"Otwock was a very important juncture, one that restored us to a more or less normal course of life. Although [we were] without our parents, [and] not at home, that feeling of being together and that sense that everyone felt - it raised our spirits."
Janek Młotek, from the online exhibition: “A Time to Heal - They Story of the Children’s Home in Otwock, Poland”.
The number of children who survived after the Holocaust is estimated in the tens of thousands. Some of them hid, finding refuge in every conceivable location, spending months and years scared lest they be discovered, depending entirely on the goodwill of those hiding them - often strangers. Others survived by hiding their identities: they too were forced to endure prolonged fear and danger - knowing that a single misplaced word could lead to their discovery and almost certain death.
This reality deprived these children of their childhood. Instead of experiencing warmth, love, and a sense of security from adults, they were forced to see the helplessness of those very adults who, under normal circumstances, were supposed to provide them with support, and to make the outside world intelligible for them. The unwritten “social contract”, according to which adults were supposed to protect the children - the strong were to protect the helpless - ceased to apply in this reality. Often children were forced to mature preternaturally, shouldering heavy responsibilities for their fates and for those of their family members, and even aiding the family in weathering the burdens forced upon them by the wartime events.
This lesson is based on the online exhibition, “A Time to Heal - The Story of the Children’s Home in Otwock, Poland”.
After liberation, most children remained without a home or any relatives to return to. To address this problem, children’s homes were set up throughout Poland in order to house those who remained alone. One such children’s home was set up in Otwock. Originally set up in January 1945 by Holocaust survivor Franciszka Oliwa, the home was shortly thereafter aided financially and formalized, and by June 1945 housed 130 child survivors. Most of the teachers and staff were themselves survivors, who saw in their work a mission and a deep sense of purpose, as well as providing a degree of relief from their own grief and feeling of loss, as we will see. Arrival at the home was fraught and difficult, mainly as the children were is poor physical and mental condition, following their Holocaust experiences. These children then had to readapt to life in a proper functioning society, to experience a normal childhood. As we will see, the home was tremendously important for these children - as it was for many in other children’s homes - and enabled a process of rehabilitation and recovery.
Read the following two testimony quotes:
“Suddenly you see children in your situation. Everyone has shaven heads, everyone has a story. I think that this is what molded us, to an extent. We are relatively sane because of the fact that we were in a children’s home, where we told each other exactly what we had experienced during the Holocaust.”
"They were in essence our first friends. The whole war we practically had no friends, or we weren’t able to play freely. And even if we were playing with some children, we were always fearfully aware that we have to hide something, that we cannot be open and forthcoming. Here, for the first time, were children with whom we could be friends. Immediately a group was established that was very homogenous. Very strong relationships were formed between the children, right from the start."
- What is the meaning, in your view, of life in hiding? How is this expressed in the testimonies you have read?
- What feelings do you think arose within those children, due to the constant need to hide?
- In taking leave of their family members, what new meanings does the concept of “home” take on?
- According to the testimonies you’ve read, what do you think is the first thing that the children sought in a children’s home? Why?
Upon liberation most of the children - as was the case with many other survivors - discovered that they were orphaned and alone in the world, without any family members. Their need to belong, to find a place to call home - was basic and pressing. If during the war these children had to endure the breakdown of the family unit and take sole responsibility for themselves and for their fates, now the “togetherness” in the children home became tremendously meaningful. In addition, they were now surrounded by children and staff members who had gone through similar experiences, and who could relate to their own trials.
- Yehudit Finkel, from the online exhibition, “A Time to Heal - The Story of the Children’s Home in Otwock, Poland”.
- Wiktoria Blum, ibid.
The extreme and difficult experiences during the war deeply affected the children’s views and even basic concepts. This is the condition in which the educational staff at the Otwock home - who themselves had endured the Holocaust and had lost family members - received the children.
