By the end of the World War II, the Nazis had taken the lives of six million Jews, over one million of them children and teenaged youths. Due to the fact that children were considered non-productive and symbolized the continuation of Jewish existence, they were among the first victims who were sent to their deaths in order to ensure the total destruction of the Jewish people.
Only recently has the historiography of the Shoah begun to focus on the issue of the fate of Jewish children, raising many important and interesting questions. What was the Nazi policy toward children? What was the impact of anti-Jewish legislation on Jewish children? How did Jewish communities and institutions cope with the effects of Nazi policy on children? How did families rear their children at a time of increasing difficulties and dangers and how did adults view Jewish children during the different stages of the Nazi antisemitic policies?
From the day the Nazis came to power Jewish children became victims of antisemitic legislation, first in Germany and, as time passed, in every other country the Germans conquered or forged an alliance. The parents and families of these children were unable to grant them the security and protection they needed. Jewish children were separated form their non-Jewish playmates and expelled from state-sponsored schools. They saw their parents loose the right to support their families, and often witnessed the descent of the family unit into an abyss of despair.
As the war broke out and antisemitic legislation worsened, the suffering of Jewish children increased: many were doomed to the horrific suffering of the ghettos. There, cut off from the world, they lived in the shadow of endless terror and violence. Many children became central for survival, for example as smugglers.
When the deportations to the death camps begun, a chasm opened up in the lives of Jewish children. Throughout Nazi Europe they fled and hid, separated from their parents and loved ones. Some of them found refuge in the homes of non-Jews. Many were hidden in convents, monasteries and boarding schools. Others were forced to roam through forests and villages, hunting for food and relying entirely on their own ingenuity and resourcefulness. Many were forced to live under false identity. Some were so young when separated from their parents that they forgot their real names and identity. Of course not all Jewish children were able to find a refuge and many were caught and sent to the death camps. Their young age made most the first prey of the Nazi killing machine.
Focusing on the topic of children enables researchers to enlarge the understanding of crucial issues, such as: the nature and totality of the Nazi antisemitic policy; Jewish responses to the persecution; the dilemmas faced by Jews seeking for rescue; the responses of the perpetrators and bystanders; the nature and the factors that influenced rescue operations during the Shoah, such as hiding in religious institutions or with Christian foster parents, living under a false identity, etc.; The development of survival skills in different contexts such as ghetto, forest, camps etc.
Important primary sources for the study of children have been ignored for many decades and include official papers and documents, diaries and memoirs, private correspondence between family members. The personal materials are extremely interesting when focusing on social aspects. Diaries can for example show the increasing hardships that affected children in the different stages of the Shoah from being separated from the society to the painful separation from their families; they give important insights into the ways children dealt with the increasing deterioration of their life, how did they cope with their continually changing universe, both practically and emotionally. The diaries can also demonstrate that children played a central role in the struggle for survival as well as maintaining family cohesion.
In addition, as time moves further away from the actual events of the Shoah, more and more survivors are ready to testify about past experiences. Most of these survivors are former children, who only now feel ready to tell their stories. Via these thousands of testimonies, new insights into the lives of children are being discovered. The diaries and testimonies shed light on how Jewish children and youth viewed their peers, their responsibilities toward society and their future in the shadow of war and persecution.
Last but not least, more archival material dealing with children, mainly from the former USSR, has only recently become available for public review. This brings researchers to investigate new fields as well as to reassess previously held assumptions and conclusions.
The historical investigation of children during the Shoah is important for it keeps alive the memory of those who died and safeguards the experiences of those who survived. It enables us to understand, more fully and more extensively, the impact of the Shoah.
Since 2000 the International Institute has been locating researchers who have been working on the topics of children during the Shoah. Through the generosity of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, some of those projects have been or are soon to be published. They include:
Dr. Nahum Bogner – The Rescue of Jewish Children with Assumed Identities in Poland
This research was published as At the Mercy of Strangers. Hidden under false identities in cities, on farms and in convents and monasteries, young Jewish children survived the war by the grace of kindhearted strangers. Their story is told by an historian who survived the war as a child. He describes how the emotional closeness so essential for survival made it so hard for the children to leave their host families after the war.
Ms. Niva Aschkenazi – Children Homes in the American Zone of Occupation Between 1945-1949 (Forthcoming)
Ms. Emouna Nachmany-Gafny – The Retrieval of Jewish Children who were hidden in Christian Families in Poland
This research was published under the title Dividing Hearts: The Removal of Jewish Children from Gentile Families in Poland in the Immediate Post-Holocaust Years. Personal stories of Polish rescuers and Jewish children include “tragedies with no winners”. Research on issues involved in the search for hidden Jewish children in the postwar period in Poland, raises questions such as: Why so many organizations? How did they operate? How did the Polish courts deal with the issue? What was the stance of the Church? How did the children react to the transition?
Dr. Chana Livnat – The Attempt to Install a Jewish Identity in Jewish Children During the Third Reich (Published in Hebrew)
Dr. Iael Nidam Orvieto – The Children of Villa Emma (Forthcoming)