Three Who Survived: Child Survivors of World War II

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Separation from Family. Among the most painful memories for hidden children was their separation from parents, grandparents, and siblings. For a variety of reasons—the lack of space, the inability or unwillingness of a rescuer to take in an entire family, or the decision of the parents not to abandon other family members in the ghetto—many Jewish children went into hiding alone.

Separation tormented both parents and children. Youngster and parent often had to bear their grief in silence so as not to jeopardize the safety of the other. For many hidden children, the wartime separation became permanent.

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Foster families created elaborate explanations for the presence of a new face in their home, identifying the child as a distant relative, friend, or surviving member of a bombed-out household. In some rescue networks, parents were not permitted to contact their children or know their whereabouts. The children themselves well understood the need for security.

Jewish children who lived in hiding generally were treated well by their rescuers. But not all youngsters had such experiences. Related Links Hiding places and hardships Personal Histories about the experiences of both children and young adults False identities Personal Histories about the experiences of both children and young adults. The ruthlessness of Nazi rule and the barbarities of war forced some children to mature beyond their years.

The daily experiences of hidden children varied, depending upon whether they could live openly and perhaps attend school and socialize with others their age, or had to be physically concealed. For those who were not permitted to journey outside, life in hiding was often filled with pain, torment, and boredom. Toys and Play. Even in the ghettos and concentration camps, Jewish children sought solace in games. For hidden children who often had few personal belongings, toys took on special meaning.

They could help forge a bond between the children and rescuers or reaffirm a tie to their missing parents or family. Just as importantly, playthings and games helped to restore some semblance of normal childhood to youngsters living under abnormal circumstances. Since ancient times, education has been an important element of Jewish culture. As Germany took control of Europe, however, opportunities for Jews to attend schools and universities were initially limited severely and eventually eliminated entirely.

Children who were physically concealed had few opportunities for formal study, but when possible, they too tried to educate themselves through reading and writing. In rural areas, they often tended animals and helped with planting and harvesting crops. In urban settings, Jewish children worked in factories or sold foodstuffs or other items on the open and black markets.

In some cases, older youths fled to the forests to eke out an existence or to join the partisans in combating the Nazis. As Jews were forced to move into ghettos or were deported to concentration camps, the Nazis deprived them of most of their possessions by drastically limiting the amount of moveable property that they could take.

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Once the Jews were moved, the Nazis then restricted the flow of goods to them. Children who went into hiding had to move quickly and inconspicuously and as a consequence, were forced to leave behind even the few possessions they owned. Most took little more than the clothes on their backs. Throughout the Holocaust, Jewish artists and writers poignantly documented their experiences in camps, ghettos, forests, and hiding places.

While the opportunities and materials to express their joys, pain, longings, anger, and sorrows in literary and artistic creations were severely limited, an impressive body of work, done by adults as well as children, has survived, even if the creators did not. Though it will never be known how many Jewish children recorded their thoughts in writing, art, or music, dozens of diaries, hundreds of drawings, and some poems and songs have been preserved to provide a tiny glimpse into their personal worlds, leaving a lasting legacy of both their oppression and resilience. Jews of all ages across Europe produced thousands of paintings, drawings, and collages during the Holocaust.

Works were made at the behest of Nazi overlords or initiated by relief agencies in internment camps or by Jewish functionaries in the ghettos.


Many were secretly done in concentration camps. The drawings displayed here are a study in contrasts. One set of images was created by a boy living as a non-Jew in France, where he was able to sketch nature and town in situ. For the second, a girl hidden in a Lvov apartment drew from her memories or from the glimpses of life she witnessed through her window. Diaries, among the most intimate forms of writing, record innermost thoughts, hopes, fears, and aspirations. They generally are not meant for the public or prying eyes.

While not all hidden children were able or allowed to keep diaries, those that exist offer a fascinating glance into the mind and experiences of these youths. Life in hiding was always hazardous. Throughout German-occupied Europe, the Nazis made a concerted effort to locate Jews in hiding.

German officials and their collaborators harshly penalized those who aided Jews and offered rewards to individuals willing to turn in Jews. Beginning in March , the Gestapo the German secret state police granted some Jews in Germany reprieve from deportation in exchange for tracking down their co-religionists who had gone underground. By spring , when the Nazi regime lay in ruins, these informers had turned in as many as 2, Jews. In other countries, neighbors betrayed others for money or out of support for the regime. In German-occupied Poland, blackmailers squeezed money or property from Jews by threatening to turn them in to the authorities.

A slip of the tongue, improperly prepared false documents, or gossip could lead to arrest and deportation. Parents sought out the children they had placed in convents, orphanages, or with foster families. Local Jewish committees in Europe tried to register the living and account for the dead. Tracing services set up by the International Red Cross and Jewish relief organizations aided the searches, but often the quests were protracted because the Nazis, the war, and the mass relocations of populations in central and eastern Europe had displaced millions of people.

The quest for family was much more than a search for relatives. It often involved some traumatic soul searching for children to rediscover their true identity. Those who had been infants when they were placed into hiding had no recollection of their biological parents or knowledge of their Jewish origins. The only family that most had known was that of their rescuers. Consequently, when relatives or Jewish organizations discovered them, they were typically apprehensive and sometimes resistant to yet another change.

Search for Family. As areas were liberated from German rule, Jewish organizations rushed in to locate survivors and reunite families. In place after place, they faced the devastation wrought by the Holocaust. Following the war, Jewish parents often spent months and years searching for the children they had sent into hiding. In fortunate instances, they found their offspring with the original rescuer. Many, however, resorted to tracing services, newspaper notices, and survivor registries in the hope of finding their children. Time and again, the search for family ended in tragedy. For parents, it was the discovery that their child had been killed or disappeared.

For hidden children, it was the revelation that there were no surviving family members to reclaim them. Custody Battles and Orphans. In hundreds of cases, rescuers refused to release hidden children to their families or Jewish organizations. Others had grown attached to their charges and did not want to give them up. In the more difficult cases, courts had to decide to whom to award custody of the child. Some rescuers defied court decisions and hid the children for a second time. The future of the thousands of orphaned Jewish children became a pressing matter.

The vast majority were returned to a surviving family member or a Jewish organization, but more than were given to non-Jewish families. Torn Identity. Parents, relatives, or representatives of Jewish organizations who came to reclaim the children often encountered ambivalence, antagonism, and sometimes resistance.

After years of concealing their true identity, Jewishness for some hidden Jewish children had come to symbolize persecution while Christianity stood for security.

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Some children even repeated antisemitic phrases learned from classmates and adults. Helmreich interviewed. Helmreich himself was born in Switzerland in , his parents having escaped there in after a country-to-country odyssey. No matter the particulars of their odyssey, most of the survivors endured years of semi-starvation, the death of their loved ones and constant terror.

Many were shattered by the experience, but not all. In research that testifies to human resilience under even the worst possible catastrophe, Dr. Helmreich has identified the traits that set apart those Holocaust survivors who have moved on in life from those who were undone by their wartime traumas. Conducted nearly a half century after the war's end, the study is of particular scientific importance for understanding the lifelong effects of severe trauma. The results, Dr. Helmreich said, show that most survivors have adapted far more successfully than has been suggested by much previous research, which has sometimes been based on the more troubled among the survivors of the Holocaust.

One theory is that only the toughest survived. In a letter quoted in the new biography by Walter Isaacson, Henry Kissinger noted the survivors' need for a "singleness of purpose" that "had to disregard ordinary standards of morality. Whatever permitted the survivors to survive, be it cunning, luck or a combination, researchers and some survivors themselves say that surface success at work and in family life may mask inward trouble. The psyches of many survivors, they say, harbor a deeper, often hidden, layer of wounds that have never completely healed.

Henry Krystal, a psychiatrist who examines Holocaust survivors seeking reparations for disabilities from the German Government. But if you put these people under a microscope, then you discover they were also having a great deal of physical and psychological symptoms. Krystal is himself a survivor; at 14 he was sent to Auschwitz, and later to Buchenwald. Helmreich's study, he'd probably see me as very well adjusted," Dr. Krystal said. Many survivors look better from a sociological point of view than from a psychiatric one. The ways in which Holocaust survivors have succeeded are evident in Dr.

Helmreich's study. He found, for example, that their marriages were remarkably stable. In , when the data were collected, 83 percent of the survivors were still married, compared with just 62 percent for American Jews of the same ages. Four of five survivors married other survivors, unions which many researchers believe were beneficial to the couples' mental health.

Though many survivors are in general tight-lipped about what happened to them, several studies have found that being able to talk over wartime experiences with others who understood them was strongly related to a better adjustment. Helmreich said. Charles Figley, a psychologist at Florida State University and editor of The Journal of Traumatic Stress, said, "When you look across the landscape of trauma, from the Holocaust through Hurricane Andrew and on down, talking it over helps you see that your reactions, no matter how extreme at the moment, were normal or understandable given what happened.

One of the most striking findings, Dr. Helmreich said, is a virtual absence of criminality among the , survivors who came to the United States. Another telling statistic from Dr. Helmreich's study is that just 18 percent of survivors had seen a psychotherapist, compared with 31 percent for comparable American Jews. While some of that variation is no doubt due to cultural differences, the rate is low, given the traumatic past of the survivors. It also calls into question the conclusions of many earlier studies of survivors, which were based on those who had been in therapy.

Survivors themselves say, however, that a low psychotherapy rate does not necessarily indicate emotional adjustment. Helmreich's finding that despite such scars, survivors have in some ways done better in life than American Jews of comparable age is corroborated by another major study of survivors conducted by Dr.

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Zev Harel, a sociologist, and Dr. It shows that though the survivors had, on average, less education, their careers were more successful and their incomes greater. They were also far more likely to do volunteer community service and to be altruistic in outlook. Eva Kahana. Survivors are particularly concerned with their children and, Dr. Helmreich found, have larger families on average than comparable Jewish couples. He also notes, as do other researchers, that the survivors, perhaps understandably, tend to be overprotective parents.

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Both my sons are psychiatrists. A Canadian study of the children of survivors, one of the few to use a comparison group, found that in general they were not more neurotic than others, contrary to earlier assertions by clinical researchers. Most survivors ascribe their escape during the war in large part to luck. But, Dr. Helmreich said: "It was not luck that they did well afterwards.

The more successful survivors are distinguished by specific traits which, far more than the degree of trauma they endured, seem to be the keys to their recovery. Among these, Dr. Helmreich found, are ready adaptation to changing cir cumstances, a readiness to take the initiative, a stubborn tenacity and "street smarts.