When World 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 innocent children.”
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 around Le 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 times.
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 camps.
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 their whereabouts.
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 foreign.
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 authorities.
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 surviving prisoners.
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 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.
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 time.
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.
Sources: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum