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, nearly all Jewish, 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, given phenol injections to the heart, or hanged.

This article deals with those 1,500,000 children, nearly all Jewish, 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).

Prelude to the Holocaust: Segregation in Schools[edit]

Segregation in schools began in April 1933 when the "Law Against Overcrowding in German schools" was enacted and a restriction was set allowing only 1.5 percent of Jewish children to be enrolled in public schools, this being a problem because 5 percent of the children in Germany were of Jewish descent.[2] It continued to get worse as German schools began to Aryanize. Jewish children were required to "learn" from different sources than their classmates. Also being subjected to worse grades than their Aryan peers whether or not their work was better. The Jewish children were not allowed to participate in most school activities, causing many to feel left out and segregated by children they once were friends with. As time passed most teachers became more enthusiastic about following the rules of Nazism and went from being quieter in their beliefs to using anti-Semitic terms in class.[2] Poor treatment of Jewish children was more common in rural schools but even in large cities they faced animosity from their teachers and classmates.

This led to Jewish students feeling distant from their classmates and had different effects on different families. Some Jewish children began to form small strikes in their schools leaving without permission during hate speak during class, others tried to conform with no success, and some parents just took their children out of school. Many mothers were horrified to find out that their children were being emotionally and physically attacked by their classmates and teachers for being Jewish. Mothers were more likely to take their children out of school than fathers, seeing and hearing from their children the majority of what actually happened at school.[2]

Eventually Jewish schools were built and the Jewish community jumped at the idea of their children being taught without fear of persecution, shown that only fourteen percent of Jewish children went to private school in 1932 to fifty-two percent in 1936.[2] While most were happy that their children could learn, many parents feared that this is what the Nazi party wanted all along, segregation of the Jewish community from the Aryan community.

Numbers killed[edit]

To Be Shot as Dangerous Enemies of the Third Reich (1943), by Arthur Szyk

The Germans and their collaborators killed as many as 2 million children, including over a million Jewish children, 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 adolescent age) 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 virtually nonexistent; they were either killed before they got into the camp, sent into gas chambers or shot in front of a mass grave ditch. There were also some experiments on children, especially if they were twins, but when the Holocaust ended and the Red Army 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 were killed when they arrived in killing centers;
  2. children were 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.[3]
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.[4] 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.[5]

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 Majdanek concentration camp and other detention camps.[6]

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.[7]

Transit Camps[edit]

Transit camps were temporary stops on the way to concentration camps during the Holocaust. Many children were brought with their families to transit camps, unsure of what awaited them. Some were filled with the hope of starting a new life and making friends in the camps, while many others were scared. Children brought to the transit camps came from all different backgrounds. But the reality of transit camps became apparent.

Children carried on with their lives in transit camps while bare bodies and metal frames for beds surrounded them. There was a lack of food, a fear of trains coming for deportation, and no school supplies. Children began to see their parents in a different light because each family member dealt with hardships during their time in the transit camps.[8]

Children had few resources in place at the transit camps to help foster growth. A group of Hungarian Zionists made a rescue committee to negotiate and prevent deportations. Older girls were called upon to take care of the young children. Physicians, nurses, and musicians organized lectures, concerts, and activities for the children.[8] Voluntary interns and philanthropic organizations supplied food, clothing, and organized secretive teaching rooms to help the kids continue their education. Child care workers taught the children about the ideas of Zionism, the spirit of democracy, and an affectionate atmosphere. These groups also did their best to ease the hunger issues in the camps. Overall, life in transit camps were a gradual adjustment to the abnormal. They learned to live their daily lives while learning to deal with hunger and fear.


Czesława Kwoka, child victim in Auschwitz

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.[9] 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.[10] When visiting his child subjects, he introduced himself as "Uncle Mengele" and offered them sweets.[11] 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.[12] Lifton describes Mengele as sadistic, lacking empathy, and extremely antisemitic, believing the Jews should be eliminated entirely as an inferior and dangerous race.[13] Mengele's son Rolf said his father later showed no remorse for his wartime activities.[14]

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.[15]

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.[16] 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.[17] After an experiment was over, the twins were sometimes killed and their bodies dissected.[18] Nyiszli recalled one occasion where Mengele personally killed fourteen twins in one night via a chloroform injection to the heart.[19] If one twin died of disease, Mengele killed the other so that comparative post-mortem reports could be prepared.[20]

