Sur­vivors: Chil­dren’s Lives After the Holocaust

Rebec­ca Clifford

  • Review
By – July 26, 2021

Through archival mate­ri­als, includ­ing care agency files, psy­chi­atric reports, let­ters, pho­tographs, and unpub­lished mem­oirs, Rebec­ca Clif­ford, an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of mod­ern Euro­pean his­to­ry at Swansea Uni­ver­si­ty, uncov­ers the post-war lives of the very youngest sur­vivors of the Holo­caust, a group that has been his­tor­i­cal­ly neglect­ed by schol­ars.” These chil­dren, born between 1936 and 1944, often have only a patch­work mem­o­ry of their Holo­caust expe­ri­ence. At its core, writes Clif­ford, this book explores what it means to grow up and to grow old­er when…you are forced by your own cir­cum­stances to weave the sto­ry of your past from scraps.” It also shares how child sur­vivors were often mar­gin­al­ized by old­er Holo­caust sur­vivors. Old­er sur­vivors believed that youth pro­tect­ed younger vic­tims from liv­ing in the hor­rors of the past, offer­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty to focus on rebuild­ing a life inter­rupt­ed by trau­ma. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, while child­hood con­struct­ed dif­fer­ent mem­o­ries, it did not pro­tect these vic­tims from suffering.

Survivor’s: Children’s Lives After the Holo­caust also explores how adults, some­times Holo­caust sur­vivors them­selves, helped these chil­dren to rebuild their lives. While there were doubt­less a good num­ber of post-war children’s homes run by unen­light­ened staff to poor stan­dards,” writes Clif­ford, the moment was marked by some remark­able inno­va­tions in terms of how com­mu­nal liv­ing for chil­dren was con­ceived of and man­aged.” In chap­ter two, Clif­ford shares the hero­ism of Judith Hem­mendinger, a social work­er who man­aged the care of the chil­dren lib­er­at­ed from Buchenwald’s Kinderblock 66, which housed over 1000 starv­ing Jew­ish chil­dren. If not for Hem­mendinger, these boys would have suf­fered a sec­ond trau­ma in the hands of adults who, although well-mean­ing, could not help them to heal. Hem­mendinger emi­grat­ed to Israel and con­tin­ued her work on behalf of child sur­vivors. Elie Wiesel and For­mer Chief Rab­bi Yis­rael Meir Lau were two of the hun­dreds of boys that rebuilt their lives under her care.

In chap­ter eight, we read of Zil­la C. who in 1966, at twen­ty-six years old, wrote to those who had cared for her as a child sur­vivor until age six. She shared the cur­rent rel­a­tive nor­mal­cy” of her life despite an ado­les­cence mov­ing between fos­ter homes in the Unit­ed States. In her for­ties, how­ev­er, Zil­la would seek to fill in the miss­ing his­to­ry of her past in a process that Clif­ford under­stands as a con­ver­gence between mem­o­ry of the indi­vid­ual and that phe­nom­e­non gen­er­al­ly termed col­lec­tive mem­o­ry.’” This chap­ter traces this shift in the psy­che of mid­dle-aged child sur­vivors begin­ning to piece togeth­er their child­hood mem­o­ries, and seek­ing to break free from the idea that they had been the “‘lucky ones,’” who had both sur­vived and for­got­ten their trauma.

Survivor’s: Children’s Lives After the Holo­caust lib­er­ates the his­to­ry of child sur­vivors from obscu­ri­ty. It ele­vates the expe­ri­ence of each child sur­vivor and weaves a nar­ra­tive that shares the col­lec­tive trau­ma of these youngest vic­tims. Clifford’s style makes this account acces­si­ble to any read­er, and gives voice to those who were like­ly to be for­got­ten at a time when, with the pass­ing of many old­er sur­vivors, we must be par­tic­u­lar­ly vig­i­lant to ensure that the atroc­i­ties of the past will not be forgotten.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

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