“The staff of the home were people who had lost their families, most probably their children as well. Some of them didn’t have any family or children. For the teachers of the institution… ‘More than the calf wants to drink, the cow wants to nurse.’ There were intensive attempts at all costs to restore us to completely normal behavioral patterns, in our lifestyles, our thought processes, our behavior. They were highly dedicated in all aspects. It was very rehabilitative. And within a short period, in our lifestyles, our thought patterns and everything else, we were like other children. Our interests, sport and exercise, literature, evening activities, concerts.”
"Before bedtime a teacher would tell a story, she would speak with each child and stroke their heads [...] The teachers, who had gone through the war, who lost families and remained alone, gave all of their love to the children. [...] I think that primarily what helped them was the atmosphere of work, creativity, activity, and hope for the future, and friendship. [..] Later, there were also problems with education. The staff tried to help them bridge the gap in their education; to teach them how to study and learn, because these were children who had no study habits or work habits. All of the educational work was basically the work of psychologists. Everyone worked together closely in this regard."
- According to the testimonies above, what points did the guides stress in order to try and restore, as much as possible, a sense of normalcy for the children?
- What process do you think the guides went through during this period? How did their personal loss affect their work in the children’s home?
During the war years, the children were forced to learn how to lie, to hide, not to trust adults - or almost anyone - all in order to survive. Now, at war’s end, they had to rebuild their relations of trust, appreciation and love with the adult world, with other children, and with people in general. In addition, many children had not been educated during this time, had lacked any daily routine and had largely forgotten peacetime social norms. Now, the guides had to teach them how to stick to a daily schedule and adjust to a daily routine. For the first time in years, they were not forced to struggle in order to obtain food and survive. They could now eat freely, play as typical children, form new friendships and maintain regular relations with the other children, and more generally - reconstruct how to be children.
This process of learning and recuperation was shared by the children and the guides, which in turn contributed to the healing of the entire staff. For the guides, themselves bearing the heavy burden of trauma and loss, the educational process that they were imparting was a corrective experience. Sharing their own experiences with the Otwock staff allowed them to confront what they had gone through and begin the actual process of healing - for children and guides alike.
- Danek Młotek, ibid.
- Wiktoria Blum, ibid.
As we have seen, some of the children were forced to adopt assumed Christian identities, which included publicly performing Christian practices in order to maintain believability. After the war, the children began the process of reducing these practices, gradually learning to live again as Jews. For many of the Otwock children, the return to their Jews roots was a complex and often painful process. At the home, the children were reacquainted with Jewish festivals and customs, and encouraged to live openly and Jews.
"It was the first place where we could walk with our heads held high, where we could return to Judaism. We were Jewish once again.We didn’t have to be afraid. We could say whatever we wanted. Suddenly we had friends and we could play. In truth, our childhood was stolen from us. You could say that we didn’t have a childhood, because in 1945, we were already mature adults, even though we were only children. Despite this, we began to lead normal lives, with a certain sense of routine."
- What elements do you think make up our identities?
- What does living under an assumed identity demand of a child?
The wartime instances of children in hiding and living under assumed identities, constitute a complex issue. For the students, spotlight some of the many elements that make up our identities: one’s father and mother, friends, family, school and school cohorts, media, clothing, food, the neighborhood and location, religion, society, laws, ideas about the world, ideologies, etc. For these children, survival during wartime effectively required cancelling all these in their original form, and submitting to a new, carefully constructed identity. This is an important point to emphasize, in order to understand the complexity and the meaning of the return to life for these children, which required a reversion that for many proved very difficult, if not impossible.
“I think that primarily what helped them was the atmosphere of work, creativity, activity, and hope for the future - and friendship.”
Through the love and dedicated guidance of the Otwock children’s home staff, the children learned to laugh, play, create, trust and ultimately - to hope for a better life, as evidenced by the videos and photos, the stories and testimonies featured in the online exhibition.
We can see the strong bonds that formed between the staff and the children in the many letters and photos that the children sent them, throughout their lives. The children saw the staff members as family, often sending photos from central events in their lives. The ties that were formed in the children’s home, both between the children and the staff members and among the children themselves, remained long after they had left the home and moved on to further stages in their lives.
- Wiktoria Blum, ibid.