Echoes of the Holocaust
Shalom Robinson, M.D., Editor

Children Who Survived the Holocaust: Reflections of a Child Survivor/Psychiatrist

Robert Krell, M.D. *

The world of child survivors of the Holocaust should interest our profession for many reasons.

At Liberation, in 1945, a small number of children were found in concentration camps. Most children who survived emerged from hiding places - attics and cellars, caves and forests, convents and monasteries, and homes ranging from huts to castles. (1)

The total number of surviving children were a fraction compared with the 1.5 million Jewish children and adolescents murdered between 1939 and 1945.

Liberation for children was not necessarily liberating. Mostly, parents did not come for them. Children waited for years until hope too had died. The youngest survivors did not know their names, country of origin, or even their first language. (2) The older ones faced untold hardships and, for most, 3-5 years more passed before they had found a home.

The existence of child survivors was obscured not only by the initial necessary focus on providing nourishment and shelter, but also by adult insistence that they cast aside their experiences and memories in order to carve out a new life.

And that they did.

Children were swept up from Europe and resettled in England and Israel, the United States and Canada, Australia and South Africa. Their experiences were very different from the older survivors. Generally speaking, those under age 16 or 17, by war's end, were taken in by foster families, returned to school, and discouraged to speak of the past.

Older survivors were more likely to marry, settle close to other survivors in large urban centres, and begin to work. There was a sense of community and experiences were shared.

Child survivors were less likely to have had a Jewish upbringing (many having hidden as Christians) and had fewer memories of family and traditions. (3) Those who were aware of the older survivors, particularly of concentration camp survivors, felt their experiences paled in comparison. And mostly, child and adult survivors lived separately from each other.

Children, once hidden, remained hidden. Silence prevailed. It was not that they were not known. Pictures appeared in Life magazine of child arrivals from displaced persons camps. In fact, who has not heard of Josef Mengele's experiments on twins; not seen the film footage of children released from Buchenwald; and not heard of Anne Frank? Accounts of murdered children and surviving children were public knowledge.

And yet, the latter were ignored. Their stories seemed not so important, their memories not really acknowledged, their presence submerged in a confusion of nationalities, religions and loyalties.

In the Spring of 1944, Elie Wiesel, age 16, was taken to Auschwitz. In his postwar memoir Night(4) he writes: "... not far from us, flames were leaping up from a ditch, gigantic flames. They were burning something. A lorry drew up at the pit and delivered its load - little children. Babies! Yes I saw it - saw it with my own eyes those children in the flames. (Is it surprising that I could not sleep after that? Sleep had fled from my eyes.")

Forty-seven years later, at the Hidden Child Conference - a gathering of child survivors from around the world held in New York in 1991 - Wiesel reflected:

"Why had an entire regime, if not an entire people, with some exceptions, mobilized its national energies and resources to hunt down Jewish children? Why were they the first to be marked and singled out, the first to suffer, the first to perish? Of all the crimes conceived in fanaticism and hatred, the war against the Jewish children will remain the worst, the most vicious, and the most implacable in recorded history." (6)

I too have a question. What has been the effect of the knowledge of this merciless slaughter, of over one million children, on pediatrics and child psychiatry? Fredric Wertham(7) writes that in the so-called euthanasia programs initiated in 1939, "mental patients were sacrificed in psychiatric institutions and in the name of psychiatry." He notes that "even the false death certificates were signed by psychiatrists. The psychiatrists made the decisions."

In July 1939, writes Wertham in 1966, "a conference took place in Berlin in which the program to kill mental patients in the whole of Germany was outlined in concrete, final form. Present and ready to participate were the regular professors of psychiatry of the leading universities and medical schools of Germany: Berlin, Heidelberg, Bonn, Wurzburg. Historians of medicine and sociologists will have a lot of work to do to explain this. So far they have not stated the problem or even noted the fact." (my italics)

Who were involved? According to Wertham, they included Dr. Max de Crinis, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Berlin and Director of the Psychiatric Department of the Charite Hospital. He committed suicide in 1945. Dr. Werner Villinger was Head of the Department of Child Psychiatry at Tuebingen, then Psychiatric Director at Bethel, an institution for epileptics and mentally and physically disabled persons. From 1946 to 1956, Villinger was Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Marburg, and in 1950 was invited to participate in the White House Conference on Children and Youth. Interviewed by prosecutors in the Limburg "euthanasia" trial, he subsequently committed suicide, as did Dr. Carl Schneider, who for 12 years held Emil Kraepelin's position at the University of Heidelberg.

Dr. Werner Cattel was the expert consultant to the special agency for child "euthanasia," and subsequently Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Kiel until the 1960s. He was never prosecuted. Dr. Pfannmueller was convicted of having ordered the killing of at least 120 children, and had himself taken part in the killing, mainly through systematic starvation. Sentenced to six years, he served two. De Crinis, Schneider, and Irmfried Eberl, a doctor who became the commander of Treblinka, were all Austrians. The knowledge gained by these physicians was subsequently applied to mass murder in the death camps. The experimental gas chambers were dismantled and shipped to the East, to Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka. [Page 1 of 3]

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* Professor Robert Krell, Vancouver, Canada.

Presented at the 40th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, San Antonio, Texas, October 28, 1993.

1. Krell, R. (1985) Editor, Special Section. Child Survivors of the Holocaust: 40 Years Later. J Amer Acad Child Psychiat 24(4): 378-412.
2. Moskovitz, S. (1983) Love Despite Hate: Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Their Adult Lives. New York: Schocken Publishers.
3. Kestenberg, J. (1988) Editor. Child Survivors of the Holocaust. Psychoan Review 75(4): 495-663.
4. Hogman, F. (1988) The Experience of Catholicism for Jewish Children during World War II. Psychoan Review 75(4): 511-532.
5. Wiesel, E. (1986) Night. New York: Bantam Books. Originally published in French by Les Editions de Minuit, 1958.
6. Wiesel, E. (1991) Hidden Memories. An address to the Gathering of Child Survivors/Hidden Child Conference, New York.
7. Wertham, F. (1966) A Sign for Cain - An Exploration of Human Violence. London: Robert Hale Ltd.