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The Difficulties Involved in the Rescue of Children By Non-Jews – Before and After Liberation

Sandra Rosenfeld
  1. Nahum Bogner, At the Mercy of Strangers (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem Publications, 2009), p. 15.
  2. Zegota was a Polish organization that was established in December 1942 (Rada Pomocy Zydom, The Council for Aid to Jews). The Zegota was active in Warsaw, Krakow, Lwow, Zamosc, and Lublin. Its members worked with all their might mainly after the great deportation that took place in the summer of 1942 in Warsaw. Before the war there was a working relationship between the Jewish welfare institutions and the staffs of two departments in the Municipality of Warsaw (Welfare and Assistance to Children and Youth). This relationship was maintained after the Warsaw ghetto was sealed. The Polish municipal workers were allowed to enter the ghetto and some of them, like Irena Sendler and Jadwiga Piotrowska, helped to smuggle children out of the ghetto and take them to a hiding place. After the summer of 1942, they tried to do this in a more organized way. There were many aspects that needed to be taken into consideration: the Polish rescuers had to prepare papers, find ways to hide the children, exit the ghetto without being caught, find sources of funding, and prepare the children by getting them acquainted with Christian traditions and training them to hide their Jewishness.
  3. The organization kept records of children who had been moved to the Aryan side and, in order not to endanger them, the information was hidden in bottles which were buried in a garden so that later on the children's identities could be established. After the war, however, only a few of these bottles were found.
  4. Emunah Nachmany Gafny, Dividing Hearts. The removal of Jewish Children from Gentile Families in Poland in the Immediate Post Holocaust Years (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem,2009), p. 55. 
  5. To read more about the rescue of Jewish children in Polish convents during the Holocaust, please see.
  6. Emmunah Nachmany Gafny, Dividing Hearts, p. 46. 
  7. In order to survive and be less vulnerable, it was important for the children living under false identities to know as much as possible of routine Polish life.
  8. Testimony of Zvika Dror in At the Mercy of Strangers, The Rescue of Jewish Children with Assumed Identities in Poland, by Nahum Bogner (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem Publications, 2009), pp. 300-301.
  9. Ibid., p. 301.
  10. Nahum Bogner, At the Mercy of Strangers, p. 209.
  11. Ibid., p. 306.
  12. Ibid., p. 230.
  13. Yeshayahu Drucker was a Polish Jew, born in 1914, who had grown up in a religious-Zionist home. During the war, in the Soviet Union, he joined the Polish People's Army, which was under Soviet command and there he organized prayers for his fellow Jews.
  14. Nahum Bogner, At the Mercy of Strangers, p. 292.
  15. Ibid., pp. 293-294.
  16. Ibid., p. 294. 
  17. Testimony of Yosef Silva in At the Mercy of Strangers, by Nahum Bogner, pp. 305-306.
  18. When children arrived in the orphanages, their hair was often infested with lice so the staff would cut their hair in order to prevent the spread of lice. 
  19. Nahum Bogner, At the Mercy of Strangers, p. 300.
  20. Sara Avinun, Rising from the Abyss: An Adult's Struggle with Her Trauma as a Child in the Holocaust (Hod Hasharon: Astrolog, 2005), p.183. 
  21. Testimony of Yeshayahu Drucker in At the Mercy or Strangers by Nahum Bogner, p. 294-295.

In many of the countries of Nazi-occupied Europe, Jewish parents tried to save their children by hiding them with non-Jews who were brave enough to help. When the war ended, these non-Jewish rescuers, together with the children they had hidden, found themselves in a very difficult reality. This article will try to present a glimpse into the complexity of the situation of the children at war's end. What did liberation hold for them? What happened to their identity with the changes of names, homes (parents) and religions they had experienced? What was to be done with the children whose parents never returned? Should they be sent to orphanages or left with their Christian rescuers? What was to be done with the children whose parents never returned, but whose relatives did? Could they "come back" to estranged relatives, unknown and sometimes unwanted people? Could these children return to Judaism, which for them represented danger and fear? What did it mean for them to change environments again? How would they deal with an identity crisis and loneliness?

