Lost Children: Displacement, Family, and Nation in Postwar Europe* Tara Zahra

Lost Children: Displacement, Family, and Nation in
Postwar Europe*
Tara Zahra
University of Chicago
At the end of the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of children were
missing. Their faces adorned Red Cross posters, under the banner “Who
knows our parents and our origins?” Whether through bombings, military
service, evacuation, deportation, forced labor, ethnic cleansing, or murder, an
unprecedented number of children had been separated from their parents
during the war. The German Red Cross received over 300,000 requests to
trace missing children or parents between 1945 and 1958, while the International Tracing Service traced 343,057 lost children between 1945 and 1956.1
The problem of reuniting families after World War II proved to be more than
a daunting logistical puzzle, moreover. Although they represented only a
small fraction of the millions of displaced persons (DPs) in postwar Europe,
so-called lost children held a special grip on the postwar imagination. They
stood at the center of bitter political conflicts between military authorities,
German foster parents, social workers, Jewish agencies, East European Communist officials, and DPs themselves, all of whom competed to determine
their fates. These battles were linked, in turn, to emerging ideals of human
rights, the family, democracy, child welfare, and the reconstruction of European civilization at large. In the words of Vinita A. Lewis, an officer with the
International Refugee Organization (IRO) in Germany, “The lost identity of
individual children is the Social Problem of the day on the continent of
Following the Second World War, Europe appeared to be a civilization in
ruins. American, British, and émigré humanitarian workers often arrived on
* I would like to thank Pamela Ballinger, Daniella Doron, Laura Lee Downs, Heide
Fehrenbach, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Alison Frank, Atina Grossmann, Andrew Janco,
Rachel Jean-Baptiste, Pieter Judson, Mark Mazower, Emily Osborn, Larry Wolff, and
the members of the Russian and East European Studies Workshops at Harvard and
Chicago for their helpful feedback on previous versions of this essay.
Der DRK Kindersuchdienst, September 30, 1958, B 106/24431, Bundesarchiv
Koblenz. For International Tracing Service numbers, see Louise Holborn, The International Refugee Organization: A Specialized Agency of the United Nations; Its
History and Its Work (New York, 1956), 502.
2 Memo to Mr. A. C. Dunn, Policy on Unaccompanied Children, May 27, 1949,
43/AJ/926, AN (Archives Nationales), Paris.
The Journal of Modern History 81 (March 2009): 45– 86
© 2009 by The University of Chicago. 0022-2801/2009/8101-0002$10.00
All rights reserved.
the continent through French ports and then traveled eastward, marveling at
the spectacle of physical and human destruction.3 The sad physical and mental
state of Europe’s children, in particular, spawned dystopian fears of European
families and societies in disarray. In 1946, American freemason Alice Bailey
alerted the American public about “those peculiar and wild children of Europe
and of China to whom the name ‘wolf children’ has been given. They have
known no parental authority; they run in packs like wolves; they lack all moral
sense and have no civilized values and know no sexual restrictions; they know
no laws save the law of self-preservation.”4 Such words were often meant to
open the pocketbooks of donors, but they also reflected a widespread consensus that the Second World War had destroyed the family as completely as it
had Europe’s train tracks, factories, bridges, and roads. The concepts of both
family and nation in twentieth-century Europe were redefined through experiences and perceptions of mass displacement, as postwar visions of stable
families, democracies, and nations often crystallized in opposition to the
perceived instability, immorality, and dysfunction of Europe’s refugees and
Numbers alone confirmed a grim picture: UNESCO (the United Nations’
Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), founded in 1945, estimated that 8 million children in Germany, 6.5 million children in the Soviet
Union, and 1.3 million children in France remained homeless in 1946. In the
summer of 1945, infant mortality was double the prewar rate in France and
nearly four times the prewar rate in Vienna. In Czechoslovakia in 1947, 35
percent of children under age eighteen suffered from tuberculosis. An estimated 13 million children in Europe had lost one or both parents in the war.
Thérèse Brosse, writing for UNESCO, claimed that 60 million Europeans
were still malnourished in 1950.5
New international humanitarian organizations took a leading role in the
postwar campaign to salvage Europe’s children and youths. The activism of
For memoirs of such experiences, see Susan T. Pettiss with Lynn Taylor, After the
Shooting Stopped: The Story of an UNRRA Welfare Worker in Germany, 1945– 47
(Victoria, 2004); Kathryn Hulme, The Wild Place (Boston, 1953); Margaret McNeill,
By the Rivers of Babylon: A Story of Relief Work among the Displaced Persons of
Europe (London, 1950); Ernst Papanek’s diary of his tour of Europe in 1946 in
Papanek Europe Tour, F-13, Ernst Papanek Collection, International Institute for
Social History (IISH), Amsterdam; and the unpublished memoir of Aleta Brownlee,
“Whose Children?” box 9, Aleta Brownlee Papers, Hoover Archive, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.
4 Alice Bailey, The Problems of the Children in the World Today: Essentials of Post
War Education (New York, 1946), 9 –10.
5 For statistics see Thérèse Brosse, War-Handicapped Children: Report on the
European Situation (Paris, 1950); Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945
(New York, 2005), 22.
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social workers in the United Nations’ Relief and Rehabilitation Agency
(UNRRA, 1945– 47) and its successor, the IRO (1947–51) in DP camps offers
a glimpse of the ideals and conflicts that shaped both the mission to rehabilitate displaced children and a broader campaign to rehabilitate Europe after
World War II. In September 1945, UNRRA and other allied agencies were
charged with housing, feeding, clothing, and repatriating over 6 million DPs
in Europe, including at least 20,000 unaccompanied children.6 This represented only a small portion of the total number of Europeans on the move, as
it does not include the 7 million Allied DPs in the Soviet zones of Germany
and Austria or the 12–13 million Germans who either fled or were expelled
from Eastern Europe.7
The project of rehabilitating displaced children was not understood simply
in terms of providing shelter and preventing starvation and disease, although
these were formidable tasks. In a shift from earlier efforts, postwar humanitarian activists saw themselves as agents of individual psychological reconstruction and rehabilitation. “It is time to do something beyond giving food.
The girls who come here weighing 62 lbs must be fattened up, but they must
also see something which is worth fattening up for,” noted Austrian psychologist and émigré Ernst Papanek in 1946.8 In June of 1945, UNRRA itself
proclaimed, “The United Nations Administration is concerned not only with
relief—that is with the provision of material needs— but also with rehabilitation—that is with the amelioration of psychological suffering and dislocation. For men do not live by bread alone.”9
Many of the social workers who volunteered to work with UNRRA and the
6 It is difficult to estimate precisely the number of unaccompanied children in
postwar Europe. As of June 30, 1947, UNRRA and the Preparatory Commission,
International Refugee Organization had handled 22,058 cases of unaccompanied children in the American, British, and French zones of Austria and Germany. See Office
of Statistics and Operational Reports, Unaccompanied Children in Austria and Germany, April 29, 1948, 43/AJ/604, AN. Another 6,000 unaccompanied children were
repatriated or resettled by the IRO between 1948 and 1951. These numbers do not
include German expellee children. Among the German expellees in the Federal
Republic of Germany in 1950, 1,832,725 were children under age fourteen. See
Jacques Vernant, The Refugee in the Postwar World (New Haven, CT, 1953), 101,
For numbers, see Michael Marrus, The Unwanted: European Refugees in the
Twentieth Century (New York, 1985), 297–99. While the situation in Asia is beyond
the scope of this essay, the Chinese National Relief and Rehabilitation Association
reported that it had provided assistance to 1 million refugees by 1947. For the number
of Chinese refugees, see Eugene M. Kulischer, Displaced Persons in the Modern
World (Philadelphia, 1949), 169.
8 Monnetier, June 2, 1946, Papanek Europe Tour, F-13, Ernst Papanek Collection,
9 UNRRA, “Psychological Problems of Displaced Persons,” June 1945, JRU Cooperation with Other Relief Organizations, Wiener Library, 1.
IRO were British and American women. Out of 12,889 UNRRA personnel in
December 1946, 37 percent were American, 34 percent were British, and 44
percent were women.10 In the laboratory of DP camps and children’s homes
in Europe, these humanitarian workers elaborated new ideas about child
development and human nature based on their observation of children displaced by war and racial persecution. Through this work, they typically sought
and found confirmation of a set of universalist psychoanalytic principles.11
Specifically, a new concept of trauma developed during the Second World
War, focused on the separation of family members as much as experiences of
physical violence.12 The story of humanitarian activism around refugee children after the Second World War thus contributes to a growing effort to
historicize the concept of trauma, as well as ideals of children’s “best interests” that are often invoked as universal human truths.13
At first glance, the United Nations’ efforts to rehabilitate refugee children
seem to reflect a familiar story of postwar Americanization in Europe. British
and American social workers employed by UNRRA and the IRO sought to
apply and disseminate the individualist, psychoanalytic, and familialist visions
that dominated child welfare in England and the United States at the time.
Recent accounts of democratization and human rights in postwar Europe have
typically portrayed World War II as a watershed moment in the advancement
10 George Woodbridge, UNRRA: The History of the United Nations Relief and
Rehabilitation Administration (New York, 1950), 417, 418.
11 For a helpful overview of American psychoanalysis in the 1940s (and tensions
within the psychoanalytic community), see Rebecca Jo Plant, “Willian Menninger’s
Campaign to Reform American Psychoanalysis, 1946 – 48,” History of Psychiatry 16,
no. 2 (2005): 181–202, and “The Veteran, His Wife, and Their Mothers: Prescriptions
for Psychological Rehabilitation after World War II,” in Tales of the Great American
Victory: World War II in Politics and Poetics, ed. Diederik Oostdijk and Markha G.
Valenta (Amsterdam, 2006), 95–100. On British psychoanalysis, see Laura Lee
Downs, “A ‘Very British’ Revolution? L’évacuation des enfants urbains vers les
campagnes anglaises, 1939 –1945,” Vingtième siècle 89 (2006): 47– 60; Denise Riley,
War in the Nursery: Theories of the Child and the Mother (London, 1983). For other
work historicizing theories of child development, see Larry Wolff, Postcards from the
Edge of the World: Child Abuse in Freud’s Vienna (New York, 1988); Carolyn
Steedman, Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority (Cambridge, MA, 1993); John R. Morss, The Biologizing of Childhood (New York, 1990);
Erica Burman, Deconstructing Social Psychology (London, 1994).
Nicholas Stargardt historicizes the notion of trauma and focuses on the agency of
children in his recent work on children during the Second World War. See Nicholas
Stargardt, “Children’s Art of the Holocaust,” Past and Present 161, no. 1 (1998):
191–235, and Witnesses of War: Children’s Lives under the Nazis (London, 2005).
13 On the general challenge of historicizing childhood, see Ludmilla Jordanova,
“New Worlds for Children in the 18th Century: Problems of Historical Interpretation,”
History of the Human Sciences 3, no. 1 (1990): 69 – 83.
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of liberal, individualist values in Western Europe.14 In response to the Nazi
threat, historians have argued, liberal democracy, free markets, consumerism,
and human rights triumphed over the more collectivist values and totalizing
ideologies of interwar nationalist and fascist movements.15
At the same time, however, historians of refugees and displacement have
typically emphasized the extent to which DPs, especially Jews and East
Europeans, themselves organized along nationalist lines after World War II.16
As Hannah Arendt observed in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “Not a single
group of refugees or Displaced Persons has failed to develop a fierce, violent,
14 On the triumph of individualism in postwar West European politics and human
rights activism, see Judt, Postwar, 564 – 65; Paul Lauren, The Evolution of International Human Rights (Philadelphia, 1996); Mark Mazower, “The Strange Triumph of
Human Rights, 1933–1950,” Historical Journal 47, no. 2 (2004): 386 – 88; A. W. Brian
Simpson, Human Rights and the End of Empire: Britain and the Genesis of the
European Convention (Oxford, 2001), 157–220; Elizabeth Borgwardt, A New Deal for
the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights (Cambridge, MA, 2005), 59; Mark
Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (New York, 1998), 191; Mark
Roseman, “The Organic Society and the Massenmenschen: Integrating Young Labor
in the Ruhr Mines, 1945– 48,” in West Germany under Reconstruction: Politics,
Culture, and Society in the Adenauer Era, ed. Robert Moeller (Ann Arbor, MI, 1997),
15 For a recent challenge to this narrative, see Mary Nolan, “Utopian Visions in a
Post Utopian Era: Human Rights, Americanism, Market Fundamentalism,” keynote
address for conference “Utopia, Gender, and Human Rights,” Vienna, December
12–15, 2007. Historians of Germany have also challenged this Stunde Null argument,
tracing continuities between Nazi and postwar German society. For an overview of the
Stunde Null narrative in historiography on Germany, see Robert Moeller, “Introduction: Writing the History of West Germany,” in his West Germany under Reconstruction, 6 –30.
Anna Holian, by contrast, stresses the “formation of communities of interest along
political rather than national lines” among DPs in her 2005 dissertation. See Holian,
“Between National Socialism and Soviet Communism: The Politics of SelfRepresentation among Displaced Persons in Munich, 1945–51” (PhD diss., University
of Chicago, 2005), 10. For more on the “nationalization” of DPs and refugees, see
Gerard Daniel Cohen, “The Politics of Recognition: Jewish Refugees in Relief Polices
and Human Rights Debates, 1945–50,” Immigrants and Minorities 24, no. 2 (July
2006): 125– 43; Dan Diner, “Elemente des Subjektwerdung: Jüdische DPs in historischen Kontext,” in Jahrbuch 1997 zur Geschichte und Wirkung des Holocaust, ed.
