Aftermath of children who witnessed war

Innocent Witnesses: Childhood Memories of WWII by Marilyn Yalom; Stanford: Stanford University Press; Redwood Press (c) 2021; 195 pages.

By Oliver B. Pollak, Ph.D.

Olivier Pollak

RICHMOND, Calif .– More than eighteen books by Marilyn Yalom have been translated into several languages. Popular titles include A breast story (1998), A woman’s story (2001), and The American resting place: four one hundred years of history through our cemeteries and burial sites (2008). Marilyn’s collaboration with her psychiatrist husband Irvin included a book co-written in 2021, A question of death and life, about her last year with end-stage multiple myeloma. She passed away in November 2019. Marilyn and Irvin met in college and had been married for 67 years. His son Ben edited the manuscript. Irvin Yalom is the author of nine novels, eight non-fiction books and three films.

The Blitz began on September 7, 1940. German rockets terrorized London in 1944, the last exploded on March 27, 1945. Child born in London in 1943, I have unreliable memories of bomb shelters in the underground of London and gas-filled giants. balloons to thwart air raids. I was one year and five months old when the last explosion rocked London. My mother and I were evacuated to the safety of Stoke on Trent. Maybe these nightmarish scenes come from family, reading, movie, and fantasy stories. My verifiable memory is of a vacant lot on the corner of where we lived in Maida Vale with a deep hole in the ground, victim of German rockets. There we celebrated with bonfires on Guy Fawkes Day, the failed gunpowder plot of November 5, 1605. For the past 40 years, I remember the rationing of liver oil from cod and food.

These memories sparked an interest in childhood memory. My son Noah Pollak and I presented “Children’s Memories and Literature – Before, During and After Shoah” at the Annual Holocaust Scholars Conference, March 1999, at Nassau Community College, Garden City, NY. Our assessment of this proliferating genus included Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, works by Elie Wiesel and Jerzy Kosinski; Child of our time (1958) by Michel del Castillo; Empire of the Sun, novel (1984) by JG Ballard; and the despicable Fragments: Memories of a wartime childhood (1996) by Binjamin Wilkomirski.

The six Innocent, born between 1926 and 1938, are friends and colleagues of Marilyn Yalom. She was born Marilyn Koenick in Chicago in 1932. She majored in French at Wellesley College, spent a year abroad in France and graduated in 1954. She obtained her Masters in French and German at Harvard and his doctorate. in Comparative Literature by Johns Hopkins in 1963, writing his thesis on Kafka and Camus. She meets Irvin Yalom, stationed in the military, in California. He got a job at Stanford Medical School, they got married and settled in California. A feminist, she belonged to the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford.

Yalom’s goal was to “understand the effects of … the experience of war on children living in Europe and the United States.” His six friends provided intimate vignettes of terror, trauma, aerial bombardments, bomb shelters and hunger. They endured and became fulfilled, but not unscathed. They are probably “the last people to remember World War II” and they will soon “disappear”. She explored the notion of witnesses in her 2015 book, Obliged to testify, Women Memories of the French Revolution.

Marilyn writes the first chapter from a spectator’s point of view. “A Sheltered Vision” contains no deprivation or uprooting associated with war. Her privilege of safety nurtured a sense of guilt and fostered empathy for telling untold stories. She remembered a festive dinner on Sunday, December 7, 1941, and the news of Pearl Harbor coming from the four-foot-tall wooden radio. This week is the subject of a November 19 2021 New York Times article, “The decision that cost Hitler the war”, by Benjamin Carter Hett who wrote “The world probably changed more between December 5 and 12, 1941, any other week in history”, all By examining The American bet of Hitler, Pearl Harbor and Germany’s march towards world war (2021) by Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman.

Winfried Weiss’ “Within the War Machine” is based on his 1983 book A Nazi childhood. He was born in 1936. The son of a Nazi policeman, he was raised to praise Hitler, the SS and the invincible German military. His father never returned from the front. As the victorious Americans passed through his city, Winfried made a 180-degree turn and supported the Allies 100 percent. He emigrated to America in 1956. His pianist partner Robert Hagopian died of AIDS in 1984, followed by Winfried in 1991.

Susan Groag Bell is the oldest witness, born in 1926 in the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia. The conversion of the family to Lutheranism offered no protection against anti-Semitism. When Hitler annexed the Sudetenland in 1939, she and her mother fled to England. His father remained in Czechoslovakia and died in Theresienstadt (I wonder if my doctor grandfather, interned in the same camp, signed his death certificate). Bell was refused entry to Stanford’s doctorate in history program because she was too old. She became a productive independent scholar associated with the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford. she published Between the worlds: in Czechoslovakia, England and America in 1991. Like Marilyn, most of Bell’s work has focused on women’s history. Susan and Marilyn co-edited Revealing lives: autobiography, biography and genre in 1990. Marilyn and Susan met for the first time in 1976. Susan died in 2015.

There are poignant tales of fear, dystopia, and resilience. Stina Katchadourian, a Finn in Lapland and Sweden has been caught between two enemies, the Soviet Union and Germany. Philippe Martial, born in Indochina in 1934, grew up in Djibouti in the French Somalis, went to Normandy and then fled with his mother from German-occupied France to the “Free Zone”. His doctor father died of paratyphoid shortly before the war. The repressed memories of the Hungarian teenager Robert “Bob” Berger, passed for Christian in the resistance, were not revealed until 2011, triggered by a threat to his life. He became a prominent surgeon. He graduated from the medical school in the same class as the author’s husband. Robert died in 2016.

Four Witnesses recalled the role of reading, books and libraries; they have become authors. the book burnings perpetrated by the Nazis; the survivors through their writings will not be forgotten. Marilyn Yalom remembers that on December 7, 1941, she was reading one of the three books she borrowed each week from the Petworth Library. Mother of a witness, omnivorous reader, distressed by the lack of books available in France. Another mother recovered about 20 history and biography books, “the mutilated remains of the family library.” Another witness reported that in Rovaniemi, Finland, “there was a German officers’ club, a German bakery, a bookstore and a library.”

The Witnesses, three women and three men, Catholics, Lutherans and Jews, have had more than their share of ill health, mental illness, depression and tuberculosis linked to their troubled childhood, war and missing fatherhood. This book was designed in Paris. A “budding friendship” between Marilyn and the witnesses Philippe Martial, authority of the French Senate, and Alain Briottet, Consul General of France in Boston and Ambassador to Burma, Finland and Bangladesh, resulted in these essays on the experiences of the childhood.

The book has a foreword, preface, epilogue, afterword, and acknowledgments, each revealing relevant personal information. Four of the six Witnesses died. The ranks of Holocaust survivors and veterans are shrinking. This timely and valuable book examines various vital stories and the vagaries of childhood memory reported at a significantly older age. It is an important imaginative exploration of our common past.


Oliver B. Pollak, Ph.D, professor emeritus of history at the University of Nebraska Omaha, and lawyer, is now a correspondent based in Richmond, California.