Book Reviews

Dry Tears:  The Story Of A Lost Childhood
by Dr. Nechama Tec

Oxford University Press; New York: 1984.

Reviewed by Shary Parker.

Shary Parker wrote this paper for an Honors class at the University of New York at Oswego (the class is technically called Honors 141 A History of Ideas). The course is part of her honors requirements. She is a Zoology major / French minor. This was her freshman year.

My initial satisfaction at leaving Poland gave way to an uneasy feeling of rejection. Poland did not want me, it forced me to become someone else. My feeling of resentment was joined by regret, sadness, and a depressed tiredness. Yet, I wanted to be conscious of the actual crossing of the border. I was determined not to shut my eyes till this happened.

The announcement “This is the American Zone in Berlin” woke me up. Relieved, I realized that it had happened less painfully than I had expected. Right then, in this new and strange place that I could not see, I promised myself never again to pretend to be someone else. This promise I kept. (Tec, pp. 241)1)

On the last page of her novel, Dry Tears: The Story Of A Lost Childhood, Nechama Tec2) finally comes to terms with why she told her story. Unlike most Holocaust survivors, she did not write this as a warning, or even as a reminder; nor did she inflict this work upon herself just to tell a story. Nechama Tec bore the pains of ‘her holocaust’ all over again, to write this book in part to recapture her childhood, but more to understand why she lost it, and who she became.

Nechama Tec was less then ten years old when Nazi Germany invaded her homeland of Poland. Still a child, she did not understand what was happening to her, nor what would happen to her and her family in the coming years (Tec, pp. 11). Despite not understanding the majority of things happening to her, she was forced to know enough to keep herself alive. Absolutely everything had to be kept a secret, she could never question anything (pp. 100). For the rest of the war, survival was the only concern (pp. 80).

Wise for her age, Nechama Tec did know that she was different; she was a Jew. She did not exactly know what it meant to be Jewish, her parents had never really told her, but she knew too, that she was different from the other Jews. For reasons she learned later, her golden hair protected her; it allowed her to put on a facade, and be “a full-fledged Pole” (Tec, pp. 46). Through this disguise she was able to watch the world around her, safe within a different self. This false self became almost real to her. Each time a danger came, she could slip into the role quicker and easier. Eventually she actually believed the role she was playing. “In some ways I was glad when it happened because it meant that I did not seem to be lying or playing a part. At the same time it scared me and made me feel guilty because it separated me from my real self and from my family” (pp. 169). Being able to come out in the open, with others unaware of her real self, Nechama Tec felt partly like she was betraying her family, and her true identity, but she also felt a sense of satisfaction. She was fooling the enemy, “they were not so powerful after all” (pp. 47). It was this disguise and ability to transform herself, that would keep her through the war, and yet torment her afterwards.

The restrictions on Jews followed quickly after the fall of Poland, and Nechama Tec’s family knew that they would not be safe for very much longer. Jews were picked up off the streets and deported, or shot on sight for no apparent reason, other than that they were Jews. The yellow Star of David was to be placed in the upper left corner of every article of clothing, a curfew was imposed, portions of cities were declared Judenrein3), and every Jew must bow deeply whenever they encountered a German. Failure to adhere to any of this was punishable by beatings, deportation, or even death (Tec, pp. 65).

I read stories about animals in the forest that were being protected. There were laws that you can’t shoot a deer, and all of a sudden it dawned on me that these animals were better off than we were. You couldn’t hunt them, while we had no protection. What really bothered me the most, I think, was there was no safety net. There was no one you could go to. You couldn’t go to the police, you couldn’t go anywhere. It was like being worse than an animal. I realized at the time that our level of existence was worse than an animal. They had some protection, there were only certain months you could shoot them. . . . (Greenfeld, pp. 5)4)

Acutely aware of this idiosyncrasy, Tec’s father started immediately looking for a place for them to hide. In the beginning of the war, money was not an issue for the Bawnik family, and this may indeed have been one of the factors that saved them. They were willing and able to pay the handsome price for good false identification papers5), which would allow them to assimilate to the “Aryan” side. Because of her golden hair and flawless Polish, Nechama Tec, had the best chance of survival by assimilation, and her sister too might survive this way. Thus, with her false identification papers, Nechama Tec became Pelagia Pawlowska, and severed the relations she knew to her parents and sister (Tec, pp. 40).

