva Dagan’s Ma Kara Bashoah? (What Happened in the Holocaust?; Tel Aviv: Tzabar Publishing House, 2003) leaves no doubt as to its Zionist message. The story connects the Holocaust to tradition and the historical-biblical stories of Passover and Purim, stories of victimhood and redemption. It does so in more than one way. For example, the words used to describe Hitler – as an ‘oppressor’ and ‘evil’ - are those used to describe Haman in The Book of Esther. The story ends with a Zionist vision:

But Grandpa Peretz, who lost his home

wanted a home of his own forever.

This is Yaniv and David’s grandpa

who looked for another home forever.

When his friends asked him

where he will build his new home,

answered the man, in excited tone:

‘In the land of milk and honey.’

This is the answer to everyone who asks –

a new home in the land of Israel!

Other recent illustrated books tend to connect the narrative with Zionism, though with much less emphasis than Dagan. Common to them all is the restrained tone of the illustrations, and the use of symbols instead of horrific pictures. The yellow star, signs reading ‘Juden raus’ or ‘Arbeit macht frei’, a swastika, a gun, barbed wire or a doll thrown to the ground at the entrance to a concentration camp are common motifs.

The Japanese discourse about the war and Japanese children’s literature of the atomic bombs

The horrific scenes in Japanese picture books may surprise readers unfamiliar with Japanese comics and illustrations. Israeli illustrators seem to believe that such an immense atrocity, incapable of being captured in words and images, should only be depicted through minimalist symbolism and restraint. They may feel that young children should be protected from exposure to its horrors. And symbolism also serves the Zionist narrative in some of the books, by clearly separating good and evil, victims and victimizers.

Japanese picture books make similar use of recurring symbols (such as the Atom Bomb Dome in Hiroshima or the doves of peace), but they also tend to present the horrors of the bombings in graphic colour and detail, even in books for young children. This may stem from cultural differences, but also from a wish to make a strong and shocking statement of the case against war and the use of atomic weapons. The premise is the opposite of the one underlying the Israeli books: only direct exposure, which gives a vivid sense of the horrors of war, can bring about change in the future. Thus, the Japanese picture books are full of scenes of mothers and babies on fire; people with peeling skin walking half-dead in endless lines; people drowning in the river while trying to escape the fire; burning animals; and so on.

Israel and Japan are not unique in the ways they narrate their past. Zohar Shavit, a researcher on culture and children’s literature, has written about the ways German children’s literature describes the Second World War in Avar Lelo Tsel: Bniyat Tmunat He’avar Ba’sipur’ Hagermani Liyladim (A Past Without Shadow: The Construction of the Past Image in the German ‘Story’ for Children; Tel-Aviv: Am Oved, 1999). Shavit argues that the books depict both Nazis and Jews as foreign to the German people; that the Germans are presented as victims of the Nazis and, indirectly, of the Jews; and that these two ‘foreign’ both appear and then disappear from the German scene. This sense of victimhood and detachment from certain parts of the problematic past is even stronger in post-war Japanese society.

Japan has been an aggressive imperialist power since the mid-nineteenth century. Evidence of war-time crimes committed by its army against civilians in Asia are still being gathered today. Nevertheless, Japan refuses to take responsibility for, or even admit to, many of its actions in the period up to 1945. The discourse in post-war Japan focuses largely on the last days of the war, namely the American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945. James Orr, quoting the political activist Oda Makoto, in The Victim as Hero: Ideologies of Peace and National Identity in Postwar Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001), calls this tendency ‘victim consciousness’. Post-war Japan presents itself as a peace-loving society, detached from militarism and aggression, which adheres to universal messages of peace. At the same time, it calls attention to the fact that it was the only nation ever to fall victim to atomic bombs.

What is interesting is that this is a victimhood with no real victimizers. Since Japan did not face up to crucial aspects of its own responsibility for the war (and chose not to portray the Americans as responsible), it was left with victimhood alone. Yet this victimhood has become exclusively ‘Japanese’, avoiding issues such as the large numbers of Koreans killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is an issue which – if dealt with openly – could have led to acknowledgement of Japan’s aggression and colonialism in Korea, and thus to its responsibility to these victims, both at the time and now. Furthermore, as Lisa Yoneyama argues in Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), Hiroshima has become a universal symbol of peace, detached from its national-historical context, overshadowing even the memories of Nagasaki. Yet this a-historical and universal narrative is, according to Yoneyama, a way of avoiding crucial questions.

The main characteristic of most stories about Hiroshima is that they begin and end on 6 August, thus limiting the story of the war to its very end in victimhood. Hiroshima is described as a peaceful city with blue skies, seven rivers running through it, a place where nature and humans are in harmony, where people go about their traditional labour. (In reality, Hiroshima was a center for war industry, military bases and the imperial navy.) The hero is usually an innocent boy or girl, wounded while witnessing the atrocities caused by the bomb, dying by the end of the story. Just as in the wider discourse of post-war Japanese society, this is a story of victims without victimizers: the bomb falls out of the sky without an agent, as if were an unavoidable natural disaster like an earthquake. No one is directly pinpointed as guilty or responsible: neither the Americans nor the Japanese leaders.