Jacqueline Giere, Hanno Loewy, Werner Renz, and Irmtrud Wojak (Frankfurt, 1997),
229 – 48; Pamela Ballinger, “Borders of the Nation, Borders of Citizenship: Repatriation and the Definition of National Identity after World War I,” Comparative Studies
in Society and History 49 (2007): 713– 41; Wolfgang Jacobmeyer, Vom Zwangsarbeiter zum Heimatlösen Ausländer: Die Displaced Persons in Westdeutschland,
1945–51 (Göttingen, 1985); Zeev W. Mankowitz, Life between Memory and Hope:
The Survivors of the Holocaust in Occupied Germany (New York, 2002); Liisa
Malkki, Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology among Hutu
Refugees in Tanzania (Chicago, 1995).
group consciousness and to clamor for rights as—and only as—Poles or Jews
or Germans, etc.”17 In particular, historians of displacement have shown how
the experience of the war and camp life often encouraged nationalist and
Zionist loyalties among DPs. The very status of DPs, after all, was dependent
on nationality. Citizens of ex-enemy nations (such as Volksdeutsche) were
excluded from DP status, and anyone labeled a Soviet citizen faced the
possibility of forced repatriation. UNRRA and the IRO also organized DP
camps along national lines in order to facilitate repatriation and avoid conflicts. In the process, they contributed to the nationalization of DPs through
their own practices of national classification and segregation.18
How can we make sense of the messy entanglement of individualist,
familialist, and nationalist rhetoric in postwar humanitarian and human rights
activism? This article suggests that many UNRRA and IRO social workers
themselves gradually came to emphasize the importance of collectivist and
nationalist claims on children through their work with DP children. These
claims, moreover, were rooted in Zionist, nationalist, and Socialist traditions
dating back to the late nineteenth century in Central and Eastern Europe.19
New ideals of human rights and democracy in Europe and in emerging
international organizations were therefore not simply imposed from above by
Allied occupation authorities and humanitarian organizations: they were informed by long-standing local nationalist traditions and pedagogical practices
in Central and Eastern Europe.
The social workers employed by UNRRA and the IRO saw themselves as
agents of democratization and human rights. These terms, however, carried
different meanings in the immediate postwar era than they do today. Although
post–World War II humanitarian activists touted both individualist and internationalist values, they viewed two collectives, the nation and the family, as
essential sources of individual identity and agency. UN workers therefore
sought to rehabilitate European youths through a particular kind of identity
politics, which entailed both the reunification of biological families and the
renationalization and repatriation of children uprooted and allegedly denationalized by the Nazi war machine. For Jewish children in particular, however, the claims of nation (Zionism) and family (surviving relatives) often
competed or conflicted, provoking fierce debates within and among humanitarian organizations, Jewish agencies, and DPs. UNRRA and Jewish agencies
thus competed for authority over surviving Jewish children, while Jewish
agencies themselves, such as the American Joint Distribution Committee and
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York, 1951), 292.
Holian, “Between National Socialism and Soviet Communism,” 50.
19 On children as nationalist property in East Central Europe before 1945, see Tara
Zahra, Kidnapped Souls: National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the
Bohemian Lands, 1900 –1948 (Ithaca, NY, 2008).
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the Jewish Agency for Palestine, clashed over precisely how and where the
best interests of surviving Jewish children might be served—through family
placement with surviving relatives or foster parents or through collective (and
nationalist) education in Palestine?20
The history of activism around refugee families thus reveals the collectivist
underpinnings of postwar humanitarianism and emerging ideals of democracy
and human rights in Europe, particularly as those rights were applied to
children. By focusing on individual psychological rehabilitation, UN workers
sought to uphold the individual “best interests” and “human rights” of their
clients. But there were no abstract “individuals” in postwar individualism. In
practice, humanitarian activists targeted refugees as children or adults, boys or
girls, Jews, Germans, Czechs, or Poles. They defined young refugees’ individual “best interests” in distinctly nationalist, gendered, and familialist terms.
In order to care for displaced children, humanitarian activists first had to
determine how to define a “child.” This was no simple task in the postwar
context. The war had shattered perceived boundaries between childhood and
adulthood. Adult refugees, for example, were persistently infantilized in the
rhetoric of humanitarian workers. A June 1945 manual for UNRRA workers
explicitly encouraged them to view the adult refugees and DPs in their charge
as “hurt children,” whose “need for affection is so great that neutrality is
interpreted as hostility. Such people’s demands become insatiable like a
greedy baby’s.”21 At the same time, actual children often seemed like or
pretended to be adults. Technically, the IRO considered anyone under age
seventeen to be a child. Many children and youths, however, had learned to lie
systematically about their ages for the sake of survival during the war. They
continued to do so in their encounters with postwar military officials and
humanitarian agencies, instrumentally crossing the line between childhood
and adulthood. Ernst Papanek noted with frustration in 1946 that he could
“never know how old a person really is. . . . They ‘adjust’ age to purpose—
when they believe children will go to Palestine first and they want to go, even
men with beards say they are fourteen or fifteen, a girl that looked like a
twenty-five-year-old said she was sixteen. When a worker doubted it, she said,
‘After all I suffered in the concentration camp, do you wonder I look older?’”22 In other circumstances DP youths inflated their ages. East European
20 Atina Grossmann, Jews, Germans, and Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied
Germany (Princeton, NJ, 2007), 193–94.
21 UNRRA, “Psychological Problems of Displaced Persons,” 4.
22 June 27, 1946, Bergen-Belsen, Papanek Europe Tour, F-13, Ernst Papanek Collection, IISH.
governments (Poland, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia) adamantly insisted
that any non-Jewish unaccompanied child under age seventeen be forcibly
repatriated. But many adolescents refused repatriation to the East in the hope
of settling abroad or on political, religious, or personal grounds. These
children either lied about their age or were forced to mark time in camps until
they reached age seventeen. Many IRO social workers condoned this practice,
maintaining that teenagers should have a say about their own future.23
Meanwhile, a startling gap emerged between the images of DP and refugee
children disseminated by the press and demographic realities in the immediate
postwar setting. Many displaced “children,” especially Jewish children, were
actually adolescents since the Nazis had efficiently murdered those unable to
work. But images of very young refugees circulated in the press and fundraising brochures, inspiring couples in the United States and elsewhere to
offer homes for adoption. They were often disappointed upon discovering that
blonde three-year-old girls were in short supply. Mrs. J. L. Young from
Galveston, Texas, thus wrote to the IRO in 1949 to request “two little girls
between the ages of four and ten. As for nationality I prefer French, Irish,
Scottish. I would prefer them to be of Protestant belief.”24 An American social
worker who sought foster placements for European Jewish children in the
United States remarked cynically, “When people learned that the children
were 1) not for adoption 2) predominantly boys 3) older children and 4) just
children, not geniuses, there was disappointment, and sometimes withdrawal
of the offer of a home.”25
The war itself also seemed to accelerate the transition from childhood to
adulthood, particularly among surviving Jewish youths.26 Years of malnourishment had robbed Jewish children of inches and pounds, and they often
appeared far younger than their ages. Most had also missed years of schooling.
But to social workers, surviving Jewish youths also seemed frighteningly
independent and mature. One French psychologist concluded, “Precocious
maturity, already favored on ethnic grounds, is particularly developed by the
lives of adventure they have led. Their heavy responsibilities, each holding the
lives of others in his hands, the familial obligations that fell on their young
shoulders, do not encourage them to sit on the school bench and play innocent
Policies Regarding Reestablishment of Children, April 25, 1949, 43/AJ/926, AN.
Letters to the IRO, 43/AJ/926, AN.
25 Elsa Castendyck, Director of research and special studies, Review of the
European-Jewish Children’s Aid, New York City (Washington, DC, December 1943),
45, folder 584, RG 249, YIVO, Center for Jewish History (CJH), New York.
26 On the confusing self-presentation of DP youths, see Grossmann, Jews, Germans,
and Allies, 150 –52, 157–59.
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games once liberation arrives.”27 Indeed, social workers frequently cited the
inability of refugee children to play as a symptom of the deep psychological
damage they had suffered under Nazi persecution.
These unchildlike children, humanitarian workers agreed, would require
intense rehabilitation to recover from their wartime experiences. They linked
psychological and moral rehabilitation, moreover, to the broader reconstruction of European democracy and stability. In 1950, Thérèse Brosse, writing
for the United Nations in a publication entitled War-Handicapped Children,
spoke of a precious opportunity to raise a new generation steeped in internationalist, universalist values: “We must act quickly if we are to take advantage
of the special opportunities of the post-war period, for if the international
aspirations of young people . . . do not find satisfaction in a healthy and
unrestricted universality, they may once more seek fulfillment in the limited
field of restrictive groups and yet again endanger the world’s equilibrium.”28
Another humanitarian organization, founded by Vera Stuart Alexander, raised
funds for a new Stateless Children’s Sanctuary in the West Indies. This
utopian project aimed to counter nationalism by granting refugee children UN
citizenship. The group’s fund-raising brochure proclaimed:
A group of men and women in this country are determined to bring into reality an
experiment in world citizenship as a means to prevent war; they believe that the
children, owning no allegiance to any nation, will be able to view all countries
objectively without prejudice. . . . The children have been the victims of a narrow
nationalism and we would have the United Nations grant them a passport subscribed
to and endorsed by all 55 nations so that they may work, travel freely, and settle
anywhere in the world. Having lost their birthright, the children would at least inherit
the earth.29
Individualism was even more central to the postwar rhetoric of reconstruction and democratization in Europe. Mark Mazower has observed that in
postwar Western Europe “the struggle against Hitler had revealed the importance of human and civil rights. In the legal and political sphere, in other
words, the trend was to reassert the primacy of the individual vis-à-vis the
state.”30 But this did not simply entail restricting the rights of the state to
infringe upon individual liberties. In the realm of education, it occasioned a
broader campaign to mold individuals capable of standing up to the state.
Alice Bailey’s appeal was typical in this respect. She proclaimed, “Let us
consider what can be done as soon as the war is over to rehabilitate the
27 S. Marcus Jeisler, “Réponse à l’enquête sur les effets psychologiques de la guerre
sur les enfants et jeunes en France,” Sauvegarde 8 (February 1947): 12.
28 Brosse, War-Handicapped Children, 96, 12.
29 “Children without a Country to Become World Citizens,” 43/AJ/597, AN.
30 Mazower, Dark Continent, 191.
children of the world. . . . Let us not overlook the foul education given by the
fascist nations . . . foul because it negates the rights of the individual and
exalts the state in the place of the free human spirit.”31
Strengthening European democracy, in the eyes of many postwar humanitarian activists, was not simply a matter of creating democratic institutions
and stable economies. It required transforming individual psychology. Not
surprisingly, humanitarian activists saw children as the natural starting point
for this reeducation. The Unitarian Service Committee (USC), a human rights
organization founded in 1940 in affiliation with the American Unitarian
Association, launched a Mental Health Program in postwar Germany aimed
explicitly at cultivating individualism among German children. Helen Fogg,
who directed the program, explained, “Children and young people growing to
adulthood in Germany . . . are, for the most part . . . growing up in the grip of
the very attitudes and patterns, the human and psychological climate, which
was a factor as powerful as the economic and political factors in the rise of a
totalitarian leader. This climate currently discourages faith in the individual
which is the strength of self-government.”32
A desire to strengthen the individual in postwar Europe stimulated broader
discussions about precisely where and how the individual was constituted.
While some reformers stressed free markets and others looked to constitutional and legal reforms, psychologists, social workers, and child welfare
activists turned specifically to the family as the locus of individual identity.
This focus on the family represented a shift in emphasis from pedagogical
methods in Europe between the wars. In the wake of the First World War, in
settings as diverse as France, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and
the Soviet Union, fears about juvenile delinquency, social crisis, and the
breakdown of the family had inspired utopian pedagogical experiments, most
of which took place in collective settings. While interwar reformers did not
seek to replace the family with collective education, they did typically advocate institutions to supplement and support the family.33 Nationalist and
Bailey, Problems of Children, 5.
USC Child and Youth Programs, Helen Fogg—Child Care Program Prospectus
1951, 2, bMS 16036-3, Unitarian Service Committee Archive (USCA), Andover
Theological Library (ATL), Cambridge, MA.
Elizabeth Harvey, Youth and the Welfare State in Weimar Germany (Oxford,
1994); Edward Ross Dickinson, The Politics of German Child Welfare from the
Empire to the Federal Republic (Cambridge, MA, 1996); Detlev Peukert, Grenzen der
Sozialdisciplinierung: Aufstieg und Krise der deutschen Jugendfürsorge von 1878 bis
1932 (Cologne, 1986); Dorena Caroli, L’enfance abandonnée et délinquante dans la
Russie Soviétique, 1917–1937 (Paris, 2004); Lisa Kirschenbaum, Small Comrades:
Revolutionizing Childhood in Soviet Russia, 1917–1932 (New York, 2001); Maria
Quine, Italy’s Social Revolution: Charity and Welfare from Liberalism to Fascism
(New York, 2002); Laura Lee Downs, Childhood in the Promised Land: Working32
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collectivist priorities also dominated social policy in interwar Europe, as
politicians and social welfare experts across the continent sought to increase
the quantity and racial “quality” of children through biopolitics and eugenics
and to mobilize youths in new mass political movements.34 After the Second
World War, however, many humanitarian and political activists linked practices of politicized, collective education with totalitarianism and championed
education in the family in the name of democratization and human rights.
