"The first to perish were the children, abandoned orphans
The world's best, the bleak earth's brightest
These children might have been our comfort
From these sad, mute, bleak faces
Our new dawn might have risen"
- From "Song of the Murdered Jewish People"
by Yitzhak Katzenelson
Childhood is a time
of innocence, a cloak of protection under which the future generation may
experience the gifts of life. At this stage, individuals discover their self,
and formulate the basic attitude and perception through which they view the
world. Because they comprise the future generation of humanity and are gaining
the experience they will need to lead our world, children are the most prized
possession of our population. However, 1.5 million children experienced a
different form of childhood. They were stripped from their families, forced to
work in concentration camps, and eventually murdered during a period of utmost
evil, the Holocaust.
Whereas children are
usually excited about attending school, to see friends and join in socially with
classmates, the victims of the Holocaust, under state authorization, attended
school under deplorable conditions. As the general public assembled their
prejudice towards the Jewish believers under the blame placed on them by the
Nazi regime, their attitude eventually extended into the school system. The
first noticeable act of an attack on Jewish students occurred on April 25, 1933,
when the "Law against Overcrowding in German Schools and Universities"
was put into effect (Daniel's Story). The new order restricted the Jewish
constituent of the student body to a maximum of 1.5 percent of the total student
body, a clear attempt to filter the unjustly persecuted Jewish children out of
German sight (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum). This harsh measure was
only a precursor of stricter orders to come, and an escalating prejudice towards
As identification and
exclusion of Jewish students became mandatory, attitudes towards the Jewish
children worsened. Like many of the citizens he fed with his hatred, Hitler's
Propaganda Minister Paul Joseph Goebbels believed that "it is unthinkable
that my son sit near a Jew in a German high school" (Tatelbaum). As a
result, public schools began teaching racial biology, in which the Jewish race
was taught to be inferior to the Germans, creating an illusion that they were
less than human, and therefore undeserving of German benefits (United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum). Even classmates, who succumbed to the pounding of
brainwashing by government-endorsed teachers, excluded their previous Jewish
friends from their company, and turned hostile towards their old classmates.
Such treatment in an institution such as education was extremely painful on the
Jewish children, who themselves began to feel as inferior as they were treated
by their cruel and commanding instructors and peers. It is hard today to imagine
the ill will directed towards our innocent youth, especially in a state
sponsored program like public schools, but the hatred caused such traumatic
feelings in the persecuted students that as one little girl named Charlotte
stated, she "won't go to school anymore, no matter what you say or do"
arose as a means of resistance towards the persecution pervading public schools,
and schools for Jewish children began after 1933. Under a false pretense of
security, children and teachers gathered for the instruction they were denied by
the state. However, on October 15, 1936, Germany's Ministry of Science and
Education declared these private institutions illegal, closing the doors of
opportunity for an education for many children. Two years later, on November 15,
1938, Jewish children were banned from public schools, and less than a month
later, from universities (Daniel's Story). The bitter fact was that
"Anti-Semitism... was the crude reality. It was always present in the
fabric of life" (Leitner). Yet the private institutions existed long enough
for one purpose. Unknowingly, as teachers and students attended these private
schools, they were gaining the background experience that they would use to run
secret schools in ghettos and concentration camps when education of Jewish
children was declared completely illegal.
The mental pain
experienced by the children would only worsen, for after Kristallnacht in 1938,
when Jewish businesses were smashed and vandalism was supported by the state,
actions against the Jews became increasingly physical. Nazi troops began
arresting Jewish men and taking them to undisclosed locations, leaving the rest
of their families behind. In some cases, women were also taken, and children
left orphaned, scared, and confused. If any physical resistance arose from the
Jewish family, they were murdered in cold blood, sometimes in front of the
children's eyes. These children were prone to haunting memories of their family
being ripped from their grasp, and in extreme cases, murdered. The effect of
this trauma on the child's mind was immense, for parents represent safety and
stability, and the loss of these attributes, especially to a young child, is
devastating. Imagine a six year old girl, hearing the doorbell, and rushing
downstairs to see her father answer the door. An officer seizes him, and tells
him he must go with them. Her father fights back, as her mother rushes to the
scene. The Nazi official, drawing his gun, shoots the father and drags the
mother outside. What is this young girl, who has just witnessed the death of a
parent and the end of her known protection, to do? Unfortunately, this
experience happened to many children during the years of persecution, producing
thousands of forlorn orphans with an unjustly destroyed family.
