Don't Let the Smiles of These Children Survivors of the Holocaust Mislead You

A new online photography exhibition at Yad Vashem examines the lives of Jewish children right after the Holocaust

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Girls from the Zabrze children's home, exercising while on vacation
Children from the Zabrze children's home, exercising while on vacationCredit: Yad Vashem archive
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Smiles, games, dances; hikes and fun. The photographs on display in “My Lost Childhood,” the new exhibition on the Yad Vashem website, present an aspect of the post-Holocaust renaissance that is full of life. 

About 1.5 million children were murdered in the Holocaust, but tens of thousands survived in camps, forests, monasteries, Christian homes, various hiding places, and in the streets. Some children were found still alive in the concentration camps after the war. 

“Children and teenagers experienced the Holocaust in all its brutality: in ghettos, in camps, in hiding, wandering from place to place, and on the death marches. They were the victims of abuse, humiliation, forced labor, starvation, neglect, and in some cases, even medical experimentation.  Most of them lost their loved ones and were robbed of their childhood,” Yad Vashem writes in the text accompanying the exhibition. 

At a children's home in Otwock, PolandCredit: Yad Vashem archive
Shooting bows and arrows at the Lag B'Omer festivities at a children's home in HungaryCredit: Yad Vashem archive

After the war, some of these children were brought to children’s shelters established in Poland, Hungary, Holland, Germany and France. Some of them were privately operated, others were established by movements and organizations. The exhibit tells the stories of seven of these homes established across Europe in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust.

The people who received the children in the shelters were often not much older, usually aged 17 to 25. Many were former counsellors and members of the pioneer youth movements. Their inexperience in formal childcare was compensated by the fact that they too were Holocaust survivors, and could empathize with the children. These children’s shelters were the last stop before most of them immigrated  to Palestine, or to other destinations.

These children did not go to kindergarten or school, didn’t get to play, to be spoiled by their families, or live in a safe, secure environment. For many of these children, the photos on display in the exhibition are their only childhood pictures. The smiling faces can be misleading. Behind them are terrible stories. 

Children in a Blankenese children's home have an outing on the Elba Credit: Yad Vashem archive
Children with caretakers in Zabrze, Poland, having a swimCredit: Yad Vashem archive

Many were orphaned, and had become “adults in children’s bodies,” as they themselves testified.

“Those who survived under assumed identities and thanks to the kindness of strangers lived in perpetual terror of their Jewish identity being discovered, of being informed on, and of being caught and taken away along with their rescuers,” Yad Vashem explains.  They lived in the fear that the people concealing them would tire of them or become too frightened to keep them; they had to change their habits, relinquish their parents, their names, their religion and sometimes their mother tongue. “In order to survive, they learned to be silent, to suppress their feelings and to trust no one,” the website says.

Renee Kochman (Renia Baff), who lived at a children’s home in Blankenese, Hamburg, wrote after the Holocaust: “I emerged from the death camps after enduring the most terrible experience ever recorded in history, damaged in body and spirit. After indescribable losses – my family, my childhood and my friends – I was overwhelmed with emotional and physical pain. The Kinderheim [children’s home] in Blankenese restored part of my lost childhood to me. It became my home. My teachers and the other girls I met became my friends and my family.”

At a children's home in HungaryCredit: Yad Vashem archive

Prominent among the children’s homes seen in the exhibition is the one in Zakopane, Poland, run by Lena Kuchler, who later became famous thanks to her book “My 100 Children.” Also interesting is the story of Yeshayahu Drucker, a member of the chaplaincy in the Polish army, who collected Jewish children from Christians and brought them to a children’s home in Zabrze as a one-man “children’s redemption project.”

The story of the youth village in Hungary, established by the Bnei Akiva religious Zionist youth movement, is an exception. The children who stayed there enjoyed an estate with a swimming pool, an artificial lake and even a private island. 

“This exhibition sheds light on what Jewish children had to endure in order to survive and then rebuild their lives,” states Dana Porath, Director of the Digital Department in Yad Vashem’s Communications Division. “But above all, it tells the story of the resilience of these children”.

Click here for the exhibition, which was posted on the Yad Vashem website to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27.

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