Multiple stories intersect in book centered on Shoah photo

“The Boy: A Holocaust Story”


It is an emblematic photo of the Shoah: A small boy in knee pants and nice wool cap has his arms in the air as a sign of surrender. Seen more closely, the child’s face is contorted with fear and disbelief. The photo is well-known, but not the boy’s identity or his fate. Did he survive or perish?

Dan Porat, associate professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, has now published “The Boy: A Holocaust Story” (262 pgs., Hill and Wang, $26) as an intimately scaled account of a lethal era during which a Jewish child of six or seven was a dangerous person and the soldier who pointed a rifle at him was considered a hero.

Like many Holocaust photographs, this one is a “gift”of perpetrators. It first appeared in the 125-page “Stroop Report”presented to Heinrich Himmler, which documented the Nazi liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. One of the three, original copies is at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Its title page bears the calligraphic inscription,”The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw Is No More.” The text admits 16 German casualties and claims 56,065 Jews apprehended and destroyed. Included are 52 black and white photographs, mounted on heavy, off-white stock. Underneath the photo of the boy- and the men, women, and children with him- is the prideful inked caption, “Pulled from the bunker by force.”

“The Boy” is a narrative about five people-two Jewish survivors and three SS servicemen-whose lives intersected during spring and summer of 1943. Rivkah Trapkovits was a member of a Zionist kibbutz quartered within the Warsaw ghetto. Tsvi Nussbaum was almost eight, when his family, one of hundreds hiding in Aryan Warsaw, was drawn to the Hotel Polski with a falsely advertised promise of emigration to South America or Palestine. (Nussbaum is one of seven or eight persons who have, with less than compelling evidence, claimed identity for The Boy.)  Josef Blösche is the soldier pointing his rifle at The Boy in the iconic photo. Franz Konrad was an officer of the SS in charge of warehouses stocked with confiscated Jewish possessions, who took the photos displayed in the Stroop Report. SS General Jürgen Stroop was the commander of the operation to liquidate the Warsaw ghetto.

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Some 60 vintage, black-and-white photographs are incorporated into the text-without captions. Instead illustration credits are awkwardly placed at the very end of the book. And surprisingly, a photo of young Nussbaum, which is available on the web, is not included in the book.

The author has found compelling materials, testimonies, diary entries and letters. Although true historians and others may think Porat panders to popular readership by presenting scenes and details that are in the realm of possible, some are inspired purely by imagination. Still more unusual for a researched historical account, the author sometimes explicitly passes off a composite as the thoughts or experiences of one historical personality. For instance, we read in awful detail that while the ghetto burned, Rivka Trapkovits was desperately driven to several underground hiding places. Meanwhile, the endnotes acknowledge that other people, not Trapkovits, gave the testimony on which these passages are based.

The Warsaw Ghetto Resistance is often presented as a Maccabean chapter in Holocaust history, when for an entire month, a group of starving, ill-equipped partisans held out against the well-supplied Nazi troops. This book mentions organized, Jewish resistance only in passing although it does include awesome courage, as when Trapkovits escapes certain death at Majdanek by leaping from a moving train. And the book offers another satisfaction: the story of each of the three Nazis in Porat’s investigation ends with trial and execution. Otherwise the book describes terrible suffering and brutality against the Jews. And “The Boy” confronts us with Stroop’s perspective of an operation to rout out a mass of “bandits” block by block-from the 1.5 square mile area into which 380,000 Polish Jews had been pressed-by setting the buildings on fire.

As angles and corners of the Holocaust still make their way into print and film, theories continue to be expounded about how the most cultured of nations could have performed the singular atrocities of the Holocaust. Within the main text, Porat does not engage in discussion of any universal hypotheses. Instead the author develops the histories of Stroop, Konrad and Blösche with measured diligence.

He begins with each man’s adolescence and threads their stories into the center of the destruction of Warsaw’s Jewish community. The book’s most significant accomplishment is its demonstration of how the brutal crusade for Aryan supremacy gave little men with humble lives a way to distinguish themselves.