Shattered Life of Child Holocaust Survivors

by: Bloeme Evers-Emden, Ph.D. | January 02, 2013

Among the many terrible measures the Nazis took against the Jews, the worst consequence was the disintegration of the family, especially the separation of children from their parents.

When the deportations of the Dutch Jews began in July 1942, most people went, trusting that they could survive. But when the Germans' methods became more and more brutal, it was understood that something terrible was going on.

Starting in the autumn of 1942, more and more Jews sought to hide. Because an entire family could seldom find a hiding place, parents were confronted with the horrible necessity of "giving away" their children to complete strangers. They did so while facing a dismal future, uncertain if they would ever see their children again in an "after-the-war" era. They could only hope that their children would find a friendly home, a place where they would be given care and love.

I spoke to 51 parents who had to "give away" their children and I described the interviews in the book, Geschonden Bestaan (Shattered Existence), published in Holland. After more than 50 years, the parents still trembled at this recollection. Here are a few quotes:

"You have an appointment with a stranger on the corner of a certain street. She takes your child and disappears with her in the bus. That's how I gave her away... how I survived this, I don't know."

"I still see very clearly how he walked out of our sight at the hand of the 'aunt' ... our feelings of ultimate powerlessness .... My wife cried for days without stop. We felt utterly bereaved."

"I felt crippled. It is indescribable; those who did not experience it cannot possibly understand -- to be so powerless."

"Research about hidden children is important, but no one has written about the parents who were torn away from their children: the pain of it, a pain that never leaves. And nobody imagined the difficulties that arose when you were lucky enough to survive and get your children back."

Only a small percentage of parents were reunited with their children after 1945. Most of the surviving children had no family, and the teen-agers among them often had no place to go. Many asked themselves why had they survived.

As soon as possible after the war, the relatively few surviving parents went in search of their children. If they knew of an address, which was seldom, often this turned out to have been the first of many hiding places. In my research, children had on average four to five wartime addresses. And to keep everyone safe, most foster parents did not know the birth name of the child nor the former address. Never-theless, despite the many obstacles -- their traumas, their lack of funds, housing and transportation -- most parents were in desperate pursuit of their children within weeks of liberation.

When finally found, the parents had to prove that the child was theirs. And sometimes, the parents themselves had doubts. How can one recognize a baby or toddler after two or three years? Often the foster parents were reluctant to return their now beloved child. Their grief over the loss of a child is hardly ever mentioned anywhere.

If this were a fairytale, the family's story would end with "...and they lived happily ever after," but it seldom turned out that way.

To begin with, young children did not know their real names or had forgotten them, and they did not know that their foster parents were not their biological parents. They were not interested in those strangers who told them that they were their "real" mother and father. They fiercely resisted the separation from their "parents." When taken to their parental home, they would yearn for their foster parents for years.

Then, the estrangement took a heavy toll. The parents were disappointed that the child whom they had idealized during the war years did not want them. Although there were some children, mostly older, who adapted to the new circumstances, many did not. Some ran away to their foster parents, some misbehaved, others wanted nothing -- no school, no kisses -- but to return to their foster homes.

Researchers have found that a separation of a few years without contact brings about an irreversible estrangement, not just with hidden children, but with all children. In the case of hidden children, there is an additional factor. Even very young children seemed to sense that their lives were at stake when they went into hiding. They adapted very quickly to the new surroundings, hardly crying for their parents -- an important survival tactic. The reasoning seemed to be, "I must surely have been a bad child that my parents gave me away; I must be a very good child now lest these people give me away." Their grief over losing their parents and their anger about being "given away" stayed mostly hidden. But after the war -- past the danger -- their fury emerged, and often it was aimed at their parents. Sometimes, the anger came out in psychosomatic complaints, sometimes in impossible behavior.

Another frequent consequence of the separation of the family is the child's inability in later life to form effective bonds -- to sustain lasting and intensive relationships. When the child did not have the possibility to attach to a beloved person during the hiding period, a shutting off of feelings resulted. Those mostly affected in their later ability to love were the children who were toddlers when they were given away and those who had many hiding places.

As for the parents, without a roof over their heads, without money because of the Germans' theft, and without income, they had survived the war but they now needed to survive the peace. The behavior of the former hidden children was an additional trauma for them. Also, for the most part, they were not the ideal figures to restore either their children's lives or their own. And they felt estranged from their children as well. They had not been there for the first step, the loss of the first tooth, the first school experience.

So, for many, the happy life at the end of the nightmare did not come to pass.

In my interviews with hidden children, I found in two-thirds of the cases that the damaged relationship was never repaired. Many had felt neglected. They reproached their parents for not asking about their hiding period. Some doubted that their parents were their real parents. Some had loyalty conflicts between their foster and biological parents.

But only one-third of the parents that I interviewed felt that the bond with their children had never been mended. For many years after the war this breach was neither recognized nor described. For some parents, it was a terrible shock when their child said, maybe some 35 years later, "our bond has never been repaired." The parents told me honestly, "We did our utmost and more."

What happened is in many cases a lasting drama, one that we will take to our graves.

Dutch psychologist Dr. Bloeme Evers-Emden, 1926 – 2016, was a Hidden Child and a survivor of Auschwitz, who wrote several important books on the hiding experience:

  • Geleende Kinderen (Borrowed Children), 1994
  • Ondergedoken Geweest, Een Afgesloten Verleden? (Hidden During the War: A Closed-Off Past?), 1995
  • Geschonden Bestaan (Shattered Existence) (1996), translated into Hebrew by Mechel Jamenfeld as Hayim Pegumim (Tel Aviv, 2000)
  • Je ouders delen (Sharing Your Parents), 1999