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Volume 17, No.1 / Spring 2003            
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust
Writings of Nechama Tec - Dry Tears (6th grade through college)

About Testimonies

Importance of Testimonies in Holocaust Education

Using Testimony in the Classroom

Recorded Testimonies of Survivors (1946)
Nechama Tec


Historical Background: Jews in Poland

Writings of Nechama Tec
  • Intro
  • Dry Tears (6th Grade - College)
      • Overview
      • Questions & Activities
Dry Tears: The Story of A Lost Childhood
by Nechama Tec

Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood is the true story of Nechama Tec, an eight year old, passing as a Catholic girl, hidden in Poland during the Holocaust. This memoir, written through the eyes of Nechama as a young adult, provides insights into what it was like for a Jewish child to grow up amid the terror and uncertainty of Nazi-occupied Poland between 1939 and 1945.

For Nechama as with most Holocaust survivors, her experiences under the German occupation left an indelible mark on her life. Even though she tried to repress these memories in the decades immediately following the Holocaust, they eventually became so powerful that she was compelled to write about these years.

Nechama and her family, the Bawniks, were living in Lublin, Poland, when the war began in 1939. Over the next six years, her family managed to survive by hiding with Christians in several locations passing as Catholics, including Warsaw, the town of Otwock, and Kielce. Nechama and her sister were able to "pass" in the Christian world because they did not have a "Jewish" appearance and because they spoke Polish fluently; their parents, especially their mother, had to stay out of sight due to their imperfect Polish. As Nechama explains, the slightest intonation in speech that sounded Yiddish (language spoken by Jews in Poland) might reveal the family's Jewish identity. At the end of the war in 1945 the Bawniks were one of three Jewish families in Lublin that had survived intact. Exposed to virulent antisemitism in postwar Poland, the Bawniks left. Nechama eventually came to the United States.

Four major themes recur in the memoir:

    Sense of family

First and most memorable for Nechama was the experience of hiding. Jews passing as Catholics in the hostile Christian world, observes Nechama, needed to alter their identities entirely: this entailed name changes, memorizing new sets of relatives, learning the prayers and rituals of Catholicism, being vigilant not to say or do anything that would suggest their Jewishness. In many cases, Nechama kept silent in order not to divulge her true identity. While living in the town of Otwock with a Polish family, one of her "hosts" resented her for going out and buying bread in a public place. As Nechama explains:

    For a while after that I avoided all stores. Eventually I did go out again to buy bread, but I became more cautious, taking care to make all my purchases as far away from our section of town as possible. An extra layer of secretiveness, combined with a fear of discovery, became part of my being. All my life revolved around hiding; hiding thoughts, hiding feelings, hiding my activities, hiding information. Sometimes I felt like a sort of fearful automaton, always on the alert, always dreading that something fatal might be revealed. ( 109)

Also sharply etched on Nechama's memory was living as a Jew amid antisemitism. Before the war the Bawniks had encountered some hostility from the dominant Polish society, but they lived in the same neighborhood as Poles. During the war and the German occupation of Poland, however, hatred of Jews reached such extremes that former Polish friends could easily turn against Jews. The power of this hatred immediately affected people Nechama knew and loved. Her tutor, Hela Trachtenberg nicknamed "Czuczka," was killed in one of the Nazi raids in Lublin.

Nothing more strongly reminded Nechama of the antisemitism that permeated her society than the incident with Janka. While Nechama was "passing" as a Catholic girl in Kielce, she developed a close friendship with the Polish girl Janka. One afternoon as the two sat on a hill, Janka began telling Nechama [then living under the Polish name Krysia] all the rumors she had heard of Jews "catching Christian children, murdering them, and using their blood for matzoh." Nechama asked her gently: "Do you really believe Jews do that? Have you ever seen it happen: 'I could see that she was startled, and there was a long silence. Then she turned to me and said angrily, "How strange, Krysia, that you should ask such a thing. Everybody knows Jews do that, but they're smart, they do it secretly! So how could I have seen such a thing?'" (144)

Even at the end of the war when the Nazis had been defeated, the Bawniks were reminded of the persistence of antisemitism. The Homars, a family in Kielce who had taken the Bawniks in and showed them kindness for two years, requested that the Bawniks never reveal that they [the Homars] had helped them during the war. "[W]e were stunned," writes Nechama. "Even if they did this because they feared disapproval from friends and neighbors," Nechama continued: "We were upset because they themselves failed to reassure us that they were glad we were alive and felt gratified by the part they played in our rescue." (214)

Another theme is the survival of family. From the outset of the war her father and mother had stressed the importance of the family doing whatever was necessary for survival. Mr. Bawnik used his remaining resources to locate Poles willing to take in his family and, when it was necessary, Mr. and Mrs. Bawnik made the decision to separate from their daughters. Nechama and her sister were not totally aware of why they were separated from their parents and felt tremendous relief when the family was finally reunited. Nechama recalls her complete joy at rejoining her family in Kielce. "Everything looked so promising and so free of suffering that all thoughts of danger disappeared and nothing mattered but the reunion. My mother cried and cried. My father smiled and kept looking at me intensely, as if he wanted to know how I really was, how I felt inside." In reflecting on the long months in Kielce, Nechama says that what helped her get through was the presence of her family.

Resilience is another theme running through Dry Tears. No matter how many set backs the family faced, Mr. Bawnik found the strength and courage to continue his efforts to save the family. Nothing deterred his belief that his family would survive the Nazi ordeal, and, in turn, his belief gave sustenance to his wife and daughters. While the family was hiding in Warsaw, for example, they learned that the SS was raiding a number of apartments in search of Jews and quickly arranged to move to another location on the outskirts of Warsaw. Again in the town of Otwock, Mr. Bawnik decided that the family must be split up in order to avoid arrest and deportation. Towards the end of the war when the family money was running out, the Bawniks once again demonstrated resilience: they developed a black-market business in baking rolls and sent Nechama to the market to distribute the product.

Dry Tears is the story of one family's experiences during the Holocaust. The memoir provides an in-depth description of life in a society of hatred and intolerance which, in turn, offers a point of departure for students to discuss the dangers of prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination in past and present societies-topics required in the New Jersey Holocaust mandate as well as in other states. Moreover, Nechama Tec's is a skilled storyteller who leaves the reader with memorable figures from her life and times: her teacher Hela Trachtenberg, her father and mother, her sister, Jewish friends of the family, and Polish helpers.

Dimensions Online
Volume 18, No. 1, Fall 2004
Yehuda Bauer

Volume 17, No. 2, Fall 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust--Part II

Volume 17, No.1, Spring 2003
Using Testimonies for Researching and Teaching about the Holocaust-- Part I

Volume 16, No. 1, Fall 2002
Remembrance and Commemoration of Two Catastrophes: September 11th and the Holocaust

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