the lost children

The Lost Children

Tara Zahra in The Lost Children Reconstructing Europe’s Families after World War II writes that the Second World War has been described as a “war against children.”

Excerpts from the book:

For millions of Europeans, homelessness was a bitter fact of life in 1945.  At least 14 million Germans had no place to call home at the end of the war, thanks to the massive flight of Germans from Eastern Europe and the complete destruction of 4.1 million apartments.  More than half of the homeless in Germany were children.  since most German men (and increasingly, boys) had been mobilized in the Wehrmacht by 1945, the majority of the 12 million ethnic German refugees who fled the Red Army or were expelled from Eastern Europe in the final months of the war and its aftermath were women and children.  UNESCO (the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), founded in 1945, estimated that 8,000,000 children in Germany (including both German citizens and displaced persons), 6,500,000 in the Soviet Union, and 1,300,000 children in France were homeless in 1946.

. . . Ruth Kluger of Vienna was seven years old when the Third Reich annexed Austria in 1938.  She witnessed her family straining to the breaking point under Nazi rule.  “When I tell people that my mother worried about my father’s possible love affairs when he was a refugee in France, and that my parents had not been a harmonious couple in their last year together . . . or that I feel no compunction about citing my mothers petty cruelties toward me, my hearers act surprised, assume a stance of virtuous indignation, and tell me that, given the hardships we had to endure during the Hitler period, the victims should have come closer together and formed strong bonds,” she reflects.  “In our heart of hearts, we all know the reality: the more we have to put up with, the less tolerant we get and the texture of family relations becomes progressively more threadbare.  During an earthquake, more china gets broken than at other times.”  Ruth gradually came to realize the grown-ups in her orbit had no superior knowledge or protection to offer her, that they were in fact “entire flummoxed by the turn of events, and that, in fact, I was learning faster than they.”

. . . The first thought of those liberated from the daily terror of the concentration camps–after finding food and water–was typically to locate surviving family members.  But an estimated 13,000,000 children in Europe had lost one or both parents in the war.  Even those family members who were reunited could not simply pick up where they had left off.  European children returned to families that lacked adequate housing, clothing, and food.  Many Jewish and East European children, who had survived the war in hiding or in exile abroad had acquired new names and sometimes new religious beliefs, languages, and national loyalties during the war.  Very young children often had no memory of their parents at all.  They returned “home” to strangers, relatives who had been pushed to the brink of physical and emotional collapse during the war.


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