They conflated the individual, the family, and democracy in several ways.
First, in Europe during and after the Second World War, antifascists widely
depicted the evil of Nazism in terms of an attack on both the individual and
the family. Anti-Communists after the war continued the tradition, linking
Nazism and Communism through their alleged destruction of the private
sphere.35 In 1938, Erika Mann, Thomas Mann’s daughter, published an exposé
of educational methods in Nazi Germany entitled School for Barbarians. “The
break-up of the family is no by-product of the Nazi dictatorship, but part of the
job which the regime had to do if it meant to reach its aim—the conquest of
the world. If the world is to go to the Nazis, the German people must first
belong to them. And for that to be true, they can’t belong to anyone else—
neither God, nor their families, nor themselves,” she wrote.36 If the Nazis had
subverted family unity, reconstructing traditional family life after World War
II represented both denazification and democratization.37 In the realm of
Class Movements and the Colonies de Vacances in France, 1880 –1960 (Durham, NC,
2002); Zahra, Kidnapped Souls.
34 On interwar eugenics in Europe, see Atina Grossmann, Reforming Sex: The
German Movement for Birth Control and Abortion Reform, 1920 –1950 (New York,
1997); Paul Weindling and M. Turda, eds., “Blood and Homeland”: Eugenics and
Racial Nationalism in Central and Southeast Europe, 1900 –1940 (Budapest, 2006);
Maria Bucur, Eugenics and Modernization in Interwar Romania (Pittsburgh, 2002).
For examples of this rhetoric, see Bundesministerium für Gesamtdeutschen Fragen, Deutsche Kinder in Stalins Hand (Bonn, 1951), 78; Ernst Tillich, “Die psychologische Entwicklung und die psychologische Führung der Menschen hinter dem
Eisernen Vorhang,” in Die Jugend der Sowjetzone in Deutschland, ed. Kampfgruppe
gegen Unmenschlichkeit (Berlin, 1955); Käte Fiedler, “Der Ideologische Drill der
Jugend in der Sowjetzone,” in Die Jugend der Sowjetzone, 36; Hans Köhler, “Erziehung zur Unfreiheit,” in Die Jugend der Sowjetzone; Arbeits und Sozialminister des
Landes Nordheim-Westfallen, Jugend Zwischen Ost und West (Nordheim-Westfallen,
1955), 60.
Erika Mann, School for Barbarians (New York, 1938), 29.
37 On the place of the family in the reconstruction of postwar Europe, see Robert
Moeller, Protecting Motherhood: Women and the Politics of Postwar West Germany
(Berkeley, 1993), and War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal
Republic of Germany (Berkeley, 2001); Erica Carter, How German Is She? Postwar
West German Reconstruction and the Consuming Woman (Ann Arbor, MI, 1997);
collective memory, antifascists linked Nazism and the destruction of family
unity in the popular trope of the child informant. Rumors of child informants
powerfully represented the alleged Nazi destruction of the private sphere, the
totalitarian quality of Nazi pedagogy, and the ironic reversals in power in
occupied society. French psychologist Alfred Brauner claimed in 1946 that
brainwashed German children had “denounced, if required, their father, who
remained loyal to his old political party, and their mother, who preferred to
believe the priest rather than the Führer. They are the youth who blindly
executed all orders and were prepared for this voluntary submission since their
earliest childhood.”38
The family and the individual were also tightly linked in emerging theories
of child development. Psychoanalysis in particular located the formation of
the individual self in emotional relationships between parents and children.
For the psychoanalytically informed social workers in UNRRA and the IRO
in the late 1940s, the family seemed to be the sole institution capable of
raising children to be healthy individuals. Finally, postwar pedagogical activists were also informed by a deeper liberal tradition, which positioned the
family, in opposition to the state, as the bedrock of civil society, a private
realm in which rational male citizens should be free to exercise their authority
over their “irrational” dependents (women and children), unbridled by state
interference. Restoring (male) sovereignty over the so-called private sphere
was implicitly linked to the reconstruction of civil society and democracy
itself in Europe.39 Humanitarian workers in Western Europe thus depicted
strengthening the family as a means of cultivating individualism and as an
antidote to the threat of fascism and Communism in postwar Europe. They
depicted the family as an apolitical sanctuary that represented a postwar
“return to normality.”40
Elizabeth Heinemann, What Difference Does a Husband Make? Marital Status in
Germany, 1933–1961 (Berkeley, 1999); Dagmar Herzog, Sex after Fascism: Memory
and Morality in Twentieth Century Germany (Princeton, NJ, 2005); Heide Fehrenbach,
Race after Hitler: Black Occupation Children in Postwar Germany and America
(Princeton, NJ, 2005)
Alfred Brauner, Ces enfants ont vécu la guerre (Paris, 1946), 182.
On the relationship between imagined public and private spheres and citizenship
in liberal and republican thought, see Isabel Hull, Sexuality, State, and Civil Society in
Germany, 1700 –1815 (Ithaca, NY, 1996); Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Palo
Alto, CA, 1988); Joan Landes, Women and the Public Sphere in the Age of the French
Revolution (Ithaca, NY, 1988). For a discussion of the uses of the public/private divide
in gender history and historiography, see the forum “Women’s History in the New
Millenium: Rethinking Public and Private,” Journal of Women’s History 15, no. 1
(2003): 11– 69.
40 On the “return to normality,” see Richard Bessel and Dirk Schumann, eds., Life
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The scramble for a “return to normality” through family life was not simply
imposed from above by politicians, social scientists, and humanitarian activists. Many DPs themselves looked to marriage, the family, and child rearing
as a means of reconstructing their social and emotional lives after the war.
Reporting on displaced youths at the International Children’s Center in Prien,
Germany, Jean Henshaw of UNRRA observed, “In many instances the insecurity of youth and their compelling need for family and the security of human
relationships finds expression in the wholesome relationships of early marriage.”41 French social worker Charlotte Helman recalled an “explosion of
life” among liberated Jews in Bergen-Belsen in the summer of 1945, where
“many young girls of fourteen or sixteen years were pregnant, posing a
problem within the camp.”42 Atina Grossmann has argued that this Jewish
baby boom represented a form of personal agency and the affirmation of life
in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Bearing children on German territory, in
German hospitals, she argues, may have even constituted a gendered form of
In an expression of familialist and individualist values UN social workers
pledged to uphold the “best interests of the child” as the guiding principle of
child welfare in occupied Germany. They represented this principle itself as a
repudiation of Nazi values. Focusing on the interests of individual children
implied a rejection of other possible criteria for making social welfare decisions, such as the best interests of the national collective or the goal of
creating a master race. Other American humanitarian organizations also
linked the principle of “best interests” with a rejection of Nazi racism. The
USC, for example, depicted its “mental health approach” to social work as an
antidote to the Nazi racism and eugenics. Gunnar Dybwad explained in a 1951
USC pamphlet, “In reading German case records or talking with children’s
workers, one invariably encounters the term Anlage, an inherited trait or
quality. Laziness, lying, stealing, and sex misconduct are all readily explained
as due to the child’s Anlage. With such overemphasis on biological factors
there is a corresponding underemphasis on emotional values and interpersonal
relationships. Criminality on the part of an uncle seems to be to the German
after Death: Approaches to a Cultural and Social History of Europe during the 1940s
and 1950s (New York, 2003).
Report on International Children’s Center, Prien, from Mrs. Jean Henshaw to
Cornelia Heise, April 28, 1947, S-0437-0012, United Nations Archive (UNA), New
42 Charlotte Helman, “La rapatriement des enfants de Bergen-Belsen,” in La libération des camps et le retour des déporteés, ed. Marie-Anne Matard-Bonucci and
Edouard Lynch (Paris, 1995), 157.
43 Grossmann, Jews, Germans, and Allies, 184 –236.
social worker of greater significance than the quality of the emotional ties
between child and parents.”44
Organizations such as the USC thereby linked psychoanalytic methods to
universalist and individualist ideals and to the reconstruction of democracy in
Europe. In 1949, Clemens Benda, a German émigré and Harvard psychiatrist
working with the USC, called for nothing less than a “psychological Marshall
Plan” in Germany.45 Helen Fogg, who led the USC’s Child and Youth
Programs division, elaborated in a 1951 memo that in postwar Germany,
“authoritarian attitudes and procedures . . . still dominate much of family life,
education at all levels, institutions for children and young people, youth group
work, social work agencies, and society as a whole despite the frequent
sincere assertions of many Germans that ‘democracy’ is something they
want.”46 “Modern” psychotherapy, based on psychoanalytic principles, promised to eradicate both children’s psychological scars and lingering racist and
antidemocratic attitudes in German society. The USC promoted these methods
through a series of summer workshops held in a castle outside of Berlin
between 1949 and 1953 for German social welfare professionals.
Psychoanalysis and Unitarianism may seem like strange bedfellows. But
Unitarians, like UNRRA workers, explicitly stressed the universalist assumptions at the heart of psychoanalytic principles, claiming to transcend divisions
of social class, state borders, language, and culture. Fogg reported that the
Germans who attended the USC workshops initially greeted their American
colleagues with skepticism. How could well-off Americans possibly understand the challenges confronted by Germany’s economically and socially
devastated families and communities? Soon enough, however, “doubt and
rejection lost out through discussion . . . of basic human needs and of the
psychological development of personality, through which it became clear that
the problems being discussed were neither exclusively German nor exclusively American problems. They were not at all restricted to one nation or the
other, but are rather fundamental problems all over the world.”47 UNRRA
workers echoed these universalist themes. “National groups differ in the stress
they lay on various strivings or failings,” explained a 1945 UNRRA report on
the psychological consequences of displacement. “Nevertheless, the main
Gunnar Dybwad, “Child Care in Germany,” Unitarian Service Committee Pamphlet, 1951, Helen Fogg: Germany—Institutes, Printed Matter, 1949 –59, bMS
16036-4, USCA, ATL.
Frances Burns, “Germans Say War Didn’t Upset Their Nerves, but Blood Pressure and Ulcers Contradict Them,” Boston Daily Globe, October 1, 1949, Helen Fogg:
Germany—Institutes, Printed Matter, 1949 –59, bMS 16036-4, USCA, ATL.
46 Helen Fogg—Child Care Program, prospectus 1951, 1, bMS 16036-3, USCA,
47 USC Child and Youth Programs, Helen Fogg—Germany, Institute 1950, Report
no. 2, bMS 16036-4, USCA, ATL.
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attributes of human personality— conscience and guilt, love and hate, rivalry
and friendship, self-esteem and inferiority—are found to be surprisingly
constant. Those attributes are hammered out in the experimental workshop of
the family.”48
Even within a universalist psychoanalytic framework, however, the meaning of children’s individual best interests was far from transparent. Among
UNRRA and IRO social workers, these interests were typically defined in
terms of the reunification of biological families and the repatriation of displaced children to their nations of origin, with family reunification taking
precedence over repatriation when the two conflicted. The principle of family
reunification was buttressed and popularized by the widely cited research of
psychoanalyst Anna Freud (Sigmund’s daughter) and Dorothy T. Burlingham
on young children evacuated from London during the war. Freud and Burlingham concluded that while the evacuated children may have been safer from
the threats of bombs, infections, malnourishment, and neglect than those who
remained in London, “all of the improvements in the child’s life may dwindle
down to nothing when weighed against the fact that it has to leave the family
to get them.”49 These principles, which formed the basis of ego psychology,
found practical application almost immediately in UNRRA’s DP camps after
the Second World War. Following Freud and Burlingham, Thérèse Brosse
argued in 1946 that the so-called trauma of war for children was not the
consequence of violence and hunger. Rather, children were traumatized above
all by separation from their mothers. “It is not the actual events of war, such
as bombardment and military operations, which have affected these children
emotionally, with their love of adventure and their interest in destruction and
movement,” she argued. “What does affect a child is the influence of events
on emotional ties in the family . . . and above all, the sudden loss of mother.”50
It is important to keep in mind that UNRRA and IRO social workers were not
actually trained psychoanalysts. Rather, psychoanalytic ideas informed work
with displaced children through a vague emphasis on the importance of early
childhood experiences and maternal attachment in the development of adult
personality. As a matter of policy, this meant that UNRRA and the IRO
generally privileged foster care (family placement) over collective placement
for abandoned or orphaned children. In the words of Dorothy Macardle,
“Educational psychologists are very generally in accord with Dr. Anna Freud
UNRRA, “Psychological Problems of Displaced Persons,” 2.
Anna Freud and Dorothy T. Burlingham, War and Children (London, 1943), 45.
