Innocent Witnesses
Childhood Memories of World War II
Marilyn Yalom, Edited by Ben Yalom, Foreword by Meg Waite Clayton



MARILYN YALOM was a community-maker, a bringer-together of people, a supporter of others, and a writer about the kind of friendship and love that rested at the core of her unfathomably generous heart. To all she did, she brought her particularly intense and careful way of listening, a tireless championing of others, and a delightfully mischievous sense of humor. All three are evident in the pages of this new book—a book which might come as a surprise to readers who know her only through her writing. It was in fact, at first glance, a bit of a surprise to me.

Marilyn was a feminist, early and often and wholeheartedly. She was one of the organizers and a director of what is now the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, “its real, on-the-ground working founder,” historian Edith Gelles says, and Deborah Rhode, a subsequent director, calls her “its true leader.” As the institute’s director, Marilyn championed women generally and individually, bringing in visiting scholars and organizing conferences and programs to amplify female voices.

An admirer of the female-driven French salon culture of centuries past, Marilyn also hosted, with poet Diane Middlebrook, a salon of San Francisco Bay Area women journalists, novelists, poets, nonfiction writers, and academics across all fields. Men were invited only once each year. I won’t soon forget the horror I felt when, during a poetry reading at the first salon Marilyn invited me to attend, I was moved to quietly weeping among all these swanky strangers. But she invited me back, and I don’t believe I launched a novel afterward without Marilyn hosting a salon to celebrate, one of the many ways she supported so many of us. Silicon Valley historian and salonnière Leslie Berlin recalls how, when she was “a lowly graduate student . . . not in Marilyn’s department, in her field, or even working in the same century,” Marilyn often checked in to see how her dissertation was coming and, later, was “always there with a kind word when I had something published somewhere.” German-born author Renate Stendhal describes the salon as something she’d “never seen outside Europe . . . a place to call home in terms of warmth, hospitality, intellect, culture, community, writing (and baking!).”

Marilyn’s prior books, too, largely focused on women. Since her 1985 debut, Maternity, Mortality, and the Literature of Madness, her titles alone tell us we will be reading about female lives. Blood Sisters. A History of the Breast. A History of the Wife. The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship. Compelled to Witness: Women’s Memoirs of the French Revolution.

In Birth of the Chess Queen, she explores the transformation of the sole female piece on the board, originally the game’s weakest, into its strongest power. It is something Marilyn herself did in life and in her work: not just connecting us with each other—connecting women, especially—but also lifting us up.

Of course, many of these earlier books, as well as the last three published in her lifetime, are as steeped in history as is this new one. Her The American Resting Place, a collaboration with her photographer son, Reid, examines four hundred years of history through a look at burial grounds. How the French Invented Love takes readers on a journey through centuries of French literature. The Amorous Heart explores the heart as metaphor and icon across two thousand years.

But a collection of first-person narratives of people who were children during World War II?

Why this book? Why now?

In its final chapter, “When Memory Speaks,” Marilyn tells us, “I suspect that I have written this book, long after the end of World War II, because I have carried a lifelong sense of debt to the millions who suffered instead of me. And I despair as I see how many others continue to suffer.”

Here, she does what she always did so well in her writing and in life: she brings diverse elements together, and finds connection. She uses those connections to explain and explore. In exploring memories from nearly a century ago, she allows us a greater understanding of what it means to be human in this world today.

This is a Marilyn Yalom book, so have no fear: even on this literary turf of war story so often dominated by male voices, she finds space for female experience. Three pieces are written by women, including one by Marilyn herself. And the pieces by men, too, include stories of motherhood.

But more importantly, she explores that other theme of Birth of the Chess Queen: the conversion of weakness into strength. Here, she demonstrates that transformation through the stories of people who lived through World War II as vulnerable children and emerged to become important thinkers, teachers, and leaders. Not flawless. Not undamaged. Not without weaknesses. But ultimately strong.

In the opening memoir, “A Sheltered Vision,” Marilyn considers her own childhood in Washington, DC, during the war, where “it never occurred” to her “that Jews could be a special target of attack.” She ate less sugar but never went hungry. Her behavior was questioned by a teacher who frowned upon her mother working in the war effort—criticism Marilyn even as a child shrugged off, a lovely prelude to her own partnering with Irvin Yalom to raise four children while they pursued dual careers. The “innocence” of her childhood was shattered only after the war ended, when her family learned that her aunt, uncle, and cousin in Poland had died in a concentration camp. Living in France herself seven years later, she saw the lasting devastation wreaked by war.

Philippe Martial was five and had newly lost his father to paratyphoid when his family moved from the city of Djibouti in what was then French Somaliland back to his grandparents’ Normandy home just before the war began. He writes in “Under German Occupation” of his experience living through the war in Fleury-sur-Andelle, near the city of Rouen which was nearly destroyed by Allied bombs. German soldiers occupied and ravaged their home. He grew up cold and hungry. His mother used burnt wood ash for soap. His is a childhood any of us would grieve to have our sons and daughters experience—yet one he is apologetic for mentioning, given what happened to others in the Holocaust.

This is a theme that surfaces in one way or another in so many of these narratives: My pain was nothing compared to that of others. My task is to channel my pain into a way to save future others who were not saved this time, but ought to have been.

