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Introduction
The purpose of this Manual
What is the Holocaust?
Caring for Aging Survivors
The Child Survivors
Acknowledgements

 
The Child Survivors
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Paula David, MSW, Coordinator, Holocaust Resource Project, Baycrest Centre

More than one-and-a-half million children died in the Holocaust. Young children were often the first to be murdered, as they could not contribute to the economy and were seen as expendable. The majority of those children who survived were hidden in private homes, hospitals, orphanages or convents by righteous Gentiles. Today Child Survivors are defined as those individuals who survived the War and were 16 years of age or younger at Liberation. Today the eldest of these children are in their 70s, and the youngest are reaching their 60s. They are part of a generation that assumes longevity and thus are considered "young-old."

Relatively fewer studies have been done on these Child Survivors. They only came together in the late 1980s to form an international Federation to discuss their commonalities, differences, and struggles and to explore the impact of the Holocaust on their young lives. For years they were told they were "lucky", either because they were too young to remember the horrors of war, or because while hiding, they did not witness the horrors of the Camps. Those Child Survivors who survived concentration camps are rare, but they too were considered fortunate because they were young and therefore had a better chance to live and repair their lives. The Child Survivors listened, and for many years did not have a voice to articulate their stories, their feelings and describe the damage that the Holocaust inflicted on them. With the best of intentions, relatives and caregivers told them to "forget" about their losses, forget about their countries of birth, their languages of origin, forget about their pain and move on. But even when their memories were fragmented, these grown Survivors found they could not forget. They were not so "lucky" after all.
In fact, when Child Survivors tell their stories at annual gatherings, they remember a great deal. Much is being learned about their experience as they reach out to each other to share, study and reflect. Their childhood trauma and how it has affected them differs from the trauma experienced by older survivors. But the impact of this trauma has marked all aspects of their existence.

Since childhood, they have carried the knowledge that they were meant not to exist. Indeed, Child Survivors are "minority within a minority," each one a unique exception to the rule which led so many European children to an early death. They survived a trauma that they cannot comprehend and which cannot be explained, even by the wisest and most experienced of their elders. They look back on the Holocaust through the eyes of children, yet with the knowledge that they were robbed of their childhoods.

It's not always easy for caregivers to recognize Child Survivors. They rarely have tattoos, many do not have accents, many are educated professionals with successful careers in their adopted countries, and many have assimilated into their communities of choice more readily than their elders. Generally they did not marry other Survivors and did not identify with a Survivor community. Today, as adults, their collective voice is growing stronger, and many are speaking to us of their common experiences and perceptions. Research by noted Child Survivors such as psychiatrist Dr. Robert Krell, psychologists Dr. Natan Durst and Dr. Sarah Moscovitz, and social worker Carla Lessing is defining new and different challenges for the Child Survivors. In fact, they can and do remember more than they were ever given credit for. We are also starting to understand the long-lasting impact of being separated from parents at critical developmental stages, of early parental loss and of forced relocation.
They tell stories about children who instinctively re-attached to "new" parent figures, who accepted "new" identities, stories which demonstrate both the resiliency of children and their capacity for survival. Young children who closeted their capacity for attachment and joy and who were denied a child's right to a secure and safe environment are today understanding how the residual feelings from those times have impacted on their ability to function as adults and as parents themselves.

The long-term effects of this assault on childhood are now coming to light. As more and more Child Survivors are beginning to openly disclose their childhood traumas, even more are coming forward and identifying themselves. Their capacity for living full lives underlines the resilience of traumatized children while their ongoing pain and loss emphasizes the need for understanding.

What will the impact of aging be on these Child Survivors? While today the majority are considering retirement and certainly not thinking about long term care options, over the next decade the eldest of their group will almost certainly become consumers of geriatric services. The only given is that they will be very different from the current group of elderly Survivors for whom this manual is designed.

The current Survivors were mostly teenagers and young adults at the onset of the War, and they have memories of a pre-War life. Obviously, there are as many unique memories as there are individuals, but this group was able to rebuild their lives on a foundation of family history, however badly severed such foundations were by the Holocaust.
The Child Survivors have a different perspective on family history, their place in the world and their sense of origin. They were either orphaned and therefore have fragmented or no memory of pre-War days, or else they had parents or relatives who survived and carried their own burdens.

Memories, the ability to remember, and the lack of substantial or concrete pre-War memories are ongoing themes for Child Survivors. Memory - either its presence or absence - is also a crucial component defining the quality of aging. Older adults coping with dementia rely on long-term memory to sustain a sense of self. How will the Child Survivor cope with this challenge? Little is known about the long-term physiological impact of starvation during early childhood, about the lack of exposure to the outdoors and the inability to move and wander freely. How might this affect the physical aging of the Child Survivor? Aging is an emotional and psychological challenge for any individual. Will there be new and as of yet undefined psychological or emotional issues for the Child Survivors as they reach their 80s and 90s?

At this time, Child Survivors, their families, friends and health care professionals must realize that there are more questions than answers. As the majority of Child Survivors age, they will define their issues and, together with their families, decide how best to individualize their needs while sensitizing their health care providers. Many Child Survivors became professional educators, healers and leaders. They, unlike their older counterparts, will lead the discussion and give direction on how best to provide for their needs. Their families, and the health care professionals who look after them, must accept that the care giving issues of tomorrow will be new and different, and as such, will require new and different responses.