Children in the Holocaust

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Children were especially vulnerable to Nazi murder or death in the era of the Holocaust. It is estimated that 1.5 million children were murdered during the Holocaust, either directly or as a direct consequence of Nazi actions.

The Nazis advocated killing children of "unwanted" or "dangerous" groups in accordance with their ideological views, either as part of the "racial struggle" or as a measure of preventive security. The Nazis particularly targeted Jewish children, but also targeted ethnically Polish children, Romani (Gypsy) children, and children with mental or physical defects (disabled children). The Germans and their collaborators killed children both for these ideological reasons and in retaliation for real or alleged partisan attacks.[1] Early killings were encouraged by the Nazis in action T4, where children with disabilities were gassed using carbon monoxide, starved to death, phenol injections to the heart, or by hanging.

Those killings started officially in 1939 and grew steadily throughout the war but many warning signs were already present in Germany well before the war started, including persecution of the Jews, the notorious Nuremberg laws and Kristallnacht in 1938. Jews were forced out of the country, their property stolen and they were increasingly deported to concentration camps.

This article deals with those 1,500,000 children who were killed by the Nazis. A much smaller number were saved. Some simply survived, often in a ghetto, occasionally in a concentration camp. Some were saved in various programs like the Kindertransport and the One Thousand Children in which children fled their homeland. Other children were saved by becoming Hidden Children. During and even before the war many vulnerable children were rescued by Œuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE).

Numbers killed[edit]

The Germans and their collaborators killed as many as 2 million children, including over a million Jewish children, a few hundreds of thousands of Polish children, and tens of thousands of Romani children, moreover, children with physical and mental disabilities of various ethnicities living in institutions across the German-occupied Europe, or residing in the Soviet Union. Aside from Polish, Romani and Polish-Jewish children, many Jewish children from France, the Netherlands, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Italy, Romania and other countries also died as a result of mass deportations. The chances for survival for Jewish and some non-Jewish adolescents (13–18 years old) were greater, as they could be deployed at forced labor. Although, the unfortunate, other children (usually infants or children younger than an adolescent) were disposed of in killing chambers such as gas filled rooms, or merely shot, to fulfill the German's "Final Solution" to exterminate the Jews.

The Germans believed the Jews to be impure and wished to wipe out their whole population or make them slaves. This is when they invented things such as concentration camps and gas chambers. Most going to these were the surviving adults or older teenagers because children couldn’t work therefore they were useless. Inside the concentration camps the presence of children was nonexistent, they were either killed before they got into the camp, sent into gas chambers or shot in front of mass grave ditch. There were also some experiments on children especially if they were twins but when the Holocaust ended and they found the 9,000 survivors, only 451 of them were children.

Causes of death[edit]

The fate of Jewish and non-Jewish children can be categorized in the following ways:

  1. children killed when they arrived in killing centers;
  2. children killed immediately after birth or in institutions;
  3. children born in ghettos and camps who survived because prisoners hid them;
  4. children, usually over age 12, who were used as laborers in kitchen camps, cleaning prisoner barracks, or working in the stables with Nazi officer horses and as subjects of medical experiments; and
  5. those children killed during reprisal operations or so-called anti-partisan operations.[2]
Ghetto children

In the ghettos, which the Germans established early in the war in many Polish towns and cities such as Warsaw and Łódź, Jewish children died from starvation and exposure as well as lack of adequate clothing and shelter. The German authorities were indifferent to this mass death because they considered most of the younger ghetto children to be unproductive and hence "useless eaters". Indeed, the Germans deliberately restricted the food available to the strictly controlled ghettos under their control. The ghettos were liquidated from 1942 onwards, and their inhabitants murdered at various death camps. Because children were generally too young to be deployed as forced labor, the German authorities generally selected them, along with the elderly, ill, and disabled, for the first deportations to killing centers, or as the first victims led to mass graves to be shot.[3] The children that were healthy enough for the labor were often worked to death doing jobs to benefit the camp, but sometimes children were forced to do unnecessary jobs like digging ditches.

Non-Jewish children from certain targeted groups were not spared. Examples include Romani (Gypsy) children killed in Auschwitz concentration camp; 5,000 to 7,000 children killed as victims of the "euthanasia" program; children murdered in reprisals, including most of the children of Lidice; and children in villages in the occupied Soviet Union who were killed with their parents.[4]

Medical atrocities and kidnapping[edit]

Ghetto Litzmannstadt. Children rounded up for deportation to the Kulmhof extermination camp.
Jewish twins kept alive to be used in Mengele's medical experiments. These children were liberated from Auschwitz by the Red Army in January 1945.

