On the Holocaust’s Impact on Survivors’ Early Childhood and Memory
From This Year's Cundill History Prize Shortlisted Title Survivors: Children’s Lives After the Holocaust by Rebecca Clifford
The following was excerpted from Survivors: Children’s Lives After the Holocaust by Rebecca Cliffordwhich has been shortlisted for the 2021 Cundill History Prize.
In the summer of 1946 seven-year-old Litzi S., a survivor of Theresienstadt ghetto-camp who had been brought to England after her liberation, was approached by a man in the care home where she was living with other child survivors of the Holocaust. The man explained that he was her father, and that the woman he was with was her mother. This seemed, at the time, plausible enough: neither children nor staff in the care home, tucked away in a tranquil country village in Surrey, had a clear picture of what had happened to the children’s parents.
Agencies such as the Red Cross’s International Tracing Service were searching for missing people across continental Europe and beyond, but these searches were slow, and those waiting for any news of their loved ones faced a long period of agonizing uncertainty. A year after the war’s end, the children at the care home were in a state of continual waiting, and Litzi’s family were the first to show up alive. To Litzi and to the children around her, it must have seemed a wondrous event.
Litzi went home with the family who had come to claim her, and had what was, at least on the surface, a normal childhood from that point forward. Her life before she was reunited with her family became part of a dimly remembered past. She was sometimes troubled by memories that she could make no sense of, memories of rough wooden bunk beds and large rooms filled with other children, but her parents brushed off her questions, and after a while she stopped asking.To tell a child that she was lucky to have survived, that she should put the past behind her and focus on the future, was to dismiss her efforts to make sense of her own history.
At the age of 18, in the midst of a family row, she screamed in anger at the man who had come to claim her eleven years before, “I wish you weren’t my father!” “I’m not,” replied the man. He was in fact her father’s brother, and like many others who cared for child survivors after the war, he had judged it better to lie about the murder of Litzi’s parents than to take the precarious route forwards offered by the truth.
At the same time in the same care home, staff were troubled by another of their wards, 11-year-old Mina R., also a survivor of Theresienstadt. Mina’s behaviour was puzzling: her language was stilted, and her emotions seemed unnatural; staff recorded that they were worried by the false smile permanently frozen on her face. One day Mina suddenly revealed to care home staff how, during the war, she had seen her mother shot through the head right in front of her.
Alice Goldberger, the matron of the home, believed that speaking about the wartime past could be therapeutic for children, and she encouraged the girl to unburden herself of her painful memories. She recorded that after this dramatic and sudden revelation, Mina’s behaviour improved: speaking did indeed appear to have had a therapeutic effect. Staff at the home were thus dumbfounded when, six years later, the girl’s mother turned up alive, having never been shot through the head at all.
Litzi’s and Mina’s stories attest to the strange world that child survivors of the Holocaust found themselves in during the early post-war years. It was a world in which apparent truths could be instantly, shockingly upended. Parents thought to be alive were sometimes revealed to be dead, as Litzi learned to her shock when her “father” finally confessed to being her uncle. Parents believed to be dead, as was Mina’s mother, might, in rarer cases, suddenly show up alive. The truth was often unknown, but equally often it was hidden from children. Some adults listened to children’s troubling memories and questions, but far more frequently they deflected children’s curiosity about their pasts.
No one at the time thought of these children as “child Holocaust survivors.” They were called “unaccompanied children,” “Jewish war orphans,” or “war-damaged children,” among other things. More often, they were simply told that they were the lucky ones who had lived when others had died. They should consider themselves lucky to be alive, lucky to be young enough and resilient enough to be able to shed the weight of unbearable memories, lucky to be the objects of reconstruction efforts, rather than the subjects (who after all had to do the often demoralizing grunt work of rebuilding ruined families and communities, physically, economically, and psychologically).
This was a loaded phrase. To tell a child that she was lucky to have survived, that she should put the past behind her and focus on the future, was to dismiss her efforts to make sense of her own history. As child survivors grew up, many began to push back against such stultifying assurances. They started to ask biological parents, foster parents, relatives, and care workers pointed questions about their early lives. “What is my real name?” “Where do I really come from?” “Why won’t you tell me about my mother?” “Why don’t you have any pictures of me as a baby?” Such questions had the potential to push individuals and whole families into an uneasy confrontation with the past.
