Innocents Lost: On Postwar Orphans | The Nation


Innocents Lost: On Postwar Orphans

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In his autobiography Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov rendered the sweet enchantments of his childhood romance with a 9-year-old named Colette, whose “downy forearms” are among the remembered traces of a summer in Biarritz. A purer love for a young Jewish beauty surfaces in his novel Pnin, with the girl’s tragic end piercing through Nabokov’s adoring prose: “those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating…in the dusk of the past.” These two passions share an equal stake in the title character of the more famous Lolita, “the little deadly demon among the wholesome children,” whose “downy limb” tempts her seducer. Lolita mates a childhood world eager to shed its innocence with an adult world eager to steal it away.

The Lost Children
Reconstructing Europe’s Families After World War II.
By Tara Zahra.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Holly Case
Holly Case teaches history at Cornell University and is the author of Between States: The Transylvanian Question and...

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Nabokov completed all three of these books in the 1950s, as the Europe he had abandoned was beginning to reflect on its own loss of innocence in the recently ended war. During the preceding decade millions of displaced people across the continent sought old homes or new ones among the ruins, with a host of governments and charitable institutions directing them where to stay and where to go. Among the displaced and uprooted were hundreds of thousands of “unaccompanied” children, a group one aid worker described as “tired, wan, broken little old men and women,” who had forgotten—or never knew—how to play. In The Lost Children, her new book on orphaned and unaccompanied children after World War II, historian Tara Zahra writes that these children held “a special grip on the postwar imagination,” embodying, as they did, “Europeans’ most ambitious hopes and their deepest fears about the future in 1945.”

More important, perhaps, they also embodied an uncomfortable relationship with the past. Pierre Pfimlin of the French Ministry of Public Health and Population noted in 1946 that the war had precipitated a “mixing of humans without historical precedent” that left behind “human traces” in the form of children—“a lot of children.” Though Pfimlin was referring specifically to children born out of liaisons between French soldiers and German women during the postwar occupation of Germany, they were not the only “human traces” of delegitimized, violent or illicit desires and aspirations. Others included the fruit of furtive unions between Jews and “Aryans”; between Nazi occupiers and French, Polish or Czech civilians; between American, British or Soviet soldiers and German or Eastern European women; and between Eastern European forced laborers and their German employers or neighbors. Still others were the children of Czech villagers or Yugoslav partisans slaughtered by Nazis, of Jews whose parents were hidden or gassed, of Poles whose progeny looked Aryan to Nazi race scientists and of Germans expelled from Eastern Europe. Finding a home for these children after the war required obliterating or making some sense of their tangled origins and of the wartime experience itself. Most Europeans were ill prepared for the task.

In Crabwalk (2002), by Günter Grass—who as an adolescent served in the Waffen-SS during the final months of the war—the protagonist is a German born in the winter of 1945. The character, looking back from the perspective of a middle-aged man, wishes he had been born an orphan. “To have been born…on an unknown day, to Mother Unknown, begotten by Father Nowheretobefound,” was far preferable to being the child of German parents after the war. Grass’s protagonist may have wanted to be an orphan because, as Zahra demonstrates, the postwar world coveted them. Orphans could help nurse wounded workforces back to health, filling real and perceived gaps in a demographic landscape decimated by the death and enervation of millions of fathers during the war and by the hundreds of thousands more who were missing for years after the conflict ended. Meanwhile, mothers struggled to survive amid the ruins of houses and perpetual shortages.

Orphans were all the more attractive because the leaders and elites of postwar European states frequently did not want the generation that would build their countries’ future to have a past. Zahra documents states wildly exaggerating the number of unaccompanied children they laid claim to, and the numerous international custody battles that ensued when biological and foster parents, and occasionally religious institutions, came forward to make claims of their own. The simple fact was that not as many children had managed to survive the war in hiding, in camps or as forced laborers, as states and parents had hoped. Furthermore, those who did survive were just as likely to have more than one “home” and “family” as they were to have none at all. Europeans fantasized a human horde of tiny tabulae rasae, yet most of Europe’s “lost children” had a traceable past, one that frequently returned to haunt the families and the politics of the postwar era.

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One reason children’s pasts were so fraught was that institutions, states and parents fought bitterly over who could be trusted to interpret them. Words like “indoctrination” and “hypnotism” recur in the opposing accounts of angry state officials, institutions and parents/guardians who felt that keeping children away from their “true” identity or home would result in their moral, physical and ideological ruin. Dramatic scenes unfolded as the various claimants made mutually exclusive assertions regarding the whereabouts of that “true” home and what the corresponding “true” identity of these children was. These claimants did not want children to forget the past; rather, they felt entitled to plant a particular version of the past in the minds and memories of the children in their care. Discussions of lost children thus invariably raised the issue of how to educate them—what to tell them about the war and what they should learn from it.

Just after the war the Czech pacifist Premysl Pitter brought together more than 800 displaced Czech, German and Jewish children in collective children’s homes—or “castles,” as he called them—in Czechoslovakia to re-educate them in tolerance. Bunking survivors of Nazi concentration camps alongside former members of the Hitler Youth, Pitter and the castle staff drilled a single lesson into the children: Czechs, Germans and Jews had to band together if they hoped to combat the Soviet/Communist threat. Pitter’s emphasis on ethno-religious pluralism was unusual in postwar Europe. Zahra stresses that national-ethnic solidarity and the sanctity of the nation-state were so much a part of the postwar ethos that camps for displaced persons (DP) generally separated residents by nationality; Jews in particular often had their camps, schools, aid supplies and emigration assistance furnished by Jewish charitable organizations abroad. One Jewish organization operating in France gave its stated goal for the displaced children in its care as “to return them to Judaism, and then to prepare them if necessary for emigration to Palestine.” When a colleague from New York expressed concern over the “one-sided” education of Jewish children in DP camps, one teacher replied, “Indoctrination may not be good for normal children in normal surroundings. But what is normal here?… A crooked foot needs a crooked shoe.”

Aid workers, like Syma Klok of the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), testified to the hope and long hours spent “on individual children…endeavoring to revive their love for their family and country.” Yet, as Zahra writes, postwar nationalists, psychologists and workers for international charity organizations were frequently given to bouts of frustration and despair, fearing that the “crooked foot” could never be set straight, and that children more generally were neither malleable nor innocent. In the words of Anna Freud, who was among those seeking to assess the impact of children’s experiences of war and displacement at mid-century, “It is a common misunderstanding of the child’s nature which leads people to suppose that children will be saddened by the sight of destruction and aggression.” Far from being traumatized by such experiences, children were as likely to be scintillated by them, Freud argued. “If we observe young children at play, we notice that they will destroy their toys, pull off the arms and legs of their dolls and or soldiers, puncture their balls, smash whatever is breakable, and will mind the result only because complete destruction of the toy blocks further play.”

One need only think of the Polish children who flashed signs of death at the passing trains of Jews bound for Auschwitz and other concentration camps, or the images immortalized by Leni Riefenstahl in Triumph of the Will (1935) of blond children and youths waving swastika flags or raising a downy arm in the Hitler salute during a Nuremberg rally, to grasp the broader context of Freud’s comments. During and after the war, Europe’s lost children were not only cherished as the hope for a new and brighter future but also feared as the totalitarian henchmen of tomorrow. Nor was it only Nazification that commentators dreaded: “Are the Communist states today any better than concentration camps on a national scale?” the authors of a 1948 letter to the New York Times wondered. Children growing up in the territories occupied by the Soviets “would be taught hatred for the ideals we hold dear and they would be militarized in preparation for the Communist conquest of the world.”

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