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.