Their father too had a good chance at being able to cross over6), though his Polish was not nearly as fluent, and a physical check would end everything (as it was with any male)7). Their mother, however, possessed all of the “Jewish qualities” Nazis looked for, and could not pass (Tec, pp. 35). It was necessary then, to find a Polish family willing to hide the two of them, and act as adopted parents or relatives to Nechama Tec and her sister.

Many families hid Jews during the war, and children were hidden in all the orphanages and boarding houses available. Most did this because they disagreed with the Germans, felt it was their duty as Christians, or just because they somehow knew it was right. They did not think about what they were doing, or the consequences of being caught. Most, also, did not ask for much money, if any, and even then usually only enough to help feed the ones being hidden (Greenfeld, pp. 33). These people were, however, hard to find, and definitely not the majority. There were also to be found, a few families willing to hide Jews at an unimaginable price. It was one of these families, not able to make ends meet on their own, that Nechama Tec’s father was finally able to find, and then only after several other possibilities had turned bad (Tec, pp. 73).

As in any time of war, money is a precious commodity, and with enough money one can get anything, even an anti-Semitic family willing to hide Jews. Before the war, Nechama Tec’s family owned a candle factory and part of a chemical factory, and they had been very well off. Always the businessman, and always aware of what was happening around them, Tec’s father had liquidated everything when they were forced out of their apartment and into an empty room in the chemical factory. With all their wealth in jewels and gold, he was able to pay the Homars’ to hide all four members of the family for the majority of the war (Tec, pp. 50).

Thus, Nechama Tec and her sister changed names yet again. This time they would indeed be sisters, Christina (Krysia) and Danuta (Danka) Bloch8), respectively. These names were chosen carefully so as to help them appear as generic Poles (Tec, pp. 72). Being sisters meant that their new family and background had to match exactly, word for word and family member for family member, birth date for birth date. To make things easier, some relatives were dead, but too many dead relatives would arouse suspicion. Aware of their comparative ignorance of the Catholic religion (the majority of Poles being Catholic), the sisters also began memorizing the Catholic prayers, and some practices of their new religion (pp. 71).

Having their hiders, the Homars, financially dependent on them, kept the Bawniks that much safer, but what would happen when money ran out? When this time seemed evident to come, it was decided that selling rolls on the black market might add enough money to help them make it through the war. Rations had been in place since the beginning of the war, and black market operations were common. As a rule, the Nazis left them alone, except for a few random raids, and crack-downs on Vodka and meat operations. With her sister already working (in a German officer’s pub, an invaluable job that brought with it information as well as wages), it would be up to eleven year old Nechama Tec to do the majority of the new “business.” Her mother stayed up all night baking, and her father helped some and handled the books, but neither of them officially existed, which meant that they could not for any reason leave the house. Nechama Tec and her sister, however, had been introduced to neighbors as cousins who lost their families in the war, and were, for the most part, free to roam around the town.

At this young age of eleven, Nechama Tec took on the task of selling rolls on the black market, and ultimately supporting her entire family and the family hiding them. This little operation had turned into a major one, and was bringing in enough money to feed everyone (no less than twelve people), with a little left over (Tec, pp. 184). For the first time since the start of the war Nechama Tec finally felt she was able to carry her own weight, and “be of use” (pp. 166). This black market operation kept the Bawniks alive for the rest of the war.

Despite her age, throughout the war Nechama Tec had to have the appearance of an adult. The Nazis targeted children especially; they did not want them growing up and adding to the Jewish population they were already trying to get rid of. This meant that Nechama Tec had to be constantly conscious of her surroundings, ready for anything. “Already 11, I knew that I had to appear calm, by substituting numbness for this fear” (Tec, pp. 68). There was no questioning, it was a matter of survival.

“As we skipped along through the dark, both of us briefly recaptured childhood, a luxury Jewish children could no longer afford” (Tec, pp. 159). Like other children of the Holocaust, her childhood was taken from her before she knew what was happening (Greenfeld, pp. 83). She was forced to grow up too fast with no explanation (Tec, pp. 8).