“At the end of my fifth year of life,” says Stina Katchadourian, “I knew two things for certain: as long as I could see Nunni at her desk writing a letter, my Papi was alive,” and that clear sunny days meant night bombings. Her mother contributed her wedding ring to the Finnish war effort and received in exchange a plain iron one, which she wore “like a badge of honor, all her life.” Katchadourian’s story, told in “Against Two Enemies,” is one of flight; her mother trying to keep her family safe in a country “squeezed between Russia and Germany” while her father commanded troops at the front. The story of how she comes to make friends in her temporary war home is among the most charming in this collection, as is the story of the send-off her teacher and classmates give her when she leaves to return home.

It is another thread that runs through so many of these stories: What is it to leave a home?

Susan Groag Bell, who was baptized in the Lutheran church but defined by German law as Jewish, fled a privileged life in Czechoslovakia for England. She traveled with her mother, believing her father would follow. In “Into Exile,” she writes of waving excitedly to her father as he stood on the train station platform with her dog, never to see him again. Her war years were a challenge, spent living apart from her mother, who worked as a servant in their new life. Bell, a good student, struggled to find a comfortable place in which to learn. She settled finally into a school of Czech refugees, and returned to her home country with her classmates after the war. Her homecoming was not a success, but nor was it an easy thing to get back to England and her mother.

What is it to leave a home, only to find, on your return, that home is no longer home? That you have no place to settle? No place to become what you imagined you might be?

And what kind of society chooses to separate a child from her mother at such a time, or at any time?

“Within the War Machine” is one of the book’s most compelling narratives—and its most disturbing. Winfried Weiss, a child of a member of the German Ordnungspolizei, the SS “green police,” spent the war years haunted by a horror story he overheard: a “nest of Jews” kidnapped and killed Christian children, whose “small carcasses” were found “in a kosher butcher shop hanging from hooks like pigs and cows.” Yet the end of the war is only the middle of his story. “Our capture came fast; one moment we were citizens of Hitler’s Reich, and in the next we belonged to a new world,” he writes. “The Americans swept in silently through the garden, surrounding us.”

Marilyn shows us in her careful presentation of Weiss’s narrative that, although there is evil enough in the world to wash us all in pain, the children of even the worst of us begin as innocents.

Irvin Yalom and Robert Berger’s conversation in “Escaping the Nyilas” explores a friendship between two men, neither of whom can bear to talk of the Holocaust until an event in Berger’s present brings back his memories. As a thirteen-year-old Hungarian Jew, he escaped a ghetto roundup and thereafter lived alone, passing as a gentile and evading exile to a concentration camp. He was fifteen when he was apprehended by a Nyilas—one of the Hungarian Nazi “militia of armed thugs who roamed the streets rounding up Jews and either killing them on the spot or taking them to their Party houses for torture and slaughter.”

How heavy the burden of what we do or fail to do weighs on us, we see here. The fact that we are children doesn’t save us from the guilt of our need to survive, or from the guilt of having survived.

And in “Resistance,” French Ambassador and Consul General Alain Briottet remembers living in Vichy France, the child of a mother who regularly set off on her bicycle to coordinate connections between the many resistance movements, while his father was held prisoner in a German labor camp. It is a gorgeously detailed story, its ending one of the most moving moments in the book. An everyday gesture. A touch. A moment of grace that reminds us of the joy in the simple act of being together.

In connecting these stories, Marilyn bridges the gap between the child of a prominent Nazi and the niece of a victim of the Holocaust. In Germany, in Hungary, in Finland, and in Washington, DC, she shows us, a parent is to love and to be loved, yes, but also a teacher of morals, a person to admire, to learn from, to believe, to aspire to be. Right and wrong, goodness and evil, even love and hate—these are concepts defined for us as children by the adults in our lives. Concepts that, once learned, we often take unquestioned to our graves.

Innocent Witnesses is a call to the adults of today to challenge our certainties. To understand that what we teach today might lead to a lifetime of pain in unlearning. To see where unbending belief can lead when visited upon children unequipped to defend themselves against “patriotism,” propaganda, and lies.

Marilyn explores, in the process, the nature of memory itself. Canadian author Margaret Atwood wrote in The Handmaid’s Tale, “But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see.” Memory “has its own logic,” Marilyn Yalom writes here. She shares then—very near the end of the book—a story from long after the war was over, of her own mother, “in order to die peacefully,” chasing an alternative memory about her sister who was murdered in the Holocaust.

Much like memory itself, this remembrance works as a sort of literary kaleidoscope through which to examine the chapters preceding it. Each memory is that of a single person. Some are steeped in research. Some are corroborated by siblings or others. Many seem simultaneously both impossible and true. It is the nature of memory: whether any detail is true is less important than the whole we carry forward, often buried so deeply that we might choose forgetting as the easier path.

But of course, we cannot forget. To forget is to allow the worst of history to happen again. To remember is both to heal and to inoculate.

And so Innocent Witnesses is, in the end, a call to look at the present moment, to imagine where any road might lead when it begins with separating families, closing borders, or allowing to go unchallenged the prejudice now prevalent even among the chess queens of the world’s most powerful nations. These stories set in the prolonged violence of a war years past teach us how violence of any type visited on our children—drug wars in our streets, school shootings, acts of terror against people of another color or another faith—will echo through generations. It is a devastating illumination of the long-lasting impact of any moment of violence, including the one we live in today.

Yet it is also an homage to the fundamental goodness of the human spirit, and of the strength even children find at their core to carry them through. It is a life-repairing act of literary generosity, collecting and connecting diverse experiences into a narrative that is, in this particular moment in history, as necessary as it is inspiring.

April 2020