Innocents Lost: On Postwar Orphans

Innocents Lost: On Postwar Orphans

Tara Zahra explains why orphaned children held a special grip on Europe’s postwar imagination.


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.

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.

* * *

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.”

* * *

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 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.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy