Innocents Lost: On Postwar Orphans | The Nation


Innocents Lost: On Postwar Orphans

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Despite the internationalist focus on human rights that is generally thought to have emerged from the horrors of World War II, Zahra argues that nationalism permeated most decisions affecting children’s destinies. In some cases nationalism even threatened to usurp the very unit of social organization it had struggled so hard to enthrone during the previous century: the family. Nationalists often did not trust families to educate children properly and advocated instead for communal arrangements, wherein children would enjoy the extended family of a children’s home or a kibbutz. Austrian socialist Ernst Papanek, who had worked with Republican child refugees of the Spanish Civil War, later argued that Jewish children in particular had experienced such severe trauma during World War II that they could overcome it only by living with one another in communal arrangements rather than with foster families. “Group treatment is always indicated where mass neurosis has been created by a trauma suffered by many in common with many. It will not be sufficient to place the refugee child in a nice, decent, family home.”

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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The homogeneous nation was identified as both auxiliary and alternative to family, tugging at children from across political, racial and ideological boundaries. Years after several thousand Spanish children of Republican fighters were evacuated to France, for example, the Franco regime sought out and forcibly repatriated children then living in German-occupied and Vichy France. Upon repatriation, many were sent to schools or placed with foster parents sympathetic to Franco for “re-education.”

Such earlier episodes of child displacement and attempts at ideological reprogramming, Zahra claims, were unlike those of the postwar period in one important respect: “contemporary observers did not typically understand children’s suffering in psychological terms” but rather decried “the threatened national and religious loyalties of displaced children.” What was unique to postwar discussions about lost children was the rhetoric of understanding and representing the “best interests” of the child, framed in humanitarian and often psychological terms. Yet even as this rhetoric spread after World War II, it in no way signaled the demise of nationalist activism and utilitarian approaches to the fate of children. Instead, it masked those older motivations with the language of humanitarianism and human rights.

The utilitarian motives underlying discussions of children’s future during the immediate postwar period are made painfully apparent in Zahra’s account. She shows that taking in a child refugee was often not the act of heroic altruism we commonly associate with those who adopt waifs and strays. One would-be foster parent wrote to the UNRRA, “The undersigned is asking for a girl between 14 and 16 years old, if possible one good and healthy, a decent one who likes farm work.” Little wonder that Eastern European Communist critics of the Allied DP camp system compared the scramble for child refugees, evacuees and DPs to a “slave auction.” Zahra describes the full gamut of utilitarian approaches taken by various parties in the process of determining a child’s fate: parents sending children to foster homes in the United States with the hope that the whole family would be able to emigrate as well; a woman plying a Jewish child with sweets and dresses to tempt her away from her mother, who must remain hidden indoors; and French authorities fantasizing about the reconstruction work that could be done by the illegitimate children of French soldiers born in occupied Germany.

With so many adults professing to have the “best interests” of the children at heart, it is hardly surprising that postwar French psychologist André Rey drew on the example of refugee children to theorize the impact of divorce on children. Yet the comparison rings true not exactly in the manner Rey meant it. To him war and divorce were both sudden and traumatic events that split up families (an eventuality that children, Zahra concludes, often survived well enough). But the more salient parallel between lost children and children of divorced parents might rightfully be sought in the deafening echo chamber of grievances that both groups are forced to inhabit, a place where moral outrage stifles self-reflection.

* * *

Although Zahra does not foreground Europeans’ cultural engagement with the question of the lost children, novels and films of the postwar era grappled with many of the same issues as the states and humanitarian organizations she cites. In a Hungarian film from 1947, Somewhere in Europe, a gang of lost children wanders on the Hungarian plain, living by their wits and petty theft until they find precarious refuge in a castle ruin. The scenes evoke the language used by Joseph Weill, director of the largest Jewish child welfare organization (the OSE), who lamented that Jewish child refugees in France, having lived “for many years far from the family home,” “have become savages like the domestic animals in destroyed and abandoned villages.” The chaos and violence of war, Weill and others felt, had rewarded and fostered such savagery. In Somewhere in Europe, however, the children’s savagery is tamed, replaced by a poignant capacity for sacrifice and communal self-management crafted to offer an inspiring blueprint for socialist postwar reconstruction efforts.