This book seeks to uncover the post-war lives of the very youngest survivors of the Holocaust, a group that has been historically neglected by scholars. It focuses on those born between 1935 and 1944, who were ten years old or younger at the moment of liberation in 1945. These young children had the slimmest chance of survival of any age group during the Holocaust (save the very elderly), but it is not this, or not this alone, that makes their stories so fascinating. Young children’s experiences shed light on a question with profound repercussions: how can we make sense of our lives when we do not know where we come from?
Because their pre-war memories were indistinct or even non-existent, and because there was often no living adult able or willing to fill in the key details of their earliest days and years, these child survivors often faced a decades-long struggle to assemble the tale of their origins—a simple but essential act of autobiography, fundamental to identity. If you cannot recount the story of your own family, your home town, or your formative experiences, how do you make sense of your childhood and its impacts? What work do you have to do to explain who you are?
Most of us take for granted that we can make at least some sense of our childhood memories. We do not often stop to think of this as a privilege. At its core, this book explores what it means to grow up and to grow older when you do not have that advantage, and are forced by your circumstances to weave the story of your past from scraps. It is a book about the Holocaust, but more fundamentally it is a book about the history of living after, and living with, a childhood marked by chaos.
It is also fundamentally a book about memory, and in particular about early memories and their role in our lives as we age. Most people, when asked, will happily tell you about their earliest memory. Mine is of folding laundry. I guess that I was about three years old when this moment happened, as I can recall how small I was next to the furniture in the room. In this memory, I was in the front room of our house in Kingston, Ontario, the one we called the “TV room.” In front of me was a plastic laundry basket atop a wooden chest, a chest my father made. There was a peach-coloured jumper in the basket and I reached up to pull it out, because I recognized it as mine, a gift to me from my paternal grandmother. The laundry was hot from the tumble dryer, and a wave of delicious warmth hit my hand as I reached up. When I tugged on the jumper, something amazing happened: bright sparks flew through the air. The freshly dried jumper was alive with static electricity, and the dry Canadian air of mid-winter allowed it to crackle and sing, as spark-flowers burst along my fingertips. This memory has stayed in my mind, I suppose, because it was both so surprising and so thrillingly beautiful.
But how is it that I can understand this memory? How do I know that the chest was made by my father, and the jumper by my grandmother? How is it that I know that I am in the TV room, that I am indeed in my own house, that my mother is nearby even though I am enjoying a moment of inquisitive solitude?
It is because this memory, like all memories, is a social construction, and the adults around me have helped me to make sense of my experience. They explained who made the chest, who made the jumper, and why sparks fly through dry air in the winter. This is true not just for this one memory, but for all my early memories—and for all of yours as well. Most of us can tell the story of our lives, from the beginning through to the present, because others have helped us to build the narrative. Our parents, families and communities, the collective and social context in which we live, provide the details that we cannot remember or explain, and help us to contextualize memories that we hold in our mind’s eye but might otherwise struggle to interpret.
The life stories of child survivors are fascinating in part because this social world was rent asunder for them: the parents, relatives, and communities that would normally play this crucial role were not there to do the job. In their absence, children were left with memories that they could not interpret, and stories of their early lives that were peppered with holes. As they grew, they had to piece things together for themselves, chasing down documents, photos, and living relatives flung far and wide in diaspora, all in order to be able to answer the most fundamental of questions: who am I?
This book follows a group of very young child Holocaust survivors out of the ruins of war and through their later childhoods, their adolescence, their journeys into adulthood, their marriages and their own experiences of parenthood, and finally into their old age, charting their changing relationship to their pasts over a span of seventy years. It looks at how they interacted with adults, the surviving parents and relatives, host and foster parents, humanitarian aid workers, mental health professionals, and others who tried to sculpt the parameters of their lives, who observed them, cared for them, and nurtured them—and equally at times neglected them, lied to them, and abandoned them. It explores the short- and long-term consequences of their childhood experiences on their identities, and it aims to challenge some of our fundamental assumptions about children as subjects, about the nature of trauma, and about the relationship between the self and memory.
Excerpted from Survivors: Children’s Lives After the Holocaust by Rebecca Clifford. Copyright © 2021. Available from Yale University Press.