The German authorities also incarcerated a number of children in concentration camps and transit camps. SS physicians and medical researchers used a number of children, including twins, in concentration camps for medical experiments that often resulted in the deaths of the children. Concentration camp authorities deployed adolescents, particularly Jewish adolescents, at forced labor in the concentration camps, where many died because of conditions. The German authorities held other children under appalling conditions in transit camps, such as the case of Anne Frank and her sister in Bergen-Belsen, and non-Jewish orphaned children whose parents the German military and police units had killed in so-called anti-partisan operations. Some of these orphans were held temporarily in the Lublin/Majdanek concentration camp and other detention camps.[5]

In their "search to retrieve 'Aryan blood'"or the perfect race, SS race experts ordered hundreds of children in occupied Poland and the occupied Soviet Union to be kidnapped and transferred to the Reich to be adopted by racially suitable German families. Although the basis for these decisions was "race-scientific," often blond hair, blue eyes, or fair skin was sufficient to merit the "opportunity" to be "Germanized". On the other hand, female Poles and Soviet civilians who had been deported to Germany for forced labor and who had had sexual relations with a German man—often under duress—resulting in pregnancy were forced to have abortions or to bear their children under conditions that would ensure the infant's death, if the "race experts" determined that the child would have insufficient German blood.[6]


Children were exposed to experimentation at other camps, especially at Auschwitz, where Joseph Mengele was active. Mengele's research subjects were better fed and housed than other prisoners and temporarily safe from the gas chambers.[7] He established a kindergarten for children that were the subjects of experiments, along with all Gypsy children under the age of six. The facility provided better food and living conditions than other areas of the camp, and even included a playground.[8] When visiting his child subjects, he introduced himself as "Uncle Mengele" and offered them sweets.[9] But he was also personally responsible for the deaths of an unknown number of victims that he killed via lethal injection, shootings, beatings, and through selections and deadly experiments.[10] Lifton describes Mengele as sadistic, lacking empathy, and extremely antisemitic, believing the Jews should be eliminated entirely as an inferior and dangerous race.[11] Mengele's son Rolf said his father later showed no remorse for his wartime activities.[12]

A former Auschwitz prisoner doctor said:

He was capable of being so kind to the children, to have them become fond of him, to bring them sugar, to think of small details in their daily lives, and to do things we would genuinely admire ... And then, next to that, ... the crematoria smoke, and these children, tomorrow or in a half-hour, he is going to send them there. Well, that is where the anomaly lay.[13]

Photo from Mengele's Argentine identification document (1956)

Twins were subjected to weekly examinations and measurements of their physical attributes by Mengele or one of his assistants.[14] Experiments performed by Mengele on twins included unnecessary amputation of limbs, intentionally infecting one twin with typhus or other diseases, and transfusing the blood of one twin into the other. Many of the victims died while undergoing these procedures.[15] After an experiment was over, the twins were sometimes killed and their bodies dissected.[16] Nyiszli recalled one occasion where Mengele personally killed fourteen twins in one night via a chloroform injection to the heart.[17] If one twin died of disease, Mengele killed the other so that comparative post-mortem reports could be prepared.[18]

Mengele's experiments with eyes included attempts to change eye color by injecting chemicals into the eyes of living subjects and killing people with heterochromatic eyes so that the eyes could be removed and sent to Berlin for study.[19] His experiments on dwarfs and people with physical abnormalities included taking physical measurements, drawing blood, extracting healthy teeth, and treatment with unnecessary drugs and X-rays.[20] Many of the victims were sent to the gas chambers after about two weeks, and their skeletons were sent to Berlin for further study.[21] Mengele sought out pregnant women, on whom he would perform experiments before sending them to the gas chambers.[22] Witness Vera Alexander described how he sewed two Gypsy twins together back to back in an attempt to create conjoined twins.[15] The children died of gangrene after several days of suffering.[23]

Death camps in Croatia[edit]

The Croatian concentration camp in Sisak was founded on 3 August 1942 after the Croatian operations in Kozara and Samarica were completed. This notorious concentration camp consisted of special part officially called "Shelter for the refugee children". Children camp in Sisak, the largest of that type within NDH (Independent State of Croatia), was under the auspices of the "Ustasha movement female lineage" and "Ustasha Security Service", under direct control of ustasha Dr. Antun Najzer. The camp was located in several buildings in the city: in former Yugoslav Falconry Association building (so-called ”Sokolana”), in the nunnery of the (Roman Catholic) Sisters of St. Vincent, saltwork Rice warehouse, Guci building, in the elementary school in New Sisak and in so-called ”Quarantena” in one of six concentration camp barracks. All these buildings were utterly unsuitable for the housing of children. For example in the Falconry association, there were no doors; it was drafty because the whole construction was set up for drying the salt. The baby prisoners, even the smallest ones who were only a few months old, had to lie on the floor with only a thin layer of straw, without any clothes or blankets. The first group of Serbian children arrived to Sisak on 3 August 1942; there were 906 of them.

The very next day another group of 650 children was brought; in the third group (arrived on 6. August ) was 1 272 children. In Teslic glasshouse and the newly built barracks, named ”Karantena”, a general concentration camp for men, women and children had been established. During August and September 1942, Croats deprived 3971 children from parents who were selected for forced labor in Germany. Thus from August 1942. – 8 February 1943 there were 6693 detained children, boys and girls, all of them Serbs from Kozara, Kordun and Slavonia.