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.[21] 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.[22] Many of the victims were sent to the gas chambers after about two weeks, and their skeletons were sent to Berlin for further study.[23] Mengele sought out pregnant women, on whom he would perform experiments before sending them to the gas chambers.[24] Witness Vera Alexander described how he sewed two Gypsy twins together back to back in an attempt to create conjoined twins.[17] The children died of gangrene after several days of suffering.[25]

Sisak concentration camp[edit]

During the existence of Independent State of Croatia, the Croatian Ustaše established numerous concentration camps like those in Jasenovac,[26] Đakovo,[27] and Jastrebarsko[28] in which many Serbian, Jewish and Romani children have died as inmates.[29][30] Among them, there was Sisak concentration camp which was specially formed for children, created as a part of Jasenovac concentration camp.[31][32]

Sisak children's concentration camp was founded on 3 August 1942 following the Kozara Offensive.[33] It was part of an assembly camp, officially named the "Refugee Transit Camp",.[33] This concentration camp consisted of special part officially called "Shelter for the refugee children" which were under the auspices of the "Ustasha Female Lineage" and "Ustasha Security Service", and under the direct control of Dr. Antun Najžer. The camp was located in several buildings in Sisak; former Yugoslav Falconry Association (the so-called "Sokolana"), Sisters of St. Vincent nunnery, saltwork Rice warehouse, Rajs Saltworks warehouse, Novi Sisak elementary school and the so-called "Karantena" (Quarantine). 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. Children, 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 children arrived on 3 August 1942;[33] 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, Ustaše deprived 3,971 children of parents who were selected for forced labor in Nazi Germany. Thus from August 1942 to 8 February 1943, there were 6,693 detained children, mostly Serbs from Kozara, Kordun, and Slavonia. Despite the actions of Diana Budisavljević and tireless group of humanists – Jana Koh, Vera Luketić, Dragica Habazin, Ljubica and Vera Becić, Dr. Kamil Bresler, Ante Dumbović and sisters of the Red Cross, up to 40 children were dying every day.

When typhus epidemic broke out, Dr. Najžer ordered the transfer of the infected children to the improvised hospital, which however increased mortality among the children.

Dr. Lazar Margulješ testified about conditions at the 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: Sokolana building, where the children laid 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 and covered with swarms of flies."

Jana Koh, former secretary of Croatian Red Cross stated following about the conditions in the Camp:

Testimony of Jana Koh, the Croatian Red Cross secretary that time:

The barracks were connected by the corridors guarded by the Ustashas. Not far from the ambulance, from another barracks, the sad cries of the children were heard. There was set, on the bare floor, four hundred children: newborns, children from a few weeks or months, up to ten years of age. How many children came, and where they were dispatched, could no longer be found out. The children in the childrens barracks cried inexorably and were calling their mothers, who were only a few steps away from the children, but the fascist criminals did not let mothers to approach their children. Older children tell us through tears, that they can not calm the little ones, because they are hungry, there are no one to change diapers of the little ones, and they are afraid that everyone will die. These children, who have not yet reached the age of ten, swear to us, "Come on, sister, bring us mothers, bring at least mothers to these little ones. You will see, if you do not bring them their mothers, they will suffocate, by the tears alone."

Coroner Dr. David Egić officially recorded that out of 6,693 children, 1,152 died in the Camp, while teacher Ante Dumbović later claimed that the number was 1,630.[33][34]

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.[35]

Between 1938 and 1939, the Kindertransport (Children's Transport) was a rescue effort, organized by the British government in cooperation with Jewish organizations, 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. Likewise, Youth Aliyah (Youth Immigration) was responsible for integrating thousands of children into life in Palestine as a means for their survival as well as the revitalization of the Yishuv (Jewish settlement in Palestine).[36]

Hidden Children: Some non-Jews hid Jewish children and sometimes, as in the case of Anne Frank, hid other family members as well. Sometimes they 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.[37]

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. Youth Aliyah continued its activities after the war by helping child survivors to move to the Palestine, and the newly created state of Israel after 1948.[38][39]

See also[edit]


