Sheva Glas-Wiener

Title: Children of the Ghetto
Author: Sheva Glas-Wiener
Publisher: Globe Press
Place of publication: Melbourne
Year of Publication: 1983
Location of Book: Makor Jewish Community Library, Melbourne Jewish Community Library, Melbourne
Cities/town/camps: PolandLodzMarysin, Radoszyce
Note: those cities/towns/camps underlined are those which are most central to the narrative

‘Children of the Ghetto’ was originally published in Yiddish in 1974, and was translated by the author and Shirley Young in 1983. 220 pages in length, the book tells of Sheva Glas-Wiener’s years in the Lodz Ghetto as a teacher in an orphanage. Though written in the first person, the book is mostly devoted to describing the children who came under Sheva’s care. The first two chapters (pages 1-9) tell briefly of Sheva’s life before World War II and the beginnings of her career as a teacher, as well as introducing the orphanage and ‘setting the scene’ for the rest of the book. The remaining thirty five chapters (211 pages) describe the years in the orphanage during the war, introducing the reader to the children who were under Sheva’s care and telling their stories.

Sheva was born into a family that struggled to make ends meet, in the town of Radoszyce. In the summer of 1938 she graduated as a school teacher, much to the delight of her parents. By this stage, her family was living in Lodz. Around the time that World War II began, Sheva’s family decided to move back to their hometown, as they thought they would be safer there. Sheva, meanwhile, decided to remain in Lodz where she worked as a teacher in an orphanage from mid-1940. The orphanage, which housed 1600 children, was a part of a town called Marysin. This area, slightly nicer than the main area of Lodz Ghetto, was nevertheless included by the Germans in the area which made up the ghetto because a main road that passed through the town was the only route to the Jewish cemetery.

In total, Sheva would end up working at the orphanage in Marysin for two, heart-wrenching years. The children and adolescents under her care came from different countries and from different backgrounds. Some had been richer, some poorer. Some came from more traditional homes, some from secular homes. Some had lived outside the ghetto and some hadn’t. In ‘Children of the Ghetto’, Sheva tries to tell the stories of as many of these children as possible, as she experienced them.

Sheva tells of Ruth, the poor girl, who takes Betti, the rich newcomer, under her wing to help her survive. They become firm friends until one day when Betti is shot by a German soldier. Ruth offers her own blood for a transfusion – against doctor’s advice – and ends up losing her own life, whilst saving Betti’s. Sheva also tells of Sonia and Shindl, two girls who became close friends because they shared a ward in the orphanage’s ‘hospital’. On her fifteenth birthday, Sonia is given a wheelchair by the other girls in the orphanage – she is a polio victim. This is one of many moving moments that Sheva relates. She also tells of the heroism of some of the children, who, after all, were living every day surrounded by poverty, hunger and death. Interspersed in the narrative are details of Sheva’s own life during those years; like many of the children, she lost her family and many friends in the ‘deportations’ to the concentration camps.

Due to the isolation of the orphanage, when mass deportations began in August 1942, many still did not realise that deportation meant certain death. It was at this point that most of Sheva’s children were deported. She and a small number of children manage to escape after most had been deported, and found their way to Sheva’s cousin, who offered them shelter. She does not describe the course of events between then and liberation that allowed her to survive.

‘Children of the Ghetto’ is a moving, captivating, powerful book. Sheva vividly and eloquently describes events and conversations, and brings the characters of the children in the orphanage to life. She states early in the book: “Although so many years have passed those children have never grown any older. I see them still as I saw them then, in our hut on Karol-Miarki Street. They wear the same old clothes, the same worn shoes. I see their faces, their quaint thirties’ hair styles and their frail figures. In my memory I still see their eyes looking with hope and trust towards the world of tomorrow.”