War II began in September 1939, there
were approximately 1.6 million Jewish children
living in areas that the Germans
or their allies would occupy. When
the war in Europe ended in May 1945, more
than 1 million - perhaps as many as 1.5
million - Jewish children were dead. They were systematically targeted
as victims in the Nazi calculated
program of genocide. Liberation
from Nazi tyranny brought no end to the
sufferings of the Jewish children who survived - many would have to face the future without any living family members or without knowledge of their Jewish identity.
As Warsaw ghetto historian
Emanuel Ringelblum wrote in 1942, “Even
in the most barbaric times, a human spark
glowed in the rudest heart, and children
were spared. But the Hitlerian beast is
quite different. It would devour the dearest
of us, those who arouse the greatest compassion—our
Hitler made the decision
in 1941 to carry out the systematic mass
murder of Jews. Mobile
killing squads followed
the German army into the Soviet Union in
June 1941, and by the end of the year, murdered
almost 1 million Jewish men, women, and children.
That December, the Chelmno killing center
began operation. During 1942, the Nazis established
five more death
camps to carry out the gassing of Europe ’s Jews.
All Jews were targeted
for death, but the mortality rate for children
was especially high. Only 6 to 11% of Europe ’s prewar Jewish population of children
survived as compared with 33% of the adults. The young
generally were not selected for forced labor, and the
Nazis often carried out “children’s actions” to
reduce the number of “useless eaters” in
the ghettos. In the camps, children, the elderly, and
pregnant women routinely were sent to the gas chambers
immediately after arrival.
Parents, children, and
rescuers faced daunting challenges once the
decision was made to go into hiding. Some
children could pass as non-Jews and live
openly. Those who could not had to live clandestinely,
often in attics or cellars. Children posing
as Christians had to carefully conceal their
Jewish identity from inquisitive neighbors,
classmates, informers, blackmailers, and
the police. Even a momentary lapse in language
or behavior could expose the child, and the
rescuer, to danger.
Living as a non-Jew required false identity
papers, which were difficult to obtain in
German-occupied Europe and were subject to
frequent review by the authorities. Over
the course of the war, children often had
to move from one refuge to another. For the
children who had to leave their parents behind,
the emotional pangs of separation were constant
and the worries many.
For Jews to pass as “Aryans,” it
was essential to have false identity papers,
which were often gained through contacts
with the anti-Nazi resistance. Using forged
or acquired papers, such as a birth or baptismal
certificate, Jews sometimes could obtain
legitimate documents under an assumed name
from the authorities. These ruses posed great
risks to the bearer since the Germans and
collaborating police forces closely examined
identity documents in their frequent searches
for Jews, resistance members, and individuals
evading conscript labor.
Not all Jewish children could pass as “Aryans” and
enjoy relative freedom of movement on the
outside. Those who “looked Jewish,” did
not speak the local language, or whose presence
in a rescuer’s family raised too many
questions had to be physically hidden. Children
were kept in cellars and attics, where they
had to keep quiet, even motionless, for hours
on end. In rural areas, hidden children lived
in barns, chicken coops, and forest huts.
Any noise—conversation, footsteps—could
arouse neighbors’ suspicion and perhaps
even prompt a police raid. During bombings,
Jewish children had to remain hidden, unable
to flee to the safety of shelters. Under
these conditions, the children often suffered
from a lack of human interaction and endured
boredom and fear.
In a tradition dating back to the biblical
patriarch Abraham, infant male Jews have
been ritually circumcised as a sign of the
Jewish people’s covenant with God.
Even during the bleakest days of Nazi persecution,
Jews tried to observe this practice. Because
non-Jews in continental Europe generally
were not circumcised, German and collaborationist
police commonly checked males apprehended
in raids. For boys attempting to hide their
Jewish identity, using a public restroom
or participating in sports could lead to
their discovery. More rarely, they underwent
painful procedures to disguise the mark of
circumcision or even dressed as girls.
Hiding under a Different Religion
Thousands of Jewish children survived the Holocaust because they were protected by
people and institutions of other faiths.
