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Children and the Holocaust

Last updated: 2005-01-26

children and the holocaust

Children affected by 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 complex 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 respective 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 ghettos.

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 the 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 German 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 hostile, 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 schools 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 students. 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 intensity 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 able 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. 600) 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 sterilized 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 reporting 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 children 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 deformed 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 killed 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 had 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 ghettos 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, laborers, 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 episodic fashion as part of the fate of Jews in each country affected.

Children and the Holocaust is reproduced with permission of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum(c). The above information is available on a read only basis and cannot be reproduced without written permission from USHMM.