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Between Two Religions
Conflicts of Identity
Nechama Tec Ph.D
As hidden children, our lives were dominated by two basic demands: the giving up of our Jewish identity and silence. Complying to both, even temporarily, implied a rejection of our past.
...our lives were dominated by two basic demands: the giving up of our Jewish identity and silence.
In part, it was also a denial of our religion.

Most of us came from secular homes Jewish Orthodox children hardly ever made it to the Christian world. And yet, religion assumed an important place in our lives. We knew that being Jewish had deprived us of our right to live. Being Jewish meant something bad, something for which we could be killed. Being Christian meant being protected.

The difference between being Christian and being Jewish hinged on different kinds of Gods. Invariably, the question had to come up about the differences. A God that could not even protect its children did not seem very trustworthy. Undoubtedly, the extent to which we followed this kind of reasoning depended on many factors: our age, our Christian protectors and whether we had contact with our parents or with other Jews.

For us, religion had a double edge. We were disappointed in our God. We felt abandoned by Him. Yet, we needed consolation from a God, from a religion. Comforted by a new God who promised us acceptance and safety, we were in fact ready for that God. By saving us, this new God protected us from evil, and so we equated Him with goodness.

Of the different Christian religions, Catholicism was particularly influential in the lives of the hidden children. Many who were old enough to realize what was happening welcomed Catholicism. Those who were very young embraced it blindly. From the perspective of the Jewish child, baptism and Catholicism were positive forces. Each shielded him from danger. Each offered a feeling of security and comfort.

Inevitably, the influence of religion spilled over into the post-war lives of the hidden children. For the children, their very survival was proof that they had adjusted well to their roles as Christians. But at the end of the war, they were asked to switch again. For many of us, the return to Jewish identity was a drawn-out process. Some never returned.

Acceptance, hostility, ambivalence, resentment, shame and regret were only some of the emotions we hidden children had. Some of us may still continue to have such feelings about our Jewishness, about our religion. At times mixed together, appearing and disappearing, these emotions are not surprising.

If being Jewish meant danger, disapproval, something one could be killed for, why would a child want to take it back?

We could not easily give up that which had helped us to survive. If being Jewish meant danger, disapproval, something one could be killed for, why would a child want to take it back? Most of us were conflicted about these issues. For a while, we were suspended in two worlds: the Christian and the Jewish worlds. Some of us could not reconcile the two. Still others have taken a definite step toward Christianity or Judaism.

Has becoming a part of two different worlds given us a broader, less prejudiced perspective on life, on people? Perhaps.

Dr. Nechama Tec, Senior Research Fellow at the Miles Lerman Center for the Study of Jewish Resistance at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, is the author of many books, including Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood, In The Lion's Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen and Defiance: The Bielski Partisans.

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