Case Study

Jewish Children & the Holocaust

Why I Taught the Source

Undergraduates enrolled in the 100-level course I teach on the Holocaust find the topic both compelling and overwhelming especially given the array of topics that cover the background to and mechanisms of destruction. In order to enable students to go beyond the countless facts and deeply disturbing details, I utilize survivors' narratives that provide a fuller understanding of the complexity of war and genocide. In my experience I have found that children's testimonies—diaries, memoirs, and documentaries—provide an unusual angle of vision into childhood, the family, everyday life, and survival. Using the oral histories of children provides a child-centered view of the Holocaust in which young people were not only victims and witnesses, but also historical agents.

Originally published in Polish by the Jewish Historical Commission in Cracow in 1946 and republished in English in 1996 by the British publisher Vallentine Mitchell, The Children Accuse is required reading about the early postwar testimonies of Jewish children in Poland. 1 The book consists of 55 children's testimonies and 15 adult testimonies. The latter testimonies focus on children's experiences in various ghettos in Nazi-occupied Poland, whereas the children's testimonies are divided into six thematic sections: the ghettos, the camps, on the Aryan side, in hiding, the resistance and prison. The children's testimonies can be characterized as 'unliterary,' simple descriptive reports, close in time to the events they describe. They convey diversity of individual experiences, but, at the same time, they revolve around common themes and shared wartime experiences. They all are based on oral interviews with child survivors that were conducted according to the official guidelines on how to research Jewish children's wartime experiences that were issued in 1945 by the Historical Commission of the Central Committee of Polish Jews. These interviews were carried out in Jewish children's orphanages, dormitories, and places of daily care that were established in various Polish cities and towns immediately after the end of war.

How I Introduce the Source

I introduce students to the testimonies by discussing the historical background and by posing a question about what we can learn from the close reading of children's testimonies. My main objectives are to teach students that children's testimonies are a rich documentary source useful for the reconstruction of the history of Jewish children and Jewish family in Poland during the Second World War, and for the reconstruction of the multi-dimensional histories of Polish-Jewish and also Ukrainian-Jewish relations of the period. My specific aims are to demonstrate the ways in which testimonies: (1) shed light on the patterns of Jewish family life (e.g., the reversal of the roles between children and their parents) and in the ghettos; (2) map out social relations between the children and other individuals in the ghettos and camps (e.g., between children and individuals on the Aryan side in wartime and early post-war Poland as well as with their Christian Polish rescuers); (3) inform us about children's particular methods of survival and their role in the process of their own survival; and (4) reveal the emotional, intellectual, and physical state of young people emerging from the conditions of war, genocide, and a deep-seated fear of being exposed as Jewish.

Students also learn about the differences between children's testimonies and other primary sources—the official documents—which they also read and discuss in the classroom prior to our discussion on Jewish children's wartime experiences. This is achieved through a two-page take-home assignment in which they answer the following key questions: How and in what ways do the testimonies differ from official documents? Describe the similarities and differences. What are, in your opinion, the shortcomings of the children's testimonies and what are their strengths as a historical evidence?

The subject is discussed in two 75-minute course periods during a week. In preparation, I show students a 15-minute clip from the film Undzere Children (Our Children). Afterwards, I ask them questions about the images of Jewish childhood during the war presented in the film and about representations of Jewish children during the Holocaust in Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda material discussed the previous week in the context of the Warsaw ghetto. This is conducted in the form of a "15-minute buzz discussion," aimed at the overview and categorization of acquired historical knowledge.

Reading the Source

Next, I provide a 10-minute general historical background (e.g., information and explanations about the various localities) and short definitions of unusual terms and vocabulary encountered in the testimonies. Students then form working groups—numbering between 5 and 6 individuals—that are assigned one or two children's testimonies from The Children Accuse. The final part of the first session is dedicated to going over the first homework assignment. Students read the testimony and answer the following questions: Does the child—she/he—remember his/her prewar childhood? What kind of social background does she/he have? Does the child remember his parents? What does she/he remember? What kind of wartime experience did the child undergo? What are the main recollected individuals, events and developments? What image of the life in a ghetto emerges from the testimony? How did the child survive? Was he/she assisted/helped by a rescuer and, if so, by whom? Who are the rescuers and how did they behave towards the child? What do we learn about the life of the child after the end of the war? How does she/he view their present situation? What feelings and reflections does she/he express? Are these feelings and reflections typical of a childhood age? What information appears to be absent from the child's testimony?

These questions are written on the weekly outline posted on blackboard and circulated in class at the beginning of the first session. I ask the students to provide written answers in the form of notes. At the beginning of the second class session, students in each group are asked to compare their written notes, discuss their individual answers, and prepare the comprehensive group answer to the abovementioned questions. I ask each of the groups to select the most striking passages from testimonies to exemplify their answers. This takes place during the first 15-20 minutes and is followed by each groups' 10-minute oral presentation about its child's/children's testimony. This is followed by a general class-wide discussion that builds on issues raised in each of the presented cases. This discussion aims at a differentiation of the children's wartime experiences and at making analogies between "ordinary" childhood and childhood under the conditions of war and genocide. These discussions are usually animated.

The second homework assignment—the above mentioned two-page essay—asks the students to discuss and reflect on the value of a child's testimony in Holocaust history. This assignment offers students the chance to wrestle with salient questions about a variety of primary sources in an historical investigation.

The two sessions are essential preparation for working on their final group assignment, a poster about Jewish children's life during the war. (The poster represents 15% of the final grade.) Through the final assignment, the students expand their knowledge about and understanding of the subject by building on their previous work and by further investigating the subject outside the classroom. Students usually are quite enthusiastic about the poster project. It allows them to demonstrate not only historical knowledge but also their creativity with written and visual images, as well as artistic and aesthetic talents.

Reflections

Having used children's testimonies in a range of courses, I have learned to adapt them according to the course level and subject matter. In all classes, I have founded that students' responses to this material is very positive.

The testimonies, together with diaries, memoirs and documentary films such as Undzere Children (Our Children, Poland, 1948, Yiddish with English translation) allow students insight into the everyday life of the historical actors: the Jewish child survivors, family members, their Christian rescuers and other individuals whom children encountered in a ghetto and on the Aryan side. These primary sources allow students to follow in the footsteps of young Jewish children and see them as human beings who went through various wartime experiences and who harbor particular child-focused memories of the war. Students confront, in these testimonies, the uncontrived story of personal experience. From the testimonies, students gain not only an understanding of the variety of wartime experiences and survival, but also an understanding of the particular pain and perplexity of the children, who lost their families, were forced to assume Christian identities, and to fend for themselves though children.

1 Maria Hochberg-Mariańska and Noe Grüss, eds. The Children Accuse, trans. Bill Johnston (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 1996). See also: Hochberg-Mariańska, Maria and Noe Grüss, eds. Dzieci żydowskie oskarżają, Kraków, Żydowska Komisja Historyczna w Krakowie, 1946.

How to Cite This Source

"Jewish Children & the Holocaust," in Children and Youth in History, Item #26, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/case-studies/26 (accessed April 23, 2014).