Dozens of Catholic convents in German-occupied Poland independently took in Jewish youngsters.
Belgian Catholics hid hundreds of children
in their homes, schools, and orphanages,
and French Protestant townspeople in and
Chambon-sur-Lignon sheltered several
thousand Jews. In Albania and Yugoslavia,
some Muslim families concealed youngsters.
Children quickly learned to master the prayers
and rituals of their “adopted” religion
in order to keep their Jewish identity hidden
from even their closest friends. Many Jewish
youngsters were baptized into Christianity,
with or without the consent of their parents.
Finding a rescuer was quite difficult, particularly
one who would take care of his or her charges
for a period of years. Some individuals took
advantage of a persecuted family’s
desperation by collecting money, then reneging
on their promise of aid—or worse, turning
them over to the authorities for an additional
reward. More commonly, stress, anguish, and
fear drove benefactors to turn out the Jewish
children from their homes.
Organized rescue groups frequently moved
youngsters from one family or institution
to another to ensure the safety of both the
child and the foster parent. In the German-occupied Netherlands, Jewish children stayed in an
average of more than four different places;
some changed hiding places more than a dozen
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. In France, for instance,
the OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, “Children’s
Aid Society”) was able to smuggle children,
but not their parents, out of internment
Separation tormented both parents and children.
Each feared for the other’s safety
and was powerless to do anything about it.
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.
A hidden child’s safety and security
demanded strict secrecy. 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.
Convents and orphanages withheld youngsters’ Jewish
identities from documents, classmates, and
staff. Organized rescue groups frequently
moved children around and kept records in
code to prevent their charges’ discovery.
In some rescue networks, parents were not
permitted to contact their children or know
The children themselves well understood
the need for security. They kept away from
situations where their true identity might
be exposed, held fast to their false names
and religion, and avoided mannerisms or language
that might be construed as “Jewish” or
Jewish children who lived in hiding generally
were treated well by their rescuers. But
not all youngsters had such experiences.
Because they could not turn to local authorities
for help or were afraid of being turned out,
some children had to endure physical or sexual
abuse by their “protectors.” Studies
conducted in the Netherlands estimate that
more than 80% of the hidden children interviewed
were treated well by their rescuers, while
15% were occasionally mistreated, and some
5% were treated badly.
For “Aryan”-looking school-age
children in hiding, the routines of going
to class and studying helped to restore some
sense of normality in their lives, and perhaps
their new-made friends gave them much needed
solace. Children who were physically concealed
had few opportunities for formal study, but
when possible, they too tried to educate
themselves through reading and writing.
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 1943, 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 1945, when the Nazi regime lay
in ruins, these informers had turned in as
many as 2,000 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
Following the defeat of Nazi
Germany, the world learned of the staggering
human toll of the Holocaust.
Few Jewish children survived. In killing
centers and concentration
camps across Europe , systematic murder,
abuse, disease, and medical experiments took
many lives. Of the estimated 216,000 Jewish
youngsters deported to Auschwitz,
only 6,700 teenagers were selected for forced
labor; nearly all the others were sent directly
to the gas chambers. When the camp was liberated on January 27, 1945, Soviet troops found
just 451 Jewish children among the 9,000
Soon after liberation,
Jewish agencies throughout Europe began tracing
survivors and measuring communal losses.
In the Low Countries , perhaps some 9,000
Jewish children survived. Of the almost 1
million Jewish children in 1939 Poland ,
only about 5,000 survived. Most of these
youngsters survived in hiding.
Search for Family
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
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.
In hundreds of cases, rescuers refused to
release hidden children to their families
or Jewish organizations. Some demanded that
the child be “redeemed” through
financial remuneration. 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
The future of the thousands of orphaned
Jewish children became a pressing matter.
In the Netherlands, more than half of the
4,000 to 6,000 surviving Jewish children
were declared “war foster children” (Oorlogspleegkinderen),
and most were placed under a state committee’s
guardianship. The vast majority were returned
to a surviving family member or a Jewish
organization, but more than 300 were given
to non-Jewish families.
Holocaust Memorial Museum