It was so scary. I asked my mother, Why? What is happening? And she tried to toughen me up and said, This is life. And I said to myself, This is life? How come? And I never asked that question again. I was not quite ten years old at the time. (Greenfeld, pp. 31)9)

Many of the children hidden during the Holocaust received little or no explanation, and all were left wondering why this had happened to them.

Nechama Tec struggled with what had happened to her, and who she had become for a long time. Originally a young girl in an expensive and entirely Jewish private school, she was yanked out at the start of the war, and from that point on forced to take on several foreign identities. She became a Pole and a Catholic on the outside, while hiding her real self on the inside. Many times, she took refuge inside a church.

Inside a church I felt like neither a Christian nor a Jew, but only a human being, who had a terrible need to confide in someone. In the stillness I could whisper my secrets without fear, and whether it was a Christian or a Jewish God who listened to me did not matter. What mattered was that I had someone to confide in, and that he was listening. . . . All my life revolved around hiding; hiding thoughts, hiding feelings, hiding my activities, hiding information. Sometimes I felt like a sort of fearful automaton, always on alert, always dreading that something fatal might be revealed. (Tec, pp. 107-109)

Even after the war ended, Nechama Tec could not come out and be a Jewish girl. When they returned to their home, it was not safe. She and her sister were sent off to boarding school still passing as Christians. 

We were introduced to our landlords as Christians who came from the province to study. . . . Only on rare occasions when we met our parents and with them visited Jewish friends did we briefly become Jews. Otherwise we were passing.

I felt rebellious. I resented being forced once more to become someone else, but I continued to play the role; I had to. But inside me my objections multiplied. No doubt resentment with disappointment prevented adjustment. As long as I stayed in Lodz10) I felt like an outsider. An outsider that was aware of the ugliness of the city, of my narrrow-minded fellow students, the uninspired instructions of my teachers, the dullness of the landlords, and my own restless loneliness (Tec, pp. 239). 

Despite her inside turmoil, Nechama Tec was forced to play her role, forever hiding and denying who she really was. Life went on like this until it was no longer safe for them to live in Poland. Anti-Semitism was bad enough that it forced them to leave for Germany11). Once there, Tec vowed never to pretend again (Tec, pp. 241).

Tec’s father, whom she had looked up to and adored her entire life, died at the age of sixty-two. It was he who had helped her deal with the war, and he who had made it possible for them to survive. With the only one who had ever really understood her gone, Nechama Tec left her mother and sister, now in Israel, for the United States (Tec, pp. 242). She went on for more than thirty years trying desperately to recognize, and come to terms with, who she had become. It was not until, with the help of her husband and children, she undertook the painful task of writing her story, that she finally understood where her childhood went and who she had become.

Works Cited
Greenfeld, Howard. The Hidden Children. Ticknor & Fields Books for Young Readers; New York; 1993.
Tec, Nechama. Dry Tears: The Story Of A Lost Childhood. Oxford University Press; New York: 1984.

Works consulted
Judy Cohen, website "Women and the Holocaust" B. Webb Associates. 1998
Cohen, Judy. Women and the Holocaust. B. Webb & Associates; 1998.

1) Italics and bold added

2)  Nechama Tec is her Hebrew, married name, used after the war. Hela Bawnik (with Helka as a diminutive) was her Polish name, and the name used by her family.

3) Literally “Jew free,” or off limits to Jews

4) Jack Goldstein, Holocaust survivor and hidden child.

5) Papers with the name of a real person, since dead or moved away, on them were safer than those with false names, but also more expensive.

6) Another term for assimilation, or passing (existing on the Aryan side) as a Pole.

7) Jewish males were not circumscribed, and the Nazis used this to denounce many men, sometimes in the middle of the streets.

8) Christina literally is Christian, and Danka means thank you in German.

9) Edith Knoll, Holocaust survivor and hidden child.

10) A city in Poland where she and her sister went to school while their parents tied things up before the move to Germany.

11) 1500 Jews were killed in Poland after the end of the war (Tec, pp. 231).

Copyright (c) 1999 by Shary Parker, all rights reserved.
This work is reprinted here with the permission of Shary Parker.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.