What was in the best interests of these children?

We may never know the right answers to these questions. There may not be any.

These questions concerning the fate of the Jewish children who were hidden by non-Jews during the Holocaust present some of the most complex, deep and difficult human dilemmas that were faced after liberation.

This article focuses on children who were hidden by non-Jews in Poland, but similar situations took place in other German-occupied countries.

On the eve of the Second World War, there were approximately 3,325,000 Jews in Poland, of whom only about ten percent survived. There were very few children among the survivors. Before the war there had been nearly one million Jewish children below the age of fourteen in Poland. It is estimated that no more than some 28,000 of them survived – about three percent1 – and most of them had lost one or both of their parents. The loss of the children exposed the full impact of the tragedy that befell Poland's Jews. Polish Jewry, which constituted the overwhelming majority of the Jewish people in Europe, had faced the almost total annihilation of its younger generation.

Some of the children were able to survive, because they were placed in the custody of Christian families or in convents.

Deciding To Part From Their Children

At various points during the Holocaust, there were some Jewish parents who realized that their children might have a better chance of surviving if they parted from them and found them a place to hide or someone to watch over them. As they searched for potential rescuers, some were willing to promise anything if only the rescuer would consent to take their children. Parents faced an extremely difficult decision when choosing to give their children over to non-Jews. They could not know what dangers their children would face on the Aryan side. They were confronted with a terrible dilemma: on the one hand, if they gave their children over to a non-Jew, they would not be there to protect the child; on the other hand, it was possible that, even without them, their children might have a better chance of survival.

We must bear in mind the trauma that the separation from their parents caused the children. Even if on some level the child could understand that their parents or guardians had acted to save them, these children suffered the trauma of separation from their family, loneliness and yearnings that followed such separation. A child who had been placed in the custody of strangers (a Christian family or institution) by a parent or temporary guardian who then disappeared, felt abandoned.

Beside the secret efforts made within the family circle to find and take their children to a hiding place, there was some organized help. An example of such help is that of Zegota.2 It is estimated that Zegota removed around 2,500 children from the Warsaw ghetto alone.3

Another difficulty in deciding to hide a child was the difficulty of finding the child after the war. To locate these children after the war, "someone had to know that they had in fact been handed over, as well as their whereabouts. Aware of this possibility and despite the danger, some parents told the addresses of the rescuers to a few people whom they trusted, in the hope that if one of those people were to survive, the child could be traced."4 Among parents' fears was the fact that if the child [or relative] was the sole survivor of the family and didn't remember the family, their family would literally cease to exist.

Hiding The Children In Convents

As the ghettos were liquidated, more and more children were sent to convents.5 These children came from all strata of Jewish society, from the assimilated to the ultra-orthodox. The children's upkeep was covered by payments forwarded to the convents, either by the welfare agencies or by the parents who were in hiding in Aryan areas and transmitted the money through others. In such cases, the middlemen became, in effect, the children's "temporary guardians". Posing as relatives, they occasionally visited the children in the convents to see how they were doing, in order to give news about them to their parents in hiding. Sometimes a child's mother or a surviving relative came to visit, without disclosing their kinship to the convent staff. Only if the parents and relatives perished, leaving no one to pay, did the convents assume the expense of the children's upkeep.

There was also another group of children who reached convents either by their own means or by chance. Some of them were mere infants and toddlers who had been separated from their parents and left on their own; they were taken in by compassionate Christians who brought them to the nearest convent. In several cases, parents had placed children with Christian families in return for payment, but the supposed benefactors kept the money and then threw the children into the street. Passersby who took pity on them directed them to a convent or brought them there personally. Also among those who sought shelter in convents were older boys and girls, who had been wandering in villages and working for peasants until difficulties of subsistence and abuse by their employers prompted them to seek refuge.