50 Brosse, War-Handicapped Children, 12, 24. For a comparative discussion of the
wartime evacuations in Britain and France, see Laura Lee Downs, “Milieu Social or
Milieu Familial? Theories and Practices of Childrearing among the Popular Classes in
20th Century France and Britain: The Case of Evacuation (1939 –1945),” Family and
Community History 8 (2005): 49 – 66.
in the conclusion she has expressed repeatedly; that for little children even a
mediocre family home is better than the best of communal nurseries.”51
The familialist ideals of psychoanalytic social work were not uncontested in
postwar Europe. They frequently conflicted with the more collectivist orientation of continental European politicians and pedagogues. Familialist solutions also posed particular problems for Jewish children, who often had no
family to return to.52 These conflicts were forcefully expressed in the work and
writings of Ernst Papanek, an Austrian Socialist and Adlerian psychologist
who directed homes for Jewish refugee children run by the Oeuvre de Secours
aux Enfants (OSE) in France during World War II. After the war he also led
the USC’s efforts on behalf of displaced children in Europe. While Anna
Freud typically portrayed the separation of children from their mothers as a
universal recipe for psychological dysfunction, Papanek argued that particularly for Jewish refugees, the collectivity of the children’s homes offered
newfound security and comfort:
The children described by Anna Freud had . . . never experienced dangerous situations
in which they could not rely on their parents and find help and shelter with them. Child
refugees from Nazi persecution presented a quite different picture. . . . The refugee
children in our homes in France . . . had left behind them families that in hours of
danger had been unable to offer them any protection or security. Certainly the
separation of these children from parents in such a tragic situation could not leave them
with a sense of lost security, or lost protectedness or shelter. These children felt rather
that they had now come to an environment less terrifying, more capable of managing
its problems—and consequently more protecting.53
Papanek was not motivated by political, Zionist, or nationalist goals.
Rather, he was convinced that because Jewish children had been persecuted as
members of a group, they required a therapeutic community of peers who had
Dorothy Macardle, Children of Europe: A Study of the Children of Liberated
Countries, Their Wartime Experiences, Their Reactions, and Their Needs (Boston,
1951), 270. For a similar statement by an IRO officer, see Short Memorandum on
Overseas Settlement of Children, 43/AJ/45, AN.
For more on debates over familist and collectivist solutions for Jewish children
and youths, see Daniella Doron, “In the Best Interest of the Child: Family, Youth, and
Identity in Postwar France, 1944 –1954” (PhD diss., New York University, 2009);
Avinoam Patt, “Finding Home and Homeland: Jewish Youth Groups in the Aftermath
of the Holocaust” (PhD diss., New York University, 2005).
53 Ernst Papanek, “The Child as Refugee: My Experiences with Fugitive Children in
Europe,” Nervous Child 2, no. 4 (1943): 302, folder Ernst Papanek, Ernst Papanek
Collection, IISH.
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undergone similar traumas in order to recover from their experiences. He
therefore challenged the universalist underpinning of psychoanalytic theories,
insisting on the distinctive needs of Jewish refugees. “Group treatment is
always indicated where mass neurosis has been created by a trauma suffered
by many in common with many,” he maintained.54 “It will not be sufficient to
place the refugee child in a nice, decent, family home. More than any other
child, he must gain anew the feeling that he is accepted, that he is a member
of a group.”55
At a deeper level, these views reflected Papanek’s training as an Adlerian
psychologist and the influence of the collectivist, Socialist traditions of the
interwar Austrian education reform movement. Papanek belonged to the
second generation of the Austro-Marxist pedagogical reform movement,
which had begun with Karl Seitz’s Freie Schule movement in turn-of-thecentury Vienna. Seitz and his followers struggled against clerical and Christian Social influences in the Austrian public school system. The movement
continued in the First Republic, animated by Socialist reform pedagogue Otto
Glöckel. Individualist and collectivist ideals were interdependent in the pedagogical visions and psychological theories of these reformers. They saw
schooling and other collective forms of education as a means by which to
educate emancipated, rational individuals with strong “personalities” who
would be capable of engaging in the class struggle and standing up to the
traditional enemies of Austrian Social Democrats, such as the Catholic Church
and Christian Socialists.56
Alfred Adler’s “individual psychology” was highly influential among these
reformers, particularly within the school reform movement and in new citysponsored child guidance clinics in interwar Austria. Adler, an Austrian
psychologist, rejected the biological underpinning of Freud’s theories of the
self, with their insistence on natural instincts and drives, instead stressing the
role of the environment and community in shaping human personality. In
contrast to the Freudian view of society as an institution “whose authority we
fear and for which we have undertaken so many repressions,” Papanek
Ernst Papanek, “The Montmorency Period of the Child-Care Program of the
OSE,” in Fight for the Health of the Jewish People (50 Years of OSE) (New York,
1968), 119. For an earlier elaboration of this theory, see Ernst Papanek, “Jewish Youth
in a World of Persecution and War,” unpublished essay, 1945, folder D13, Ernst
Papanek Collection, IISH.
Papanek, “Child as Refugee,” 307.
On individualism and collectivism in the Austrian school reform movement, see
John Boyer, Culture and Political Crisis in Vienna (Chicago, 1995), 46 –55, 174 – 86;
Malachi Hacohen, Karl Popper—the Formative Years, 1902–1945; Politics and Philosophy in Interwar Vienna (Cambridge, 2000), 107–16; Josef Weidenholzer, Auf dem
Weg zum “Neuen Menschen”: Bildungs und Kulturarbeit der österreichischen Sozialdemokratie in der Ersten Republik (Vienna, 1981), 66 – 81.
explained, the Adlerian school held that “only the community can make a
human being out of an organism. . . . What kind of human being one becomes
is not biologically predestined.”57
Papanek fled to the United States in 1940. There he discovered that his
communitarian orientation clashed with the psychoanalytic approaches favored by American social workers. His proposals for establishing children’s
homes in the United States were flatly rejected in favor of placing refugee
children with foster parents.58 He recalled a 1942 lecture at the New York
School of Social Work where he was savagely attacked. “I wasn’t aware that
the word institution had such an unfortunate connotation in this country—
probably because it brought to mind the word institutionalization, a word
which had no counterpart in Europe. ‘This is not the American way!’ they
shouted at me. In America, children were sent to institutions only as a
punishment or because of a conspicuous inability to cope with life on the
outside. . . . The home is the only sacred institution in America. I should have
understood that.”59
Meanwhile, in 1943 Papanek conducted extensive research with child
refugees from Europe and attempted to survey their own attitudes toward their
fresh experiences of separation and collective education. It is hardly surprising
that many of the children, mostly Jewish refugees, expressed feelings of pain,
homesickness, and anxiety about their families’ safety and about their separation from their parents. A surprising number, however, were positive about
their experiences of emigration and collective education, which they described
as an adventure. In response to the question “How did you feel when you left
your home country?” one sixteen-year-old Austrian boy wrote, “I felt curious
as to what the rest of the world was like. I was rather glad that we had to leave,
because I thought were it not for Hitler’s invasion, I would never have been
able to see the world.” A fifteen-year-old girl likewise responded, “My first
taste of freedom intoxicated me.” Many refugee children also praised the
solidarity they had experienced in children’s homes. “What I like is that no
differences are made. . . . Everybody rises at the same time in the morning;
everybody eats the same food; whether one is rich or poor, that is the same.
And I love to be among other children,” explained an eleven-year-old Aus57
Ernst Papanek, “Contributions of Individual Psychology to Social Work,” American Journal of Individual Psychology 11, no. 2 (1955): 146.
Out of 870 unaccompanied children officially sponsored by the U.S. government
through the U.S. Commission for the Care of European Children in 1941, 801 were
placed in foster homes and only 69 in group care. See Elsa Castendyck, “Origin and
Services of the United States Commission for the Care of European Children,” Child
6 (July 1941): 6, box 1, bMS 16029, USCA, ATL.
59 Ernst Papanek with Edward Linn, Out of the Fire (New York, 1975), 221–22.
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trian girl. An eighteen-year-old German simply insisted, “Every child should
be in an institution for some period!”60
In the United States, meanwhile, social workers working with refugee
children reported stubborn resistance to their “individualist” methods. In
1948, Deborah Portnoy, a field representative with European Jewish Children’s Aid (EJCA), which placed Jewish refugee children in American foster
homes, complained, “The case worker tries to individualize but the European
adolescents react as a group. They still retain their ‘herd’ psychology.”61 Her
observation reflects contemporary antisemitic stereotypes about Jewish “clannishness.” The EJCA also attempted to combat the alleged “herd” mentality of
Jewish refugee children and encourage assimilation by placing them outside
of New York (and away from other Jewish refugees), a policy that was not
popular with the children, who typically craved the community of fellow
refugees.62 Through trial and error, however, even the EJCA gradually concluded that Jewish children placed with relatives in the United States often
experienced a more difficult adjustment than those placed in collective homes
or with foster parents. “We know from all of these experiences that the mere
fact of relationship alone does not insure a happy placement,” observed one
American social worker in 1943. By 1948, the EJCA noted that a full
one-third to one-half of placements with relatives in the United States failed.63
Papanek was not the only critic of familialist solutions. East European DPs
themselves and Jewish agencies also expressed grave doubts about the restorative value of the family for refugee youths. While often motivated by
nationalist or political priorities, they also spoke in the new language of
psychological rehabilitation and individual best interests. In Munich in 1945,
Yugoslav leaders thus demanded that 1,000 displaced Yugoslav children in
the American zone of Germany be removed from their own parents in DP
camps and placed in special children’s camps. “These children have to live in
big common rooms, not only with their parents, but also with strangers, in
Papanek, “Child as Refugee,” 302.
Deborah Portnoy, The Adolescent Immigrant, May 1948, folder 585, RG 249,
Children in Kansas City were accused of complaining about the lack of kosher
food available there in order to get to New York, for example. See Kansas City
Agency, February 25, 1945, folder 43, RG 249, YIVO, CJH. See also letter from Lotte
Marcuse to Hanna Steiner (Jüdische Kultusgemeinde in Prague), March 25, 1940,
folder 305, RG 249, YIVO, CJH.
Memo to Mrs. Lillian Wexler, Re: Irene Epstein, 5 years old, born in France,
folder 563, RG 249, YIVO, CJH; Portnoy, Adolescent Immigrant. On similar problems
with family reunification and placement in Holland, see Diane Wolf, Beyond Anne
Frank: Hidden Children and Postwar Families in Holland (Berkeley, 2007). For more
on the experiences of Jewish refugee children in the United States, see Beth B. Cohen,
Case Closed: Holocaust Survivors in Postwar America (New Brunswick, NJ, 2007).
promiscuous company where couples are living in concubinage, where drinking and playing cards are the order of the day, as well as depravation, black
market activities, and eternal quarrels. . . . The only means of protecting our
youth against such a future consists in creating a camp, reserved for them,
where they could be educated physically, morally, and intellectually,” they
insisted.64 In response to the Yugoslav complaint, UNRRA child welfare
officer Eileen Davidson called for more parental responsibility: “Yugoslav
parents within the Assembly Centers should themselves accept the responsibility of bringing about a better atmosphere for their children. . . . A spirit of
self help must exist within the community.”65
East European nationalists may have preferred collective to familial education on political grounds, but the alleged lack of parental responsibility
among DPs was also a serious concern among UN humanitarian workers.
Hence, at the same time that they celebrated the abstract family as the key to
postwar rehabilitation, UN social workers were anxious about the ability of
actual displaced parents, especially mothers, to care for their children in
postwar conditions. Many UNRRA and IRO child care officers privately
worried that new international child welfare institutions actually facilitated
abandonment and neglect rather than family reunification and stability. For
example, caseworkers reported that many Polish children had been abandoned
after the war by their own mothers in DP camps or to German institutions or
families. “In the life of distress they [female DPs] have led in the past few
years, the maternal instinct has suffered a serious decline,” lamented IRO
Child Care Officer Yvonne de Jong in June of 1948.66 Child welfare officers
reported what they perceived to be alarming rates of illegitimacy, neglect, and
abandonment in the camps. “Isolated cases are met with in which the infant
has been put to death; more in which gross neglect, e.g. by starvation has
taken place and considerably more in which the child has been abandoned or
the mother has expressed the wish to divest herself of responsibility for him,”
an UNRRA worker reported in 1946.67
UN social workers did not, however, turn to collective education to support
or replace fragile refugee families. Instead, their concerns about the maternal
capabilities of DP women inspired gendered rehabilitation programs that
Complaint of Yugsolav Leaders, November 14, 1945, S-0437-0016, UNA. For
similar complaints from Hungarian DPs, see the report on the situation of refugee
youths in Austria, May 4, 1949, 43/AJ/600, AN.
Complaint from Yugoslav Leaders re the Unsatisfactory Surroundings of 1,000
Yugoslav Children in Assembly Centers, December 11, 1945, S-0437-0016, UNA.
66 Yvonne de Jong, Quels sont les principaux problèmes concernant les enfants
réfugiés? 43/AJ/599, AN. See also Statistics re: Children, Children Receiving Care and
Maintenance, March 19, 1949, 43/AJ/600, AN.
67 Current Problems Relating to Children in the German Field of Operations, April,
1946, 5, S-401-3-10, UNA.
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focused specifically on cultivating homemaking skills among refugee girls and
women in order to strengthen the family. These programs stemmed from the
widespread conviction that women’s wartime experiences in camps, ghettos,
and barracks were not simply dehumanizing—they were also profoundly
defeminizing.68 To some observers, women’s experiences represented genderspecific forms of victimization and trauma. Others, however, represented
alleged defeminization in wartime camps and barracks as a threatening source
of social disorder. In either case, however, the recommended “treatment” was
the same: cultivating gender distinctions in the name of individual psychological and social rehabilitation.
