The tragic fate of those who perished during the Holocaust is widely known. It is estimated that over six million Jews, of which approximately 1.5 million were children, were killed as a result of Nazi violence. With all the devotion to those who died, it becomes easier to overlook those who survived. One of the greatest untold stories of the Holocaust is that of the thousands of children who survived this unimaginable experience. They are the mere six to seven percent of children who made it to the end of the war against all odd (Marks 276.)
Although each of them holds unique backgrounds, experiences, and aspirations, they all march on with the legacy of those who passed before them. The lesson to others is that survivors should not be pitied, but instead be recognized for their incredible courage and nobility. Hidden children became a remarkably cohesive group because of their similar experiences during the war, and the realization that as survivors, they were not alone.
As soon as the Nazis came to power in 1933, the lives of Jewish children changed forever. The regulation of every facet of a Jew’s social life shrunk the “natural parameters of a child’s physical world” (Dwork 27.) Early on, the Nazis communicated the systematic phases of Hitler’s final solution. The first phase involved legal definition of who was a Jew. As a result, Jews were stripped of their citizenship, property, and employment. They were forced to wear the Star of David for identification and were also banned from clubs, social organizations, and public recreational facilities such as playgrounds. Next, Jews were removed from their neighborhoods and forced to move to specially designated areas known as ghettos. The final step was extermination and the glorification of a purified race (Marks 273.)
Children were uniquely affected by all these changes. To the Nazis, the extermination of Jewish or otherwise “diseased” children was especially important because their elimination would ensure that no more of their kind would be reproduced. This is why the survival rate of Jewish children was only six to seven percent, while the survival rates of Jews in general hovered around 33 percent. Children were less mature and had little grasp of their identities. The differentiation of wearing the star, and being banished from such places as schools, parks, and the library was very damaging to a child. Children were forced to confront what being a Jew meant in their society. By 1935, many Jewish children found that their close friends began to avoid them. They also experienced vulgar mockery, verbal threats, and even rotten eggs or apples thrown at them (Stein 232.)
In 1942, the Nazis ordered full liquidation of the ghettos. It was at this time when many families fled and went into hiding to escape the concentration and work camps that otherwise would have been their fates. Families made contacts informally through family and friend networks or through underground organizations to negotiate a safe haven for themselves or their children. On most cases, family members split up to reduce the risk of total annihilation by the Nazis.
As a result of the unpredictability and risks involved, few children had a permanent address during the course of the war. Some children were known to have up to thirty different addresses during World War II-a fact that brought further complications (Dwork 33.) After being exposed to this frequent change of address, some children came up with their own method of readjustment. “At each new address,” one survivor wondered, “Yes or no, I could play outside. Yes or no, children were to know I was there…” (Dwork 89.)
To aid in their escape to hiding, families obtained false documents of all kinds. Some documents were bought on the black market or offered to underground organizations. False identity papers that were manufactured illegally were either totally fictitious or bogus duplicates of real documents. Parents were in charge of negotiations and arrangements, while children were expected to memorize everything about their new identities: false names, dates, places of birth, and addresses.
Thousands of children found refuge in convents and monasteries after liquidation of the ghettos. Parents made contacts through laymen, priests, or other intermediaries. Although Gestapo search of convents was highly common, they rarely turned up any evidence of Jews. This was because nuns were usually alerted to searches in advance which aided preparations (Lukas 184.)
Countries such as Belgium, Holland, and Poland had many underground sections devoted to sheltering Jewish children during the war. These sections were usually places such as convents, monasteries, or even orphanages. Poland was especially well-known for its sheltering of Jews. Lack of records make it difficult to pinpoint numbers exactly, but it is now estimated that 2/3 of the religious communities in Poland were involved in saving over 1,500 Jews. Religious sects such as Sisters of Charity, Order of St. Elizabeth, and Little Servant Sisters of Immaculate Conception were most active (Lukas 184.)
Once they found shelter in one of the religious sects, children were forced to suppress their Jewishness and embrace the basics of Catholicism in order to reduce suspicion. It was a frequent occurrence to see German soldiers stop little girls on the street and order them to drop to their knees to recite Catholic prayers verbatim. Jewish boys had to be especially careful. Since they were all circumcised at birth, all a German soldier had to do was order them to drop their pants, and their Jewishness would be immediately detected.
Apart from the children who found shelter by immersing themselves in Catholicism, countless others attempted to find shelter elsewhere. Jewish children found many functional hiding places either with their families, by themselves, or with other children. With no other options, some children functioned as nomads in the countryside. By day, they sold newspapers, matches, or pornography. By night, they disappeared, virtually undetected, into such places as barns, chicken coops, under bridges, or within abandoned streetcars (Lukas 189.) The easier it was for them to blend into their environment, the safer they were. Sometimes, little boys were even instructed to dress and act like little girls in hopes that the Germans would not detect their Jewishness as easily. Holocaust literature is full of information on how these seemingly phantom children survived their day-to-day existence.
