The Holocaust: A Loss of Childhood

By Kyla Kazuschyk
Kissimmee, Florida


When Adolph Hitler rose to power in Europe, he began a reign of terror that would last from 1933 to 1945. During this time, known as the Holocaust, twenty-nine million people were ruthlessly killed by Hitler and his Nazi party. Six million of them were Jews. One and a half million of them were children. Children should be valued as the future of society, but in Nazi Europe where children, both Jew and Gentile were the most deeply affected by attempted annihilation, there was no future. In Milton Meltzer's book, Never to Forget: The Jews of the Holocaust, Hitler is quoted stating,

It is my duty to make use of every means of training the German people to cruelty, and to prepare them for war . . . A violently active, dominating, intrepid, brutal youth - that is what I am after. Youth must be all this. It must be indifferent to pain. There must be no weakness or tenderness in it. (22)

He was referring to the Nazi Hitler Youth organization that German children were encouraged to join. The irony of that statement however, is that Jewish children were also forced to become indifferent to pain. This indifference, a form of strength, was not easily obtained, and many children felt the pain of segregation, persecution, abuse, and the cruel indifference of others.
Hitler's plan for the extermination of Jews began with the definition of them as a race, not a religion, further, an inferior race. (Dwork 8) Hitler's increasing power allowed him to obtain control over the popular opinion of Germany. He used this power to convince people of the validity of anti-Semitism. (Meltzer 15) When Hitler became chancellor of Germany, he set up a series of laws that limited the rights of Jews. (Dwork 10) These restrictions did not directly hurt children initially, although they did feel the harshness of discrimination. They were laughed at, made fun of, even beaten by their peers, and this behavior was encouraged. German children were taught to hate. An essay published in 1935 in Der Sturmer, an anti-Semitic newspaper, states:

Unfortunately many people today still say, `God created the Jews too. That is why you must respect them also.' We say, however, `Vermin are also animals, but we still destroy them.' The Jew is a half-caste...In a half-caste the worst characteristics predominate ...

This essay was written by Erna Listing, a German schoolgirl. (Meltzer 36) With hatred growing, more laws were set up to harass Jews. Jewish children were no longer allowed to attend German schools. (Meltzer 37) This deeply humiliated children and caused them to wonder.

The day that we could not return to school, I remember that I was ashamed before my companions, to tell them: I cannot come because I am a Jewish girl ... Why? What did I do to not be allowed to go to school?

Mariella Milano-Piperno recalls. (Dwork 15) For a while, children attended Jewish schools until those were closed down. (Hass 12) Many children had difficulty understanding what it even meant to be Jewish. To some, it just meant that they were different. (Dwork 21) This differentiation ensued with the order that all Jews had to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothing at all times. (Hass 12) Often the lack of comprehension for their situation kept them content. Some children, in their naivete, saw the star not as a brand, but as a badge. Peter Levi recalls being six years old and thinking, "it was wonderful, . . . a decoration". (Dwork 27) Older children lived in fear of the consequences of the star, being targets of pranks, and being outcast. (27) It seems as though children fond of the star would be better off, but, actually they too, faced difficulty. For instance, Peter Levi lived in an apartment with his mother under false identities for only two days before he slipped and asked his mother while putting his coat on, "Wher is my star?" This was overheard and they had to leave the apartment. (Dwork 83) Hence, in the case of the star, it was safest to be indifferent to it, to preclude fear and insecurity.
The first set of anti-Sematic laws did not pertain directly to children, but later there were more laws that did. (Dwork 27) Jews were no longer allowed in public facilities such as cinemas, libraries and zoos. They could not attend sporting events or use public sporting facilities. Travel was prohibited, and curfews were enforced. (Dwork 27) Segregated, persecuted and stripped of rights, the worst was yet to come. Children still lived within the security of their homes with their families until even that basic contentment was taken from them. (27)
Many Jews sought to evade annihilation by hiding, either from sight or identity. (Dwork 68) Hiding from sight meant secret isolation in the barns, cellars, attics, or other hidden places provided by courageos and compassionate gentiles. (Dwork 34) The hiding places were often too small to accommodate entire families, but were large enough for a child. Therefore, many parents made the difficult decision to be separated from their children for the benefit of the children's safety. (34) This collapse of family structure was extremely harmful to children. (Dwork 65) Left alone in a strange, unfamiliar place, completely cut off from the outside world, they were unprepared and confused. (Dwork 69) Even children who managed to stay with their families felt terrible fear.

I remember anxiety all the time, which seeped over from my mother, who obviously had anxiety twenty-four hours a day... That's all I remember is anxiety. And I thought life was like that. What does a three-year-old girl know? That is the way life is. You just have anxiety all the time, and fear.

