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How young were children left alive in Auschwitz?

How young were children left alive in Auschwitz?

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I was reading a criticism in Wikipedia of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas which has a 9-year-old boy in the camp, but people apparently knowledgeable assert this is not realistic -- those who could not work were immediately gassed.

At the same time, Primo Levi describes a very young kid in the camp who dies near the time of its liberation. I think medical experiments were performed on children but otherwise, would there have been children?

EDIT: The guy who objected to the movie made it clear that he thought there were no 9 year olds at all in the camp (I guess Mengele would have chosen children that young on the train platform?) but what of the kid Levi describes who was not only very young (apparently) but also severely disabled?

If inability to work is your main argument, you should remember children have been heavily involved in the work force until recent times.See Child Labor. Children are still used as labor in some parts of the world today:

In 2010, sub-saharan Africa had the highest incidence rates of child labour, with several African nations witnessing over 50 percent of children aged 5-14 working.

We have laws to protect children now, but these prisoners had no such protection. They worked until they died. Since some children are quite resilient, some survived longer than others.

Some survivors pictured on PBS.

Perhaps you have seen Elie Wiesel speak, or read his books. He was 15.

Wiesel and his father were selected to perform labor so long as they remained able-bodied, after which they were to be killed in the gas chambers.

(emphasis mine)

Note: my answer was to the question as originally worded:Were there children in Auschwitz?, and to the contention that children would have been summarily killed because they were unable to work.

In the words of Rudolf Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz, in his testimony at Nuremburg in 1946:

Those who were fit for work were sent into the camp. Others were sent immediately to the extermination plants. Children of tender years were invariably exterminated since by reason of their youth they were unable to work.

(my emphasis)

So it seems that there was no hard and fast rule in regard to children. If they looked old (and strong) enough to work, they would be set to work. Otherwise they would be murdered.

What's absurd (or, at least, one of the things that's absurd) about The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is not that there was a 9-year old in the camp, but that a 9-year old in the camp had been given a striped uniform and sent off to work.

The uniforms given to the camp inmates were not tailored, and frequently ill-fitting as a result. If you look at the famous Soviet photograph, of children in Auschwitz, you can see how the uniforms hung off them:

These children, who were all in Auschwitz at the time of its liberation, had not been given uniforms. Uniforms were given to them, for the purposes of this photograph, by their Russian liberators.

So why were little children in Auschwitz?

The overwhelming majority of children who turned up at Auschwitz were selected to go to Birkenau. Some children, whose appearance was such that they might have passed as being over the age of 16, were selected to go and work. But some little children were selected to go to the concentration camp at Auschwitz (Auschwitz I), even at a late stage of the war, and based upon the concern that the Red Cross may wish to investigate the camp. There, the were put in Block 31 of sector BIIb.

Many of those children were brought from Theresienstadt, and the Nazis set up a familienlager in Auschwitz for this purpose. Children were kept with their parents, (obviously) not given uniforms, and were treated better than those outside of the "family camp". Most specifically, they got to hold onto their luggage, and their heads weren't shaved. Some of those children survived the war, although the precise circumstances under which they did so is a matter of historical discussion.

For more information, see David Cesarani, Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-49, p685 - and his references there (specifically Nili Keren's article in Gutman's Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp). One of the children in the family camp was Otto Dov Kulka, who later wrote Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death.

There were children in Auschwitz-Birkenau and even a maternity ward. This video from the Spielberg archive contains an interview with Dina Babbitt Spielberg archive, she worked in a kindergarten in Auschwitz=Birkenau

3000 babies were delivered at Auschwitz - This Midwife at Auschwitz Delivered 3,000 Babies in Unfathomable Conditions:

It was, though-thanks to a woman named Stanislawa Leszczyńska. During her two-year internment at Auschwitz, the Polish midwife delivered 3,000 babies at the camp in unthinkable conditions. Though her story is little known outside of Poland, it is testament to the resistance of a small group of women determined to help their fellow prisoners… Leszczyńska, assisted by her daughter and other prisoners, later said she delivered 3,000 babies during her two years at Auschwitz. She continued to refuse to kill babies despite repeated orders to do so, even standing up to Dr. Josef Mengele, the camp's infamous “Angel of Death,” who was known for his brutal experiments on twins and other inmates.


The Kindertransport (German for "children's transport") was an organised rescue effort that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. The United Kingdom took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Nazi Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, and the Free City of Danzig. The children were placed in British foster homes, hostels, schools and farms. Often they were the only members of their families who survived the Holocaust. The programme was supported, publicised and encouraged by the British government. Importantly the British government waived all those visa immigration requirements which were not within the ability of the British Jewish community to fulfil. [1] [2] The British government put no number limit on the programme – it was the start of the Second World War that brought it to an end, at which time about 10,000 kindertransport children had been brought to the United Kingdom.

The term "kindertransport" is also sometimes used for the rescue of mainly Jewish children, but without their parents, from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. An example is the 1,000 Chateau de La Hille children who went to Belgium. [2] [3] However, often, the "kindertransport" is used to refer to the organised programme to the United Kingdom.

World Jewish Relief (then called the Central British Fund for German Jewry) was established in 1933 to support in whatever way possible the needs of Jews both in Germany and Austria.

No other country had a similar programme to the British Kindertransport. In the United States, the Wagner–Rogers Bill was introduced in Congress, but due to much opposition, it never left committee.

Bob Kirk, 93, and Ann Kirk, 90: ‘The parents who allowed their children to go showed tremendous courage’

Bob Kirk was given his sharp, pointedly British name by a Scottish captain when he joined the army towards the end of the war. His real name is Rudolf Kirchheimer. Is there any of Rudolf Kirchheimer left? “I suppose there must be somewhere,” he says.

Kirk’s father owned a textile warehouse in Hanover, in northern Germany. In the years before Hitler came to power in 1933, Kirk enjoyed idyllic family outings with his parents, brother and sister, who was 12 years older. His father had won the iron cross in the first world war and was proudly German. He was also close to 60 and reluctant to leave Germany.

Kirk’s sister left Germany in 1936, moving first to South Africa to work. She got married there, and then went to Brazil, where she and her husband lived for the rest of their lives. Kirk only met his sister again in 1981. His brother, who was two years older, went to the UK in February 1939 on a training work permit. His parents then put their remaining child down for a Kindertransport, and he left, just before his 14th birthday, in May 1939.

Bob Kirk photographed in Nazi Germany in 1935. Photograph: Courtesy of The Jewish Museum

“I didn’t really know where I was going,” he recalls. “There were about 200 children on that transport, and we were all, to say the least, a bit nervous. You are concerned, excited, and most of us were sold the idea that we were going on an adventure, and that, of course, our parents would be coming as soon as they got their papers.” He was carrying his small regulation suitcase, and had his stamp collection confiscated by Nazis at the Dutch border. He carried no family photos or memorabilia. “My parents were so intent on not making it seem like a parting that they didn’t include anything which might suggest we wouldn’t see each other again.”

As they parted, his parents told him to be a good boy and that they would see him soon. But he never saw them again. Kirk went back to Hanover in 1949 and discovered that they had been transported to Riga in December 1941 and never returned. He also visited his father’s old textile business and found two of his father’s former employees now running it. He recalls them being far from pleased to see him. He would have reclaimed his father’s business if he could, but when he visited his father’s former bank they told him all its old records had been destroyed in the allied bombing.

Bob Kirk describes how life changed with the Nazi takeover - video

Kirk says he lost almost 20 family members in the Holocaust. How, I ask him, did he cope with the pain? “With difficulty,” he says. “It’s not something where you say: ‘I’ve got to get over this.’ You just live with it and, eventually, you assimilate it. I never felt guilty about surviving. I felt tremendous gratitude to my parents for their courage. All the parents who allowed their children to go showed tremendous courage.”

After being demobbed from the army, Kirk trained as a bookkeeper and did well, rising to the position of company secretary in a textile company – a neat link with his father’s old line of work. In the late 1940s he met the former Hannah Kuhn (who became Ann Kirk after their marriage in 1950), another Jewish refugee from Germany, who came to the UK on a Kindertransport in April 1939.

Ann Kirk and her parents Photograph: Courtesy of The Jewish Museum

The Kirks say they found great solace in being able to talk to each other about their experiences, but they didn’t talk to their sons about what they had been through, wanting them to “have as normal a life as possible and not burden them with our history”. One son did not hear their full stories until they gave a talk at the local synagogue in 1992. Bob refers to “40-year syndrome” – the time it took for Holocaust survivors to start opening up about their lives and for other people to be willing to listen.