One survivor recounted her experiences of living in an underground sewer during the war. “Some people couldn’t stand the stench and the darkness, so they left, but ten of us stayed for 14 months! During that time, we never went outside or saw daylight” (Marks 28.) Obviously, living in the sewer system was unpleasant, but after all, they did survive.
Although these children were in hiding, only a handful entirely escaped the violence of the war. Leon Ginsberg told of how he found shelter with his family in a farmhouse basement. They entered the basement through a “tunnel under an outside toilet.” One day, the Gestapo came to search out the place. Realizing that they had been discovered, family members scrambled for safety. Leon squeezed behind a piece of board on the wall. He heard all the violence and even witnessed his mother being fatally stabbed by a bayonet, but he stayed in his hiding place until the coast was clear (Marks 68.)
Another account told of a family who hid in a closet with a sloped ceiling. The father had dragged furniture in front of the closet door for added protection. Soon, the inevitable day came when Nazis arrived to search the home. The family members held their breath while Nazis had a look around. Unfortunately, they noticed fresh scratches on the floor (caused by the furniture.) They followed the scratches to the closet and revealed all of the family, including a young baby. “Kill me first, not my baby!” the mother had screamed, but they shot the baby first with nine bullets followed by fifteen in the mother. The youngest daughter, Yaffa, was the only one who survived the incident. “What made me count the bullets?” she still questions. “To this day, I don’t understand (Stein 64.)
Children tried to make the most of their unnatural living situation. At best, they had the opportunity to draw or write letters, diaries or journals. In many cases, however, writing utensils were scarce, and above all, writing was a risk in itself. In 1941, when Germany announced a new law that made protection of Jews a crime punishable by death, those who hid Jews and their families were immediately in danger. They became as much of a target as Jews themselves (Marks 275.) Therefore, children’s writings, if found, might reveal their Jewishness or further jeopardize those who hid them.
Most children participated in the less risky activities of reading, studying, and daydreaming. Children in hiding could not move, get close to windows, speak above a whisper, laugh, or even cry out in pain for fear of being detected. They lived by the day, experiencing the enormity and unpredictability of war, and fearing that, sooner or later, there would be a knock on the door. “We all knew that every breath was on loan to us,” recounted one survivor, “At the tender age of five or six, we became shrewd, wise, and suspicious-in short, skillful at surviving” (Stein 268.)
As a result of these experiences, children were denied “education, development of abilities, models for familial relationships, and the normal socialization process.” Feelings of abandonment and lose of spontaneity and assertiveness were also common reactions to their predicament (Dwork 104.)
Postwar changes brought new problems. Hidden children were asked to switch roles again and reclaim their old lives. Attempts to reclaim Jewish children after the war proved to be difficult. Parents were often unwelcome strangers and children could not imagine switching back to being Jewish again when, throughout the war, being Jewish meant death. Often, Jewish parents had to struggle with reluctant or hostile children, while adoptive parents were forced to part with the children they had sheltered during the war.
Some children immersed themselves so much into becoming someone else that after the war, they did not know who they had been-only who they’d become. It was so important for them to forget their past that some of them actually did forget. After liberation, other children had similar problems when their real parents came to reclaim them. These children could not understand why their parents had abandoned them-which led to more confusion. Those who did remember their past returned home to find that their loved ones would never rejoin them.
“The house was empty. Not only was Father not there, but the whole house was empty. No bed, no table, not a chair, nothing. Only one thing remained: my mother’s piano… Maybe it was too heavy. The people that had robbed everything had just left it (Dwork 264.)
In most cases, the degree of psychological problems hidden children had was directly affected by the lives and families they were able to reconstruct. Hidden children were neither “physically nor psychologically handicapped” nor were they abused children, but because of the circumstances they survived, they are put into their own special category (Marks 284.)
The haunting reminders and side effects of having survived the Holocaust had a tremendous effect on these children. “Acceptance, hostility, ambivalence, resentment, shame, and regret were only some of the emotions we hidden children had… After all, we could not easily give up that which helped us survive…” explained Nechama Tec.
During the war, distrust of the outside world, new acquaintances, and new situations helped these children survive. As Nechama Tec implied, these adaptive strategies during wartime were difficult to let go of once the war was over and people began to reconstruct their lives.
