Among the many terrible measures the
Nazis took against the Jews, the worst consequence was the disintegration of the
family, especially the separation of children from their parents.
When the deportations of the Dutch Jews
began in July 1942, most people went, trusting that they could survive. But when
the Germans' methods became more and more brutal, it was understood that
something terrible was going on.
Starting in the autumn of 1942, more
and more Jews sought to hide. Because an entire family could seldom find a
hiding place, parents were confronted with the horrible necessity of
"giving away" their children to complete strangers. They did so while
facing a dismal future, uncertain if they would ever see their children again in
an "after-the-war" era. They could only hope that their children would
find a friendly home, a place where they would be given care and love.
I spoke to 51 parents who had to
"give away" their children and I described the interviews in the book, Geschonden Bestaan
(Shattered Existence), published in Holland. After more than 50 years, the
parents still trembled at this recollection. Here are a few quotes:
"You have an appointment with a
stranger on the corner of a certain street. She takes your child and disappears
with her in the bus. That's how I gave her away... how I survived this, I don't
"I still see very clearly how he
walked out of our sight at the hand of the 'aunt' ... our feelings of ultimate
powerlessness .... My wife cried for days without stop. We felt utterly
"I felt crippled. It is
indescribable; those who did not experience it cannot possibly understand -- to
be so powerless."
"Research about hidden children is
important, but no one has written about the parents who were torn away from
their children: the pain of it, a pain that never leaves. And nobody imagined
the difficulties that arose when you were lucky enough to survive and get your
Only a small percentage of parents were
reunited with their children after 1945. Most of the surviving children had no
family, and the teen-agers among them often had no place to go. Many asked
themselves why had they survived.
As soon as possible after the war, the
relatively few surviving parents went in search of their children. If they knew
of an address, which was seldom, often this turned out to have been the first of
many hiding places. In my research, children had on average four to five wartime
addresses. And to keep everyone safe, most foster parents did not know the birth
name of the child nor the former address. Never-theless, despite the many
obstacles -- their traumas, their lack of funds, housing and transportation --
most parents were in desperate pursuit of their children within weeks of
When finally found, the parents had to
prove that the child was theirs. And sometimes, the parents themselves had
doubts. How can one recognize a baby or toddler after two or three years? Often
the foster parents were reluctant to return their now beloved child. Their grief
over the loss of a child is hardly ever mentioned anywhere.
If this were a fairytale, the family's
story would end with "...and they lived happily ever after," but it
seldom turned out that way.
To begin with, young children did not
know their real names or had forgotten them, and they did not know that their
foster parents were not their biological parents. They were not interested in
those strangers who told them that they were their "real" mother and
father. They fiercely resisted the separation from their "parents."
When taken to their parental home, they would yearn for their foster parents for
Then, the estrangement took a heavy
toll. The parents were disappointed that the child whom they had idealized
during the war years did not want them. Although there were some children,
mostly older, who adapted to the new circumstances, many did not. Some ran away
to their foster parents, some misbehaved, others wanted nothing -- no school, no
kisses -- but to return to their foster homes.
Researchers have found that a
separation of a few years without contact brings about an irreversible
estrangement, not just with hidden children, but with all children. In the case
of hidden children, there is an additional factor. Even very young children
seemed to sense that their lives were at stake when they went into hiding. They
adapted very quickly to the new surroundings, hardly crying for their parents --
an important survival tactic. The reasoning seemed to be, "I must surely
have been a bad child that my parents gave me away; I must be a very good child
now lest these people give me away." Their grief over losing their parents
and their anger about being "given away" stayed mostly hidden. But
after the war -- past the danger -- their fury emerged, and often it was aimed
at their parents. Sometimes, the anger came out in psychosomatic complaints,
sometimes in impossible behavior.
Another frequent consequence of the
separation of the family is the child's inability in later life to form
effective bonds -- to sustain lasting and intensive relationships. When the
child did not have the possibility to attach to a beloved person during the
hiding period, a shutting off of feelings resulted. Those mostly affected in
their later ability to love were the children who were toddlers when they were
given away and those who had many hiding places.
As for the parents, without a roof over
their heads, without money because of the Germans' theft, and without income,
they had survived the war but they now needed to survive the peace. The behavior
of the former hidden children was an additional trauma for them. Also, for the
most part, they were not the ideal figures to restore either their children's
lives or their own. And they felt estranged from their children as well. They
had not been there for the first step, the loss of the first tooth, the first
So, for many, the happy life at the end
of the nightmare did not come to pass.
In my interviews with hidden children,
I found in two-thirds of the cases that the damaged relationship was never
repaired. Many had felt neglected. They reproached their parents for not asking
about their hiding period. Some doubted that their parents were their real
parents. Some had loyalty conflicts between their foster and biological parents.
But only one-third of the parents that
I interviewed felt that the bond with their children had never been mended. For
many years after the war this breach was neither recognized nor described. For
some parents, it was a terrible shock when their child said, maybe some 35 years
later, "our bond has never been repaired." The parents told me
honestly, "We did our utmost and more."
happened is in many cases a lasting drama, one that we will take
to our graves.
Ph.D., a Hidden Child and a survivor of Auschwitz, is a child psychologist
in Holland. She is the author of Geleende Kinderen (Borrowed Children),
Ondergedoken Geweest, Een Afgesloten Verleden? (Having Been Hidden: A Closed
Past?), and Geschonden Bestaan (Shattered Existence). Her latest book, Je Ouders
Delen (Sharing Your Parents) is now available. These books, published in Holland
(in Dutch) by Kok, Kampen, can be ordered by FAX: 31 20 615 0874