The Difficulties Faced By the Would-Be Rescuers

We can't forget that there were many considerations Poles needed to take into account before agreeing to hide a Jew. In some cases Jews just knocked at their doors and the Poles had to make a decision about whether to hide a child, without time to consider the implications of such a decision and without knowing how long they would need to help. Besides financial considerations, Poles who hid Jews in their homes faced many forms of pressure. Rescuers faced the threat of the death penalty if they were caught helping a Jew. Indeed, German law extended the threat of the death penalty even to those who knew about a hidden Jew. There was a constant threat from fellow Poles, some of whom, known as szmalcownicy, even made a livelihood out of extortion and denunciation. The fear of punishment combined with the prevalent antisemitism among the Polish population added to the pressure against rescuers.

Polish people who, despite everything, helped Jews and hid them in their homes or in some other place of refuge, placed themselves in great danger. As Ringelblum put it: "A Jew living in the flat of an intellectual or a worker or in the hut of a peasant is dynamite likely to explode at any moment and blow the whole place up."6

Due to the many dangers of hiding children, some rescuers did not even tell their closest relatives what they were doing.

When the rescuers agreed to take in a Jewish child, they couldn't know in advance how long the child would stay with them. As the stay grew longer, pressures mounted and again rescuers were faced with the decision whether to continue to hide the children and face the risks that it created.

Some of the rescuers received money or goods when they first took in the children. However, this wasn't always enough to ensure honest behavior from them, especially when the money ran out or stopped arriving and the length of the stay of the children became longer than expected. In these circumstances, the rescuers behaved in different ways. Some Poles continued to keep the children despite the risks in doing so; on the other hand, the ones that regarded the rescue as a financial transaction only might return the children to the ghettos, expel them from their homes, or place them in an orphanage. Some rescuers even handed the children over to the German authorities. In most cases the act of rescue could not have been based only on the financial aspect, as the dangers and the psychological stress that the rescuers continually faced could not be remunerated only with money. The children who stayed in the countryside, in most cases did farm chores or served as laborers helping out the family in what was required regardless of their age.

On the other hand, many of the Poles that decided to continue hiding Jewish children and who were exposed to many dangers and lived in constant fear and social isolation as a result of their decision, did not part from the children who were hidden with them. Irrespective of their initial motives, in many cases, the rescuers established an emotional bond with the child.

The Difficulties Faced By Jewish Children on the Aryan Side

From the moment the children crossed to the Aryan side they were at the mercy of non-Jews; their survival often depended on a moment of mercy. Many of the children died due to denunciation or extortion, hunger and the cruelties of weather; they encountered people who gloated in their distress, hounded them, sought to betray them to the Germans, and persecuted the rescuers. Their numbers are unknown. Some were lucky enough to find a family or organization who took the children into their homes – if only for short periods of time - gave them food, clothing and shelter, and taught them Christian prayers.7

Could Children Return To Judaism After Adopting A New Identity?

In order for rescue to succeed, Jewish children who were hidden by non-Jewish rescuers had to pretend to be Christian. One of the most difficult aspects of rescue for the Jewish children was the identity crisis they experienced when they were forced to pass themselves off as Christian, but often they experienced a more difficult crisis when faced with a return to Judaism.

Pola (Hammersfeld) Weinstein was rescued as a child of nine or ten by a Polish family in Warsaw. Growing up, she had been exposed to Zionist ideas and Hebrew poetry; in her house her family spoke Yiddish and her grandparents – with whom she was very close – were ultra-orthodox: she was well aware of her Jewish identity. She had a "Jewish appearance" and even though she followed Christian customs at her rescuers' home, she was not baptized and did not attend church. She was, however, attracted to Christianity.

"I absorbed the Christian spirit, Catholicism, from the atmosphere in the [rescuers'] home. I became an ardent believer… I prayed alone at my bedside. I did not cross myself in public. At first I turned to God in my prayers. God is Jesus. I often asked for father to remain alive. But I felt that he would die. My guardians liked the fact that I was becoming a Christian. It delighted them to feel that they had succeeded in turning a Jewish soul towards Christianity. When the subject of my future came up after the war, they said: 'Don't worry, if no one comes to take you, you will always be ours.'"8

When the war ended, Pola was eleven years old. She rejected Judaism and went through an identity crisis. Pola's mother survived on the Aryan side in Krakow and when she arrived after liberation, Pola was ambivalent.