Other immediate symptoms of child survivors included aggressive behavior, nervous sweating, fainting spells, chronic hunger (even with ample food), and shrinking away from touch (Lukas 202.) Many survivors had also learned to distrust the world and those around them because of the Holocaust experience and those who may have betrayed them during the war. Another very common concept that many hidden children became familiar with was survivor guilt. Many children felt a sense of helplessness and a debt or responsibility to the dead. They felt guilty for not being able to save parents, siblings, or friends. “Psychic numbing,” a separation of image and feeling, meant that many survivors became unable to express normal emotional responses to situations.
As one child survivor noted:
“At the same time I felt guilty. I’d been told that when my mother was saved by the soldiers, she weighed only 70 or 80 pounds. She had been in Auschwitz with my father (who died there.) The Nazis had done crazy experiments on here. Still, she wasn’t what I had in mind for a mother… a counselor reminded me how much my mother had suffered and waited all these years to see me and felt hurt that I wasn’t responding. Of course, I went back and tried to be more understanding. I have to get to know her, I told myself. I knew that she was going to be my next family (Marks 106.)
These child survivors were also left with many common fears. Planes, authority figures in uniform, dogs, and the sound of a doorbell or someone knocking are seemingly neutral stimuli that aroused negative, fearful reactions in many hidden children. One woman said that for years she searched for intruders in her apartment and slept with a knife under her pillow-terrified that experiences from her past would come back to haunt her (Marks 187.)
As child survivors of the Holocaust, many describe themselves as virtual “mailmen of the dead.” They don’t know why they survived, but they do know that random acts of kindness from silent heroes helped save them. They feel that it is up to them to search for some special purpose-a higher meaning to their survival. As a result, an overwhelming number of child survivors sought work in pro-social occupations such as education or health care became committed to the welfare of all (Marks 19.) This may serve as an antidote to their pain, but no matter how much time passes, the experience they had still survives.
“We were told we were the lucky ones. And yet, we often remembered only the separations, departures, and uninterrupted processions of fear. Some of us returned to a world that had changed beyond recognition.” (Stein 270.)
Throughout their lives, many survivors still experienced withdrawal, depression, and preoccupation with the past. Those seriously affected demonstrated death immersion in which they became so “preoccupied with death that they were unable to mourn losses fully” (Hass 10.) They seemed to spend more time in the company of the dead than that of the living. Other common reactions to their experiences included embracing work ethic, hoarding material possessions, and seeking financial advancement and control over their lives.
One problem that many hidden children have faced is the fact that other people sometimes do not see them as being legitimate survivors of the Holocaust because they hid during the war. These people feel that only those who survived the concentration and work camps are worthy enough to be called Holocaust survivors. Obviously, this is not true, but it has become just another obstacle that hidden children and their descendants must confront and overcome.
Children of survivors say that their parents saw them as a symbol of rebirth and often named them after murdered relatives. Two extremes emerged: those survivors who became totally involved in their child’s life or those who were so preoccupied with their own mourning that they could not fulfill their child’s needs. Children of survivors often complain of their parent’s emotional unavailability, over-protectiveness, or guilt-inducing behavior. “My mother’s self-esteem is extremely low,” one daughter of a survivor says, “She fears people in uniforms… bolts when she hears German accents, has intense nightmares, and is inordinately fearful about the future-hoards money and food” (Hass 93.)
No matter what their experience, most survivors carry with them a sense of “survivor mission.” Aniko Berger expressed this concept fully: “We must keep telling our stories. If we don’t, we collude with the torturer. We must expose all, not only the good. We must hide nothing.”
In 1991, former hidden children began a communal process of healing in a supportive environment. That year, 1,600 survivors attended the first International Gathering of Hidden Children During WWII. Meeting with other child survivors who had similar fears and experiences helped the hidden child inside each survivor begin to grow up (Stein 272.) After gathering together with other child survivors like himself for the first time, Andre Stein commented with his personal reaction to the experience:
“I learned to let go of the shadows so that they, too, could rest in peace. New faces began to emerge, faces that had been around me all the time, and yet to me, they were new. They did not assert themselves with authority or insistence-they were just there: they, too, were hidden child survivors…” – Andre Stein
The resilience and cohesiveness of these hidden children against all odds attests to the endurance of the human spirit. By understanding and listening to their experiences, one can learn many lessons that are applicable in other situations. As Maya Schwartz, a child survivor herself once said, “Perhaps in some dark corner of your own story, you, too, are in some kind of hiding.”
Dwok, Deborah. Children With A Star. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.
Hass, Aaron. In The Shadows of the Holocaust. London: Cornell University Press, 1990.
Lukas, Richard C. Did The Children Cry? New York: Hippocrene Books, 1994.
Marks, Jane. The Hidden Children. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1993.
Stein, Andre. Hidden Children: Forgotten Survivors of the Holocaust. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1993.