The murder of Jewish children comported with the ideology of racial nationalism on which the Third Reich rested. Rooted in mythic notions of German national superiority, racial conflict as the key to history, and a vast empire ruled by a master race, this ideology identified Jews in particular as parasites in need of elimination. This anti-Semitism did not allow for distinctions according to religious commitment, social position, gender, or age: all Jews fit beneath a blanket condemnation. Adolf Hitler's central obsession was the removal of Jews from German lands, as well as from lands taken from "subhuman" Slavs and other Europeans by military conquest. A spirited debate continues about the sequence of decisions leading to the implementation of the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question," the Nazi plan not merely to remove but to kill every Jew in Europe. It is clear that by the beginning of World War II, in September 1939, however, the Nazis had already crossed the moral threshold with respect to murdering children. At least 6,000 children up to sixteen years of age with serious congenital or hereditary illnesses or physical deformities were killed in the Third Reich's euthanasia program, which began at this time. Some of these children were subjected to painful experiments. Increasingly inured to the suffering of the young, the Nazis waged a war of extermination against their racial enemies. One should not be surprised that Jewish children were, in the words of Elie Wiesel–himself a youth of fifteen when he entered Auschwitz–"the first to suffer, the first to perish."
The successes of the German military during the first three years of the war significantly increased the number of individuals under German control who could be exploited or tyrannized according to Nazi racial doctrines. Among these individuals were millions of Jews, who were subjected to the same kinds of persecutions that had led to the social death of Jews living in Germany in the 1930s: revocation of citizenship, reduction of food rations, confiscations, deprivation of schooling, restricted access to public institutions. Anti-Semitic propaganda was given free rein; Jews were ordered to display the yellow Star of David on their clothes. Condemned virtually to remain at home, Jews in occupied areas became isolated from their neighbors, who, with Nazi encouragement, withheld their sympathy or expelled Jews entirely from their orbit of moral responsibility. From Poland to France, from Holland to Greece, a regime of diatribe and harassment descended on Jewish communities. In the east, Nazi measures to render Jews vulnerable and contemptible included forcible removal from their homes to designated urban areas called ghettos. Isolating them in ghettos facilitated the seizure of their property. The policy also concentrated Jews for forced labor in the production of war supplies.
Jewish children experienced these persecutions in emotional and spiritual distress. Entries in children's diaries indicate a general inability among children to integrate ghetto life with their pre-ghetto existence and confusion about the moral reordering of their world. Many diarists could not understand why they were hated, why they had to be prisoners, why their fathers had been arrested, why their mothers had been beaten. In the ghettos, children confronted grave responsibilities. Every day, children were orphaned, as adults perished from hunger, disease, or execution, or were taken away for forced labor. ORPHANS begged for bread and potatoes or smuggled food by squeezing through gaps in the ghetto walls. Older children cared for younger siblings in this way. Some provided for their entire families. This harried existence had dreadful consequences. Children in particular suffered from overcrowding, hunger, improper sanitation, lack of medical care, and exposure to cold. In winter, thousands of children froze to death.
Social welfare organizations in the ghettos attempted to meet children's special needs. Children's kitchens were opened, as were CHILDREN'S LIBRARIES, and some children had access to schooling and cultural activities. In the ghetto at Theresienstadt, northwest of Prague, for example, children expressed themselves artistically. Some four thousand of their paintings and drawings were recovered. These included depictions of flowers and butterflies but also of executions, deportations at the railhead to Auschwitz, and queues for a ladle of broth. Most Jewish children, particularly those in large ghettos at places like Lodz, Warsaw, Minsk, and Riga, had little or no access to social welfare or cultural out-reach programs. Their lives were consumed with meeting the everyday requirements of bare subsistence.
Tens of thousands of Jewish parents attempted to hide their children from the Nazis. When the ghettos were liquidated, parents hid them in pantries, coal boxes, toilets, walls, chimneys, floorboards–anyplace they might escape the Germans and their local collaborators. Forced laborers often hid their children in factories. Partisan bands fighting behind German lines ensconced children in woods, caves, bunkers, or family camps in the forests. Underground organizations tried to find refuge for Jewish children, too. Few non-Jewish individuals, however, were willing to endanger themselves or their families by hiding them. Those who agreed to help acted more from impulse than careful calculation. Girls found greater acceptance than boys did. Boys' Jewishness manifested itself physically through CIRCUMCISION, and it was not uncommon for the German police to demand that boys pull down their pants and expose their "race." Rescuers might conceal children around the clock in cellars, barns, even cupboards, or assign them false names and try to pass them off as non-Jews. Hundreds of children from across Europe found refuge in Christian children's homes and convents. Female religious orders in Poland, for example, especially if they ran ORPHANAGES or residential schools for girls, could be persuaded to hide Jews, sometimes on the understanding that the girls would be introduced to Christianity, other times to satisfy altruistic principles. An unusual episode of Christian heroism occurred at Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France. Here the largely Protestant community concealed some four hundred Jewish children from German authorities, saving them from deportation and almost certain death. For all these hidden children of the Holocaust, privation and the trauma of losing parents and siblings were accompanied by loneliness and the mortal terror of being hunted.
