This is a haunting jewel of a memoir. It is about love, early life, and, incidentally, the Holocaust. Jona Oberski was born in Amsterdam in 1938. His parents were Jewish emigrants who in the early '40s were hoping for permission to uproot again. They wanted to emigrate to Palestine to escape the Nazi occupation. Instead, father, mother, and child were rounded up with hundreds of others and sent by train to concentration camps: first Westerbork, then Bergen-Belsen.
The Holocaust and the concentration camps have been presented to us since the close of World War II in thousands of words and images. We have been offered the big picture, the personal account, the documentary, the work of the imagination. And yet the Holocaust, as a historical occurrence, remains largely beyond the powers of the mind to grasp and hold. What is extraordinary about this memoir is its power to take a reader into the event, so that he is no longer stymied by the monumental proportions, nor anesthetized by the sheer abundance of all he has seen, heard, and felt before.
Oberski's Holocaust is not That Aberrant Period in Human History, nor is it a nightmare era in the context of a life in progress. The child narrator of this story had little or no experience of life before Naziism. He leads readers through the streets of occupied Amsterdam and the confines of the concentration camp with that naive vision common to children, who find astonishment in day-to-day events while they accept the total disruption of all normal routines of life as perfectly normal. Thus, being allowed to type on his father's typewriter is a historical event for the little boy; being shipped to the concentration camp, part of the inexplicable way of things.
Here is the Holocaust made palpable. The small boy with his sheltered outlook has a modest scope that leaves out the general, the sweeping, the purposeful brutality, and the graphically horrible; a reader feels their sinister presence all the more. The process of settling in and adapting to life in the camps is vivid, too. The love of father, mother, and son for one another glows on the pages.
Oberski's father died in Belsen. His mother survived until only just after the liberation. The child was adopted, and there lies another tale. Like so much else in this book, that tale is not told but rather implied. The patient love of his adoptive parents brought him back from darkness into life.
According to the brief biography on the book jacket, the author lives in Amsterdam, where he works in ''an institute for nuclear physics.'' His ''Childhood,'' with its muted and elliptical vision, takes the Holocaust a step beyond the tragic. Ralph Manheim's translation never reads like one, and what remains when the book is closed is an impression of love that persisted and won.