Judith Ehermann-Denes recalls of her childhood in hiding. (Dwork 69)
People living in hiding had to go to great lengths to deter suspicion of their existence. (Dwork 71) They had to refrain from moving or making any noise above a whisper for hours at a time. They had to live off of the little food that scarce ration cards could obtain. (Dwork 72) Isolated from society, children encountered endless days of boredom as they were deprived of the normal socialization process. (Dwork 75) They found ways to entertain themselves such as hobbies and studies repressing feelings of anxiety and boredom. (75)
Then there was the second type - visible hiding. (Dwork 83) Children were given a false identity and sent to live with either a foster family or in a monastery or convent under the guise of a gentile. (83) This was not too different from physical hiding in that children had to adapt to a new life, and they had to take caution not to give themselves away as Peter Levi had done. (83) Sometimes the host families of children in hiding did not provide the parental figures necessary for the nurturing of youth which damaged them immensly. (Dwork 79)
As the Naxi razzias, or round-ups, increased, children became more and more aware of the danger of their situation. (79) Where indifference may have served as an invaluable asset, children could not help but feel emotion as Max Gosschalk explained of his experience in hiding:

I came from a safe home. I had to understand many things which I could not understand. You had left all your saftey, all your security. You had to grow up in a week; it's not possible. But you felt so insecure. If you took something with you it was always fear. Fear of being caught, fear of being tortured, fear of betraying other people. . . you never got any love from anyone.

Children in hiding struggled, but if they'd had the experience to make the comparison between life in hiding to life in ghettos and concentration camps, they would have seen how privileged they were.
The next stage of Hitler's plan to find what was known as "The Final Solution to the Jewish Problem" was ghettoization. (Meltzer 77) All Jews were deported to small enclosed areas where they were subjected to horribly inhuman living conditions. (Dwork 157) Poverty, starvation, and disease were rampant. (Dwork 159) Ludwik Hirsfeld remembers the children he saw in the ghettos:

The streets are so overpopulated, it is difficult to push one's way through. Everyone is ragged, in tatters . . . There are always countless children inside the ghetto . . . Not all the German sentries are murderers and executioners but unfortunately, many of them do not hesitate to take up their guns and fire at the children. Everyday - it's almost unbelievable - children are taken to the hospital with gunshot wounds. The thousands of ragged beggars are reminiscent of a famine in India. Here a half-starved mother is trying to suckle her baby at a breast that has no milk. Beside her may lay another, older child, dead. One sees people dying, lying with arms and legs outstretched in the middle of the road. Their legs are bloated, often forstbitten, and their faces distorted with pain...I once asked a little girl: `What would you like to be?' `A dog', she answered, `because the sentries like dogs.' (Meltzer 85-6)

Dogs were of more value than human children. In the ghettos, children witnessed countless acts of cruelty, watching people suffer through Nazi brutality and becoming victims themselves to that brutality. Nazis beat and shot innocent children without any apparent remorse. Mary Berg's diary reflects the sentries' incompassion: "The Nazi guard Frankenstein (nicknamed for his appearance and brutality) is raging through the ghetto, one day he kills ten persons, another day five ... everyone expects to be his next victim." (Holliday 237)
Even around this death and destruction, some children were able to supress their emotions. They clung to the last traces of childhood, going to school (while it was still allowed), being with their families (those who weren't yet separated), and playing childhood games (before they were too afraid to go outside). Dr. Aaron Peretz remembers watching these games:

The children in the ghetto would play and laugh, and in their games the entire tragedy was reflected. They would play grave digging; they would dig a pit and put a child inside and call him Hitler. And they would play at being gatekeepers of the ghetto. Some of the children played the parts of the Germans; some, of Jews; and the Germans were angry and would beat the other children who were Jews. And they used to play funerals ... (Meltzer 86-87)

Before long the Nazi's decided to no longer support the ghettos. All Jews that had not been deported to concentration camps, or had already died of starvation, exposure or disease, were killed in a final liquidation.
When Jews were deported, they were packed in cattle cars and sent to either a transit camp, labor camp, or concentration camp. The main purpose of transit camps was to hold Jews until transportation to a concentration camp became available. (Dwork 119) Conditions varied from camp to camp; some had the privileges of educational systems and cultural communities, though most were gloomy and prison-like. (Dwork 1-22) In transit camps, men and women were put in separate barracks. (Dwork 144) This separated many families and added to the loss of family structure along with decline in parental authority, given the situation. (1.44) Camps were usually overcrowded; malnutrition and poor hygenic conditions led to the rapid spread of disease. Helga Kinsky-Pollack, deported to a transit camp at age 13 describes the conditions: "I caught six fleas and three bedbugs today. Isn't that a fine hunt? I don't even need a gun and right away I have supper. A rat slept in my shoe." (Holliday 95) Growing children never got new clothes or shoes, they simply outgrew the ones they had. (Dwork 137) Life in transit was a struggle, and as children clung to the last traces of normality in their lives, they gradually accepted the horrors they faced as "normal" and they slowly built up a numbness to pain. That numbness would be what sustained life through concentration camps.
All the horrors children experienced leading up to this point were beyond comparison to the terror of concentration camps. It was here that the Nazis proved that they held no value for the innocence and humanity of children. Of all the losses Jews sustained throughout the Holocaust - loss of possessions, dignity, hope, etc. - the most devastating was the loss of childhood.


Dwork, Deborah. Children With a Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991.

Haas, Aaron. The Aftermath: Living with the Holocaust. New York: Cambridge UP, 1995.

Holliday, Laurel. Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries. New York: Pocket Books, 1995.

Meltzer, Milton. Never to Forget: The Jews of the Holocaust. New York: Collins, 1976.



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