Livia Bitton-Jackson’s intense memoir, I Have Lived a Thousand Years Growing up in the Holocaust, proves that we should never have stopped reading after Anne Frank’s Diary. Beginning in 1943, in Somorja, Hungary, Bitton-Jackson recounts the subsequent Nazi invasion and occupation of Hungary. As a result of her family’s Judaism, the story traces her movement through various concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Being only thirteen and fourteen, during Nazi occupation, Bitton-Jackson is one of the few Jewish children to survive the camps, able to retell her story.
The literature on the Holocaust and Nazi Regime is incredibly controversial. From The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas to The Book Thief, there are many familiar books on Nazi Germany. Of course, the most famous of all is Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Across schools, Anne Frank’s diary serves as a cornerstone for educating children on the Nazi regime. Frank’s normal teenage problems are identifiable, among the fears that culminated within that Annex in Amsterdam. Falling in love for the first time, her first period, and her trials against adults, serve as a captivating reminder that despite her family’s situation, she was just like any other young teenager. However, should we shy away from the events beyond that of the end of Frank’s diary?
Instilling values of tolerance, understanding and morality is becoming more crucial than ever…
Known as Generation Z, this is the population still in school. Ages range from those born in the late 1990s till today. Whilst these children have been alive, there have been wars concerning the Arab Spring, Syria, Afghanistan, and conflict with numerous terrorist groups including Al Qaeda and Isis. This is not to mention other regions, such as the horn of Africa or Palestine. A generation born into a culture of violence. For Generation Z, discrimination on religious grounds is a norm of news and society.
Through Brexit and the 2016 United States Presidential Election, we have seen the perils of how poverty, and threats to traditional social values, can deteriorate an attitude of a nation. Often leading to discrimination, history cannot afford to repeat itself about how we value and treat other members of our society, such as ethnic minorities. That which divides us, should not encompass how we view our country and judge our actions. Focusing on the fear of ‘other’, to that which is not familiar, is no way to live. This will divide us, as it has done in so many other cases. We should not deny how quickly national prejudice can turn to discrimination.
Focusing on the Survivors of War
In many ways, some fictional literature is counter-intuitive. Whilst it can create a world a child can immerse themselves in, there is also a case for distance and division. When putting a book down, it is easy to say these events happened in the 1940s and it is over now. It wouldn’t happen in this country.
Despite reading stories of Aleppo every day, witnessing the Syrian child Bana Alabed, aged seven writing on Twitter, falling silent, it created a powerful effect. Whilst mourning the loss of many, like Anne Frank, we should also focus on the victims of wars that are alive today. Signalling how much we must change, nothing compares to a story of real events. As we must appreciate history, we must also recognise that people in this situation still exist. While a child is learning of Anne Frank’s death in school, her parents might be harbouring resentment from Syrian refugees. How is Bana Alabed any different from Anne Frank? Would we have granted Anne Frank asylum today?
Compelling and Heart-breaking
Reading, I Have Lived a Thousand Years, can take only a matter of hours. One of the most absorbing pieces of writing in print, you cannot put the book down. Unlike its fictional counterparts, Bitton-Jackson allows a reader to live through her experiences in a way that is incomparable to anything else. Picturing scenes of concentration camps, better than any Hollywood film or drama series, Bitton-Jackson writes of the everyday illnesses that would never appear on camera. The striking, inescapable, realities are unglamorous, and are possibly too shocking to appear in a cinema. In unintentional ignorance, some of these factors may never even have entered reader’s minds.
Describing the latrines, Bitton-Jackson describes how it is the perfect meeting place for friends and relatives because the German guards could not bear the stench. Meeting other people revolves around the sun’s position, because of course, there are no watches. Using the latrine, a ditch, involved crouching, with another holding the hands of the crouching person. Users quickly learned to perform this action by themselves. In July 1944, while in Plaszow, a diarrhea epidemic swept the camp. Describing unbearable pain and violent abdominal cramps, Bitton-Jackson compared the prisoners to ‘raglike dolls’. Depleted of all energy, Bitton-Jackson was unable to eat more than a spoonful of soup and no prisoners could work effectively. Stating the prisoners were to be killed for sabotage, SS officers were luckily distracted by an uprising, or partisan attack, at a factory nearby. Consequently, no one at Plaszow died.
Still only a young teenager, Bitton-Jackson notices blood flowing from another girl and assumes the girl is suffering from a gunshot wound. After a moment, she realises the girl is menstruating. Without underwear and without sanitary products the blood ‘simply flows down her legs’. Consequently, Bitton-Jackson questions why the girl doesn’t do or say anything and then rationalises an inability for anyone to retain modesty. Subsequently, her thoughts turn to whether menstruation constitutes sabotage, in the eyes of the Nazis.
Grateful she is not on her period, Bitton-Jackson reassures herself that the war will be over by the time she is on her period again, in three weeks. Similarly to Anne Frank, both young girls consider a fundamental aspect of adolescence, combined with the embarrassment of menstruation, in unparalleled circumstances. Questioning a simple and normal element of being female, Bitton-Jackson questions it as possible sabotage. Polar opposite to how we envision strait-laced 1940s opinions on women, this scene serves as a stark reminder of how little modesty or discretion remained for all prisoners.
Causing large problems for many, the sun blistered and cracked faces. ‘My ears look enormous because of towering blisters on my earlobes. I look like a clown. A mass of pus sores around my cracked lips makes me look as if I’m wearing a perpetual grin stretching to my ears’. Almost getting used to images of starving people, with sallow eyes and cheeks, who can say they have ever seen the gruesome effects of sun burn? Or heard of prisoners suffering from it? The tragic reality, of even the sun’s effect, is more horrifying than pitying. Seeing this would be terrifying. The prisoners would no longer look human.
The Significance of I Have Lived a Thousand Years Growing up in the Holocaust
Unlike dramatisations for impact, Bitton-Jackson’s depictions are the shocking truths that the world should see. This is the horror of war, repression, and discrimination. People were not just starved or shot; Nazis were stripping prisoners of all human characteristics and worth. Not vague in her depictions; Bitton-Jackson’s recollections are honest, definitive and horrific. These incidents are not unbelievable, because they happened; we should treat them as believable. We know the Syrian government is using chemical weapons, such a chlorine gas and sarin. Sarin, if significantly exposed to, can cause convulsions, paralysis, and death. Without a place to live, in the Middle East, Syrian people are physically exposed. Is it unfathomable to think a Syrian child has sun burn blisters too?
Ensuring Religious Freedom and Compassion
Dedicating her memoir to the children of Israel and for secure peace, Bitton-Jackson claims this is the only guarantee that a Holocaust never occurs again. As a nation, it is important to instil values of understanding. This includes the facts, and the realities, that can come with prejudice views and discrimination. Growing up, children are in a world where hate crimes kill MPs; fear of a wave of immigrants and refugees, helps destroy a relationship with the European Union; and police tell people to remove religious garments, on a beach in France.
Exposing children to violence is controversial, but if every child reads Livia Bitton-Jackson’s I Have Lived a Thousand Years, there will be a lot more compassion and determination to develop a better future for everyone.
I Have Lived a Thousand Years Growing up in the Holocaust, Livia Bitton-Jackson, Great Britain: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 1999. 210 pages.