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What of survivors deemed ‘too young’ to remember the Holocaust?

Beliefs that horrific events of early childhood could not cause lasting emotional hurt persisted for decades

A group of child survivors behind a barbed wire fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi concentration camp, in southern Poland, on the day of its liberation by the Red Army, January 27th, 1945. File photograph: Alexander Vorontsov/Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty
Survivors: Children’s Lives After the Holocaust
Survivors: Children’s Lives After the Holocaust
Author: Rebecca Clifford
ISBN-13: 978-0300243321
Publisher: Yale University Press
Guideline Price: £20

In one of the most moving passages in this extraordinary book, the author recalls one of the first interviews she did with one of the so-called “child survivors”, a woman she gives the pseudonym Leora. “I don’t know what to tell you,” says Leora, before the interview starts.

To put her at her ease, Clifford uses the standard practice of asking her for her birth name, and her date and place of birth. But Leora couldn’t, because she didn’t know any of these things. Her earliest memory was of living with a poor French peasant woman, from whose care she was removed at the end of the war. Both interviewer and interviewer end the interview sobbing.

This story perfectly illustrates the special dilemma of the child survivor. Any study of the Holocaust immediately raises questions of memory, of remembrance, of testimony – but what of those who simply don’t remember? Clifford explores how this led to a neglect or misunderstanding of child survivors in the world of Holocaust studies, as they were sandwiched uncomfortably between adult survivors and their children, the “second generation”.

What makes this book so original is the way she deftly interweaves the stories of the survivors with a sharp analysis of the social constructs which surrounded them after the war, and how psychoanalysts and carers, political and religious institutions, and in later years, oral history projects, all tried to impose their own shape on the stories of the child survivors.


Adult survivors tended to disparage the children's experiences, as they could have no memories of the camps

For many of the children, the end of the war was in itself a traumatic event. They had acquired new identities during the war and for the younger ones, it was their only one – they had no pre-war identity to go back to. Many had forged deep attachments to the families who hid them.

‘We are taking you back’

One girl, Paulette S, had lived happily with a French family from the age of two. One day, in November 1945, when she was seven years old, “I was lagging behind Maman Gatelaut and my sister, picking flowers. Suddenly a black car stopped and two men in dark suits and hats ran out and grabbed us. They said “don’t be scared, we are Jewish. We are taking you back.” I could hear Maman Gatelaut screaming, ‘They are my children, don’t take them away.’ I heard those words for so many years to come.”

The zeal with which Jewish institutions sought to reclaim Jewish children is perhaps understandable in the context of the community’s losses. There were also well-publicised cases of Christian families successfully refusing to hand over children. It was not an easy process to bring children back into the Jewish fold – after all, for some of them, Jewishness had been a secret whose betrayal meant death. In one Jewish care home, the children were found to be keeping crosses and prayerbooks under their pillows, which Clifford sees as an assertion of will – “a determination to maintain elements of the wartime self in the face of adult demands to cast that self aside”.

Adult survivors tended to disparage the children’s experiences, as they could have no memories of the camps. But their biggest problem, Clifford argues, was the model of childhood which was prevalent at the time. It is generally agreed that we have no memories before the age of three and discontinuous memories for some time afterwards.

It's hard to believe that the notion of 'trauma' in its present form was first noted in 1977

Sigmund Freud labelled this “infantile amnesia”, and influential psychologists like Jean Piaget agreed that the brain was not developed enough. This led to the belief that horrific events experienced in early childhood could not lead to lasting emotional damage in a healthy individual. Anna Freud was heavily involved in caring for and studying survivor children who were brought to England after the war, and this was her assumption.

It would be decades before other researchers noted the common symptoms which were emerging in child survivors as adults. This mistaken assumption would have devastating effects on the children, particularly around the thorny issue of restitution. In 1956, the West German Federal Compensation Law was set up to make financial restitution to victims of the Holocaust. For decades after, up to half of claims made to it by child survivors were rejected, even on appeal, on the recommendation of a board of psychiatrists who, referring to studies by Anna Freud, argued that the claimants could not possibly be suffering ill-effects from events they had been too young to remember.

The professional argument eventually swung the other way. It’s hard to believe that the notion of “trauma” in its present form was first noted in 1977, but by the 1980s, ideas around post traumatic stress disorder would completely change the way child survivors were treated.

Growing understanding

However, it was only in recent decades that child survivors fully established themselves as a category. Partly this was due to the growing understanding of the Holocaust in society in general, and the increasing interest that older child survivors were taking in their past.

Clifford's is the first book to comprehensively trace the history of the child survivors from wartime to the present

There are many emotional moments in Clifford’s interviews when people in late middle age first come across references to the parents they hardly knew, if at all. But even in survivor culture, they are still an apart group, and this comes back to the question of narrative, and how individual memory is influenced by and influences “collective memory”.

Clifford is scathing about the Spielberg-backed VHA oral history project with its redemptive and cathartic narrative. The historian Noah Shenker notes that its three-act structure – pre-war, war, post-war – is “reminiscent of the traditional Classical Hollywood Cinema paradigm”.

It’s not one that suits child survivors. The interviewees often speak of remembering “fragments” and “flashes of memory” and, as Clifford says, in many interviews with child survivors, they simply stop talking. The silence and the absence is their story.

Or in some cases, they construct fictional narratives to meet the interviewer’s needs – a skill they acquired in childhood. Clifford’s is the first book to comprehensively trace the history of the child survivors from wartime to the present, and is remarkably well-written and convincingly argued. While it deals with historic events, it will be, unfortunately, a useful handbook for those trying to treat the millions of children around the world who are currently being traumatised by war and genocide.

Michael O’Loughlin’s most recent collection is Poems 1980-2015 (New Island)