Ann, an only child who grew up in Cologne, also lost her parents. Her father was musical and used to play chamber music with friends in their large flat even now she says she finds music for the cello, her father’s instrument, hard to listen to without weeping. Her parents had a boat, and she says weekend journeys on the Rhine with them are still her “treasured memories, coming back at sunset with a view of the bridge and the cathedral – Cologne was lovely”.

Her recollection of leaving her parents to board the Kindertransport – by this time they had moved to a much smaller flat near Berlin – are deeply affecting. “Everyone around us was in tears,” she recalls, “but my dad tried to joke about it. I was going on a big adventure. What a wonderful chance for a little girl to have. Then they must have jumped into a taxi to get to the next station but one, and there they were waving – waving until their hands almost dropped off, and that’s the last sight I ever had of them.”

She received frequent letters from them before the outbreak of war in September 1939, and then a Red Cross message from her father to her foster family – two middle-aged, unmarried Jewish sisters in Finchley, north London – saying that his wife had been deported in December 1942. The following February, she received a further message saying he was well and healthy, and was pleased to hear that she was progressing well in Britain. She later learned he was deported a few days after that message, and many years later she discovered they had both perished in Auschwitz.

Ann Kirk remembers the last day she last saw her parents - video

“It’s an additional grief that they didn’t even go together,” she says. “What my poor dad was going through what they both must have gone through. Thanks to the courage and wisdom of my parents and the goodness of the two ladies who looked after me, I am here. The educational work I do now is in part a memorial to my parents. Their memory lives on and they are not forgotten.” I ask her for their names – Herte and Franz Kuhn. Sometimes names, among the bald, brutal statistics, are necessary.

Remembering the Kindertransport: 80 Years On is at the Jewish Museum, 129-131 Albert Street, London NW1 from 8 November to 10 February

This article was amended on 14 November 2018. An earlier version included a photograph, supplied by the Jewish Museum, which had been incorrectly captioned by the museum as showing Ann Kirk. This image has been removed and substituted with an image showing Ann and her parents.

Nazi legacy: The troubled descendants

The names of Himmler, Goering, Goeth and Hoess still have the power to evoke the horrors of Nazi Germany, but what is it like to live with the legacy of those surnames, and is it ever possible to move on from the terrible crimes committed by your ancestors?

When he was a child Rainer Hoess was shown a family heirloom.

He remembers his mother lifting the heavy lid of the fireproof chest with a large swastika on the lid, revealing bundles of family photos.

They featured his father as a young child playing with his brothers and sisters, in the garden of their grand family home.

The photos show a pool with a slide and a sand pit - an idyllic family setting - but one that was separated from the gas chambers of Auschwitz by just a few yards.

His grandfather Rudolf Hoess (not to be confused with Nazi deputy leader Rudolf Hess), was the first commandant of Auschwitz concentration camp. His father grew up in a villa adjoining the camp, where he and his siblings played with toys built by prisoners.

It was where his grandmother told the children to wash the strawberries they picked because they smelled of ash from the concentration camp ovens.

Rainer is haunted by the garden gate he spotted in the photos that went straight into the camp - he calls it the "gate to hell".

"It's hard to explain the guilt," says Rainer, "even though there is no reason I should bear any guilt, I still bear it. I carry the guilt with me in my mind.

"I'm ashamed too, of course, for what my family, my grandfather, did to thousands of other families.

"So you ask yourself, they had to die. I'm alive. Why am I alive? To carry this guilt, this burden, to try to come to terms with it.

"That must be the only reason I exist, to do what he should have done."

His father never abandoned the ideology he grew up with and Rainer no longer has contact with him, as he attempts to cope with his family's guilt and shame.

For Katrin Himmler, putting pen to paper was her way of coping with having Heinrich Himmler in her family.

"It's a very heavy burden having someone like that in the family, so close. It's something that just keeps hanging over you."

Himmler, key architect of the Holocaust, was her great-uncle, and her grandfather and his other brother were also in the Nazi party.

She wrote The Himmler Brothers: A German Family History, in a quest to "bring something positive" to the name of Himmler.

"I did my best to distance myself from it and to confront it critically. I no longer need to be ashamed of this family connection."

She says the descendants of the Nazi war criminals seem to be caught between two extremes.

"Most decide to cut themselves off entirely from their parents so that they can live their lives, so that the story doesn't destroy them.

"Or they decide on loyalty and unconditional love and sweep all the negative things away."

She says they all face the same question: "Can you really love them if you want to be honest and really know what they did or thought?"

Katrin thought she had a good relationship with her father until she started to research into the family's past. Her father found it very hard to talk about it.

"I could only understand how difficult it was for him when I realised how difficult it was for me to accept that my own grandmother was a Nazi.

"I really loved her, I was fond of her, it was very difficult when I found her letters and learned that she maintained contact with the old Nazis and that she sent a package to a war criminal sentenced to death. It made me feel sick."

Trying to find out exactly what happened in her family's past was hard for Monika Hertwig. She was a baby when her father Amon Goeth was tried and hanged for killing tens of thousands of Jews.

Goeth was the sadistic commander of Plaszow concentration camp, but Monika was brought up by her mother as if the horrors had never happened.

As a child she created a rose-tinted version of her father from family photos.

"I had this image I created [that] the Jews in Plaszow and Amon were one family."

But in her teens she questioned this view of her father and confronted her mother, who eventually admitted her father "may have killed a few Jews".

When she repeatedly asked how many, her mother "became like a madwoman" and whipped her with an electric cable.

It was the film Schindler's List that brought home the full horror of her father's crimes.

Goeth was played by Ralph Fiennes and Monika says watching it "was like being struck".

"I kept thinking this has to stop, at some point they have to stop shooting, because if it doesn't stop I'll go crazy right here in this theatre."

She left the cinema suffering from shock.

For Bettina Goering, the great-niece of Hitler's designated successor Hermann Goering, she felt she needed to take drastic action to deal with her family's legacy.

Both she and her brother chose to be sterilised.

"We both did it. so that there won't be any more Goerings," she explains.

"When my brother had it done, he said to me 'I cut the line'."

Disturbed by her likeness to her great-uncle, she left Germany more than 30 years ago and lives in a remote home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

"It's easier for me to deal with the past of my family from this great distance," she explains.

While Bettina decided to travel far from the site of her relatives' crimes, Rainer Hoess decided he had to visit the heart of his family's shame - Auschwitz.

As a child he was not allowed on school trips to Auschwitz because of his surname, but as an adult in his forties, he felt the need to face "the reality of the horror and the lies I've had all these years in my family".

Seeing his father's childhood home he broke down and kept repeating the word "insanity".

"It's insane what they built here at the expense of others and the gall to say it never happened."

He could not speak when he saw the "gate to hell". In the visitors centre he encountered the raw emotion of descendants of camp victims.

One young Israeli girl broke down as she told him his grandfather had exterminated her family - she could not believe he had chosen to face them.

As Rainer spoke about his guilt and shame, a former Auschwitz prisoner at the back at the room asked if he could shake his hand.

They embraced as Zvika told Rainer how he gives talks to young people, but tells them the relatives are not to blame as they were not there.

For Rainer this was a major moment in dealing with the burden of his family's guilt.

"To receive the approval of someone who survived those horrors and knows for sure that it wasn't you, that you didn't do it.

"For the first time you don't feel fear or shame but happiness, joy, inner joy."

The Lost Children of the Lidice Massacre

In 1947, eight-year-old Václav Zelenka returned to the Czech village of Lidice as the last of the town’s lost children. Five years earlier, he and the rest of Lidice’s 503 residents had been viciously attacked by the Nazis, but the young Zelenka had few recollections of the event. He had spent the remainder of World War II living with an adoptive family in Germany, never realizing that he was stolen from his community in Czechoslovakia.

In hindsight, Zelenka was lucky: He was one of only 17 child survivors of the Nazis’ June 10, 1942, massacre, an arbitrary act of violence that ultimately claimed the lives of 340 Lidice residents. Despite his initial reluctance to leave Germany, Zelenka readjusted to his former life — and later became the mayor of the rebuilt town of Lidice.

