PW: The original edition of The Lost Childhood was published in 1989 and was written for adults. What prompted you to revisit it now?
YN: I have never stopped telling what I experienced as a Jewish child in Poland during the Holocaust. I see myself as a messenger of the dead, to speak for the million Jewish children who were murdered by the Germans. This is my mission. I am a psychiatrist and a professor at Cornell Medical School, but when Reagan went to Bitburg, I stopped my work so I could go and demonstrate.
About six years ago, I met Gottfried Wagner, who has repudiated the Nazi sympathies of his ancestors—he is the great-grandson of the composer Richard Wagner. My friendship with him is an important one. He and I make appearances together [at schools], presenting what we call a dialogue between the child of perpetrators and a child survivor. He is also the stage director of the opera that is being composed based on my memoir.
PW: What's different about the way you tell your story to an adult audience and the way you tell it to younger readers?
YN: Liz Szabla, my editor, and I cut it up into smaller chapters, to avoid "overdosing" the readers. And I was persuaded to take out some of the sexual violence. It's not that I don't believe young readers should know about these things, but I was persuaded that details about sexual violence would present a problem for some schools and libraries.
PW: How were you able to recall episodes from so long ago in such detail?
YN: I am always aggressively pursuing the authenticity of experience. My rage against the Germans keeps it alive—my experiences, the pain inflicted on me—and my intense reaction is my way of coping with my tragedy, of mastering it.
PW: How did you tell your children about your wartime experiences?
YN: I have three sons and a daughter. Many [Holocaust] survivors protect their children by not talking about it, and the children protect their parents by not asking questions. And then the children don't know their parents, and then they don't know themselves.
My children grew up knowing. We can talk about it. Once, when we were at a restaurant, my son Danny said, "Dad, what's the matter? Ten minutes into dinner, and you haven't used the H word."
PW: You are now in private practice as well as teaching at Cornell, but in your epilogue, you write that your former position as director of child psychiatry at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center had at times made you feel that you were almost reliving your past. How do you think your childhood experiences have influenced your work?
YN: Very few people were willing to accept the position [at Sloan-Kettering] because it was so painful and overwhelming. But I am driven to help people and to understand what makes people suffer. I am not trying to make people feel better, nor to make them forget. I help them, children and adults, verbalize and acknowledge what has happened to them, and in this way master their pain.