The Children’s Block

Written by Otto Kraus
Review by Tom Vallar

September 1943 brings another trainload of prisoners from the Czech ghetto to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some of the Jews are gassed immediately; others are placed in slave labor camps, some become patients of Dr. Mengele, and a few older teens and young adults are selected as teachers and counselors to a group of children. This autobiographical novel tells the true story of nine precious months of survival of the fittest, told through the eyes of Alex Ehren, who keeps a journal that is hidden away in oilskin every night.

We now know the horrid living conditions in the concentration camps, and this book doesn’t shy away from showing them. However, it emphasizes the hope that keeps both the children and their teachers alive through unlikely friendships and dogged determination. Realistically they should all die soon, though many secretly stash supplies for an escape.

“The Children’s Block was run like a summer camp, a game, an illusion, an island.” The children stage puppet shows for the guards and sing with all their hearts on special days. We learn to respect Lisa Pomnenko as she paints nature scenes on the walls of their barracks, even as she volunteers to draw family trees for Dr. Mengele. We admire the philosopher Marta Felix as she teaches the children despite their meager education, and we fear the feral Adam Landau who curries favor with the SS guards.

“Poignant” describes most first-person Holocaust survival stories, and this fictional one is no different. The uneven storytelling is stream of consciousness, but is mostly chronological. The late author was one of the instructors and married a fellow survivor. This work exposes the world to another side of the Holocaust, and readers are better for being able to experience it.