Photo from United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Separated Families: What Can We Learn from the Experience of Child Holocaust Survivors?

Rebecca Clifford—

Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union have revealed the agonizing fact that they have not been able to trace the parents of 545 children who were separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

The Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents officially ended in 2018—and yet two years later, hundreds of these children remain in the U.S., with no knowledge of where their parents are, and in some cases no memories of their mother and fathers. Thousands of children, some only babies and toddlers, were taken from their parents in 2017 and 2018, before public outrage forced the administration to halt the policy. The long, grinding process of family reunification has been going on ever since—and because so many parents cannot now be traced, it promises to continue for some time. Some of the youngest of these children have now been separated from their parents for more than half of their lives. A few who were very small have spent almost their whole lives without their families of origin.

I am a historian who studies child survivors of the Holocaust, and all this is familiar territory for me. Of a pre-war population of 1.5 million Jewish children in Europe, only an estimated 150,000—180,000 survived the genocide. Those who did survive often spent months and even years separated from their families. Some survived in hiding with non-Jewish families, assuming fake names and identities for protection. Some were separated from their families in internment and concentration camps. Even the “lucky ones” who made it into neutral territory were often separated from their parents: neutral Switzerland, for example, had a policy of separating parents and children at the border, and placing children with foster families while confining their parents to makeshift internment camps, sometimes hundreds of miles away.

Many child survivors were never returned to their families of origin after the war—but what of those who were? And, if we are to think about the relevance of this historic case to the separated families of the present day, what were the outcomes?

The devastating truth is that family reunification after the war was a fraught and painful process for both children and their surviving parents or relatives—and it is likely to be so for the children of migrant parents today as well, because so many aspects of the situation are similar. 

The first reason for this was the loss of the children’s original identities. During the war, Jewish children in hiding had to learn to blend in. They learned new languages, and forgot their mother tongues. Some did not know that they had ever been Jewish, and many took up their wartime host families’ Christianity. When exhausted parents or relatives managed to track these children down at the war’s end, the children were rarely able to simply revert to their previous selves: too much time had passed. They had no common language with which to speak to their parents or relatives. And few were enthusiastic about returning to their Jewish identities—after all, many had figured out that it was this very identity that had put them in danger during the war years. 

The second reason was time. As is the case for separated children in the present, young child Holocaust survivors had spent significant portions of their short lives away from their birth parents. They often had little memory of their original families. The more time that had passed, the more likely it was that survivor children could not remember their parents or relatives. Many children, in these circumstances, wanted desperately to stay with the host families who had housed them during the war, rather than be returned to utter strangers. Some felt angry at parents who they saw as having abandoned them, even if they were old enough to understand objectively that their parents had had no choice.

The third reason was psychological trauma. Whether they had survived in hiding, in internment, or in neutral territory, Jewish children in Europe after the war had lived through harrowing experiences that had changed them. Their parents had had their own terrifying experiences: surviving in hiding or by passing as “Aryan,” interned in labour or concentration camps, parents were often physically and psychologically exhausted by the war’s end. The shared experience of trauma pushed parents and children apart, because each side found it unbearable to listen to, or even to think about, what the other had been through. Many families dealt with this by staking out an enforced silence around the memory of the war years—but this approach could be a time bomb that exploded with devastating results for families when children entered their adolescence.

So how might we use the history of child Holocaust survivors to help separated children today? There are a few key lessons. 

The first lesson: hurry. The more time that goes by, the harder it will be for separated parents and children to repair their relationships. Children may well feel angry at parents who abandoned them (even if the parents clearly had no power to stop the separation), and this feeling is likely to increase with time.

The second lesson: we can help separated children by keeping their original language and culture as intact as possible, ensuring in particular that they keep speaking their mother tongues.

The third lesson: it takes a massive international humanitarian effort to reunite separated families. After the war, it was the Red Cross that led this effort, through its International Tracing Service (ITS), with support from aid bodies such as the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. The ITS maintained detailed files on every one of millions of missing persons, and ran regular announcements on local radio stations and in local newspapers. This remarkable effort was funded in part by the U.S. government. For today’s separated families, NGOs such as the ACLU are leading efforts to track down missing parents, but a far bigger, collaborative international humanitarian effort is what is really needed—and, just as in 1945, it should be funded by the American government. That funding would not by any stretch of the imagination erase the sickening harm done to these families by state policy, but it would be a good place to start.

Rebecca Clifford is associate professor of modern European history at Swansea University and author of Commemorating the Holocaust: The Dilemmas of Remembrance in France and Italy. She lives in Swansea, Wales.

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