Children in the Holocaust

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Children were especially vulnerable in the era of the Holocaust. 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 Germans and their collaborators killed children both for these ideological reasons and in retaliation for real or alleged partisan attacks.[1]

Numbers killed[edit]

The Germans and their collaborators killed as many as 1.5 million children, including over a million Jewish children and tens of thousands of Romani (Gypsy) children, German children with physical and mental disabilities living in institutions, Polish children, and children residing in the occupied Soviet Union. 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.

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]

In the ghettos, 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". Because children were generally too young to be deployed at forced labor, 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.

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'", 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]

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.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9][10]

See also[edit]


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


External links[edit]