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auschwitz: inside the nazi state
Understanding Auschwitz Today Introduction Lessons of the HolocaustThe Origins of Genocide How the World FailedThe Task of JusticeHow the Holocaust InformsWhy It's Crucial to Understand

How the World Failed Children in the Holocaust

The Panelists

"The children may have provided in some ways logistical difficulties, psychological difficulties for the people involved in carrying out the process of destruction. But at the end of the day, all of those difficulties were surmounted, and the killing went on and on."

John Roth

John Roth is professor of philosophy at Claremont McKenna College in California and is currently a visiting scholar at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Professor Roth has written extensively on the Holocaust and genocide. His latest two books examine reconciliation and justice after the Holocaust and the recent genocide in Rwanda.

 

"The people who took in these children did so, because they thought it was the right thing to do. And we can only admire them for doing so. But that doesn't mean that they had any love or affection for these children in their hearts."

Deborah Dwork

Deborah Dwork is Rose Professor of Holocaust History at Clark University in Massachusetts. She is the founding director of the Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and is the author of several books including Children With A Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe, which examines the experience of Jewish children during the Holocaust.

 

The Discussion

How were children first affected when the Nazis came to power?

DWORK: The Nazi regime affected German-Jewish children in 1933 when Hitler came to power. The first wave of edicts and decrees that affected Jewish families was focused on the economy. With those edicts and decrees, Jews were thrown out of the economic world. These affected children, but marginally so. The standard of living of the family decreased.

The second wave of decrees focused on social life and led towards social isolation. So it was with these laws that Jewish children were barred from the world that they had always known before: from parks and playgrounds, cinema, ice cream parlors. And it was with these laws, too, that they were thrown out of school, which is as central to children as the workplace is to adults.

Step-by-step the decrees tightened that world until the children had only their own homes, courtyards. Gentile friends no longer came to see them. And they no longer went to visit those Gentile friends. Children no longer had a bicycle to travel with. They no longer took the tram or the streetcar.

So...slowly the world contracted for these children until the moment came when they could no longer stay in those homes. They left to go into hiding or into a ghetto or because they were deported to a transit camp or to the East.

ROTH: The reasons why the children had to be eliminated involved many factors. Jews were understood to be a threat to the Nazi world view, so much so that they had in one way or another to be eliminated. And that meant it wasn't sufficient just to kill men and women. It meant that you had to kill children as well, because children represented the future of the Jewish people. And it was precisely Jewish life that was intended to be done away with by the Nazi regime and the Final Solution.

We also know in some of the reports that we have from Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, that in his mind there was also the possibility that if the children were allowed to live, they might return and avenge what had happened to their parents and their grandparents.

DWORK: In addition, [there] is the Germans' idea about Jewish blood. A single drop of Jewish blood-one single drop-was too much and polluting, unlike during the Armenian genocide and in Darfur today, where rape is used as an instrument of genocide. Armenian women and Black Muslim women are raped so that they would produce children for their vanquishers, with the idea that the bloodstream and the culture will, thus, be changed.

During the Holocaust, which sits right in the middle of this century, rape certainly occurred. But it was not a means of having more Aryan children, because no Jewish woman could possibly produce an Aryan child.

How could the Nazis kill children?

ROTH: I think this remains one of the deepest and most difficult heart-wrenching questions that the Holocaust or any genocide raises. Well, we know, of course, that they not only can but they do.

There was education, there was teaching that taught that Jews are not really human beings, that they are a threat, that they must be done away with to defend the purity of the German people. Much of this killing actually took place in wartime situations.

War has a way of affecting people in ways that brutalize. I think there was also a factor of peer pressure. If you were the only person who didn't do certain things in your unit, this might cause problems for you. I think there was also some element of fear as to what would happen if you didn't do what was expected or what was ordered.

All of these things still leave open why any particular individual does something. I think at the end of the day, we would be misled if we failed to underscore that every person still has a choice to make—and we know that there were at least a few cases for a while where, confronted with the order to kill children, the people who received those orders did not do what was ordered.

What hardships did families face when they were deported from the ghettos to Auschwitz?

DWORK: Let me walk you through the selection process in the company of a Jewish family in the Lodz Ghetto.

They've been incarcerated in this ghetto for the whole of the five years, from 1939 until August 1944, when the Germans liquidated the ghetto. Sara Grossman-Weil and her husband Menek, her mother-in-law, her father-in-law, her sister-in-law Esther, Esther's two children, a little one, Mirka, and a teenage girl, Regina-all of them were traveling together on this cattle car from Lodz to Auschwitz.

The train stopped at Auschwitz. The doors opened, and the Jews were hauled from the trains, with screaming and shouting and dogs barking—a nightmarish situation in which people who already were dazed and confused could not comprehend what they faced.

The men were separated from the women.

Then, from Sara Grossman's point of view, she got out of the train with her mother-in-law, her sister, her sister-in-law Esther, Regina, and Meerka [above and below spelled Mirka] and were formed into a column of five.

A Jewish slave laborer working on the ramp slipped up to them and whispered, "Give the child to the grandmother." Esther gave her little girl, Mirka, to the grandmother. The grandmother and the little one went to the left, to the gas chambers. Regina, Esther, and Sara were joined by two other women and in a column of five entered the camp.

The littlest one and the oldest one, the ones who could not work, were sent off to be murdered immediately, while the teenaged girl, her mother, and her aunt, who could work, were admitted into the camp. This was no guarantee of survival. It just meant that they were physically alive for another few hours, for another day.

How did the children readjust after the war?

DWORK: It is very important to remember that Jewish children who went through the experience of the Holocaust should not be seen as damaged, psychological goods. Nearly all of them went on to lead creative and productive lives, married, had children, had professions and occupations, were functioning members of society. At the same time, they carried their own special historical burden with them.

So, for example, let us go to France and a girl named Eugenie Poretzky, who lived with her family in a small little town in the Auvergne. She was safe. She was frightened every day. And she was especially frightened of all kinds of bureaucratic processes. 'What did policies mean?' Policies meant trouble. 'What did gendarme or police mean?' They meant trouble.

When the war was over and the family moved back to Paris she was supposed to resume her studies. But to resume her studies meant dealing with all kinds of bureaucrats and officials and, for example, being at her exams on time. She reported, "I just couldn't manage it. I somehow wouldn't find my way. I would go too early or too late. I just was allergic to it." She ended up a mother, an artist, having a loving life—but her life had been shaped and some might say warped by her experiences.