"I am no longer used to mother…It bothers me that mother is not a Christian like me. I try to persuade her to convert. Contrary to my custom, during the effort to persuade her I kneel demonstratively next to the bed and cross myself in front of her… I insist on my way and she on hers, and she registers me in a Jewish school that has opened."9

Pola and her mother hoped that her father had survived and would come back; together with the sense of freedom after liberation, they gradually became closer. However, Pola only embraced Judaism again when she heard from survivors who came back from the camps that her father had died.

At the end of the war, children waited for their parents to return and retrieve them. However, few of them were this lucky. In some cases, when somebody did arrive to pick them up, some of the children preferred to stay where they were; they had become used to their new homes, and they felt safe in them.

"Having effectively erased their past in the course of the brutal battle for survival, they had no wish to relieve it by returning to Jewish society. Their personal experiences, combined with the anti-Semitism they often absorbed from their rescuers and the surrounding Christian environment, taught them that the catastrophes they had suffered were due to their Jewish origin. Self-preservation therefore dictated keeping their distance from Jews and denying their true identity."10

Upon liberation, many of the children who already possessed full Jewish awareness returned to the Jewish fold by themselves, but some of the children identified being Jewish with danger and with fear. For them, having a Jewish identity meant not being welcome in this world, being outcast and murdered. They started to see Judaism as something negative, not necessarily because of a "new" Christian identity, but because of their own experiences. Thus, Christianity became a "safe haven" because it had actually saved them. As one rescued child said,

"How was I supposed to explain it? How could I say that for me, being a Jewess meant constant exposure to mockery, derision and anti-Semitic remarks? That to be a Jew meant suffering, persecution, and death?"11

Returning Children To Their Jewish Roots

The Jewish soldiers who were part of the Allied Forces, after liberating the camps, gave the first concrete eyewitness information about the magnitude of the catastrophe and the scale of the Holocaust. They were concerned that the few Jewish children who had survived would remain with their Christian rescuers. This was a concern shared by post-war Jewish institutions which were then being reestablished in Europe, religious and secular alike.

The predominant feeling was that after a catastrophe of the scope of the Holocaust, the whole Jewish world should make an effort to locate the surviving children and bring them back to Judaism. Soldiers and institutions alike were motivated by the best of intentions, but we must ask ourselves whether they took into consideration what the children wanted and what would have been best for them.

One of the soldiers, who remained anonymous, wrote a letter to the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem urging them to undertake this mission. He mentioned that the Jewish orphans who had been raised by non-Jews were unfamiliar with the Jewish world and that these children had been put with these non-Jews in order to save their lives; he believed they needed to be restored to their Jewish roots and that this was the duty of Jewish institutions. The feeling was that everything possible should be done to achieve this goal.

The first issue was how to discover these children if neither the child's relatives nor any of the confidants who knew the child had been hidden survived the war. When this was the case, the only way to discover a hidden child was if the rescuer reported the child willingly or delivered the youngster to one of the Jewish institutions that were established after the war ended. Since most of the Jewish population had been exterminated, the secret was often lost together with the murdered parent or temporary guardian who had handed the child over.

It was under these circumstances that the efforts to locate the children who had remained with their rescuers when the war ended, and bring those children back to the Jewish people, began.

One of the earlier actions taken after liberation to aid children was the establishment, in 1945, of a network of children's homes throughout Poland by the Central Jewish Committee. However, only around 20% of the child survivors entered them.12 After the war, when most of the surviving children had no parental home to return to, the resurging Zionist youth movements, among others, took upon themselves the task to provide the children with a home and someone to care for them. They created kibbutzim for these children in Poland that would provide a temporary home for the children and prepare them to immigrate to Palestine.