Pika Don by Toshi and Iri Maruki (Tokyo, 1952) was the first picture book published in Japan about Hiroshima. The Marukis, who experienced the horrors of the days after 6 August, are artists who once belonged to the Communist party and spent the years since the Second World War producing works which protest against atrocities and crimes against humanity. Like their other books, such as Toshi Maruki’s Hiroshima no Pika (Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb; Tokyo, 1980), Pika Don is still popular in Japan. The first scene, entitled ‘That Morning’, begins:

The town was still asleep. A haze hung over the mountains near Mitaki. The cart rattled over the rough road on the way to town. They were going to town to get lumber from the houses that had been torn down for fire prevention. They needed it for firewood . . . Grandmother and Grandfather found some heavy boards, loaded them on their cart and started for home . . . The Hiroshima sky was crystal clear, and the bright sun began to shine hotly (from the English translation of 1987).

This follows a prologue that starts with a description, in passive form, of the dropping of the bomb: ‘On August 6, 1945, at 8:15 in the morning, the Atomic Bomb was dropped over Hiroshima.’ The narrator, Tomekichi’s grandmother, then says that ‘the war was near an end. Everyone was tired of it. We had been pulled along the path of war by the army and the government for a long time’.

Such a narrative is very similar to the one to be found in textbooks and other educational materials of the time. According to the Japanese Ministry of Education’s ‘Guide to New Education in Japan’ (1946):

The government cheated the people [by] concealing the facts and oppressed those who gave criticism and warnings . . . It was the militarists and ultranationalists composed of the military clique . . . that drove Japan into desperate war and put its people into the distresses of defeat (quoted in Orr’s The Victim as Hero).

Similarly, a textbook for primary-school children from 1952 reads:

A peaceful and just world will not be born until militarism is eliminated. The force . . . that duped the Japanese people . . . and tried to conquer the world must be removed forever (also quoted by Orr).

Hiroshima no Pika, too, begins with a peaceful atmosphere which contrasts with the horror-to-come:

On that morning, Hiroshima’s sky was almost totally clear, the mid-summer sun has started to glitter and shine. The seven rivers of Hiroshima flowed peacefully, and the electric train moved slowly.

It goes on to tell us about a little girl, Miichan, and her family, who try to escape the hell of Hiroshima on 6 August. They manage to take a boat to a nearby island, together with many other refugees - wounded, dying and hungry people. The story ends when Miichan and her mother build paper lanterns, letting them float on the rivers of Hiroshima in memory of the souls of the dead, together with many other lanterns.

Hope and prayer for future peace in the world is a repeated motif in these stories, rather like the creation of new life in the land of Israel in Israeli children’s literature. Japanese stories emphasize the need for peace, for protesting against atomic weapons, against wars and the deaths of children in them. The symbol of white doves appears time and again. One example is the epilogue to the story Genbaku no Shoujo Chidori (Chidori the Girl of the Atomic Bomb; Tokyo, 1989) by Masato Yamashita, where the doves tell the story of a girl who dies at Hiroshima:

Human beings, we beg you, please destroy atomic weapons, which can annihilate the earth. This is the wish of all living creatures on earth. We beg you. Human beings, human beings.

Yet this wish for peace, detached from historical context or any acknowledgement of responsibility, becomes somewhat amorphous.

Changes in Japanese children’s stories have been slow in coming. The narrative of Pika Don from 1952 is similar to the ones found in books of the 1980s, the 1990s and even later. Yet some changes do occur over time. We can find Korean victims in some recent stories, blaming of individual Japanese in others. For example, Miyoko Matsutani’s Tourou Nagashi (The Floating Lanterns; Tokyo: Kaisei-sha, 1986), describes the victims of Hiroshima from the point of view of an eye witness:

A little child holding a cat, mothers carrying their babies, old people, daughters, American prisoners, Koreans, cows – all were burned.

Children’s literature tends to be a conservative medium, so even such small changes in emphasis often appear there only after they have begun to be found in other forms of discourse. Yet it is up to us – as adults, parents, educators, writers of children’s books – to be aware of the ways we tell children about our past, to examine narratives other than our own, and to take responsibility for our choices.

Roni Sarig studied at the Rubin Music Academy, Tel-Aviv University, Beijing Normal University and SOAS. Her PhD thesis, for Nagoya University in Japan, compared Israeli and Japanese children’s literature about the Second World War. She now lectures on Japanese studies and children’s literature and has published a novel and a children’s book in Hebrew.

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