The destruction of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, in 1942, in a propaganda photograph released by the Nazis. (Archive, Lidice Memorial)

The world first learned about Lidice via a brutally detached Nazi radio annoucement broadcast the day after the attack: “All male inhabitants have been shot. The women have been transferred to a concentration camp. The children have been taken to educational centers. All houses of Lidice have been leveled to the ground, and the name of this community has been obliterated.”

Although the Nazis hoped to make an example of Lidice by erasing it from history, their bold proclamation, accompanied by ample photographic evidence of the atrocity, infuriated the Allies to such an extent that Frank Knox, secretary of the U.S. Navy, proclaimed, “If future generations ask us what we were fighting for in this war, we shall tell them the story of Lidice.”

When news of the Lidice massacre broke, the international community responded with outrage and a promise to keep the town’s memory alive. A small neighborhood in Joliet, Illinois, adopted Lidice’s name, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt released a statement praising the gesture: “The name of Lidice was to be erased from time,” he said. “Instead of being killed as the Nazis would have it, Lidice has been given new life.” In the English district of Stoke-on-Trent, Member of Parliament Barnett Stross led a “Lidice Shall Live” campaign and raised money for rebuilding efforts. Artists further immortalized the tragedy in works including poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s The Massacre of Lidice.

In comparison, the Allied response to the Nazis’ Final Solution, which claimed the lives of six million Jews (including 263,000 Czech Jews), was deliberately measured. On December 17, 1942, the U.S., British and other Allied governments issued a statement condemning the Nazis’ annihilation of European Jews, but they were hesitant to overemphasize the Jews’ plight. The people of Lidice were seen as universal victims — peaceful civilians who had the misfortune to witness the Nazis’ disregard for human life firsthand. Europe’s Jewish population represented a far more politically charged demographic. Amidst rising anti-Semitic sentiment and German propaganda accusing the Allies of bowing to “Jewish interests,” Lidice emerged as a neutral, indisputably despicable example of Nazi immorality. Discussion of the Holocaust, on the other hand, raised an entirely separate debate.

If not for an untimely love letter, Lidice might have escaped the war unscathed. Czechoslovakia was one of the Nazis’ first targets: Germany assumed control of the Sudetenland, a Czech territory inhabited by many ethnic Germans, in 1938, and invaded the remaining Czech lands in March 1939.

Lidice, a mining village about 12 miles from Prague, languished under the control of Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking SS official and deputy of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, but did not appear to be in immediate danger. As Heydrich worked to crush the Czech resistance movement, however, the situation grew tenuous. On May 27, 1942, operatives ambushed the hated Nazi critically wounded, Heydrich died of sepsis on June 4.

An enraged Adolf Hitler ordered immediate retaliation. He decided to make an example of Lidice because he believed several residents were connected to the Czech resistance. In nearby Kladno, the Gestapo had intercepted a love letter written by a suspected participant in Heydrich’s assassination. The note was addressed to a local factory worker who, upon interrogation, implicated the Horáks, a family living in Lidice.

Known Allied sympathizers, the Horáks even had a son fighting in Great Britain’s Czech army, but after investigating the claim, the Nazis found no connection between the family and Heydrich’s death. Hitler, determined to punish the Czech people regardless of their complicity in the underground movement, moved ahead with his plan.

Just after midnight on June 10, Nazi officials arrived in Lidice and herded villagers into the main square. Men over the age of 15 were taken to the Horáks’ farmhouse, women and children to a school in Kladno.

By afternoon, the Nazis had systematically executed 173 men. Victims were brought out in groups of 10 and lined up against a barn, which had been covered with mattresses to prevent bullets from ricocheting. Officials offered mercy to local priest Josef Stembarka in exchange for calming his congregation, but he refused. “I have lived with my flock,” he said, “and now I will die with it.”

Women who refused to leave their husbands were also shot, and men who happened to be away from the village were later found and killed.

Determined to obliterate Lidice, the Nazis destroyed every building in sight and even dug up the town’s cemetery. They dumped massacre victims into a mass grave dug by prisoners from Terezin, a nearby concentration camp, and gleefully filmed the aftermath of the annihilation. This footage would soon become Nazi propaganda designed to quell further resistance.

Eighty-two statues of children are depicted in Marie Uchytilová's "A Monument of children's war victims." (Archive, Lidice Memorial)

In Kladno, the remaining villagers waited for news of their families. Pregnant women and babies under the age of one were separated from the others, as were several children with Germanic facial features.

No news arrived, but three days after the attack, Nazi officials separated the young from their mothers, assuring all that a reunion would follow relocation. The women boarded trucks bound for Ravensbrück concentration camp, and most of the children left for a camp in Łódź, Poland.

The young survivors arrived in Łódź with a message from their Nazi captors: “The children are taking with them only what they wear. No special care is to be provided.” Indeed, the only “care” given at the camp was extensive physical testing. German doctors measured the children’s facial features, identifying those with “Aryan” characteristics as candidates for Germanization — a process where suitably featured non-German children were adopted by German families.

In total, nine children met the criteria for Germanization and were sent to Puschkau, Poland, to learn German and begin the assimilation process. On July 2, the remaining 81 children arrived at Chelmno extermination camp. Historians believe they were killed in mobile gas chambers that same day.

By the end of the war, 340 of Lidice’s 503 residents were dead as a direct result of the June 10 massacre. 143 women and 17 children, including those born just after the attack, eventually returned to the ruins of their hometown and began the arduous task of resurrecting the community.

More than 25,000 roses are planted at the Lidice Memorial rose garden. (Archive, Lidice Memorial)

Today, Lidice — a small town of about 540 residents, rebuilt alongside a memorial and museum commemorating the tragedy — stands in defiance of the Nazis’ attempted extermination: 82 larger-than-life bronze statues, each representing a lost child of Lidice, greet visitors. Last year, on the 75th anniversary of the tragedy, mourners gathered everywhere from the Czech village itself to an Illinois neighborhood that has borne Lidice’s name since July 1942.

Anna Hanfová, one of three siblings selected for Germanization, was one of the first lost children to return. She spent the remainder of the war living in eastern Germany but maintained limited contact with her sister Marie and cousin Emilie Frejová, and when Anna returned to Lidice, she led authorities to both relatives’ new German homes.

Otto and Freda Kuckuk, a well-to-do couple with strong SS ties, had adopted Frejová. In Witnesses to War, author Michael Leapman writes that Frejová adjusted well, but Marie’s new life was more complicated: Her adoptive family treated her like a slave and convinced her that the Czech were a subservient race. It took several years for Marie to overcome this indoctrinated belief.

Václav, the third sibling, refused to cooperate with his captors he drifted between children’s homes and incurred brutal punishments for unruly behavior. In late 1945, Josefina Napravilova, a humanitarian who located about 40 lost Czech children during the aftermath of the war, encountered Vaclav at a displaced persons camp. He was slow to trust her but later dubbed Napravilova his “second mother.”

Elizabeth White, a historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, explains the difficulty of the children’s rehabilitation process, as most selected for Germanization were taken from home at a young age and eventually forgot their Czech heritage.

“When [the children] were found and sent back, they didn't remember how to speak Czech,” White says. “One girl’s mother survived Ravensbrück but had tuberculosis and died four months after she came back. At first when they spoke, they had to use a translator.”

Martina Lehmannová, director of the Lidice Memorial, says that the Nazis embraced Lidice as a symbol of power. In comparison to many of their crimes, which were largely hidden from the rest of the world, the Nazis publicized the town’s destruction through radio broadcasts and propaganda footage. “They were proud of it,” Lehmannová adds.

As White explains, there were several reasons for the Allies’ relative restraint toward the Holocaust: Nazi propaganda insinuated that the Allies were only fighting the war to protect Jewish interests, and the Allies wanted to refute this claim. In the U.S., anti-Semitic sentiment was on the rise, and many people believed that Roosevelt was overly beholden to the Jews. The Allies also believed that widespread knowledge of the Final Solution would lead to demands for increased immigration quotas, which would aid Jewish refugees but infuriate isolationists and foster further instability.

“The Allies emphasized that the Nazis were a threat to all of humanity, that the war was about freedom versus slavery,” White adds. “When they would condemn Nazi atrocities, [they highlighted attacks] against peaceful citizens.”

Thanks to the visual evidence provided by the Nazis, the Lidice massacre became a powerful Allied propaganda tool. By focusing on atrocities against all innocent individuals, the Allies spurred patriotism without encouraging claims of their overzealous interest in Jewish affairs.

Although the Nazis failed to erase Lidice from history, White says the attack fulfilled at least one intended purpose: “Within Czechoslovakia, [the massacre] really did lead to the breaking of the resistance.” The Nazis’ harsh reprisal may have succeeded in deterring underground activity, but the Czech people did not forget the terrors inflicted at Lidice. As Lehmannová explains, the name of the town is very close to the Czech word lid, which means people, and in the aftermath of the tragedy, Lidice came to represent the Nazis’ crimes against all inhabitants of Czechoslovakia.

In 1947, Lidice was reborn after an outpouring of global support. Builders laid the foundation stone of the new village 300 meters from its original location, which now holds a memorial to the murdered townspeople. A garden filled with more than 24,000 donated rose bushes connects new and old.

On the 75th anniversary of the massacre, mourners gathered to remember those killed in Lidice. (Archive, Lidice Memorial)

“You can taste the feeling of dystopia on the empty space of old Lidice and the feeling of utopia in the new village,” says Lehmannová.

Since 1967, Lidice has hosted the International Children’s Exhibition of Fine Arts: Lidice, an annual competition in which youth from all over the world submit art based on themes such as biodiversity, cultural heritage and education. According to Sharon Valášek, Mid-West honorary consul to the Czech Republic, the Lidice massacre “became a symbol of human suffering around the world,” and the exhibition was conceived as a way of having people “think about human suffering in general, not necessarily just related to Lidice.”

Today, the thriving Lidice community stands as a testament to its residents’ resilience, but the rebuilding process was far from straightforward. In 1967, reporter Henry Kamm visited the fledgling town and spoke to Ravensbrück survivor Miloslava Žižková. She acknowledged the difficulties of returning to Lidice, noting that there was no school because “we are still missing one generation.” Žižková added, however, that Lidice was home: “This is where we have our roots.”

Just outside of the new village, a wooden cross marked the mass grave of Lidice’s murdered residents — including Žižková’s father and grandfather. Here, at least, survivors found a hauntingly tangible explanation for their return.

Holocaust: What’s Left of the Jews

April 3, 2009

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Ron Cardy/Rex USA, Courtesy Everett Collection Female prisoners at Auschwitz concentration camp.

Two months after VE Day, Meyer Levin visits Europe and is astonished to find that the Continent’s Jewish community has been annihilated. Even the few survivors can’t believe it.

Before the war there were sixteen million Jews in the world. Little more than half are left. Nobody really believes in the annihilation of the Jews of Europe. There are certain facts so massive that the human mind for a long time rejects them, and this has happened with the story of European Jewry. The survivors themselves, after living these years within the massacre, don’t believe their own knowledge of its completeness.

In a village near Weimar I met a man who had escaped from one of the last columns marched out of Buchenwald. For three hours, sitting on his pallet on a factory floor, he told me about the two years he had worked on the Auschwitz train platform, where Jews had arrived for extermination. He estimated that he had seen four million arrive he knew that only one in ten was selected for slavery, the rest went to the gas chambers. He knew that the chosen slaves had about one chance in a thousand of living more than a year. Two years ago he had seen his own sister arrive on a death train. And yet, after speaking to me only of death&mdashdeath in Auschwitz, death on the icy trains, death on the road marches, death in the work camps&mdashthis man seized my arm and said, “You go to all the concentration camps, you see all who remain alive&mdashwrite down the name of my sister, Perhaps you will find her. Perhaps she has survived.”

Of all the survivors I talked to, none was without a story of sisters, brothers, mother, father gone, and yet none ever said these loved ones were dead unless he had actually seen them killed. “They were taken to Drancy, and from there deported” “I heard of him last in Warsaw, but from there he may have been deported.” Always they spoke as though myriads of Jews might somewhere yet be found alive as we went farther into Germany.

Finally we had been through all Germany, and found only the remnants in the concentration camps, and the few dozens in each city, and the scattered survivors of the last trains that started from Buchenwald and Auschwitz toward the Alps and halted wherever they ran out of fuel, while the guards shot a few last Jews and seized automobiles and fled from the approaching Americans.

It has been estimated that there are a million and a quarter Jews alive in Europe outside of Russia. This estimate may not stand, for the Poles in renewed pogroms are killing off the few hundred thousand who escaped the Nazis, out of Poland’s four million Jews. Moreover, twelve thousand of those found alive in Bergen Belsen died after the camp was liberated, and after six weeks were still dying at the rate of fifty a day.

A million and a quarter people form a considerable community this is nearly twice as many Jews as there are in Palestine. How can it be said, then, that European Jewry has been wiped out?

You have to look at those who are left. I looked for Jews all through France, Belgium, Holland, Germany I sought them in every concentration camp I hunted survivors on the roads where they had scattered from the last death trains. I’ve seen what is left of them in the west, and in Prague I talked with a man who as a member of the Czech mission for displaced persons had followed the Russian armies arid sought surviving Jewish communities. I pooled my information with Dr. Rosenberg’s, to arrive at the total picture.

About half of the remaining Jews of Europe are in Rumania. Though the Iron Guardists and their followers were violently anti-Semitic throughout the rise of fascism, the 600,000 Jews of Rumania were never seized for slaughter they therefore form the only intact European Jewish community outside of Russia.

Numerically, the Polish Jews come next. Dr. Rosenberg estimates that from 200,000 to 300,000 are still alive. They are scattered, starved, and in constant fear of pogroms. Poland was the ever-living well, the source of Judaism in modern times. The Jews of Poland were the real Jews they thought of themselves only as Jews and though they were despised and reviled, though they were hated even by sections of their own race, such as the German Jews, they were nevertheless the source of Jewish vitality. Westernized Jews detested the old-fashioned pious Poles with their long caftans and ear curls, the peddlers and beggars who were the characters of anti-Semitic cartoons. French, Belgian, and Dutch Jews charged that it was the Polish Jews, swarming westward, who were the cause of the new anti-Semitism. Well, the last ghettos have been burned. From General Bor himself I heard of the incredible fight put up by the young Jews of the Warsaw ghetto, and that the ghetto now is only a large burned area in the middle of the city. Yet there is still anti-Semitism, a new and fresh anti-Semitism, all through Europe.

After the Polish come the Hungarian Jews they have a higher percentage of survivors since they were the last to be rounded up for elimination. Nearly 150,000 in and around Budapest were not gathered in, and the others&mdashthose who survived the Auschwitz ordeal&mdashsuffered less than a year of slavery. Wherever groups of Jewish factory slaves were found, Hungarians predominated the Poles had had more time to die. In two places near Leipzig I encountered groups of a thousand Hungarian girls. They were emaciated&mdashstylishly thin, as they wryly put it&mdashand their fingers were yellow from war chemicals, but they were still young and alive. Each had a faint hope that some member of her family had also survived each wanted to return to Hungary long enough to find out her family’s fate. But live there? No, they could not imagine going back to live among the people who had let this be done to them.

In France, of 350,000 Jews, 175,000 survived. The French people as a whole were sympathetic during the German occupation and helped Jews to hide but now the atmosphere is different. Every Jew who returns to Paris and tries to recover his apartment, or his business, or his job has to displace a Frenchman, and though the law declares that the victims of Nazism shall have their belongings restored, each returning Jew faces a court battle, and in each case a new little circle of anti-Semites is created. Some new tenants’ organizations, such as the Locataires de Bonne Foi, have urged their members to use force to prevent Jews from moving back into their apartments even returning soldiers&mdashpropagandized in German prison camps&mdashhave demonstrated against Jewish shopkeepers. Anti-Semites say the Jews took no part in the resistance movement but all-Jewish companies fought in the Battle of Paris, there were all-Jewish groups in the maquis, and thousands of other Jews were active in the resistance movement everywhere, though not identified as Jews.

This same bitter aftermath is found in Slovakia, where Jews fought as partisans and then returned to their villages only to find a hatred so great that, in the words of a former Jewish partisan leader, it became “impossible to live in an atmosphere so anti-Semitic”

In Belgium, where the Jewish population shrank from 90,000 to 23,000, the community leaders told me that though they were making the most energetic attempts at readjustment, the Jews were encountering an anti-Semitism that had not existed before. “What can we expect? The population was subjected to years of concentrated propaganda. Victory does not erase this.” In Holland, of 140,000 Jews, some 25,000 remain. Anti-Semitism was previously unknown. But when the little Jewish community in Maastricht tried to arrange a Purim festival for American Jewish soldiers, they were advised to omit it, lest the report of the celebration add fuel to the rising feeling against Jews.

In the Duchy of Luxembourg the old and prosperous Jewish settlement has dwindled to a few hundred.-Dr. Henry Cerf of the SHAEF mission that a number of Jews had come in from France and Belgium but had found so much hatred where there had been none before that they had despaired and wandered back westward.

Even in the concentration camps anti-Semitism was fostered to such a point that when Chaplain Eichhorn attempted to bold an open-air service for the Jews of Dachau, the newly formed selfgoverning committee of the camp declared that such a service would lead to disorders.

The effect of persecution has been to drive the survivors to extremes: either they have become Jews in a more positive sense than ever before, or they have decided to lose their identity as Jews. The man who is led to affirm his Jewishness is convinced that his miraculous survival is proof that he was always completely right in all his beliefs and principles: thus the orthodox Jew is more zealous than ever in his orthodoxy the Zionist upholds more strongly his particular sectarianism, be it labor Zionism or political Zionism or cultural Zionism and while the Communists, the Zionists, and the religious bodies in the surviving communities work together on ameliorative projects, they have little inner unity as Jews. Those who have concluded that being a Jew is not worth the price are, constantly slipping away from the community. Day after day in the Journal Officiel one finds columns of notices of Cohens and Levys who have changed their names to Dumont and Bontemps.

In Italy several thousand Jews are reported to have followed a converted rabbi into the Catholic church in France, where there has always been active proselytizing among the Jews, the movement has noticeably increased. Many Catholics made a definite effort to retain in the faith the Jewish children who had been confided to them for safekeeping. I witnessed an actual struggle betewen a priest and a rabbi for the souls of several hundred children. The priest, who alone knew where the children had been placed, maintained that he would have to secure the order of some living relative of these children before he could give them back to the Jewish community. He finally agreed that if no relatives could be found, the children would be returned.

It is charged that up to 3,000 children have thus been lost to Judaism in France. This is a large number when one realizes that there are exceedingly few Jewish children left in Europe. Some 6,000 children were hidden in France by various undeground organizations perhaps an equal number were hidden by their parents, in direct placement. Beyond these, scarcely more than a thousand were found in the concentration camp, mostly in the fourteen-to-eighteenyear age group, though so stunted and starved that they were six years under age. There is no Jewish generation under fourteen. These children were destroyed.

The destruction of the Jews was most complete in Germany itself. In each city I found a dozen, perhaps a hundred, survivors living in the remaining official Jewish houses, one family to a room. In Leipzig I found exactly 16 of a former 16,000. Only Jews married to non-Jews had been permitted to remain, and of these marriages only the children who professed Christianity were alive. During the last months even Jews married to Gentiles had been seized. In each city, a doctor, a lawyer, and a community head had been left. It seemed to be generally expected that a great many Jews would “come out of hiding” after the Nazi defeat. Their number is insignificant 1 doubt that it totals 500 for all Germany, where some 4,000 have survived.

About 4,000 Jews were found alive in Buchenwald, 5,000 in Dachau, 12,000 in Bergen Belsen&mdashperhaps 50,000 in all the camps. With the exception of the young Hungarians found in factory enclaves, nearly all the survivors are suffering from physical and mental exhaustion which must have a permanent effect. What shall be done with them? Some have been repatriated to France and Czechoslovakia, but the Poles protest bitterly against being sent “home.” What do the Jews in the camps ask for themselves?

A small percentage know they want to go to Palestine, and they are the luckiest, for they have a specific objective and a will to live: The one cheerful hour in all my time among Jews was spent in a barracks in Bergen Belsen, where a dozen youngsters sang Hebrew songs, of Palestine. The mass of survivors have no clear hope for the future. “We are too weak, too tired we can endure no more struggle in our lives,” they say. “We need only some place where we can live out our years.” A large proportion have relatives outside Europe with whom they hope to get in touch, but few have exact addresses. Contacts will be difficult to make, and then the cry will be raised against Jewish immigration, as though these few thousands were hordes of undesirables, For most of the survivors the obvious solution is Palestine yet there are already complaints that the sickly products of the concentration camps are unfit material for the upbuilding of that land. And of course there will be a campaign against a “flood of Jews” directed toward Palestine, and there will be Zionists making calculations about how many millions Palestine can absorb. It will be forgotten that there are no millions to come. If Palestine cannot give immediate refuge to the few thousand survivors of the concentration camps, that is indeed the last miserably ironic comment on what world politics has done to the Zionist ideal.

Outside the camps, and outside Rumania, some halfmillion scattered Jews will make an effort to adjust and resettle in their previous lands most of them can perhaps still find a way to live as Jews in France, Belgium, and Holland, though in the coming years they may seek either to assimilate or to emigrate.

With the well of Europe so dry, the threat of Jewish “domination” in Palestine is deflated. The millions who might have pressed in from Poland are dead. The Jews of Russia and the United States are not likely to emigrate to Eretz Israel. When all the scattered refugees in the Russian area and in ours are registered, it may turn out that there are some hundreds of thousands for whom Palestine should offer a solution. Still, the ever-renewing sources of Jewish population are gone. The continuing stream of emigration must run dry. It looks as if the Jewish population of Palestine must level off and depend chiefly on its birth rate for increase. In this, it is always behind the Arabs. Thus there is no real population threat to the Arabs of Palestine. This knowledge should dampen the growing conflict there.

The heart, of Jewish culture, it seems to me, is now definitely in Palestine the greatest population is in the United States. Jewish casualties in the war&mdashnot in proportion but in actual numbers&mdashare as large as those of the great nations. Seven million Jews were slaughtered for being Jews, and added to this number are the Jewish casualties in all the Allied armies.

It is common knowledge that anti-Semitism is rising in this country. In a large sense, the fate of the Jewish people will be decided here.

The lost children of the Holocaust

Until Prof. Joanna Beata Michlic came along. Prof. Michlic is a Jew of Polish descent, a social historian who specializes in Holocaust research and in its effects on children and family. She embarked on a journey retracing those children's footsteps, delved into archives of Jewish organizations, orphanages and kibbutzim in Israel, and collected live testimonies. She also spent some time in Israel as a scholar as part of the prestigious Fullbright program, which advances academic-scientific cooperation between the United States and Israel.

"Childhood in the Holocaust is an issue which has been pushed aside," Michlic says about the exclusion of children's experiences from the academic research. "There is a dispute over the use of survivors' testimonies, particularly children, and it’s extremely problematic, because if you look at research as a source of understanding history, the children and their experiences aren't even there."

A history of a Holocaust without children

Prof. Michlic is the founder of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and a lecturer at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, and is a sort of enigma. She was born and raised in Poland. A study she conducted as a student about anti-Semitism in her country led her to information documenting the human story of the Jewish children who were saved by Polish families during the Holocaust.

Why was there no interest in what the children had to say?

"There was a feeling that the information was distorted. Children's testimonies are naturally less accurate. Their interpretation of reality is sometimes different. The fact that they were young made historians question their ability to remember. A child was of course the ultimate victim, and his testimony was a symbol – but only on the psychological level.

"Historians didn't feel that it was an important voice through which the circumstances and historical events – and the history of the childhood in general – during and after the Holocaust, should be examined. And this is, in my opinion, an important part of the documentation. It's true that children have a different sense of time, a different outlook. Very small children couldn't even remember their name. They lost the reality of who they were, as they were unable to use their real name for a while."

Parents turned into strangers

In her study, Prof. Michlic documents heart-rending descriptions of tragedies and traumas suffered by the lucky children who survived with a false identity.

"It was so traumatic," she says, "that after the war, when the children's relatives arrived to take them home, they saw them as complete strangers. Some of the Jewish children who were transferred to a Jewish orphanage in Poland after the war tried to escape to the people they saw as their parents. The emotional connection between them was very deep in some cases, and the separation was heart-rending."

Who were the Christians who took in those children?

"The rescuers came from a very wide variety. Some took care of them as if they were their own children. Others expressed anti-Semitic views and some were violent towards the adoptive children, as well as towards their biological children. There were also cases in which families murdered the children they were entrusted with.

"In homes in which children were abused – sexual abuse too, by the way – they were very happy to find out about their Jewishness and leave. But in families in which they felt loved and appreciated, there were huge difficulties. Some of the parents didn't even know that the child they adopted was Jewish, and the separation was heart-rending. It took some of them years to really say goodbye."

Michlic further notes that under the Soviet regime, "the issue because a taboo. The Polish families were afraid to reveal their connection to the Jews' children, and therefore did not maintain it. The archives were sealed. Only today, when they have become local culture heroes, the issue can be discussed openly. But most of them are no longer alive, and the relations between them and the children they raised were broken in a very traumatic way.

"One of the most wonderful places to learn about the connection was through letters the children wrote to Jewish organizations during the civil struggle in Poland, asking that their rescuers be protected."

Jewish kids praying to Virgin Mary

The documentation discovered by Michlic described dozens of cases of difficulties in bidding farewell to the adoptive family. Sara Avinun, one of the interviewees in Michlic's research, documented her story in the book "Rising from the Abyss," which Michlic sees as one of the most powerful and important depictions of the child experience during the Holocaust. But this documentation, she says, didn't receive the proper research attention in previous years either.

"She describes the experiences of a little girl, who at a certain stage, after a number of difficult experiences of sexual abuse, abandonment and more, found herself in a Christian orphanage. She was taken away from there by a childless Polish couple and created a renewed childhood for herself," Michlic says.

"After the war, when she was nine years old, her uncle arrived, and she simply refused to go with them. She escaped back to her 'parents,' until her grandfather took her away forcibly. He was a religious person and he put her in a kibbutz with other children, because he felt that the gaps between them were too big and he wanted her to reaccept her Jewish identity."

Avinun's story ended well. "She has a wonderful family and a Jewish identity, but for a long time she kept in touch with her adoptive parents, who didn’t even know she was Jewish. There were periods of great difficulties, of a mixed identity, of a rejection of anything related to Judaism and Jews. The adoptive mother refused to acknowledge the fact that the daughter was Jewish, and just wanted her back even many years later.

"And there were children who decided to stay with their Christian identity, and kept their Jewish identity a secret for many years. This group has been shrinking in recent years. There were children who found out the truth as adults, like Romuald (Jakub) Weksler-Waszkinel, who was already a Catholic priest when he learned the truth, and to this very day he lives in Israel to this very day with a split Jewish-Catholic identity."

According to Michlic, "Even if the parents survived, there were children who wanted to officially convert to Christianity. These experiences, unfortunately, were not part of the historical memory for many years. Some of the children didn't really talk about it and suppressed it, but even those who did were not heard. And so you could see a child who wants to immigrate to Israel on the one hand, and continues to go to church every Sunday on the other hand."

The division of the religious identity continued. Michlic describes many cases in which small children continued to pray to Virgin Mary, or kept her pictures. And it accompanied them even when they already knew they were Jewish.

"Others," she explains, "found it difficult to get used to the idea that one can be Jewish again. These are children whose entire family, community, was erased. They were afraid to return to their Jewishness, afraid to speak Yiddish. In many cases, they were raised on anti-Semitic stories, which increased their revulsion towards the discovery."

Trauma moved on to next generation

How did the families that survived the horror deal with the new difficulty?

"We know that the best results were achieved in cases in which the children were not forced to abandon their Christian beliefs. The family rehabilitation was the hardest. The Jewish identity was just one problem among a slew of difficult problems. For example, according to the Jewish organizations' documentation, most of them faced difficulties concerning food.

"There were children, boys, who were forced to dress up as girls in hiding, and they continued to dress as girls for years, and their gender had to be restored. Some of the lucky children who managed to survive the Holocaust with one parent, and arrived in Israel, succeeded in developing very close relations. But what happened in cases in which the parent remarried?

"We must remember that the parents who survived had their own problems. They survived concentration camps, death camps, even Soviet occupation, and years of hiding in Aryan areas. Some suffered from mental and emotional problems. They didn't always have the ability to deal with the child's traumas. Children were sometimes left in orphanages for a long time, until their parents managed to get back on their feet."

And what happened when the parents didn't survive?

"It wasn't always clear who was responsible for the children. Sometimes it was an aunt or uncle, sometimes an extended family. Today we know from research that children who were taken care of by relatives sometimes felt like they don't belong and didn't receive the level of care they needed. Some of them just didn't know how to deal with a child who had gone through what they went through.

"Most of the children," Prof. Michlic concludes sadly, "were not smiling 'poster kids,' but scarred children with difficult problems. The untreated trauma moved on, when they became parents, to the second and third generation. Today's Israelis have been raised and are still being raised in the shadow of this trauma. It isn't over yet."

Auschwitz: a short history of the largest mass murder site in human history

On 27 January 1945 Soviet soldiers entered the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp complex in south-west Poland. The site had been evacuated by the Nazis just days earlier. Thus ended the largest mass murder in a single location in human history.

Precise numbers are still debated, but according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the German SS systematically killed at least 960,000 of the 1.1-1.3 million Jews deported to the camp. Other victims included approximately 74,000 Poles, 21,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and at least 10,000 from other nationalities. More people died at Auschwitz than at any other Nazi concentration camp and probably than at any death camp in history.

The Soviet troops found grisly evidence of the horror. About 7,000 starving prisoners were found alive in the camp. Millions of items of clothing that once belonged to men, women and children were discovered along with 6,350kg of human hair. The Auschwitz museum holds more than 100,000 pairs of shoes, 12,000 kitchen utensils, 3,800 suitcases and 350 striped camp garments.

Pile of boots at Auschwitz concentration camp. Photograph: Geraint Lewis/Rex

The first Nazi base in Auschwitz, named after the nearby Silesian town of Oświęcim, was set up in May 1940, 37 miles west of Krakow. Now known as Auschwitz I, the site covered 40 square kilometres.

In January 1942, the Nazi party decided to roll out the “Final Solution”. Camps dedicated solely to the extermination of Jews had been created before, but this was formalised by SS Lieutenant General Reinhard Heydrich in a speech at the Wannsee conference. The extermination camp Auschwitz II (or Auschwitz-Birkenau) was opened in the same year.

With its sections separated by barbed-wire fences, Auschwitz II had the largest prisoner population of any of the three main camps. In January 1942, the first chamber using lethal Zyklon B gas was built on the camp. This building was judged inadequate for killing on the scale the Nazis wanted, and four further chambers were built. These were used for systematic genocide right up until November 1944, two months before the camp was liberated.

Aerial view of Auschwitz-Birkenau

This is not the limit of the horrors of Auschwitz I. It was also the site of disturbing medical experimentation on Jewish and Roma prisoners, including castration, sterilisation and testing how they were affected by contagious diseases. The infamous “Angel of Death”, SS captain Dr Josef Mengele, was one of the physicians practising here. His particular interest was experimenting on twins.

According to the numbers provided by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Auschwitz was the site of the most deaths (1.1 million) of any of the six dedicated extermination camps. By these estimates, Auschwitz was the site of at least one out of every six deaths during the Holocaust. The only camp with comparable figures was Treblinka in north-east Poland, where about 850,000 are thought to have died.

Children wearing concentration camp uniforms shortly after the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviet army on 27 January 1945. Photograph: SUB/AP

The third camp, Auschwitz III, also called Monowitz, was opened in October 1942. It was predominantly used as a base for imprisoned labourers working for the German chemical company IG Farben. According to the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial museum, an estimated 10,000 labourers are thought to have died there. Once they were judged incapable of work, most were killed with a phenol injection to the heart.

The SS began to evacuate the camp in mid-January 1945. About 60,000 prisoners were forced to march 30 miles westwards where they could board trains to other concentration camps. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates 15,000 died during the journey, with the Nazis killing anyone who fell behind.

More than 7,000 Nazi personnel are thought to have served at Auschwitz but just a few hundred have been prosecuted for the crimes committed there. The pursuit of justice has not ceased, with German justice officials saying on 2013 that there were 30 surviving Auschwitz officials who should face prosecution.


