When Germany invaded his native Poland in 1939, Yehuda Nir was only nine years old, the youngest member of a wealthy Jewish family and ill-prepared for the tumult that engulfed his life. After his father was taken away and executed, Yehuda, his older sister Lala and his mother had no choice but to survive on their own. In his fascinating new book for young readers, The Lost Childhood, Nir tells us how they did just that. Using forged documents to pass themselves off as Catholics, they hid out in the open, never knowing when their next moment might be their last.
A practicing child psychologist living in New York City, Nir wrote The Lost Childhood with young readers in mind, but, given its subject matter, it's aimed at a mature-minded audience. Unlike Anne Frank, whose account was contemporaneous with her life and death, Nir has had half a century to think about what happened to him. His harrowing account contains no sympathy whatsoever for his Nazi antagonists. Yet as graphic as his descriptions can be stepping in the blood of a murdered man in order to get past a German checkpoint, for instance there is a sense that he has held back, just a little, for the sake of his readers. Although today's generation is inured to violence, this account is personal and scary.
Nir is overwhelmingly successful at portraying the innocent lad in 1939 who grows into a wary, streetwise teenager by war's end. Young readers will have no trouble identifying with his first encounters with the opposite sex. As the war progresses, so does the madness Nir experiences: dodging snipers, sneaking through putrid sewers, slaughtering dogs, cats and mice in order to eat. His matter-of-fact writing style will transfix readers.
Wartime is a horrible period in which to grow up. Reading The Lost Childhood, you wonder how anyone could have survived under the circumstances. Yehuda Nir has created an important book, one that all teenagers should read. This is compelling storytelling, an accessible historical account that's especially valuable today, for only by learning how we endured the past can we survive the future.