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The Boy, A Holocaust Story, by Dan Porat. New York: Hill & Wang, 2010. 262 pp. $26.00.
The scene is one of chaos. Surrounded by terrified men, women and children, a small boy raises his arms, as if in the act of surrender. Behind him stand several SS guards with rifles at the ready. If you have studied the Holocaust even minimally, you know the iconic image I have described. I have read numerous historical accounts of this photograph, its origins as well as its place among the many surviving primary sources left behind after the death and destruction. I have encountered it hundreds of times over my twenty years of teaching in the public schools. In fact, the nature of this famous photograph makes it an invaluable classroom tool. Because it gives us so much detail, and yet so little information, it causes us to wonder and to question. My friend and a child survivor, Peter L. Fischl, found the photograph so compelling that he composed a poem entitled “To the Little Polish Boy Standing with His Arms Up” as a tribute to this child and indirectly, to all children who were caught up in the Holocaust.
In The Boy, A Holocaust Story, historian and author Dan Porat weaves an engaging story that offers the reader a unique opportunity to “enter the photograph,” so to speak. Described as historical-literary narrative, The Boy combines literary imagination with facts from letters, journals, official reports, to reconsider what this photograph can teach present day readers. Porat accomplishes this feat by identifying five people whose lives intersected in the photograph of the boy, making them the main characters of the book; we follow them as their lives and experiences lead them into the streets of Warsaw in 1942–43, where over 300,000 Jews were deported and murdered. While the boy is the central figure in the photograph, it is this supporting cast of five that tells us the story of that day, of how they came to be there, and what happened to them in the days and years that followed.
One of the main characters is Josef Stroop (later changed to Jurgen). Having served his native Germany proudly in World War I, Stroop joined the Nazi Party in 1932 and won notice from Himmler and Hitler for his cruelty to Jews. By 1934, he was marching behind Himmler during the Nazi rallies in Nuremberg. He was promoted to SS Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Polizei in 1943 and was personally sent by Himmler in the spring of that year to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto. Stroop documented his work in a collection of facts and photographs entitled The Stroop Report. Stroop’s personal photographer snapped the photograph with the little boy, and Stroop himself titled the photograph “Pulled from the bunker by force.” He sent a copy of his report to Heinrich Himmler with this title emblazoned across the cover: “The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw Is No More!”
Another of Porat’s characters, Josef Blosche, was raised on a farm in the Sudentenland before he joined a paramilitary arm of the Nazi Party. Blosche read and studied Der Stürmer and other tools of the propaganda machine, and was finally drafted into the SS. By 1940, he had been thoroughly trained and assigned to the border between Germany and the Soviet Union. Riding the wave of Operation Barbarossa, Blosche was posted to Einsatzgruppen B, one of the infamous mobile killing squads; he was personally responsible for the murder of hundreds and possibly thousands of Jews. By 1943, Blosche was patrolling the streets of Warsaw for the Gestapo, killing Jews at every opportunity. In the photograph, he stands behind the little boy, his gun raised.
Franz Konrad, born and raised in the Austrian Alps, was an apprentice tradesman who joined the SDAP in the 1920s and by 1932 was a member of the Nazi party. His ambition and bravery were rewarded, and he was transferred to Warsaw in 1942, promoted to the head of the confiscation division. Here, Konrad and 4,000 forced laborers confiscated and stored all the wealth left behind by those who were deported or murdered. The Jews called Konrad “the ghetto king” because they believed he hid a great deal of this fortune for his future use. He led thousands to their deaths, all the while chronicling the liquidation with his camera as Stoop’s personal photographer. It is his work, along with the photograph of the little boy, which appears throughout the pages of the Stroop Report.
Porat identifies young Rivkah Trapkovits as one of the women in the photograph. She arrived in Lodz in 1939 at the age of sixteen to join the kibbutz for immigration to the Land of Israel. Soon, the entire kibbutz evacuated Lodz, and Rivkah traveled to Warsaw on the eve of the German conquest of the Polish capital. Here she hid and survived until the eve of the liquidation. As the buildings burned and the Nazis herded Jews towards the Umschlagplatz and the trains, Rivkah saw hundreds beaten and shot. She witnessed the chaos of the Nazi Aktion, and watched a photographer capture the event—and her own part in it—for posterity. Finally arriving at the makeshift depot, Rivkah Trapkovits and other Jews were crammed into boxcars, bodies piled on top of each other, without food, water, or light. Their destination, in all probability, was Treblinka.
Tsvi Nussbaum was only seven in 1942. He had been born in Tel Aviv and brought back to Poland for safety at the insistence of his grandfather. His parents and grandparents were soon murdered by the Nazis, and Tsvi was brought to Warsaw to live with his aunt, hiding in an apartment in the Aryan side of the city. He found himself part of a group of Jews who might be allowed to emigrate to Palestine, being spared as future bargaining chips. As the group was being pushed towards the transport trucks, Tsvi was separated from his aunt and uncle, facing the Nazi with the rifle in the photograph. Moments later, he was allowed to board the truck. On July 15, 1943, Tsvi and what remained of his family had arrived at Bergen-Belsen.
What follows, of course, are the intricacies of the story itself. How did these people all come to be in this one place? What happened to them afterward? And what about the boy, that small unforgettable figure foregrounded in the photograph? Is he really Tsvi Nussbaum? What we learn in Porat’s book is not just the fate of five people; in telling their stories, Porat demonstrates the remarkable power of narrative to engage the often incomprehensible cruelty of our historical past. As a historian, Porat is cautious and disciplined; he uses all available sources to reconstruct this point in time; as a writer, he uses these sources to create a narrative that promotes a fuller appreciation of the place of this famous photograph in Holocaust history.
Brian B. Kahn
University of Illinois at Springfield