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


  2. ^ a b c d Kaplan, Marion (1998). Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 94–118.
  3. ^ Christian Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde. Die deutsche Wirtschafts- und Vernichtungspolitik in Weißrußland 1941–1944
  4. ^ Doin’ it for the kids! Archived 16 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ "CHILDREN DURING THE HOLOCAUST". Archived from the original on 6 May 2009. Retrieved 5 April 2009.
  6. ^ "Lublin" chapter from Pinkas Hakehillot Polin (cont.)
  7. ^ "Children During the Holocaust". Archived from the original on 1 April 2009. Retrieved 1 April 2009.
  8. ^ a b Dwork, Deborah. "Transit Camps." Children with a Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe, Yale University Press, 1993, pp. 113–154.
  9. ^ Nyiszli 2011, p. 57.
  10. ^ Kubica 1998, pp. 320–321.
  11. ^ Lagnado & Dekel 1991, p. 9.
  12. ^ Lifton 1986, p. 341.
  13. ^ Lifton 1986, pp. 376–377.
  14. ^ Posner & Ware 1986, p. 48.
  15. ^ Lifton 1985, p. 337.
  16. ^ Lifton 1986, p. 350.
  17. ^ a b Posner & Ware 1986, p. 37.
  18. ^ Lifton 1986, p. 351.
  19. ^ Lifton 1985.
  20. ^ Lifton 1986, pp. 347, 353.
  21. ^ Lifton 1986, p. 362.
  22. ^ Astor 1985, p. 102.
  23. ^ Lifton 1986, p. 360.
  24. ^ Brozan 1982.
  25. ^ Mozes-Kor 1992, p. 57.
  26. ^ "List of individual victims of Jasenovac concentration camp". Jasenovac Memorial Site. Retrieved 22 March 2015.
  27. ^ ABSEES (January 1973). ABSEES - Soviet and East European Abstracts Series. ABSEES.
  28. ^ "Jastrebarsko Camp". Jasenovac Memorial Site. Retrieved 11 September 2016.
  29. ^ Fumić, Ivan (2011). Djeca — žrtve ustaškog režima [Child Victims of the Ustaše Regime]. Zagreb, Croatia: Savez antifasistickih borca I antifasista republike Hrvatske [Union of Anti-Fascist Fighters and Anti-Fascists of the Republic of Croatia]. ISBN 978-953-7587-09-3.
  30. ^ Lukić, Dragoje (1980). Zločini okupatora i njegovih saradnika nad decom kozarskog područja 1941–1945. godine [The Crimes of the Occupiers and their Collaborators Against Children in the Kozara region 1941–1945]. Kozara u narodnooslobodilačkoj borbi i socijalističkoj revoluciji (1941–1945) [Kozara in the National Liberation War and Socialist Revolution: (1941–1945)] (27 – 28 October 1977). Prijedor, Yugoslavia: Nacionalni park "Kozara". pp. 269–284. OCLC 10076276.
  31. ^ Marija Vuselica: Regionen Kroatien in Der Ort des Terrors: Arbeitserziehungslager, Ghettos, Jugendschutzlager, Polizeihaftlager, Sonderlager, Zigeunerlager, Zwangsarbeiterlager, Volume 9 of Der Ort des Terrors, Publisher C.H.Beck, 2009, ISBN 9783406572388 pages 321-323
  32. ^ Anna Maria Grünfelder: Arbeitseinsatz für die Neuordnung Europas: Zivil- und ZwangsarbeiterInnen aus Jugoslawien in der "Ostmark" 1938/41-1945, Publisher Böhlau Verlag Wien, 2010 ISBN 9783205784531 pages 101-106
  33. ^ a b c d "SISAK CAMP". Jasenovac Memorial Cite. Retrieved 30 January 2018.
  34. ^ Review of International Affairs, Volume 33, Issues 762-785, Federation of Yugoslav Journalists, 1982 page 31
  35. ^ Study Guide Sonia Orbuch: A Young Woman with the Russian Partisans[permanent dead link]
  36. ^ Kaplan, Marion A. (1999). Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish life in Nazi Germany. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 116-117.
  37. ^ Elizabeth Altham, Catholic Heroes of the Holocaust Archived 12 March 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  38. ^ Dalia Ofer, Holocaust Survivors as Immigrants: The Case of Israel and the Cyprus Detainees
  39. ^ Shivat Tzion- The Return to Zion

External links[edit]