The rehabilitation of displaced women often focused on the body. DP
women and the social workers who observed them often cited the lamentable
hygienic conditions and absence of privacy in wartime ghettos, camps, and
labor barracks as particularly degrading to women and girls. Concerned
authorities suggested that when women were forced to surrender the privacy
and cleanliness of their bodies during the war, they “let themselves go” down
a slippery slope that often culminated in the surrender of moral and sexual
virtue. “There are dirty women in the barracks. . . . They sleep in their dresses,
never wash, and the reason is that there are no towels, no soap, and no hot
water in the camp; the bathrooms are shared with Russian men, and morale is
very low,” reported one French factor worker in Germany to a French
government official in 1947. Shared sleeping quarters and the absence of
parental supervision encouraged the destruction of the family, French officials
worried, citing the testimony of another young factory worker in Berlin, who
reported, “The family is no longer useful. Men have concubines to satisfy their
desires, and children are raised in nurseries.”69 After the war, a French social
worker in Berlin claimed that a sensational decline in maternal instincts had
infected French women employed in Germany. “Maternal instinct among
some of these creatures is completely dead,” she despaired. “The sale of
children to the Germans is a frequent practice, and according to the latest
information, a child is worth 700 marks.”70
As early as 1944, international activists speculated that returning women
For more on gendered experiences of the Holocaust and displacement during
World War II and after, see Grossmann, Germans, Jews, and Allies; Gisela Bock, ed.,
Genozid und Geschlecht: Jüdische Frauen im nationalsozalistischen Lagersystem
(Frankfurt, 2005); Katherine R. Jolluck, “The Nation’s Pain and Women’s Shame:
Polish Women and Wartime Violence,” in Gender and War in Twentieth-Century
Eastern Europe, ed. Maria Bucur and Nancy M. Wingfield (Bloomington, IN, 2006),
193–219; Lisa Kirschenbaum, “The Alienated Body: Gender Identity and the Memory
of the Siege of Leningrad,” in Gender and War in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe,
220 –35.
69 Rapport sur la situation des Travailleuses en Allemagne, 9/F/3232, AN.
70 Rapport sur l’activité sociale du Gau Berlin vis à vis des femmes françaises
would require a gendered moral and psychological rehabilitation to redress
experiences of displacement. Within UNRRA, a special committee was
formed to plan for the distinct needs of repatriated women and girls. This
group linked the refeminization of returning female camp inmates and forced
laborers to a broader postwar struggle for democratization, insisting, “In some
important respects it will provide an opportunity to demonstrate the contrast
with Nazi philosophy which has not held women in high esteem.” Gendered
rehabilitation programs targeted both body and mind and explicitly sought to
cultivate women’s domestic skills. “In arrangements for housing, for the
preparation and serving of food, and for occupational activities it may be
possible to find many useful outlets for women’s domestic interests which will
have an important rehabilitative effect,” the report suggested. Women were
also to be rehabilitated from wartime trauma through liberal portions of butter
and fats, the distribution of sewing equipment and fabric, the application of
soap and makeup, and the provision of private sleeping quarters and toilets:
“The women’s quarters in assembly centers should provide as much individual and group privacy as facilities permit, with every incentive to stimulate
personal cleanliness and interest in personal appearance. . . . A simple workroom with facilities for sewing, mending, and pressing, and even primitive
facilities for hairdressing would be greatly appreciated by the women and girls
and would be of distinct value to those who are depressed or worried about the
future.”71 UNRRA implemented a similar program of gendered rehabilitation
in IRO children’s camps after the war, in response to alarming reports about
the poor domestic skills of young refugee girls. In 1948, IRO Child Care
Officer Vinita Lewis warned that girls in the Aglasterhausen Children’s Camp
in Germany were too selfish. They lacked the normal feminine instinct for
self-sacrifice, not to mention the basic housekeeping skills necessary for their
future as wives and mothers:
They have no opportunity to learn to give any attention to anyone but themselves. They
compensate for this by developing friendships with other girls of their age. That is very
good if it can be redirected to develop between two persons of the opposite sex,
because later it forms a good basis for a compatible marriage relationship. . . . Few of
the girls have had opportunity for education in homemaking. . . . The girls do not know
how to scrub floors and wash pounds and pounds of clothing. . . . When the girls go out
from Aglasterhausen they will be thrown together with people in communities who
expect them to have accomplishments similar to those of other girls and young women.
enceintes, September 25, 1947, folder PDR 5/10, Bureau des Archives de l’Occupation
française en Allemagne et en Autriche, Colmar (MAE).
71 Progress Report of the Working Party on Special Needs of Women and Girls,
8 –11, 9/F/3292, AN.
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They will not be excused for having lived in DP camps and in Child Care Centers
during the war years.72
Once again, humanitarian workers linked the reestablishment of the family,
and specifically of traditional domestic roles, to the psychological rehabilitation of displaced individuals. But their anxieties about displaced girls’ capacity for care also reflected a more pervasive moral panic about the effects of
war and displacement on children and youths and, implicitly, on European
civilization as a whole. The “primitive” nature of displaced children was a
source of widespread concern among postwar pedagogues, psychologists, and
journalists. Ernst Papanek speculated shortly after the war’s end, “Morals and
mores, the relation between the sexes, the rights and duties of the individual
in normal society—all these will have to be learned from the beginning by
children and young people who have grown accustomed to an utterly abnormal life under terror and fear. Drives that human society has sublimated in the
course of thousands of years have resumed their bestial form in these youngsters.”73 UNRRA workers agreed, suggesting that even adult refugees “regressed” to a primitive, childlike state under the mental strain of displacement:
“The acquired forms of civilization easily vanish and the loss of cultural
decorum is one of the first symptoms one can observe in displaced persons.
They do not restrain themselves anymore; the brakes have been taken
off. . . . The means of cleanliness decline; people do not take any interest in
hygiene. They wash themselves less, do not look after their own clothes, they
appear more ragged than need be under the circumstances. Traditions and
forms are neglected, the sense of shame disappears. Finally, their behavior
becomes rougher and more childish.”74
Throughout postwar Europe, pedagogical activists worried that children
(and adults) had been deeply corrupted by the topsy-turvy moral universe of
the battlefield, the home front, the black market, and the concentration camp.
Many expressed a deep pessimism about the possibility for psychological (as
opposed to physical) recovery for European children and youths and, by
extension, a deep pessimism about the future of their respective religious and
national communities.75 Jewish children and adolescents, in particular, were
widely reported to be deeply mistrustful and suspicious of all authority.
During a visit to Buchenwald in 1945, UNRRA child welfare specialist Gwen
Vinita Lewis, Field Visit to Aglasterhausen Children, September 8, 1948, 5– 6,
43/AJ/599, AN.
Ernst Papanek, “They Are Not Expendable: The Homeless and Refugee Children
in Germany,” Social Science Review 20, no. 3 (September 1946): 312.
74 UNRRA, “Psychological Problems of Displaced Persons,” 18.
75 For French debates on wartime juvenile delinquency, see Sarah Fishman, The
Battle for Children: World War II, Youth Crime, and Juvenile Justice in Twentieth
Century France (Cambridge, MA, 2002).
Chesters observed, “They have little remembered experience of wise or good
authority. And even while they have obeyed authority, they have been deeply
resentful.”76 Jewish youths returning from Buchenwald appeared to be in good
physical condition after lavish feeding by their American liberators, but deep
scars marked their souls, reported Robert Job from the French OSE:
There was no limit to their gluttony, and since for a time they were quite unable to shed
the reactions to the habits of the camp, they pocketed remains of food, in such
quantities they could not possibly eat. This food was later discovered among their
belongings, under their mattresses, between their blankets, and it testified to their
unbalance and their disarray. . . . Their impatience takes every conceivable form; they
are above all demanding; they feel that they have suffered and worked enough. These
young people have reached a precocious maturity in the concentration camp; but let us
not forget that their education, their training . . . has been completely at a standstill.77
Jean Henshaw of UNRRA echoed these observations in more critical terms.
“Poor work attitudes, cheating, lack of respect for personal property of others,
acquisitiveness, occasional forgery and deceit, extremes of aggressiveness and
shyness, and abnormal sex behavior often mark their conduct” was her
diagnosis, after a visit to Jewish children in the International Children’s
Center at Prien in 1947.78
Recivilizing these children (and childlike adults), in the eyes of UNRRA
workers, required restoring their respect for and acceptance of authority,
which had been shattered by the war. A 1945 guide for UNRRA workers
suggested that social workers would need to assume a parental relationship
with their wards:
Such people [refugees] in their relationships with authority, tend to turn, at least in part,
to the dependent attitudes of childhood. The rehabilitation process by which they
regain their adult independence must therefore be based to a very large extent, as it
originally was in childhood, on the existence of respect and affection for the authority
which controls their lives. Where authority is accepted, the necessary process of
weaning and the imposition of tasks and responsibility is accepted; and independence
and self-control can then be re-gained without difficulty. Where there is no respect for
Children in Switzerland, Comments on Reports for the Period October 12 to
November 8, S– 0401– 4 – 4, UNA. On debates over how to treat surviving Jewish
children, see Grossmann, Jews, Germans, and Allies, 193–94; Doron, “In the Best
Interest of the Child.”
77 Robert Job, “Our Pupils in France,” OSE Mail 4 (August 1949): 53–55, 43/AJ/
1268, AN. See also Report No. 1 from Miss Gwen Chesters, Children in Switzerland,
Notes for Week October 12–18, 1945, 3, S– 0401– 4 – 4, UNA.
78 Report on International Children’s Center, Prien, from Mrs. Jean Henshaw to
Cornelia Heise, April 28, 1947, S-0437-0012, UNA.
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authority . . . then there is at best a transient and unwilling acceptance of discipline, but
no development of the self-control essential for returning to a civilised society.79
When refugees failed to regain the “self-control essential for returning to a
civilised society,” many American and British social workers ultimately
blamed the children themselves. Social workers thereby used such cases to
affirm, once again, the validity of universalist psychoanalytic principles. In
this view, all refugees and survivors had suffered. But some did not succeed
in regaining psychological balance after the war. Early childhood experiences
supposedly explained such cases of failed rehabilitation. For example, in
1948, Marcel Kovarsky, executive director of the Jewish Child Welfare
Association in St. Louis, reported his frustrating experiences with Anna, a
seventeen-year-old Czech-Jewish concentration camp survivor. He elaborated, “Everyone liked Anna and tried to help her. Despite this, her adjustment, compared with other children who had experienced similar deprivations, was notably poor. She learned English slowly and complained that her
teachers were not interested in her. . . . She criticized her room and the food
served in the foster home, and was excessively demanding in the matter of
clothes.” Anna’s inability to adapt to life in St. Louis, Kovarsky argued, was
not the product of her traumatic experiences in concentration camps, but
rather of her pampered early childhood:
As a child Anna was indulged by her parents, who, according to her own account,
granted her every whim. . . . She always had a special interest in food and after her
liberation ate so heavily that her weight rose to 160 pounds. We were inclined to accept
this as the normal reaction to a concentration camp until we observed her gleeful
expression as she described the wonderful fruits and vegetables that she ate right off
the farm as a child. As we review her life story we see that Anna’s ability to gain her
ends by making people feel sorry for her antedates by many years her experience as a
refugee. We recognize that in essence she is an emotionally immature and intellectually inadequate girl who continues to look for someone who will treat her like a young
child as her parents did. The resemblance is much closer to the maladjusted youngster
whom agencies see in their daily practice than it is to our mental picture of the strong,
self-reliant survivor of Nazi barbarism, but it is true nonetheless. Not until we
recognize this can we help Anna and others like her grow up into mature, responsible
Robert Collis, an Irish pediatrician who cared for 500 children liberated
from the Belsen concentration camp, drew similar conclusions. He observed
“the most unexpected difference in reaction between individual children who
had undergone . . . the same mental trauma and loss of security,” and he
UNRRA, “Psychological Problems of Displaced Persons,” 3.
Marcel Kovarsky, “Case Work with Refugee Children,” Jewish Social Service
Quarterly 24, no. 4 (June 1948): 402–7.
looked to children’s earliest relationships in the family to explain these
It has been said that a child who has experienced an unsatisfactory sucking at the
breast, perhaps associated with an unhappy weaning, may show in later life symptoms
usually associated with loss of security and rejection, while a child satisfactorily
breastfed and happily weaned will show characteristics of self-reliance and poise. . . . I
got the impression from the study of many of these children that the factor of their early
home life had a very important influence upon their reactions later, when their parents
were killed, their homes destroyed, and they themselves exposed to horror in its most
extreme form.81
These views reinforced a broader maternalist ethic in postwar Europe. In the
case of a seemingly well-adjusted DP child, for example, Collis concluded,
“Had the mother failed the child at any time, then the internal wound might
have been too much for the child’s powers of mental recovery, and she might
have become one of those unfortunates who are beyond help and healing.”82
Activism around displaced and refugee children thus became a forum for
fundamental debates about the nature of trauma, the psychological consequences of separating children from parents, the value of familial versus
collective education, and the nature of human moral and psychological development. If the family promised to restore stability and “normalcy” to
war-torn societies in postwar Europe, it was clear to UNRRA and IRO
workers that DP children and women had to first be restored to the family. But
the family was not the only important source of identity that humanitarian
activists sought to cultivate in refugee children. Increasingly, they also agreed
that refugee youths required a stable sense of national loyalties in order to
recover their psychological health and stability.
