Children were the most innocent casualties of WWII. Killed in concentration camps, orphaned by battles throughout Europe, languishing from starvation, destroyed by disease, targeted for their race, traumatized by violence, tens of millions of children throughout European countries suffered and died. Nicholas Stargardt’s informative and well-documented book, Witnesses of War: Children’s Lives Under the Nazis (New York: Vintage Books, 2007) draws upon children’s school assignments, journals and letters to recreate for contemporary readers an invaluable historical picture of children’s lives under the Nazi regimes.
For me, the most inspiring and heartbreaking true story in the book is his account of life for the Jewish orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto and the heroic deeds of their caretaker, Doctor Janusz Korczak. Selfless and courageous, Korczak provided for the orphans even in the harshest conditions—resorting to begging for food for them—and stayed with them to the end to comfort them as they were boarded on death trains, refusing the chance to survive without them. Stargardt describes how on the morning of August 6, 1942, after finding out about the Nazi plan to liquidate the children of the orphanage, “Stefa Wilczynska and Janusz Korczak instinctively moved together to calm the children and get them to gather together their things as they had been shown. One of the teachers went out into the courtyard and obtained a quarter of an hour from the Jewish police to allow the children to pack up and come out in good order… As they lined up in fifty rows of four abreast Korczak set off with the younger children in the lead so that they would not be outstripped by the older ones… That day, all the children’s homes in the ghetto were cleared by the Germans…” (182).
Stargardt also depicts children’s unhappy lives in concentration camps and their powers of adaptation. Because of the wealth of documentation, he focuses in particular on the group from Theresienstadt, called “the Family Camp” at Auschwitz because it was the only camp in which young children were allowed to survive for awhile and continued to live with their families–until they too were killed en masse between July 10-12, 1944. (see my earlier review about Theresienstadt, http://literaturadeazi.ro/content/real-story-terezin-theresienstadt-%E2%80%9Cmodel%E2%80%9D-jewish-ghetto-i-am-star-inge-auerbacher).
“Racial outsiders” were not the only victims of the Nazis, however. Even privileged categories of children—German children themselves—suffered during the Nazi regime, though not for the same reasons as Jewish, Polish or Gypsy victims. Towards the end of WWII, many German children were, like their parents, casualties of war. Stargardt describes, for instance, the bombing of Hamburg, which “marked a turning point in the war. Its scale was completely unprecedented, and it came at a time when both British and German governments that such attacks on German civilians might decide the fortunes of the war” (233). Child survivors recall feeling very frightened by the bombing and praying to stay alive. “The conjunction of sudden awakening out of deep sleep and the sound of the sirens was particularly potent,” the author explains. “In Bochum, Karl-Heinz Bodecker repeated each night as he got into bed, ‘May the Tommies leave us in peace tonight.’ Among Ute Rau’s first stumbling words were ‘Quick, quick, coats, cellar’” (234). Perhaps the deepest suffering of German children was a result of losing their fathers. According to Stargardt, 4,923,000 German soldiers died during the war, two thirds of them perishing during 1944 and 1945. (337) Consequently, millions of German children of that generation grew up not knowing what it’s like to have a father.
Furthermore, about 13 million abandoned and orphaned children were displaced during and shortly after WWII. (351) Many were victims of forced evacuations, slave labor, “Germanization”, concentration camps and the rare survivors of the liquidated Jewish ghettos. Although their numbers can be quantified, their suffering cannot. These children were the victims of a war that was largely outside their control and, for the youngest, also beyond their comprehension.