The Nazis allowed precious few to escape. With their invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, they unleashed the full criminal power of the Third Reich against Jewish children. Hitler wanted the newly won territories in the east to be completely Judenfrei, free of Jews. All traces of Jewish existence were to be wiped out. Before the invasion commenced, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and chief of the genocidal cohort, transmitted spoken orders to German military and SS commanders, which were interpreted broadly to authorize the extermination of Russian Jewry. Four mobile killing squads, or Einsatzgruppen, were organized to execute this task. Elements of the German military, reserve police battalions, and local auxiliaries, whose violence towards Jews was historic, assisted these units.
Although Jewish children were shot along with their parents as early as late July 1941, in many towns and villages only adult males were killed. Adult males were also the principle targets of pogroms (organized massacres of Jews), which local inhabitants in Belorussia and the Baltics initiated under German auspices. This evidence suggests that initially German killers were uncertain what to do with children. After shooting their parents, they often removed children to a nearby town or interned them in local buildings. They quickly abandoned this practice, however. Multitudes of screaming, starving, soiled small children with no one to care for them became a nuisance, and commanders began shooting them en masse. Some worried that allowing children to suffer in plain view was psychologically disruptive to their troops and thought it better to liquidate them on "humanitarian" grounds. Others acted on what they understood to be legitimate orders. Still others took their cue from Himmler, who justified the murder of children to avoid creating a generation of anti-German avengers. In any case, despite the initial hesitation, the mass murder of Jewish children rapidly became an integral part of the genocidal plan. By October 1941, at some execution sites, such as one outside Smolensk in the Soviet Union, the first to be shot were children, along with the sick, aged, and those who could not perform manual labor. Only later were their parents killed. The shooting of children at close range was particularly gruesome. Some killers shot children right next to their parents, who refused to abandon their boys and girls to face death alone. Spattered with blood and the brain matter of their victims, a handful of killers refused to continue. The great majority, however, became callused executioners, for whom the murder of children was routine activity. Before the death camps for gassing had even been constructed, almost a million Jews on the Eastern Front had been shot. Tens of thousands of these victims were defenseless children.
At the Wannsee Conference outside of Berlin in January 1942, Nazi officials met to systematize the genocide that was already underway. The Final Solution ordained that Jews from all over Europe be rounded up and evacuated to the east. Here they would be concentrated in transit ghettos before their murder at work camps or death camps. With extreme brutality, Jewish children were taken with the surviving members of their families to rail depots for deportation. Infants were shot on the spot, as were children found hiding or attempting to escape. Some children were snatched from their parents at deportation sites and were left to perish from hunger and the elements. Others were separated from their families and had to face the trials of deportation alone. From the fall of 1941 to the spring of 1945, more than 400 transport trains rolled to the work and death camps in the east. Jammed into sealed cattle cars, many children were crushed to death or suffocated. Others starved or died of thirst.
When they disembarked, Jewish children encountered deadly peril. Those judged suitable for work were interned. Children as young as seven undertook heavy labor, such as carrying building materials or pushing overloaded carts. Some camp guards took Jewish boys for personal servants or for the traffic in children among pedophiles. Death visited young internees in numerous forms. Chronic malnutrition and exposure rendered children susceptible to infectious diseases. Many babies conceived in camps were forcibly aborted or had their heads smashed at birth by SS guards. At Auschwitz, some 3,000 twins underwent experiments conducted by the SS doctor Josef Mengele. These experiments included exposure to cholera and tuberculosis, operations without anesthetic, sterilization, and murder by phenol injection to the heart for the purpose of examining internal organs. In an attempt to create perfect "Aryans" from "inferior" racial stock, Mengele injected the eyes of some twins with chemicals in the hope of turning them blue. Few Jewish twins survived these horrific experiments. Few Jewish children survived internment at all. Those who did survive had generally been orphaned and continued to suffer after the war from penetrating psychological wounds and emotional disorders.
Most Jewish children, of course, were not interned in camps but were slaughtered upon arrival. All pregnant women, infants, and children deemed incapable of forced labor were sent for immediate gassing. As the commandant of Auschwitz explained, "Children of tender years were invariably exterminated, since by reason of their youth they were unable to work." Pressed against their mother's chests, some children did not die in the gas chamber and were burned alive in the crematoria. At Majdanek in 1943, the SS made sport of machine-gunning Jewish children in front of their parents. At Birkenau in 1944, Hungarian children, some of them still alive, were incinerated in great pits. Children were not always unaware of their imminent death. In October 1944, an eyewitness at Birkenau recorded the behavior of a large group of Lithuanian Jewish boys as they were herded into the gas chamber by SS guards: "Crazed with fright, they started running around the yard, back and forth, clutching their heads. Many of them broke into frightful crying. Their wailing was terrible to hear."
Between 1.2 to 1.5 million Jewish children died in the Final Solution–89 percent of all Jewish children living in German-occupied lands. They glimpsed the world, and then they were gone.
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JEFFREY T. ZALAR