The psychoanalytic and familialist ideals deployed by UN social workers
seem to reflect a familiar tale of Americanization in postwar Europe. But UN
social workers also integrated Central and East European nationalist traditions
into their own emerging concepts of human rights and democracy. In particular, UNRRA and IRO social workers saw renationalization as an essential
component of the rehabilitation of displaced children. Indeed, familialist and
nationalist priorities were often difficult to separate in postwar Europe. As the
example of the Jewish baby boom suggests, “replacing the dead” had particular meaning and urgency for European Jews after the Holocaust, but prona81 Robert Collis, The Lost and Found: The Story of Eva and Laszlo, Two Children
of War-Torn Europe (New York, 1953), 5.
82 Ibid., 71.
Lost Children
talism swept the continent. Every European government sought to replenish
its dead soldiers and civilians, recover its “lost children,” and secure the labor
power needed for postwar reconstruction. These concerns also generated
heated competition among European nations to repatriate or claim displaced
children and war orphans as immigrants. Nationalist demands for the repatriation of displaced children were particularly vehement in Czechoslovakia,
Poland, and Yugoslavia, where government officials expended tremendous
energy to recuperate the nation’s so-called lost children from German soil in
the name of postwar justice. But in the West, French officials concerned about
labor shortages, low birthrates, and overpopulation in Germany also saw
displaced children as a potential demographic windfall. Pierre Pfimlin, representing the French Ministry of Public Health and Population, suggested in
1946 that DP children in Germany represented a valuable “blood transfusion,”
which could replace the dead and thereby counter an alleged “menace of
extinction” threatening the French nation. “During the war years Germany
was an immense prison, where humans belonging to all of the nations of
Europe rubbed shoulders. . . . This mixing of humans without historical precedent has left human traces— children were born. A lot of children. A good
number of them have French blood in their veins,” he elaborated. “From a
demographic point of view the child is the ideal immigrant because he
constitutes a human asset whose value is all the more certain since his
assimilation is guaranteed. It is impossible to say the same of any adult
On both a pragmatic and ideological level, moreover, the so-called human
rights promoted by UN officials typically depended on national citizenship. In
the eyes of UN child welfare specialists, postwar East European governments,
and many Jewish agencies, restoring children to the national collective was
essential to the broader campaign to democratize and denazifiy postwar
Europe and to the individual psychological rehabilitation of DP youths. In
policy terms, this meant that UNRRA and the IRO generally respected the
demands made by nation-states for the repatriation of “their” children, favoring repatriation over resettlement abroad. The great majority of DPs in Europe
happily complied with these policies. During May and June of 1945 alone,
Allied authorities repatriated 5.25 million Europeans at a rate of approximately 80,000 a day. Not everyone, however, willingly boarded the repatriation trains. In February of 1945, Allied leaders signed the Yalta agreement,
agreeing to the repatriation of Soviet citizens in the Western zones of occupation. By the end of September 1945, 2,272,000 DPs had returned to the
Soviet Union, many by force. Of the civilians and prisoners of war who had
83 Conférence de presse de M. Pierre Pfimlin, sous-sécretaire d’État à la Santé
Publique et à la Population, April 5, 1946, 80/AJ/75, AN.
returned to the Soviet Union as of March 1, 1946, an estimated 6.5 percent
were “referred to the NKVD” (and probably executed) and 14.48 percent were
conscripted into forced labor battalions immediately upon arrival, according
to Soviet government statistics.84
Forced repatriations from the American and British zones of occupation
gradually subsided by the end of 1945 and officially ceased in 1947, with the
onset of the cold war. Already in September of 1945, approximately 1,325,000
DPs from Eastern Europe, who were unable or unwilling to return home,
crowded UNRRA camps. In July of 1947, a so-called hard core of 650,000
DPs became the responsibility of the IRO. Nonaccompanied children formed
only a small part of this hard-core population, but their fates were bitterly
contested in an emerging cold war context. In June of 1947, the IRO reported
that out of 16,800 registered unaccompanied children in the British and
American zones, approximately 6,871 had been repatriated (mostly to Eastern
Europe), while 1,889 (mostly Jewish children) had been resettled. Another
3,793 (including 2,400 Jewish children) had “disappeared,” 1,138 had become
overage, and 1,073 had been reunited with relatives. The rest remained in the
care of the IRO as their fates were contested in custody battles that were often
widely publicized.85
Officially, only the legal representatives of a child’s national homeland
were empowered to approve decisions about the adoption, resettlement, or
repatriation of an unaccompanied child. Moreover, orphaned or abandoned
East European children could not legally be adopted by foster parents of a
different nationality, in accordance with the laws of Poland, Yugoslavia, the
Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia.86 These collective, national “rights” to
children were anchored firmly in the convictions of UN workers themselves,
who had assimilated Central European understandings of children as national
property. In a 1948 memo one IRO official warned, “Every child’s future is
too important to be decided by a representative of a foreign nation. . . . There
can be no doubt that in order for things to run smoothly, the guardian must be
of the same nationality as the child. If such a line is followed, nobody will be
able to reproach the IRO for its desire to assimilate, denationalize children or
to develop cosmopolitans.”87 An important step in the rehabilitation of displaced children was therefore renationalizing those who had been brought up
Figures from the inspection and filtration of repatriates, GARF, f. 9526, op. 3, d.
175, op. 4, d. 1, 1.62, 1.223. I thank Andrew Janco for providing me with these
Office of Statistics and Operational Reports, Unaccompanied Children in Austria
and Germany, April 29, 1948, 43/AJ/604, AN.
86 Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, Displaced Orphan Children in Europe, November 13, 1946, 43/AJ/45, AN.
87 Jevgenija Migla, comments on the guardianship problem of unaccompanied
children, March 5, 1948, 43/AJ/926, AN. See also Adoptions, 4, S-0401/1/1, UNA.
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in a different language or culture due to wartime displacement. Jean Henshaw
boasted of the UNRRA Children’s Center in Prien, “One of our major tasks
has been a program for renationalizing children. Where we have had adequate
DP staff from the children’s home country . . . we have had outstanding
success in awakening the spirit of national pride and feeling.”88
This nationalizing agenda was consistent with the United Nations’ own
historically specific understandings of human rights and democracy, as well as
with its pedagogical ideals. These ideals were officially articulated in 1948,
when the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide
labeled “forcibly transferring children of one group to another group” enacted
“with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or
religious group, as such” as a form of genocide.89 It is no coincidence that the
convention (and the term “genocide” itself) was coined by Raphael Lemkin,
a Polish Jew with deep experience managing conflicts over the alleged
denationalization of children and other issues of minority rights in interwar
Poland and the League of Nations. Through Lemkin, conflicts particular to
East Central Europe found their way into the universalist language of the
postwar human rights movement and its founding documents. A year after the
convention was signed, Vinita Lewis thus insisted, “Even if his future destiny
lies in a country other than that of his origin, he [the displaced child] is entitled
to the basic Human Right of full knowledge of his background and origin.”90
Children, it seems, enjoyed (or endured) a “human right” to an ethnicity after
World War II, even if they ultimately settled outside their country of origin.
Not coincidentally, family and nation were often viewed as interchangeable
anchors of individual identity. Thérèse Brosse invoked this equivalence to
advertise displaced children as good candidates for resettlement, arguing in
1950, “Displaced children are only too willing to devote to the country which
welcomes them the effort which a normal child would devote to his family.”91
In many explicitly internationalist projects to rehabilitate displaced children, young refugees were organized in separate national homes. In the
Pestalozzi Village in Trogen, Switzerland, in 1950, 132 orphans were housed
in eight distinctive national houses, each appropriately “decorated and furnished in national style.”92 Each house had its own school where children were
taught in their mother tongue with textbooks from their native lands. A teacher
in the children’s village boasted in 1948, “It is really amazing to observe with
Report on International Children’s Center, Prien, from Mrs. Jean Henshaw to
Cornelia Heise, April 28, 1947, S-0437-0012, UNA.
89 See http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/p_genoci.htm.
90 Memo to Mr. A. C. Dunn, Policy on Unaccompanied Children, May 27, 1949,
43/AJ/926, AN.
91 Brosse, War-Handicapped Children, 20.
92 Thérèse Brosse, Homeless Children (Paris, 1950), 24.
what toughness and vitality even the smallest group preserves its national
character if soundly organized. In each of these small colonies the very best
elements of national culture come to the fore, the colorful variety of literary
and musical talent, folklore, jest, and humor.”93 This was more than simply a
practical strategy for housing the children. The cultivation of each child’s
national identity was essential to his or her individual psychological
well-being, in Brosse’s view: “In the course of our visits to the children’s
communities, we saw indeed how much the children need a country of their
own if they are to be psychologically normal and to feel ‘like other
people.’ . . . The all-important requirement for children who have been moved
from one country to another: to settle the child and provide him with a country
of his own and a language and culture which that implies.”94 UN social
workers were thus convinced that a firm sense of national identity, like a
stable family, was an essential source of individual identity and stability, a
basic recipe for postwar psychological rehabilitation.
This recipe posed serious problems for Jewish children, who often lacked
the desire or ability to return home. Beginning in 1946, ongoing antisemitism
in Eastern Europe, culminating in the pogrom at Kielce, Poland, in July 1946,
provoked the flight of around 170,000 Jews (so-called infiltrees) into the
American zone, most of whom hoped to move on to Palestine.95 Many
children, even those who had living parents, came in kibbutzim headed by
young Zionist leaders. American and British social workers were initially
skeptical about the separation of these children from their parents. Conflicts
over the relative merits of collective versus familial care for Jewish children
erupted in a heated debate at a 1947 meeting of UNRRA’s Jewish Child Care
Committee in Heidelberg. Although UNRRA and the IRO provided resources
and support for the care of Jewish displaced children and orphans, Jewish
agencies were accorded a great deal of autonomous authority over the children’s education and placement. Ruth Cohen, representing the Jewish Agency
for Palestine (JAFP), urged UNRRA officials to reconsider their policy of
uniting Jewish children with their parents in DP camps “because reuniting a
child . . . with his parents or relatives . . . means sending that child into what
we know at home as slum conditions.” Children in separate children’s homes,
camps, and kibbutzim, she argued, were not only better off from a moral
W. R. Corti, “A Few Thoughts on the Children’s Village,” News Bulletin of the
Pestalozzi Children’s Village, May 1948, 9, 43/AJ/599, AN.
94 Brosse, War-Handicapped Children, 21–22.
95 Marrus, Unwanted, 313–17; Judt, Postwar, 22; On antisemitism in postwar
Poland, see Jan Gross, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz (Princeton, NJ,
2006); Mankowitz, Life between Memory and Hope.
Lost Children
perspective but also more likely to get the food, clothing, and medical
attention they needed to fortify their fragile health.96
Many IRO officers were initially unsympathetic to this view and worried
that children were being pressured to choose emigration to Palestine over
reunification with their families. In a 1948 memo, one IRO child welfare
officer in Lower Saxony concluded in frustration, “In view of . . . the utter
disparity between IRO’s commitments towards unaccompanied children and
their relatives, and the accepted Jewish principle, whereby an orphan belongs
to the community, it is obvious that as regards unaccompanied children, our
aims will always be completely at variance.”97 Most UN social workers,
however, gradually came to accept and even embrace Zionist solutions for
Jewish children. This change of heart had several sources. Social workers
encountered youths and parents who themselves passionately wished to emigrate to Palestine. Louis Pinsky wrote of the 500 Jewish children he cared for
in Germany in 1946, “The children are all Zionists and all, without exception,
wish and hope to get to Palestine. . . . Although not with parents, the children
do get affection from the group. They live a collective life which they intend
to pursue in Palestine. They work and they love it. It is not at all like an
institution.” Edith Feuereisen, a sixteen-year-old Hungarian survivor, was the
type of young refugee who converted many UNRRA social workers to the
Zionist cause. Her father was alive in the United States, had obtained American visas for his three children, and wished to be reunited with them. Edith,
however, felt deeply torn between her family and her political ideals. She
I know that I will break my father’s heart if I do not answer his call, but I also know
that my duty is with my people. If I go to America, I will get used to luxury and
perhaps I will not want to go to Palestine. Now I want it above everything else and I
must, I must. . . . In America we may be comfortable for a year, for two, for ten, but
the end will be the same—we will be driven out. I have learned a lot of things in
Auschwitz and one of them is that unless we have a National Home, we will perish as
a nation. I am young in years, but I am very old in experience. I am still strong and I
want to work for my people.98
Jewish Children, memo from Ruth Cohen, JAFP, UNRRA district 2, to the Child
Care Committee, February 22, 1947, S-0437-0015, UNA.
97 Documentation of Jewish Children proposed for emigration to Palestine under
Grand National Junior, March 17, 1948, 43/AJ/604, AN.
98 Louis Pinsky to Lotte Marcuse, March 9, 1946, re: Feuereisen, Edith, 16, folder
564, RG 249, YIVO, CJH. For more on the Zionism of DP youths in postwar Germany,
see Patt, “Finding Home and Homeland.”
UNRRA workers also praised the ethical and moral standards in the kibbutzim, and the degree of attention and care given to the children.99
Sympathy with Zionist goals also sometimes reflected a view of Jewish
children as essentially different from their non-Jewish peers. This entailed
both recognition of the magnitude of the Holocaust and the ongoing influence
of racial and racist logic after World War II. Robert Collis, for example,
maintained that liberated Roma and Jewish children responded differently
from other East Europeans in internment in Bergen-Belsen. He attributed
these differences to deep-rooted ethnic qualities, reporting:
We had gypsies from at least half a dozen countries, but we never thought of them as
Rumanians, Hungarians, Czechs or Germans— but simply as gypsies. We felt as if they
belonged to a different species from the human inhabitants of the world. Their
physiology was the same as ours, but that seemed to be as far as it went. . . . It seemed
as if their bodies were inhabited by elemental spirits related to those of the trees and
the streams and the animal world, and that in consequence their minds were little
troubled by ordinary human violence and brutality.