Białystok Ghetto

The Białystok Ghetto was established in 1941, following the murder of 7,000 Jews from Białystok and surrounding areas by Einsatzgruppe B, Police Battalion 309, and Police Battalion 316. [4] In February 1943, 8,000 Jews were deported from the ghetto to Treblinka extermination camp and another 2,000 were executed in the ghetto. [5] On 16 August 1943, the final liquidation of the ghetto began. Although some Jews revolted, Police Regiment 26 (largely composed of Ukrainian collaborators) and other German forces crushed the uprising. Between 17 and 23 August, more than 25,000 Jews were deported to Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. [6]


It is still unclear how the Białystok children fit into the larger scheme of Nazi-Jewish negotiations ongoing at the time. [7] The Bratislava Working Group, an underground Jewish organization in Axis-aligned Slovakia, was at the time negotiating indirectly with Heinrich Himmler in hopes of ransoming the lives of all European Jews. [8] In early 1943, Swiss diplomat Anton Feldscher forwarded a British proposal to the German Foreign Office to allow 5,000 Jewish children to escape from the General Government to Palestine via Sweden. [9] [10] Working Group member Andrej Steiner testified after the war that Dieter Wisliceny, the Working Group's liaison to the SS hierarchy, had told him in 1943 that the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammad Amin al-Husseini, had intervened to prevent the rescue of the children, since he did not want them to go to Palestine. [8] [11] [12] [b] Wisliceny appeared as a witness for the prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials. He claimed that his superiors, Adolf Eichmann and Himmler, were in favor of exchanging Polish Jewish children for prisoners of war. For this purpose, 10,000 children were to be transferred to Theresienstadt. However, due to the objections of the Mufti, the plan had to be abandoned. [14] [12] Eichmann stated at his 1961 trial that when Himmler canceled the operation, he forbade any consideration of plans to resettle Jews in Palestine. [12]

The intervention of the Mufti is considered by historians Sara Bender and Tobiasz Cyton to be the decisive factor leading to the murder of the children. [15] [16] According to Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer, it is most likely that both the Białystok children and the establishment of the Theresienstadt family camp were connected to the Feldscher proposal in both cases the victims were temporarily kept alive in case they could be exchanged later, but murdered when the ransom failed to materialize. Bauer also states that Himmler's motivation to engage in negotiations was related to his belief that a Jewish conspiracy controlled the Allied governments using Jewish children, he hoped to manipulate Allied leaders to his own advantage as it became clear that Germany would lose the war. [17]

On 17 August, the first day of the deportations, about 2,000 children were gathered near the train station waiting to be deported. The Germans separated them from their parents [6] [18] and housed them, along with 400 children from two Jewish orphanages in Białystok, during the chaotic liquidation of the ghetto. [3] Rumors circulated that the children would be exchanged for German prisoners of war and sent to safety in Switzerland. [6] Some parents gave up their children voluntarily, hoping to save their lives. Other families were separated by force survivors testified that Ukrainian auxiliaries murdered some children who tried to run back to their parents. [19] Held in a former gymnasium, the children were treated well on the orders of Fritz Gustav, head of the Białystok Gestapo, who stated "These children are mine!" However, German troops accidentally shelled the building on 18 August, killing a few dozen children. [18] [20] On 20 August, some 1,200 [a] children between four and fourteen and a few dozen [c] adult chaperones were marched separately to the Umschlagplatz, where they were given only a small amount of dried bread and no water, despite the heat. [21]

Probably on 21 August, [d] the children and caregivers boarded a special train that arrived at Theresienstadt Ghetto three days later. [6] [23] [22] It is unclear whether the train was composed of freight cars, as was typically the case during the Holocaust, or passenger cars. [24] The conditions on the train were relatively good and after a while the children began to forget the horrors of the Białystok Ghetto, although some of the older children asked the chaperones if they should jump from the trains. [15] According to Helena Wolkenberg, a surviving chaperone, she told the children that they should only jump if the train went northwards, but it went west. [24] It is not known whether the route taken was Białystok–Auschwitz–Theresienstadt–Auschwitz or Białystok–Theresienstadt–Auschwitz. If the former, it is possible that the youngest children were taken off the train and gassed at Auschwitz. [25] [e] According to Israeli historian Bronka Klibanski, the train halted at Auschwitz before its arrival at Theresienstadt, where 20 children and 3 female caregivers who held valid Palestinian visas were removed from the train and killed in the gas chambers. [26] On 24 August 1943, the transport arrived at Theresienstadt [26] [27] and the chaperones were separated from the children, except for one young woman who was disguised as a child, and put on a different train. The chaperones continued to Auschwitz, where about twenty [f] were selected for forced labor and the rest gassed. [15] [24]

At Theresienstadt, the children were kept inside the trains for some time. Some prisoners of the camp were ordered to bring the children food but were forbidden to speak to them. [28] Despite the fact that Theresienstadt was a concentration camp where more than 30,000 people died, [9] [29] the residents were shocked by the poor condition of the children, starving and dressed in ragged clothes many were shoeless. Because the Germans wanted to prevent the Theresienstadt prisoners from learning about Treblinka and other extermination camps, they forbade the Theresienstadt prisoners from going outside or even looking out of windows while the children were marched to the disinfection building by a large group of SS men. The precautions taken mystified Theresienstadt prisoners, since no other transport had been segregated nor been composed exclusively of children. [15] [30] [31] Theresienstadt prisoners drew at least five images depicting the children marching through the streets. [32]

Upon reaching the disinfection rooms, some children panicked when their hair was cut and they were asked to undress, believing that they were about to be gassed they were said to have shouted "Gas! Gas! Gas!" Older children tried to shield younger ones and they refused to undress and wash despite their poor clothing and lice. Although forbidden to speak with the children, the disinfection personnel were able to surreptitiously reassure them that there were no gas chambers at Theresienstadt, and the children calmed down when they noticed that water came out of the showers. [31] [33] [34] Despite the language barrier—most of the children spoke Polish or Yiddish [34] —they told the Theresienstadt prisoners about mass shootings in Białystok and the use of gas chambers for mass murder. [35] The incident, although not well understood by the other residents of Theresienstadt, was one of the few clues to the ultimate fate of those deported from the camp. [31]

The children were housed in the western barracks, separated from the rest of the camp by a barbed-wire fence. Czech gendarmes guarded the perimeter and kept the children strictly segregated from the rest of the camp. [15] [36] [37] Attempting to find out more about the rumors of gas chambers, Fredy Hirsch, a community leader at Theresienstadt, jumped over the fence to speak with the Białystok children but was caught. As punishment, he was deported to Auschwitz in September. [38] The children were not registered into the records of the camp. [31] The Białystok children were held in relatively good conditions and given extra food by the Germans. It was rumored that they were to be taken to Switzerland to be exchanged for German prisoners of war, although some suspected that it was a trick. [39] Fifty-three Czech volunteers, mostly doctors and nurses, were allowed to cross the barrier to attend to them. The volunteers, among them Ottla Kafka, were isolated with the Białystok children and not allowed any contact with the Theresienstadt prisoners. [15] [35] [40] Some sick children may have been murdered at the Theresienstadt Small Fortress or in an infirmary. [41] [42]

On 5 October, 1,196 children and the 53 chaperones were put on a train and told that they were to be sent to Switzerland. [15] [40] They were told to remove the Star of David that Jews were forced to wear and forced to sign pledges that they would not spread information about Nazi atrocities. [37] The train arrived at Auschwitz two days later everyone was gassed immediately. [15] [40]

The transport has been cited as an example of the Mufti's culpability in the Holocaust, despite the fact that his role in the events remains unclear. [43] In 2014, the story of the Białystok children was commemorated by a German play, Sie hatten so verängstigte Augen ("They had such fear in their eyes") directed by Markus Schuliers. [44]

Find out more

  • In July Hélène recorded a BBC video, but the sisters' story is so extraordinary we wanted to tell it in more detail
  • You can also listen to BBC World Service radio documentary The confined: A story of hidden children on BBC Sounds

Not long after Annie's arrival in Toulouse, her aunt received a letter from Hélène, from her hiding place near Tours. She then made arrangements for her to be rescued.

So one night a young woman from the French Resistance, the Maquis, knocked at the door of the house where Hélène was staying.

"She said that she came to find me, to cross the demarcation line," Hélène remembers. To show that she could be trusted, the visitor pulled out a photograph of Hélène that her aunt had provided.

It was a difficult journey. The young woman had false papers in which she and Hélène were described as students, even though Hélène was so young. They were stopped and questioned several times.

The "free zone" in the south of France did not live up to its name. The government of Marshal Philippe Pétain, based in Vichy, passed anti-Jewish laws, allowed Jews rounded up in Baden and Alsace Lorraine to be interned on its territory, and seized Jewish assets.