Such idealistic projections were less common among those who dealt directly with the lost children. An OSE official running a home for the “Buchenwald boys” who had survived the camp—one of whom was Elie Wiesel—complained that his wards were “true psychopaths, cold and indifferent by nature, and that this was the reason they were able to survive.” Children’s traumatic experiences of the war were frequently presumed to have wrought irreversible damage that could be carried like a disease into the society that adopted them. The presumption was not unique to the postwar era. As early as 1939 the US anti-immigration activist Alice Waters spoke out against allowing “thousands of motherless, embittered, persecuted” Jewish refugee children into the country. Americans could not “expect to convert these embattled souls into loyal, loving American citizens…. If these so-called innocent, helpless children are admitted as refugees into America, I am sure they will become the leaders of revolt and deprive my children of their right to worship God, of free speech, and of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

To many observers, Europe’s children had become, as Zahra puts it, “disturbingly independent, mature, and unchildlike.” In 1954 the British novelist William Golding published Lord of the Flies, about a child-made dystopia that was the antithesis of the purity and innocence the postwar generation sought in its lost children. The story is set during a war, and a group of boys have been stranded on an island, the sole survivors of a plane crash that occurred while they were being evacuated. The book offers a powerful critique of the sort of national hubris Zahra describes. “We’ve got to have rules and obey them,” says the boy leader Jack, who introduces absurd and ultimately deadly rules into the island world. “After all, we’re not savages. We’re English, and the English are best at everything.”

Lord of the Flies also underscores the postwar struggle between individualist and collectivist ideologies that came to characterize the two poles of the cold war order. And it was, among other things, over the fate of Europe’s unaccompanied children that these positions grew entrenched. As a case study, Zahra tracks Premysl Pitter’s ideological transformation from Catholic Communist to Catholic anti-Communist and fanatical cold warrior. In a 1946 memo to the Czech Ministry for Social Welfare, Pitter argued, “It is a bad kind of collectivism that suppresses individuality…just as it is bad individualism and liberalism that does not subordinate the success of the individual to the public good.” He paired this sober assertion with a belief that children’s time should be shared between parents—particularly mothers—and other children in summer camps and daycare settings for collective socialization. But Pitter’s hybrid approach to child-rearing was short-lived. He eventually joined the ranks of those who saw no common ground between collectivism and individualism, between community and family, and by extension between East and West.

It is clear enough why the postwar generation was obsessed with its lost children, but Zahra also sees a connection between the attitudes that emerged in discussions about those children and the “attachment parenting” of our time. “Mothers have been called upon to abandon bottles in favor of the breast, strollers in favor of slings, cribs in favor of co-sleeping and diapers in favor of a practice called ‘elimination communication.’” These expectations, Zahra claims, are the progeny of theories developed during and just after World War II by Anna Freud and others, theories whose “historically and culturally specific origins” have been obscured by the insistence of helicopter moms that “such practices are both natural and timeless.” Zahra believes that revisiting Europe’s obsession with its lost children reveals the extent to which the long shadow of the war still looms over our homes and families.

But there is another reason to reconsider the history of the lost children, which is that we are slowly but inexorably losing our last direct links to the experience of World War II and its immediate aftermath. Most of the remaining survivors of that conflict were children at the time, so children are all we have left of the war. The German novelist and critic W.G. Sebald was barely a year old when the war ended in 1945. In Luftkrieg und Literatur: Mit einem Essay zu Alfred Andersch (1999), published in English as On the Natural History of Destruction in 2003, he wrote, “To this day, when I see photographs or documentary films dating from the war I feel as if I were its child, so to speak, as if those horrors I did not experience cast a shadow over me, and one from which I shall never entirely emerge.” Sebald fixed a resolute gaze on the depths of that shadow, and in so doing managed to momentarily seize the flicking tails of the war’s demons before they pass out of historical consciousness. The danger now is that, without Sebald, who died in 2001, and the other children of the war, we will stumble out of the gloom of the past none the wiser, mistaking our obliviousness for innocence restored.

On the day the war began, W.H. Auden marked the occasion with a poem. A passage of “September 1, 1939” stands as a relevant cautionary tale about our tragic propensity to confuse willful and destructive ignorance with childlike innocence:

All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

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