During the Holocaust, parents attempted to protect their children in a variety of ways. Some chose to abandon or hide their children with trusted parties, while others brought their young along with them to concentration camps and still others had their children taken away from them for adoption by German families. Regardless of what category into which a particular child fell, the familial separation that often resulted has had clear, long-lasting effects, and we explore these effects in this section.
During the Holocaust, thousands of children of targeted populations were left by their families to be hidden by neighbors or other trusted parties until the end of the war. Others were evacuated to safer areas, often without their parents or older family members in the hopes that traveling with a preferred party would enhance their safety. Often, these children were never reunited with their families.
While this didn’t seem to many children to be a particularly traumatic event, research has shown that hidden children of the Holocaust who experience a significant, aversive event later in life tend to experience severe emotional ramifications connected to this initial trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder, general anxiety disorder, and major depressive disorder.
Such psychological ramifications were especially prevalent among small children, who were often removed from their parents and hidden by temporary foster caregivers before forming a deeper bond with their parents. Research in this area suggests a link between childhood parental separation and termination of an internal attachment process that causes strong feelings of detachment that may pervade throughout an individual’s lifetime, particularly when such separation is due to traumatic circumstances (Fohn & Heenen-Wolff, 2011).
Furthermore, based on the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Total diagnosis, 36.7% of Finnish children who were separated from their parents during the evacuation of Finland at this time later qualified for a diagnosis of “extreme traumatization,” theoretically as a result of this separation (Andersson, 2011).
In their efforts to “search and retrieve perfect Aryan blood”, SS “race experts” occupying Poland and the Soviet Union ordered certain children of Jewish and other targeted families to be kidnapped and subsequently adopted by Germans. These children were selected purely by their looks; those deemed suitable for adoption had fair skin, blond hair, and blue eyes, typical of the Aryan ideal. As these children were taken at a very young age, renamed, and re-socialized while their parents were sent to concentration camps, it is unknown if any adopted children of the Holocaust have been reunited with their biological families. However, of those who became aware of their adopted status, approximately one-third eventually estranged themselves from their foster parents, believing them to be partially responsible for the assumed deaths of their biological families (Fohn & Heenen-Wolff, 2011).
Children in Concentration Camps
In general, there were four categories into which a child victim of the Holocaust could fall: 1. Those who were killed immediately upon arriving at concentration camps. 2. Those who were born in camps and killed immediately. 3. Those who were born in camps and hidden. 4. Those who were used as laborers and subjects of medical experiments (usually ages 12+)
It is clear that younger children were targeted specifically by the Nazis for senseless killings, who deemed them “unproductive and thus useless eaters.” Due to their inability to be deployed for labor, children were often selected, along with the ill, the elderly, and the disabled, for the first deportations to killing centers. In fact, at camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and Chelmno, authorities sent the majority of children directly to the gas chambers. Of the older children who were spared due to their ability to labor, many died at work due to extreme conditions for which their young bodies were not prepared.
Thus, when we look at the psychological ramifications of the treatment of children during the Holocaust, it is most effective to consider the effect that child murder and infanticide had on adolescents and adult witnesses. Parents whose children were murdered in concentration camps had a mortality rate approximately 80% higher than those who did not, indicating the profound effect that extreme psychological distress can have on an individual’s physical health. Furthermore, concentration camps who publicly slaughtered young children reported higher death and illness rates than those which only slaughtered adults, suggesting that the death of a child is more traumatic than that of an adult (Barel et al., 2010).