Jewish children, he insisted, were equally a world apart: “Though they might
call themselves Dutch or Italian, they seemed to us more Jew than anything
else. Indeed, when this thought struck me, I realized that it would never have
entered my mind to regard a little Dublin Jewish child as Irish. Such an idea
would be obviously absurd, so it would be equally absurd to think of the
sixty-five Jewish children in the camp who spoke Dutch as in any way Dutch
children.” Based on their ethnically distinct reactions to persecution, Jewish
children required distinct forms of rehabilitation: “Just as the gypsies seem to
have their home outside the dwellings of mankind, the Jews seem to come
entirely from the haunts of men, to be altogether urban. The gypsy children
liked being fed, played with, petted, but they remained unattached and emotionally free. The Jewish children craved love, security, home. They were very
fearful, very friendly, once reassured, very ready to expand, desperately
anxious to please, and most affectionate if encouraged.”100
Of course, not all claims about the distinct emotional needs of Jewish
children relied on racial stereotypes. Jewish activists themselves, both Zionist
and non-Zionist, struggled to ensure that surviving Jewish children, especially
so-called hidden children, were recovered for the Jewish community after the
war and argued that Jewish survivors had distinctive legal, material, and
emotional needs. In Holland, Poland, and especially France, bitter custody
disputes erupted between Jewish relatives and agencies that insisted that the
children be placed in a Jewish family or institution and Christian foster
99 Historical Report: Rosenheim Jewish Children’s Transient Center, June 11, 1947,
S-0437-0015, UNA.
100 Collis, Lost and Found, 4.
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parents, church officials, and government authorities who sometimes ardently
refused to return the children. Jewish activists demanded the return of “hidden
children” in the name of justice and to memorialize the dead but also as a way
to ensure the continuity of the community in the aftermath of the Holocaust.101
Ironically, UNRRA social workers’ sympathy for Zionist goals also stemmed
from their familialist ideals since Jewish survivors often seemed like poor
candidates for motherhood. In 1947, a representative of the American Joint
Distribution Committee claimed that children’s collectives bound for Palestine were preferable to family life, insisting, “The group leaders . . . are much
better for the children than a disturbed mother and father in a DP camp,” and
many UNRRA workers agreed.102
UN workers also revealed the nationalist underpinning of their mission as
they debated the fate of children displaced from Eastern Europe. A central
mission of UNRRA’s Child Search Teams was to comb the German countryside in search of thousands of so-called lost children from Eastern Europe,
who had either been kidnapped by the Nazis for “Germanization” or abandoned by their parents to German foster homes and institutions. Simply
identifying these children required tremendous detective work and psychological acumen. Many displaced children came from regions where blurry
lines between so-called Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans) and Poles, Czechs,
and Yugoslavs had become blurrier during the Second World War or where
individuals were multilingual, flexible about their national loyalties, or altogether indifferent to nationality. But UNRRA social workers operated on the
essentialist assumption that every displaced child possessed a single “authentic” nationality of origin, which could be determined through an investigation
of ethnic traits.103 One UNRRA worker elaborated in a 1946 report:
The question of nationality is most perplexing in the cases of children coming from
Silesia because of the mixed German and Polish population in that area before the war.
In the absence of identity papers less dependable factors must be relied upon in
determining nationality. . . . Our most skillful interviewers report the children’s psychological reactions to questions about nationality are significant. The unquestionably
German child usually replies freely and promptly. The response of the non-German
On custody disputes over Jewish children in postwar France, see Doron, “In the
Best Interest of the Child.” The most infamous and polarizing custody dispute was the
Finaly affair in France. On the Finaly affair, see Catherine Poujol, Les enfants cachés:
L’affaire Finaly (Paris, 2006); Katy Hazan, Les orphelins de la Shoah (Paris, 2000),
92–100; on similar conflicts in Holland, see Wolf, Beyond Anne Frank.
Minutes of Jewish Child Care Committee Held at UNRRA US Zone Headquarters, Heidelberg, March 13, 1947, S-0437-0012, UNA.
103 On strategies adopted for determining the nationality of “lost children,” see, e.g.,
file 10, report, S-0437-0013, UNA; Removal of Children (Polish) from the St. Joseph’s
Kinderheim, October 14, 1946, S-0437-0013, UNA; W. C. Huyssoon, “Who Is This
Child?” file 11, S-0437-0013, UNA.
child, though he says he is German, is often characterized by embarrassment, hesitation, confusion, or frantic appeal to a member of the staff for help in making a reply.104
No one considered the possibility that a Silesian child might have been
genuinely confused about his or her national affiliation.
To complicate matters, Nazi officials had systematically changed the names
and destroyed the records of children designated for Germanization. Many
younger children had no memory at all of their native languages or families
of origin. In 1947, Jean Henshaw described Polish and Yugoslav children in
the Children’s Center in Prien who had “renounced their country, language,
and culture and vehemently claimed they were Germans.”105 Once identified,
UN child search officers typically removed Allied children from German
foster parents as quickly as possible. These separations could be emotionally
wrenching. “Very often the separation is extremely cruel; the child is very
attached to his adoptive family and no longer remembers having had any other
family,” reported IRO child welfare consultant Yvonne de Jong in a 1948
memo.106 The children sometimes had to be removed and repatriated against
their will. In one such case, Eileen Davidson noted in her daily log for October 19,
1946, “Conference with Polish Repatriation Officer re two adolescent Polish
children who have been for two years with a superior German family and are
asking permission to remain. They are orphans and have no family to return to.
Permission refused. Children to be repatriated. Picked up both children at Ansbach much against their will.”107 These custody battles generated sharp legal,
political, and emotional tensions between UNRRA, British and American military
authorities, and local German populations.108 In the name of the oft-cited “best
interests of the children,” British military authorities often preferred to leave the
children in German homes, invoking the principle that they would be permanently
scarred by separation from their German foster parents. They held that continuity
of care was the most important factor in a child’s psychological well-being.109 It
Removal of Children (Polish) from the St. Joseph’s Kinderheim, October 14,
1946, S-0437-0013, UNA; see also Huyssoon, “Who Is This Child?”
Report on International Children’s Center, Prien, from Mrs. Jean Henshaw to
Cornelia Heise, April 28, 1947, S-0437-0012, UNA.
De Jong, Quels sont les principaux problèmes?
Daily Log of October 19 and 21 from District Child Search Officer Eileen
Davidson, S-0437-0014, UNA.
For examples of protests from German foster parents and institutions over the
removal of children from Germany, see Removal of Children from refugee-youth camp
Kallmünz, May 24, 1946; Removal of Children (Polish) from the St. Joseph’s Kinderheim, October 14, 1946; letter of protest from Kath. Jugendfürsorgeverein der Diozese
Augsburg, July 30, 1946; all in S-0437-0013, UNA.
109 On the reluctance of the British and American military to remove children from
German foster families, see Provisional order no. 75 and the British Zone Policy,
November 9, 1948, 43/AJ/599, AN; Short Memorandum on Overseas Settlement of
Lost Children
is likely that the military authorities also objected to the repatriation of East
European children for more pragmatic and political reasons—in order to smooth
relations between military authorities and local German populations and ultimately out of anti-Communist sympathies.
UN and IRO child welfare officers, however, consistently favored removing
children from German homes and returning them to their country of origin. Even
if family reunification was not possible (in the case of orphans), they favored
repatriating the children to Eastern Europe. In 1948, Eileen Davidson, then deputy
chief of the IRO’s Child Search Section, wrote a memo arguing that this policy
represented the “best interests of the child” from a psychological, social, moral,
and political perspective. Her argument rested largely on her conviction that
German society had not yet been purged of Nazi racism and authoritarianism; the
possibility of true assimilation and integration for East European children in
postwar Germany was therefore slim.110 Even German-speaking children from
Eastern Europe often faced discrimination as foreigners in Germany, Davidson claimed. “There was the case of two Polish children whose father had
been in the SS and who were known as Volksdeutsche. The children said that
they had always been referred to as Poles. The older girl worked long hours
in the kitchen. . . . She said that she always was told that she was a ‘dumb
Pole.’”111 Children removed from German institutions, meanwhile, showed
telltale signs of authoritarian Nazi pedagogical methods, according to Davidson. “These children are apparently subjected to rigid routines and discipline
and ordinarily they are shy, extremely fearful, and do not know how to play,
even amongst themselves. Their behavior is that of very repressed children,
and it is in marked contrast to the behavior of children in this group who have
been with us any length of time who ordinarily are extremely friendly to
adults, very active and free in their play and activities.”112
While Allied children often resisted removal from their German foster
Children, 43/AJ/45, AN; Removal of Children from German Care, June 30, 1947,
S-0437-0017, UNA.
Heide Fehrenbach has shown that similar arguments shaped German debates
about the future of children born to African American soldiers and German women in
occupied Germany. Many Germans argued that the children should be returned to their
fathers in the United States, as they had no hope of successful integration in Germany.
See Fehrenbach, Race after Hitler.
Eileen Davidson, deputy chief, Child Search Section, Removal from German
Families of Allied Children, reasons why this is to the best interest of the child,
February 21, 1948, 7, 43/AJ/599, AN. See also de Jong, Quels sont les principaux
problèmes; Memo from John Widdicome to Mrs. M. Lane, August 2, 1948, 43/AJ/599,
AN; UNRRA Child Search and Registration, Team 1071, Illustrations of Situations of
non-German children in German homes, S-0437-0013, UNA.
112 Davidson, Removal from German Families, 7.
families, IRO child welfare officers were confident that the children quickly
adjusted once “returned” to their native cultures and languages. In the case of
a group of Polish children who had been Germanized, Davidson recalled,
“They were gradually absorbed into the life of the center, and began to speak
Polish, and on their own request were enrolled into the Polish class. After a
few weeks they were eagerly learning Polish songs and folk dances. . . . By
the time that they had made the decision to go back to Poland, they were
identified with the Polish group and had thus severed their relationship with
their German friends.”113 In conclusion, she warned that Allied children left in
German foster families would surely suffer permanent psychological damage,
even if they were loved and well cared for. “Far from securing the best
interests of the child, one has run the danger with the passage of years of
contributing to the development of a warped and twisted personality, a misfit
with roots neither here nor in his home country.”114
Her position, which was typical of UNRRA and IRO child welfare specialists, is revealing on several levels. First, it illustrates the extent to which
discussions of children’s psychological well-being dominated international
child welfare work after the Second World War, even as concepts such as “the
best interests of the child” were fiercely contested. Second, Davidson’s memo
reflects the self-representation of UN social workers as agents of democracy
and denazification in postwar Europe. Finally, her position illustrates how
democratization, justice, and the so-called psychological best interests of the
child were all defined so as to privilege not only the reunification of biological
families but also the “renationalization” of displaced children. Children, in
their view, required both a stable family and a stable national identity in order
to thrive as healthy individuals.
Postwar international organizations and child welfare activists may have
been confident that there was no place like “home” for DPs. But how did
displaced children and families respond to the “rehabilitation” offered by
UNRRA and the IRO? The story of one group of 148 Polish youths displaced
to Africa suggests some tentative answers to these questions and illustrates
how cold war disputes intersected with nationalist convictions to shape the
postwar politics of repatriation. On July 30, 1941, shortly after Hitler’s
invasion of Poland, Polish and Soviet diplomats had signed an agreement that
reestablished the Polish state; provided for the release of Polish citizens in the
Soveit Union, including anti-Communist Poles imprisoned in Siberia; and
enabled the formation of a Polish army on Soviet soil, led by General
Wladyslaw Anders. In March 1942, Anders evacuated 74,000 Polish troops,
including approximately 41,000 civilians, many of them children, to Iran.
Ibid., 11–12.
Ibid., 14.
Lost Children
These children of anti-Communists were soon scattered in DP camps throughout Iran, Palestine, India, and Africa. At the war’s end, 148 Polish children
and youths found themselves in Tanganyika, Africa, under the care and
supervision of the Polish government-in-exile in London and the Polish
resettlement corps in the United Kingdom. Following the liquidation of the
African camp, the IRO transferred the children to Salerno, Italy. In 1948 the
Canadian Catholic Conference offered to resettle the youths in Canada,
triggering an international diplomatic crisis.
Who owned these children? What weight was to be given to the competing
claims of biological family members, the Polish government, the Polish
government-in-exile, religious authorities, and the desires of the youths themselves? How did these actors define the “best interests” of the displaced
children? The position of the Polish government was grounded in a long
history of nationalist activism around children in Eastern Europe. The children
belonged to the nation. Anything but repatriation to Poland represented a
continuation of Hitler’s crimes. In making these claims Polish officials drew
on over fifty years of nationalist rhetoric in Eastern Europe that had denounced the alleged “denationalization” of children by rival nationalist movements. After the Second World War, the forced denationalization of Eastern
European children was widely cited as one of Nazism’s greatest crimes, even
though many children who became “German” under Nazi rule had parents
who were bilingual, flexible about their national loyalties, or registered as
ethnic Germans for opportunist reasons.115 If the Germanization of children
signified Nazi evil, the renationalization and repatriation of children came to
represent democratization and justice in postwar Eastern Europe.
