Museum Fellowship Book Reviews

 
 

book cover used by permission of Oxford University PressDry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood
Nechama Tec
New York:
Oxford University Press, 1984

Reviewed by:
Karen Ferris-Fearnside

Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Senior High School
Burnt Hills, New York

 
 

Nechama Tec was eight years old when the Germans and Russians invaded Poland in 1939. Her father, Roman Bawnik, had owned a chemical factory and had felt confident that life for him, his wife, and two daughters, would probably remain the same. Within days, the factory was seized, Mr. Bawnik became an employee rather than an owner, Mrs. Bawnik became a housekeeper for the wife of a high-ranking Nazi official, and the girls began being tutored because they could no longer go to public school. The nightmare that was to last for the next six years began. 

Ms. Tec describes the disappearances of friends and relatives through Aktions, the beatings and murders on the streets, and the goal for the Germans of making Lublin "Judenfrei" (free of Jews). Since Nechama and her sister could "pass" as Aryan Christians using false papers, the family had to find a place for them to stay safely away from their hometown where people knew that they were Jewish. After a series of moves from one family to another, the two sisters, using the names Krysia and Danka, posed as the orphaned nieces of Marta and Tosiek Homar. In return for the Homar's protection, they had to feed the entire family and pay the rent. In exchange for being paid to "keep cats" (an expression used for Jews who tried to survive by passing), the Homars would also hide Nechama's parents. This had been a family decision because it was obvious that her parents not only looked Semitic, but they both had poor grammar and inflection. 

Her autobiographical sketch of her war year experiences, from age eight to fourteen, portrays the hardships but also the necessity for a child to mature and face life's challenges in order to keep herself and her family alive. In many ways this book is a wonderful study to compare and contrast with Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. Both teenagers grew up during the war in somewhat similar circumstances. Both had belonged to fairly affluent families before the war and now had to cope with food shortages and black marketeering. Both girls also had to learn to depend on others for their survival. These experiences are also an excellent basis for an analysis of the concept pertaining to whether the hiders would qualify as "righteous Gentiles." It should become apparent to the readers that while both the Homars and the four protectors of the Franks risked their lives to hide people, some of whom survived, the Homars demanded payment for their services. Nechama Tec raises a moral issue over the money that she was forced to earn selling baked goods (made by her mother while she was in hiding) in order to assure that her parents were not revealed. These issues, about man's humanity towards other men, could place your own students in the position of having to decide what they may have done in a similar situation. 

Since the paperback edition is only eight chapters or 242 pages of fairly large print, it is also easy to read quickly. Additional uses of the book could include a geography lesson on Poland, historical perspective on the Germans as conquerors versus the Russians, the locations of camps in Europe during the war, and a study of the Nazi hierarchy. The 1994 edition also has an epilogue to let the readers know what happened to Ms. Tec and her family after the war. I highly recommend this story for grade 10 European History or the equivalent course.

 

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