Discussing the subject of the family unit during the Holocaust raises many issues of devastation as well as strength. Professor Dalia Ofer shares many insights about this in an article published in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. She explains that the Holocaust devastated families and Jewish life in general. Nevertheless, there was also considerable strength in family ties. Evidence reveals that some fragments of families remained intact, in ghettos, and in labor and extermination camps, and those who didn’t have family members, created their own alternative families.
Women shared recipes, holiday customs, and stories of family life with each other, as a way of coping with the devastating reality of their daily lives. There is no better evidence of the family’s serving as a real anchor to life than the readiness of the survivors to set up families in the years immediately following the war, even if they had lost a spouse or children.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Jewish families were a nuclear unit whose adult members were partners in production and property. The woman was in charge of domestic life and child rearing, while the man served as income earners. Even with this clear division of responsibilities, more East European women shared the income-earning, since most families lived in lower income brackets.
Once Jews were confined to ghettos, it became more difficult to maintain the typical family structure. As many families were forced to cram together in one tiny apartment, and some family members had already been deported, a certain level of “normalcy” was preserved. The way in which families coped with reality differed depending on place and stage in the “Final Solution.” Families were often left without a husband or father, or without a child, and still sought to continue living. There are tragic stories of parents who were forced to choose which child to save and which to send to be deported. Mothers pushed younger children in line with older children so that they may work and survive. The Nazis intended to tear apart and weaken families, and yet people recall the way in which being with family gave them the strength to continue living, and the closeness they continue to feel for relatives who helped them survive, even if the family members were ultimately murdered.
Teaching the Subject of Families During the Holocaust
Teaching about how families as units confronted the atrocities, humiliation, and degradation of the Holocaust, is a unique perspective in studying the Holocaust. We often discuss the dilemmas that individuals faced. However, it is also important to focus on how those dilemmas, and the trauma of the Holocaust in general, affected the family unit. What happened when families were separated? How did they decide to go or not go into hiding? Which children should be sent to live with non-Jews willing to save their lives? What did parents sacrifice to save their child?
In an effort to maintain their humanity and their normal lives, fathers and mothers were faced with unfathomable circumstances and decisions. Even if some of these elements have been taught before, the specific topic of families is powerful and one that is important for your students. It is also a topic that middle and high school students can relate to, as they have families of their own, no matter the type of family.
Below are some relevant resources that can be used in a classroom or for general knowledge on the subject.
Will To Live: One Family’s Story of Surviving the Holocaust by Adam Starkopf
This memoir is detailed and should be used with high school students. It focuses on the Starkopf family from the German invasion of Poland through liberation. While any part of the memoir can be used in a classroom to learn about the Holocaust, emphasis can be placed on the family relationship as Adam speaks frequently about his parents, wife, child, and in-laws. Adam recalls the story of his mother’s death and his regret at not being there with her. While interned in the Warsaw Ghetto, Adam and Pela felt responsible additionally responsible for a woman who had helped Pela when she was ill, as well as her grandmother, aunts and uncles, who was now living in the ghetto. Through the details of his testimony, we get a sense of the closeness of the family, through their escape from the Warsaw Ghetto pretending to be Catholic Poles to seek refuge in the city, and making extremely difficult choices, all to keep their baby alive.
Flora I was but a Child by Flora M. Singer
This is the story of a young girl and her two sisters hidden in convents in Belgium during the Holocaust. Told in the first person, and appropriate for thirteen or fourteen year olds, Flora recounts her life before the war with her family, and then discusses the Righteous Among the Nations who protected her and her sisters. She portrays the struggles and hardships that her mother had to endure in order to feed the three girls and keep them alive. It was undoubtedly a difficult decision to send them to a convent, as they were worried about seeing each other again. This touching testimony will help students engage with the difficulties that parents faced during the Holocaust, and provide them with yet another perspective on studying this issue.
Into the Arms of Strangers by Mark Jonathan Harris
This book tells stories of the Kindertransport, which was a rescue mission undertaken by the British that saved 10,000 predominantly Jewish German, Austrian, and Czech children from the Nazi regime. In a series of interviews, this book relates the stories of 18 children, foster parents, and organizers of the transport. The text is arranged chronologically, with each section telling the story of one person to illustrate how the rescue mission worked, from the events preceding the children's departure for England to their lives today. While not directly related to families during the Holocaust, the stories in this book touch upon some of the difficult decisions that parents had to make to send their children far away, in most cases, to never see them again. They saved their lives but broke apart the family unit.
In addition to these books, the teacher may introduce diaries written by children during the Holocaust, and in the course of discussing the diary, may touch upon how this child remembers his/her family and looks to his/her parents for support. For example, in the diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, published in the book The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lodz Ghetto, there are several times that Dawid mentions his father, and even though he does not delve into the entire family dynamic, we can learn a lot about the hardships and strains put on families during the Holocaust.
Teaching about how families coped during the Holocaust is crucial for students in understanding the period. It was not only about children, women, or men alone. While most people did end up surviving on their own, there are numerous stories of people who survived with a sibling, or who took care of their mother until the end. Furthermore, as you will see in the interview with Duki Gelber in this newsletter, parents often discussed how to survive together as a family, and made decisions accordingly. Students may not pick up on this theme just from reading memoirs, so it is important that teachers guide their students to discuss this topic explicitly.