Throughout the postwar period Polish and Yugoslav officials, journalists,
and activists accused the United Nations and the Allied military authorities of
hindering the return of East European children who had been kidnapped by the
Nazis for Germanization. These attacks took on a more strident tone after the
consolidation of Communist power in 1948. In Yugoslavia, for example, a
1949 article in the Belgrade newspaper Tanjug asserted,
In Austria at the present time there are large numbers of Yugoslav children who were
taken by force from Yugoslavia during the war. Scattered throughout Austria, exposed
to Germanization and education designed to make them hate their own country, these
children are unscrupulously exploited as free manual labor. Efforts by the Yugoslav
government and Red Cross to find these children and bring them back to their native
On national ambiguity and Germanization in Eastern Europe, see Chad Bryant,
Prague in Black: Nazi Rule and Czech Nationalism (Cambridge, MA, 2007); Pieter M.
Judson, Guardians of the Nation: Activists on the Language Frontier of Imperial
Austria (Cambridge, MA, 2006); Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations:
Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569 –1999 (New Haven, CT, 2003); Zahra,
Kidnapped Souls.
country are blocked by the occupation authorities in the Western Zones. . . . This state
of affairs is also caused, in large part, by the IRO, which will stop at nothing in order
to prevent the return of Yugoslav children to their native land.116
Polish authorities meanwhile insisted that over 200,000 Polish children remained hidden in Nazi families in the Western zones of occupation. (In
reality, the total number of Polish children recovered by postwar tracing
agencies was closer to 20,000, and many of these children had traveled into
Germany with their parents.)117
In fact, IRO officials were not hostile to the repatriation of Eastern European
children, even after the consolidation of Communist power in 1948. The organization generally continued to encourage repatriation and to favor sending displaced children home to nation and family. IRO Director-General J. Donald
Kingsley explained before the UN General Assembly in November 1949, “In
ordinary circumstances, the ideal solution for a displaced person is return to the
homeland. There, he finds a familiar form of social organization and hears a
familiar tongue. . . . In his homeland, he has the full rights of citizenship. Here he
has his roots.” At the same time, however, IRO policy clearly forbade the forcible
repatriation of any person against his or her will, including youths over age
seventeen. And all of these adolescents stubbornly refused to return to Poland.
Moreover, of the 148 Polish youths concerned, eighty-one were over sixteen years
of age, and only twenty-four were under thirteen.118
It was not, however, against the IRO mandate to attempt to convince DPs
to repatriate of their own “free will” (or to bribe them with cash and rations).
In August 1949, the IRO sent a team of officials, including a repatriation
officer named Pierre Krysz, a Polish national, on a three-week mission to the
Article from the bulletin of Tanjug, October 26, 1949, Repatriation of Yugoslav
Children in Austria blocked by the IRO. See also (in the same carton), “Les enfants
Yougoslaves retenus par force en Autriche,” Tanjug, Belgrade, January 7, 1948,
43/AJ/601, AN.
“Poland Asserts British Zone Holds Children,” New York Herald Tribune, Paris
ed., June 11, 1948, 43/AJ/604, AN. For a reliable estimate of the number of children
kidnapped from Poland, see Isabel Heinemann, “Rasse, Siedlung, deutsches Blut”: Die
Rasse und Siedlungshauptamt der SS und die rassenpolitische Neuordnung Europas
(Göttingen, 2003), 508 –9.
UN Department of Public Information, statement of J. Donald Kingsley before
the Third Committee of the General Assembly of the United Nations, November 10,
1949, Press Release PM/1550, 43/AJ/604, AN. IRO policy specified, “The recommendation made for the repatriation or settlement of the child should not be contrary to the
wishes of the child. Such wishes shall be assessed in the light of the age of the child
and of all the circumstances. They shall be taken into account only if they have been
expressed freely, and provided they are based on considerations which, in the case of
a person over 17 years of age, would be considered as valid objections”: letter to H.
Allard from P. Jacobsen, September 12, 1949, 43/AJ/604, AN.
Lost Children
Children’s Center in Salerno. Krysz interviewed each child in order to understand better his or her reasons for refusing repatriation. To his regret, the
children did not share the IRO’s understanding of their “best interests.” Krysz
and Child Tracing Officer C. M. Babinski instead noted that the young
refugees displayed what they perceived to be a pathological “indifference” to
their families and homeland. “A number of children and youth, larger than it
is reasonable to expect in an institutional group, displayed disinterest or
indifference in having parents traced or clues on relatives followed up. One
young man deliberately lied about his mother’s Christian name and later
admitted the falsehood, saying he feared pressure might be put on him to
return to Poland,” reported Babinski.119 Krysz concurred, noting, “The complete distinterest [of the children] in parental or family care is striking in most
of the cases.”120
Krysz and Babinski attributed these attitudes to indoctrination by the
children’s anti-Communist caretakers. The children’s own testimony, however, suggests that they did not share the IRO’s faith in the healing powers of
nation and family. Many had been separated from their families and homes for
close to ten years. Their relatives in Poland, and Poland itself, were now
distant memories. The appeal of a fresh start, educational opportunities in
Canada, and their own political and religious convictions, along with the
solidarity of the group itself, were more meaningful than family ties or
nationalist sentiments. In other cases, the children’s own relatives wrote to
dissuade them from returning to Poland, either because of the political situation or because of social conditions.121 Bogdan Sypincki, whose mother lived
in Poland, thus informed Krysz that he “wants to finish his studies, and not in
Poland, and does not want to become a Communist.” Eugenia Zurawska, age
fourteen, insisted that she would prefer to live in an orphanage in Canada than
to rejoin her father “because he remarried and has 3 step-children and because
she ‘thinks’ that her father could not give her an adequate education,” Krysz
noted critically. Boleslaw Kacpura’s elder sister in Poland had warned him
against returning because she was unable to provide for him. He refused
Narrative Report on Special Registration Assignment at the IRO Children’s
Center, Salerno, Italy, August 15, 1949, 43/AJ/604, AN.
Polish Children from East-Africa, I. P. Krysz to I. Page, August 10, 1949,
43/AJ/604, AN.
121 The case of these Polish children was not isolated. Many young DP children and
youths from Eastern Europe refused repatriation for personal or political reasons, and
IRO officials struggled to determine which were genuine “political” refugees and
which were adventure seekers or escaping bad family situations. See Policies Regarding Reestablishment of Children, April 25, 1949, 43/AJ/926, AN.
repatriation on the grounds that he “does not want to starve.” In each case,
Krysz concluded that the children had “no valid objections” to repatriation.122
Meanwhile, the IRO faced heavy political fire from all sides. The children
became pawns in the conflict between Poland’s postwar Communist government and the Polish government-in-exile. The Catholic and anti-Communist
activists and officials who had planned the resettlement accused the IRO of
unduly pressuring the children to repatriate. “This continued pressure and
harassment can only be interpreted as forcible repatriation,” insisted Monsignor Meystowicz in Bremen, in an urgent telegram to IRO headquarters on
August 6, 1949.123 That same day an angry crowd of Polish DPs in Tanganyika
reportedly invaded the home of an IRO officer in protest.124 The Count E. H.
Czapski, leader of the Polish anti-Communist committee charged with caring
for the orphans in Italy, wrote a passionate letter of protest to IRO headquarters following Krysz’s interviews: “The young people concerned have lost
everything as a result of Soviet aggression—their country, family, and fortune. Saved almost miraculously. . . . Do you believe that they would voluntarily return to live under Soviet domination? Perhaps you are also ignoring
the fact that close to 1000 Polish children are buried in Tehran’s only
cemetery, those who were able to leave Russia but did not survive their
experiences in ‘the Soviet paradise.’”125
The IRO faced more intense criticism in favor of repatriating the children.
Not surprisingly, the Polish Red Cross, the Polish government, and other
Communist sympathizers were most forceful. In a letter of protest to the IRO,
the Democratic Women’s Association of East Germany claimed that the
children’s refusal to repatriate reflected the defective state of their characters,
a consequence of displacement and denationalization itself: “These young
people were torn from their homes as children and put in a completely new
environment, far from their country and their parents. It was impossible there
to create for them a new home such as growing young people need for their
development, and so they became beings without roots.” Rehabilitating these
children—and European democracy—required returning the youths to their
nation and families, the association insisted: “Now, four years after the end of
the war, it is the duty of all people of democratic thought and feeling to repair
the wrongs done by the Fascist murderers and criminals. That certainly
includes the return to their old home of all whom Hitler uprooted from their
native land. These young people, too, although they may have spent the last
Polish Children from East-Africa, I. P. Krysz to I. Page, August 10, 1949,
43/AJ/604, AN.
123 Telegram, August 6, 1949, Monsignor Meystowicz, Bremen, to IRO Geneva,
43/AJ/604, AN.
124 Telegram, August 6, 1949, 43/AJ/604, AN.
125 Count E. H. Czapski, August 8, 1949, 43/AJ/604, AN.
Lost Children
few years in Africa, are Polish by nationality, tradition, and character, belong
to the Polish people, and will always by homeless in a foreign country.”126
Polish Communists, likewise, used the affair to question the democratic
credentials of the West. The Polish journal Repatriant protested, “In the
course of recent years, this is not the first case of theft of Polish children who
should be returned to their country. . . . Does such an attitude conform to the
humanitarian principles promoted in the West?”127
Pressure to repatriate the children did not, however, simply flow from the
pens of Communist propagandists. For example, in a letter to the president of
the United Nations General Assembly, the International Union for Child
Protection, the first and largest international child welfare organization (established in 1913), insisted that uniting displaced children with their nation
and families was a matter of guaranteeing basic human rights. The union
declared, “We feel obligated to inform you how concerned we are . . . about
the subject of children removed or separated from their parents, whatever the
reason. . . . The Declaration of the Rights of the Child, promulgated in 1923
by our union, demands respect for the intangible rights and duties of parents
with respect to their children, and the same is true of the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights.”128
In spite of such protests, the first group of children set sail for Canada on
August 29, 1949, and the rest followed shortly after. The IRO injunction
against forcible repatriation ultimately prevailed over competing ideals of
nation and family. Afterward, in a speech to the UN General Assembly,
Kingsley defended the resettlement. He expressed his hopes that it reflected a
new kind of postwar migration, that of a more democratic and humanitarian
world: “In the long history of mankind, there have been many mass migrations
of people, some of them also overseas. Most, however, had their motivation
in evil or fanaticism, were executed in violence or necessity. . . . Never before
has there been such a movement as this, motivated by good will, executed in
generosity, and adding, surely, to the hopes of millions for a peaceful life.”129
The case of these 148 orphans therefore seems to end with the triumph of
the individual rights of children over the nation’s collective rights to children.
But this case also clearly suggests the profound significance of perceived
Demokratischer Frauenbund Deutschlands, October 20, 1949; see also the letter
from the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) to IRO Geneva, January 1, 1949; both
in 43/AJ/604, AN.
Extrait du journal Repatriant 132 (182): 182, 43/AJ/604, AN.
Union Internationale de Protection de l’Enfance, January 24, 1950, letter to
Carlos P. Romulo, president of the General Assembly of the United Nations, 43/AJ/
602, AN.
129 UN Department of Public Information, statement of J. Donald Kingsley before
the Third Committee of the General Assembly of the United Nations, November 10,
1949, Press Release PM/1550, 43/AJ/604, AN.
national “rights” to children in postwar Europe and the ways in which collective
identities— both familial and national—were embedded in emerging postwar
ideals of democracy, human rights, and social and individual rehabilitation. These
nationalist and familialist ideals were not uncontested. The story of activism
around refugee and displaced children in Europe pushes us, nonetheless, to
historicize contemporary understandings about the nature of human rights, democracy, and trauma, as well as visions of the family that are often invoked as
universals. It suggests, moreover, the extent to which social and family policies
and new forms of expert knowledge developed through transnational encounters
and conflicts during and after the Second World War.
Humanitarian activists and international child welfare experts in Europe
after World War II insisted that the material and psychological best interests
of individual children should guide their work. They sought to foster individualism and human rights in the name of a radical break from the fascist past.
Simultaneously, however, UNRRA and IRO experts looked explicitly to the
nation and family to achieve their Enlightenment visions. In their efforts to
rehabilitate European children from wartime trauma, pedagogical activists and
social workers tested, institutionalized, and internationalized new forms of
expert knowledge about child development and the family. They embraced the
seemingly universalist and individualist potential of psychoanalytic principles. At the same time, they embedded children deeply in the context of
smaller communities, valorizing both nation and family as the essential
sources of individual identity and agency. They also sought to rehabilitate
refugees as particular kinds of individuals, insisting that children had distinct
psychological needs that depended on their age, nation, religion, and gender.
Hannah Arendt observed that the refugee camps of interwar Europe exposed
the limits of the universal ideal of “human rights.” Ultimately, such rights were
nothing but empty promises to DPs who lacked national citizenship. “The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of human beings as
such, broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it
were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other
qualities and specific relationships— except that they were still human,” she
maintained.130 After the war, humanitarian activists and international organizations responded to the perceived failures of the interwar system of minority
protection and child protection by constructing new international, individualist,
and universalist regimes of human rights and theories of child welfare. But
Arendt’s insight, it seems, applied to the postwar world of the DP camp, the
children’s home, and the orphanage, as well as to the interwar refugee camp.
Rehabilitating lost children—and Europe itself after World War II—seemed to
require that children return “home” to family and nation.
Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 299.