As the numbers of
children left alone increased, their helpless bodies encountered many struggles.
Illness and starvation in the streets emaciated the children, and forced them to
beg for food, which was rarely given to the poor youth merely because they were
Jewish. Yet these children were soon to face even greater hardships, as the
Nazis began seizing the youth, and deporting them to concentration camps and the
ghettos, where they stood little chance at survival.
On their arrival at
the ghettos and concentration camps, notably the Terezin ghetto, the childrens'
usually weak bodies were looked down upon by the Nazi officials, who demanded
unreasonably strenuous work. Here is where the most insidious persecution of the
children occurred, the intentional killing of the youth, and the heartless
overworking that caused their bodies to fail. In the packed ghettos, disease
spread rapidly among the close encounters of the inhabitants, and combined with
malnutrition, these horrid conditions killed thousands of children, who would
not live to see their adulthood. In the Terezin ghetto, one of the most
notorious for unbearable conditions, less than 100 out of the 15,000 children
inhabitants survived (Auerbacher). Nearly 1.5 million young bodies were
extinguished, but the children kept their spirit alive through art, writing, and
inhabiting others memories.
Although the horrid
Terezin concentration camp killed almost 15,000 children, their memories exist
because of a compilation of art and poetry from the children in the camp. This
compilation, titled "...I Never Saw Another Butterfly..." was made by
Hana Volavkova and expressed the emotion felt by the children, and the inner
strength many possessed. Franta Bass, a child in the camp, boldly said
"even though I am suppressed, I will always come back to life." Yet
another determined child declared "I must not lose faith, I must not lose
hope" (Volavkova). These declarations of will and determination are
extraordinary when considering the plight these children faced. Even in the face
of death, and in the midst of slaughter, these children still spoke out through
the power of the pen, and stayed strong until the very end, the inevitable
The whole world
seemed to be against the innocent children during the Holocaust, but a few kind
souls aided some fortunate children. One child, named Stefan Georg Zweig, was
one of these lucky few. Born in the Cracow ghetto, Stefan was concealed in a
backpack, and transported secretly through the Plaszow concentration camp to
Buchenwald in 1944, at the age of only three years old. Upon arrival, Stefan was
cared for by the communist prisoners of the Nazis, who compassionately raised
the child and cared for him, allowing this young soul to survive the war and the
Holocaust (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum). Such acts of faith were
rare, but each one deserves recognition, as the daring souls who sought to save
Jewish lives were risking their own, and rejected the popular attitude of
society that living Jews were wasting German air.
The impact of the
horrible experiences the persecuted children encountered during the Holocaust is
immeasurable. Of the few survivors who lived their childhood through the war
years, many were understandably emotionally paralyzed by the trauma, and others
cannot stand to relate the pain of their memories in words. The child is a
precious object, a clean slate ready to absorb the breath of life and
experience, and a bundle of potential waiting to be unleashed upon the world.
Yet over a million possessors of youth were erased from our world, killed
because of their race, and helpless victims of intense hatred. We must look at
their deaths as witness of the cruelty hidden in humans, which may be released
if a future Holocaust was to arise. Only by understanding the potential of evil
in all of us may we prevent another tragedy. Youth is priceless, and we must
remember the children who were sacrificed for an evil ideal, and insure that
this ideal stays buried with time.
Auerbacher, Inge. I am a Star: Child of the Holocaust. New York: Prentice-Hall,
"Children in the Holocaust." Washington, D.C.: United States Holocaust
Memorial Museum 1993.
Daniel's Story Videotape: Teacher Guide. Washington, D.C.: United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum 1993.
Katzenelson, Yitzhak. "Song of the Murdered Jewish People."
Leitner, Isabella and Irving A. Leitner. Isabella: From Auschwitz to Freedom.
Tatelbaum, Itzhak. Through Our Eyes: Children Witness the Holocaust. Chicago:
Volavkova, Hana, ed. I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children's Drawings and
Poems from the Terezin Concentration Camp 1942-1944. New York: Schocken, 1993.