The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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Children and the Holocaust

Full statistics for the tragic fate of children who died during the Holocaust will
never be known. Some estimates range as high as 1.5 million murdered children.
This figure includes more than 1.2 million Jewish children, tens of thousands of
Gypsy children and thousands of institutionalized handicapped children who were
murdered under Nazi rule in Germany and occupied Europe. 

Although children were seldom the targets of Nazi violence because they were
children, they were persecuted along with their families for racial, religious, or
political reasons. Children are not a single unified group because of the enormous
and co mplex variations in their situation and ages. It is important to separate the
distinct needs of three different age groups: (1) infants and toddlers up to age 6; (2)
young children ages 7 to 12; and (3) adolescents from 13 to 18 years old. Their
respectiv e chances for survival and their ability to perform physical labor varied
enormously by age. Chances of survival were somewhat higher for older children,
since they could potentially be assigned to forced labor in concentration camps and

The Jews were a special target of Nazi ideology and policies, which ultimately
resulted in the Holocaust, the systematic, state sponsored murder of almost 6 million
European Jews. From the very first, Jews and their children suffered at the hands of
th e Nazis, and thus the world of Jewish children was rapidly restricted as soon as
the Nazis came to power in Germany in January 1933. Before 1939, German Jewish
children were trapped in a no man's land between the alternatives of an increasingly
hostile Ge rman milieu and the insecure and often unreachable world of potential
safety through emigration, the latter was linked to the fate of their families. After
1935, close friends suddenly avoided the company of their Jewish classmates,
sometimes becoming hos tile, unfriendly, and even spiteful. Letters from German
children to the editors of the Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer reveal a shameful potpourri
of stupidity and fanaticism against their Jewish classmates. There were additional
humiliations confronting Jewish and Gypsy children in German classrooms with the
oppressive teaching and humiliating tenets of racial biology that humiliated them
and designated them as racially inferior. As a result, education as a form of
resistance was developed in German Jewish sch ools after 1933 and provided both
background and experience for the later clandestine schools created in the ghettos
and concentration camps after 1939.

One of the first laws that affected Jewish students was the "Law against
Overcrowding in German schools and universities" of 25 April 1933 that restricted
the number of Jewish children in schools, not to exceed 1.5 percent of the total
number of student s. Jewish children of war veterans and those with a non-Jewish
parent were initially exempted. Many schools placed Jewish students on vacation in
April 1933, a temporary expedient while awaiting legislative developments. These
decrees escalated in intensi ty and shortly after the November 1938 pogrom
("Kristallnacht"/ Crystal Night). On 15 November 1938, German Jewish children
were prohibited from attending German schools. This same measure also excluded
Gypsies children from German schools. The segregated Jewish schools existed under
steadily deteriorating conditions and increased Nazi pressure until 1942; they were
finally closed on 7 July 1942, after the first wave of deportations of German Jews to
the East had been completed. After 1938, Gypsy children fell through the social net
and their schooling was not of serious concern to Nazi authorities.

First in Germany and later in occupied Europe, the Jewish communal experiences of
persecution and pauperization affected children. The world of childhood and
adolescence, usually a time of testing and experimentation, became inverted into a
world of shrinking horizons and vulnerabilities after 1933. German Jewish children
were systematically driven from the wider German milieu, creating a community
under beleaguered isolation. They could no longer belong to the same clubs and
social organizations as Aryan children, they were banned from using public
recreational facilities and playgrounds, and were instead vulnerable to the traumas
of loss and separation from their homes and familiar milieus. A few thousand
German and Austrian Jewish children were a ble to escape the Nazi net, since they
were sent abroad in "Kindertransports" to the Netherlands, Great Britain, Palestine,
and the United States before 1939. 

With the onset of war, Jewish children in occupied Poland and later throughout
Europe were confined with their families in overcrowded ghettos and transit camps,
exposed to malnutrition, disease, exposure, and early death.

Gypsy and handicapped children were similarly categorized in Nazi Germany and
occupied Europe by race and biology. The Nazi quest for a biologically
homogeneous society already in July 1933 included the Law to Prevent Offspring
with Hereditary Defects. In ever escalating legislation, mentally and physically
handicapped children were vulnerable to sterilization prior to 1939 and to murder in
the so-called euthanasia program after 1939. Eugenic and racial measures also
extended to the small number (ca. 60 0) of German mulatto children (the offspring
of German women and African French colonial troops occupying the Rhineland in
the 1920s). These Afro-German children were registered by the Gestapo and
Interior Ministry in 1937 and they were all brutally steri lized in German university
hospitals that same year. 

The methods of children's euthanasia were developed between February and May
1939. First, the physicians and Nazi officials registered their potential victims.
Thus, registration forms, called Meldebogen, collected data from midwifes and
physicians repo rting all infants born with specific medical conditions. The first
killings of children in special wards by overdoses of poison and medicaments
already occurred in October 1939. Recalcitrant parents who attempted to remove
their children from the killing wards were rarely able to succeed. With fathers
already absent as soldiers, mothers who disagreed were often assigned to contractual
labor, thereby necessitating the commitment of handicapped children in state
institutions. The killing of disabled chil dren marked the beginning of the euthanasia
program and continued throughout the war. Children's euthanasia was central,
because children represented posterity and the Nazi physicians considered the
elimination of those they considered diseased and deform ed as essential to their aim
of racial purification. Although it is impossible to calculate the number of children
killed in these special children's wards during World War II, the best estimate is
that at least 5,000 German and Austrian children were kil led in these programs.

Nazi persecution, arrests, and deportations were directed against all members of
Jewish families, as well as many Gypsy families, without concern for age.
Inevitably the children were among the prisoners at highest risk. Homeless, often
orphaned, they h ad frequently witnessed the murder of parents, siblings, and
relatives. They faced starvation, illness, brutal labor, and other indignities until they
were consigned to the gas chambers. In relationship to adult prisoners, their chances
for survival were usually smaller although their flexibility and adaptability to
radically changed circumstances could sometimes increase the odds in their favor.
That these Jewish children survived at all and also created diaries, poems, and
drawings in virtually all ghet tos and concentration camps is truly remarkable.

After 1939, there are four basic patterns that can describe the fate of both Jewish and
non-Jewish children in occupied Europe: (1) those killed immediately on arrival in
concentration camps and killing centers; (2) those killed shortly after birth (for
example, the 870 infants born in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, largely to
Jewish and Gypsy women, between 1943 and 1945;) (3) those few born in ghettos
and camps and surviving, such as the three year old Stefan Georg Zweig born in the
Cracow ghetto and carried in a specially prepared rucksack through the
concentration camp at Plaszow to Buchenwald in 1944, where he was hidden and
protected by German communist prisoners; and (4) those children, usually above the
age of 10, utilized as prisoners, lab orers, and subjects for Nazi medical experiments.
Thus, of the 15,000 children imprisoned in the Theresienstadt ghetto, only about
1,100 survived.

Children sometimes also survived in hiding and also participated in the resistance
(as runners, messengers, smugglers). There is no comprehensive study about the fate
of children in Nazi Germany and occupied Europe, since the story has been told in
an e pisodic fashion as part of the fate of Jews in each country affected. 

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