However, the return of children who still remained with non-Jewish families and in convents in villages and remote towns and who didn't even know they were Jewish proved to be beyond the capabilities of the young members of the Zionist youth movements. They needed to search for the children who were scattered across Poland in private homes or church institutions. Some of these children were not only small but also sick and required special care. For this special purpose an organization was created "The Zionist Koordynacja [Coordination Committee] for the Redemption of Jewish Children" known as the Koordynacja. Even before the establishment of the Koordynacja, diverse Jewish groups, among them some religious ones, had begun looking for and bringing back these children.

At the end of the war, Rabbi David Kahane, the Chief Jewish Chaplain of the Polish Army, became the head of the Committee of Religious Communities. One of his tasks was to recover the children who had stayed under the care of non-Jews. Kahane assigned Yeshayahu Drucker13 to be in charge of this mission. At the beginning Drucker only assisted relatives who had trouble getting back the children from their non-Jewish rescuers. But the moment Drucker heard that there were Jewish children in villages and towns living with Christian families and that no one was looking for them, he made it his mission to recover them. He became the "redeemer of children" on behalf of religious Jewry.

Besides the Koordynacja and Drucker, other groups and individuals of religious Jewry were also active in the effort to recover children, but on a smaller scale.

Of the several thousand children that were saved by non-Jews, the Koordynacja and Drucker retrieved around six hundred.14 Others either returned by themselves as mentioned previously, were returned by their rescuers voluntarily, or were claimed by parents or other relatives. It must be emphasized that the hundreds of children collected by the Koordynacja and Drucker were mainly very young children who knew nothing about their origins or whose Jewish identity was hazy at best. Many of them were unclaimed orphans who could not have returned to their roots on their own. This became one of the most crucial national projects of the last vestiges of Polish Jewry.

Those who bore the burden of the project of returning young children to the Jewish community were involved in one of the most complex and sensitive humanitarian dilemmas of the time. Did they believe in what they were doing? The answer must be affirmative –otherwise they could not have done what they did. At the same time, they viewed their effort as a national mission, even though some of them admitted that they frequently wept when they removed a child from his adoptive rescuers in order to place him in an orphanage. Their testimonies show that together with their pride at having restored the children to their roots, their very success disturbed them deeply. In later years, some of them felt a need to explain their motives and describe the qualms and doubts that gnawed at them. Arye Sarid, the founder of the Koordynacja, wrote:

"There are those who ask me whether it would not have been better to leave the children with their adoptive families and not shatter their tranquility, particularly if coercion was used…And there are some who ask whether I have no pangs of conscience for thrusting these children into a fate of suffering, calamities, and new experiences. The truth is, I admit, that such thoughts did cross my mind. Especially in the complex cases of redeeming children who were lovingly cared for by a Christian family. But at that very moment I lacerated myself for such bursts of weakness. In the final analysis, we are fulfilling the last request of their parents: to leave them descendants. We are ensuring that their child will remain Jewish and not become one of those who attack and murder Jews. An individual's biological attachment to the Jewish people does not call for an apology. In any event, among the qualms that accompanied the redemption project and which we had to overcome, were those noted above."15

Sara Neshamit expressed similar thoughts:

"Sometimes we had serious qualms about whether we had the right to remove a child from the home of his adoptive parents and thrust him into a psychological crisis. It was hard to be a witness to the tears shed by children when they parted with their Christian adopters, in whose home they had been so warmly treated. It was also hard to be a witness to the tears in the eyes of the adoptive mother when she handed over the child she had nurtured. Frequently we were apprehensive about the wrong that we were doing both to the children and to their 'parents'… However, the national motive was the decisive factor. We had lost too many Jews, so it was our obligation to restore to our people everyone who survived."16

Who Am I?

The crises of identity suffered by children often left them with lifelong scars; they had survived the war, but they did not know who they were. Some of these stories are achingly difficult.

Yosef Silwa lost both of his parents during the war; he was rescued in a convent. His maternal uncle came looking for him and took him from the convent. For some time he lived with this uncle and his wife but, as they themselves were also survivors, they weren't mentally or emotionally able to raise him. They placed Yosef in a children's home of the Central Jewish Committee and later on transferred him to a children's kibbutz, before he immigrated to Israel. His uncles had good intentions toward Yosef; they believed he would be better off and would have a better future in Israel than in Poland; however, the uncle and his family remained in Poland. Yosef could never forgive them for not adopting and keeping him with them.

"What they did to me was not right. In my opinion, they should have taken me under their protection after they removed me from the convent and given me a feeling of home, like their son. But they thought differently, and it is possible that they could not handle the situation. I could not forgive them. They were the closest family I had at the time. It was my mother's brother… There were economic reasons and there were personal reasons, and their economic condition was serious. I expected my uncle to take me in and give me the warmth of a home that I lacked all along… When I came to them I had a bad feeling. I was the only survivor from my whole family, and they could have helped me with big things and little things, but they did not. That stuck in my memory and it pains me to this day; I cannot forget it."17

Sara Avinun was nine when the war ended. She recalls being happy in her adoptive family's home during the first year after the liberation. One day, however, Julia Pitch, her adoptive mother who had taken her from an orphanage during the war, took her to the headquarters of the Jewish committee in Krakow, where she informed the officials of the girl's existence, related the story of her rescue, and registered her under her true identity. The event shook and bewildered Sara, and left her feeling deeply anxious. What most troubled her was the possibility that one of her relatives should suddenly appear and want to take her away. How would she be able to choose between him or her and her Christian benefactors?

Sara's grandfather, grandmother, and her aunt and uncles had survived as refugees in the Soviet Union. Returning to Poland after the war they located Sara and were determined to remove her from the custody of the family that had rescued her. One of her uncles, who was still a soldier, placed her in a religious children's home. She found herself again in an orphanage where her braids, which had just begun to grow, were again cut off.18

At the first opportunity she had, she escaped and went back to her adoptive family, determined to convert to Christianity and leave behind her Jewish past. Her grandfather didn't give up that easily and held a four year legal struggle to get her back and gain legal custody of her. They took her back to her grandfather's house and then to Israel. "These traumatic events, coming together with the turbulent period of adolescence, shook the degree of self-confidence Sara had acquired in her rescuers' home and caused her profound doubts about her identity and her future."19

"I asked myself, who am I really? Who should I be? Sara? Irena Marysia? What was more important, the identity I was born with or what I felt now? And who were my real parents? Those who gave birth to me and were now gone, or those in whose house I lived –who took care of me, looked after me, educated me? Whom did I belong to? Or maybe I didn't belong to anyone? The questions ran within me and I urged them to disappear. Why deliberate over them, I am here, aren't I? I have no other world."20

It was in fact Yeshayahu Drucker – who personally returned more children than anyone else – who was heedful of the children's distress. For years afterward he followed their development and their integration difficulties in the Jewish society to which he brought them, and he of all people was left with mixed feelings, to the point of casting doubt on the necessity of the retrieval of the children project:

"As this operation ends, I have mixed feelings. We carried out an operation for the good of the nation. We rescued children. And especially after the Holocaust. But for the children themselves, this return to the Jewish fold fomented in many of them a psychological crisis from which I fear they have not recovered to this day…If we consider the matter from the viewpoint of the individual himself, was it worth all the effort? The boy had no idea he was a Jew, and the very knowledge that he was only humiliated him… Had we left him, perhaps he would not have undergone the whole crisis he went through after returning to the fold of Judaism… After all, the child had found his place and his home in a particular family, and the family sometimes loved him more and sometimes less, but he had people to whom he could turn and say 'daddy', 'mommy'…But we came along and removed him and made him a child of the general public…I have often heard these children say: I want to be someone's already; I don't want to be everyone's. From this point of view, we need to think carefully about whether we acted for the good of the children themselves."21

Caring for the children and making the right decisions concerning their fates may have been one of the most difficult dilemmas faced after the war. After all, the intention was simply to help people who had survived the Holocaust return to life and to build a future for the Jewish people. The reality, as we have seen in the very brief glimpse provided here, was much more complex. How to care for Jewish children who were saved by non-Jews during the war presents yet another dilemma from the Holocaust that seems impossible to grasp, to fully understand; now as then.