On 23 August 1942 the archbishop of Toulouse, Jules-Geraud Saliège, wrote a letter to his clergymen, asking them to recite a letter to their congregations.

"In our diocese, moving scenes have occurred," it went. "Children, women, men, fathers and mothers are treated like a lowly herd. Members of a single family are separated from each other and carted away to an unknown destination. The Jews are men, the Jewesses are women. They are part of the human race they are our brothers like so many others. A Christian cannot forget this."

He protested to the Vichy authorities about their Jewish policy, while most of the French Catholic hierarchy remained silent. Out of 100 French bishops, he was one of only six who spoke out against the Nazi regime.

Saliège's message struck a chord with Sister Denise Bergon, the young mother superior of the Convent of Notre Dame de Massip in Capdenac, 150km (93 miles) north-east of Toulouse.

"This call deeply moved us, and such emotion grabbed our hearts. A favourable response to this letter was a testament to the strength of our religion, above all parties, all races," she wrote after the war in 1946.

"It was also an act of patriotism, as by defending the oppressed we were defying the persecutors."

The convent ran a boarding school and Sister Denise knew it would be possible to hide Jewish children among her Catholic pupils. But she worried about endangering her fellow nuns, and about the dishonesty that this would entail.

Her own bishop supported Pétain so she wrote to Archbishop Saliège for advice. She records his response in her journal: "Let's lie, let's lie, my daughter, as long as we are saving human lives."

By the winter of 1942, Sister Denise Bergon was collecting Jewish children who had been hiding in the wooded valleys and gorges of the region around Capdenac, known as Lɺveyron.

As round-ups of Jews intensified - carried out by German troops and, from 1943, by a fascist militia, the Milice - the number of Jewish children taking refuge in the convent would eventually swell to 83.

Among them were Annie Beck, whose aunt realised she would be safer there than in Toulouse, shortly followed by Hélène, taken directly to the convent by her guide from the Resistance.

Hélène finally felt safe, though was overwhelmed with emotion on her arrival.

"At the beginning, Madame Bergon took me into a room and she tried to make me feel as if my parents were here, and so she was like a mother really," she says.

At the same time, the fate of her younger sister, Ida, weighed heavily on her.

"Every evening, we had to first do our homework. And then when we finished we could go out and play. I always thought if my sister had not let go of my hand, she would have been in the convent with me," she says.

Another Jewish refugee from Alsace Lorraine was a boy called Albert Seifer, who was a few years younger than the sisters.

"Surrounded by big walls, we were like in a fortress," he says. "We were very happy." We did not really feel the war despite the fact that we were surrounded by danger."

Parents and guardians would send their children with money, jewellery or other valuables in order to pay for the children's upkeep, before they did their best to escape from France. Sister Denise kept careful records.

"From the beginning of 1944, the round-ups of Jews were becoming tighter and numerous," she recalled in 1946. "Requests come from all sides and we received around 15 little girls, some of whom have just escaped in a miraculous way from the pursuit of the Gestapo."

She added: "They had simply become our children, and we had committed ourselves to suffer everything so as to return them safely to their families."

Other than Sister Denise, only the school's director, Marguerite Rocques, its chaplain and two other sisters knew the truth about the children's origins. The other 11 nuns were aware that a number of the children were refugees from Alsace-Lorraine, but did not know they were Jewish - and nor did the officials whom Sister Denise pressed for more and more ration books.

The children's lack of familiarity with Catholic rituals threatened to expose them, but an explanation was found.

"We came from the east of France, a place with many industrial cities and a lot of workers who were communists," says Annie. "So we posed as communist children who knew nothing of religion!"

The longer the war continued, the more dangerous the children's position became and Sister Denise began to worry about possible searches.

"Even though all compromising papers and the jewellery from the children's families had already been hidden in the most secret corners of the house, we did not feel safe," she wrote in her 1946 journal. "So, late at night, when everyone was asleep in the house, we dug a hole for the hidden things in the convent's garden and we buried as deep as possible anything that could be compromising."

In May 1944 a battle-hardened elite SS Division known as Das Reich arrived in the area from the Eastern front.

About this time, Annie remembers that a member of the Resistance arrived with an alarming warning.

"One day the doorbell rang. Since the sister in charge of the door was a bit far, I opened it myself," she says.

"A young man was standing there. He said: 'Quick! I must speak to your director! It is very, very urgent!'

"The man told us that we had been denounced. News had spread that the convent was hiding Jewish children."

Sister Denise hatched a plan with the Resistance, who agreed to fire warning shots if the enemy was approaching.

"The children would go to sleep, the older ones paired up with the younger ones and, at the first detonation heard in the night, in silence but in haste, they must get to the woods and leave the house to the invaders," she wrote in 1946.

But soon she decided to hide the children without waiting for the invaders to arrive. One group, including Annie, was taken to the chapel.

"The chaplain was strong and could lift the benches. He opened a trap door. We slid down in there," she says.

The tiny underground space was 2.5m long and less than 1.5m high.

Seven children huddled together there for five days. They could not stand up or lie down to sleep during the long nights, and were only allowed out for short periods in the early hours of the morning, to exercise, eat, drink and go to the toilet.

Air came through a small vent that opened on to the courtyard.

"After five days there it was no longer possible to endure," Annie says.

"Imagine if the nuns had been arrested," she adds.

Those days hidden underground marked Annie for life - she has slept with a night-light ever since. Hélène was fortunate enough to be housed instead with a local family.

Though they didn't enter the convent, the SS did leave a trail of destruction right on the convent's doorstep.

"We found some maquisards [members of the Maquis] who had been killed and tossed on the road. The Germans set an example so that others did not resist," Annie says.

Sister Denise wanted to pay her respects to the dead and asked Annie to help her place flowers on each of the dead bodies.

In June 1944, Das Reich was ordered north to join the effort to repel the Allied landings in Normandy. On the way it took part in two massacres designed to punish locals for Maquis activity in the area. Then, on arrival in Normandy, it was encircled by the US 2nd Armoured Division and crushed, losing 5,000 men and more than 200 tanks and other combat vehicles.

After southern France was liberated, in August 1944, the Jewish children slowly left the convent. Albert Seifer was reunited with his family, including his father, who returned alive from Auschwitz.

Annie and Hélène weren't so fortunate.

Although their aunt survived, their parents and younger sister, Ida, were murdered in Auschwitz.

Annie settled in Toulouse, married, had children and recently became a great-grandmother. She still regularly meets Albert, now 90.

Hélène married and had a son, settling in Richmond, west London. Aged 94 and 90, the sisters travel between London and Toulouse to see each other as often as they can.

They refer to Sister Denise as "notre dame de la guerre" - our lady of the war.

They were sad to say goodbye to her, and regularly visited her for the rest of her life.

When Annie's children were young she often took them with her, in order to keep this period of history alive for them - a constant reminder of what the Jewish people endured.

Sister Denise remained at the convent and continued working until her death in 2006 at the age of 94. Later in life she helped disadvantaged children, and then immigrants from North Africa.

In 1980, she was honoured by the Holocaust Memorial Center, Yad Vashem, as Righteous Among the Nations. A street is named after her in Capdenac, but apart from that the only memorial is in the grounds of the convent.

It says: "This cedar tree was planted on 5 April 1992 in memory of the saving of 83 Jewish children (from December 1942 to July 1944) by Denise Bergon… at the request of Monsignor Jules-Geraud Saliège, archbishop of Toulouse."

It stands close to the spot where Sister Denise buried the jewellery, money and valuable items parents left behind - and which she gave back, untouched, after the war to help the families start again.

4. Suzanne’s story - hiding from the Nazis in occupied France

Suzanne’s story - hiding from the Nazis in occupied France

Suzanne recounts the terrifying experience of the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940, her sudden separation from her parents, and what life was like for a Jewish child living in hiding during World War II.

Suzanne describes how, as Jewish people were rounded-up in Paris, her parents&rsquo door was smashed with an axe, and how their brave neighbour - Madam Colombe - raced in and claimed that Suzanne was her daughter, which more than likely saved her life.

She explains that, for the next few years she was passed from hiding place to hiding place. She was forced to work hard on a farm, live with goats and become self-sufficient to survive. She did not know of the war&rsquos end in 1945 and was still in hiding in 1947. Years later, Suzanne found out that both of her parents were killed at Auschwitz.