Despite the actions of Diana Budisavljević and tireless group of humanists – Jana Koh, Vera Luketic, Dragica Habazin – Majka (‘ Mother’), Ljubica and Vera Becić, Dr. Kamil Bresler, Ante Dumbovic and sisters of the Red Cross, great number of imprisoned children was dying every day: up to 40 every 24 hours.

Dr. Lazar Marguljes, a doctor from Osijek testified about unimaginable conditions at Sisak concentration camp: ”I’ve noticed that the food parcels sent by Red Cross have never been given to the imprisoned children. My duty as a medic was to research these small prisoners, therefore I often visited these places: former Yugoslav Falconry Association building (‘Sokolana’), where the children lay on bare concrete or, if they had little luck, on a little straw. The so-called hospital, in a small school in Old Sisak , had no beds so the children were lying on the floor with a little distracted and contaminated straw matted with blood and excrement, covered with swarms of flies.

These children were kept naked and barefoot, with no covering. When typhus broke out, doctor Najžer ordered transfer of infected children to the so called Hospital, which caused increased mortality among the children.

One of the most shocking testimonies was the one of Jana Koh, former secretary of the Red Cross Croatia: ”The barracks were connected by passages guarded by Ustasha guard. Even though away from the barracks, I often heard sad cry of the imprisoned children. They were placed on the bare floor, four hundred children: infants, few weeks together with the several months old and the older were ten years old. How many children were there, and where the Croats took them later – that was impossible to find out. The children in Children’s barrack inconsolably cried and called their mothers, who were only a few meters away; but the fascist Croats sadistically forced them to listen while keeping them away. Some older children tried to talk to us, always through tears; they needed to calm and feed the little ones who were starving; there was no one to swaddle the babies, so the older kids believed they will all die.

These children, below ten years old, were begging: ” Oh, come, my sister ... mother, save us, bring at least these little ones to their mothers! Because they will die of tears.”

Bringing these children to the mothers wasn’t easy for any of us, yet we managed – during the night 10–11 October we were all prepared to transport the children to Zagreb. The mothers from concentration camp gave their last breastfeed to their children, to calm and soothe them; but they had to leave them immediately, for we had to return to the camp. But no one could ever describe the joy of the children when they saw their mothers. Their little hands embraced mother’s neck, and heavy moans echoed the previous sadness for a long, long time. From these small, excited hearts a deep and heavy sighs came out. Their starving mouth grasped the mother’s breast; the children heads were wet from big teardrops falling like rain from their silent mothers. When the last child, exhausted by sadness fell asleep, their mothers quietly disappeared in the opposite hut. At the door, each of them turned with their bare heart in the suffering eyes, and whispered the litany: ”Take care of our children, take care of them, dear.” One shipment of 550 children was sent to Zagreb and the only thing we could do was to inform the mothers about the addresses so they could look for the children once they return from abroad (they were dispatched to Germany the same night, a couple of hours later).” (Dragoje Lukic: ”Parent mown generation” Museum of the Victims of Genocide, Belgrade, p. 179)

It is estimated that around 50,000–75,000 children passed through all child Croatian concentration camps until its final liberation.

Means of survival[edit]

In spite of their acute vulnerability, many children discovered ways to survive. Children smuggled food and medicines into the ghettos, after smuggling personal possessions to trade for them out of the ghettos. Children in youth movements later participated in underground resistance activities. Many children escaped with parents or other relatives—and sometimes on their own—to family camps run by Jewish partisans.[24]

Between 1938 and 1939, the Kindertransport (Children's Transport) was a rescue effort which brought about 10,000 refugee Jewish children (but importantly, without their parents) to safety in Great Britain from Nazi Germany and German-occupied territories.

Hidden Children: Some non-Jews hid Jewish children and sometimes, as in the case of Anne Frank, hid other family members as well. Sometimes these were actually hidden; in other cases they were "adopted" into the family of the heroic well-doer. And see the work of Œuvre de Secours aux Enfants.

A unique case of hiding: in France, almost the entire Protestant population of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, as well as many Catholic priests, nuns, and lay Catholics, hid Jewish children in the town from 1942 to 1944. In Italy and Belgium, many children survived in hiding.[25]

After the surrender of Nazi Germany, ending World War II, refugees and displaced persons searched throughout Europe for missing children. Thousands of orphaned children were in displaced persons camps. Many surviving Jewish children fled eastern Europe as part of the mass exodus (Brihah) to the western zones of occupied Germany, en route to the Yishuv (the Jewish settlement in Palestine). Through Youth Aliyah (Youth Immigration), thousands migrated to the Yishuv, and then to the state of Israel after its establishment in 1948.[26][27]

See also[edit]


This article incorporates text from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and has been released under the GFDL.


External links[edit]