Childhood at War and Genocide: Children’s Experiences of Conflict in the 20th Century – Agency, Survival, Memory and Representation

Childhood at War and Genocide: Children’s Experiences of Conflict in the 20th Century – Agency, Survival, Memory and Representation

Anna Ullrich, Center for Holocaust Studies, Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History; Yuliya von Saal, Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History; Joanna Michlic, UCL Centre for Collective Violence, Holocaust and Genocide Studies, IAS; Tobias Freimüller, Fritz Bauer Institut
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
17.10.2022 - 19.10.2022
Jonathan Lanz, Department of History, Indiana University Bloomington; Karianne Hansen, School of History, Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester

“The history of children and childhood is always on the rise and yet not quite risen,” noted historian Sarah Maza, in a biting American Historical Review essay which challenged the current state of children’s history.1 Histories of childhood have long been neglected due to the large-scale absence of ‘child-curated’ sources along with the field’s insistence on centering the most inconspicuous among us in historical scholarship. The organisers of this conference took Maza’s claim to task in an impressive overview of recent scholarship demonstrating how children’s voices are crucial sources in writing histories of violence, trauma, and genocide in twentieth-century Europe. Taking its cue from the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, the conference emphasised the importance of understanding the historical experience of children in Eastern Europe and the former-Soviet Union in addressing the contemporary child refugee crisis. The three-day conference, held in Munich’s iconic Institute for Contemporary History, brought together a broad geographic range of scholars to discuss how the fraught concepts of agency and historical representation relate to children’s lives in extremis.

The first panel began with the organisers stated focus of the conference – an emphasis on childhood experiences in the former Soviet Union. OKSANA VYNNYK (Edmonton) began the discussion by examining how Ukrainian officials responded to children’s healthcare needs in response to Stalin’s 1932-1933 artificial famine. Crucially, Vynnyk’s paper invoked the key question of how historians of childhood must draw from adult narratives given the lack of child-created sources. NATALIE BELSKY (Duluth) continued the panel by presenting on the experiences of Jewish children who were evacuated into the Soviet interior in the wake of Operation Barbarossa. Belsky argued for the accelerated maturation of children due to forced labor requirements. Like Vynnyk, Belsky primarily drew upon the memories of adults who recalled these forced migrations in her study. Both authors argued for the centrality of recovered memory as a historical source in children’s history. The panel concluded with LEA PRAIS (Tel Aviv), who presented on the roles of Jewish children in a Byelorussian family camp outside of Minsk. Prais provocatively argues that partisans transformed Jewish children into fighters, restoring agency to the most vulnerable population targeted by the Nazi regime. This fraught notion of agency, now widely critiqued within the historical profession, continued to be a key concept used throughout the conference.

The second panel of the day covered a rapidly-growing historiography – the experiences of children during the war itself. DIETER STEINERT (Wolverhampton) drew from his landmark study of child forced labor in Nazi Germany to elucidate the benefits and challenges of children’s testimony as a historical source. Forcefully arguing that children have more ‘accurate’ testimonies than adults over time, Steinert’s examination of child forced laborers in the Nazi camps reminds us that children’s experiences were far from monolithic. Steiner’s presentation was particularly laudable due to his micro-level examination of children’s groups and pairings as a model of camp social organisation. DANA MIHAILESCU (Bucharest) continued with an examination of Romanian orphans’ experiences in the immediate postwar period. Her use of contemporaneous sources such as press excerpts and accounts of child psychologists acknowledged memory’s flaws and gaps in histories of childhood. Reinforcing findings by scholars such as Tahra Zahra and Rebecca Clifford, Mihailescu demonstrated the ways in which war orphans became central in postwar national identity conflicts.2 Both panelists, conscious of children’s roles as symbols of national belonging, forcefully argued for a renewed emphasis on victim-based testimony in Holocaust research.

NICHOLAS STARGARDT (Oxford), one of the world’s preeminent experts on childhood during the Second World War and the Holocaust, provided the keynote address. Drawing on his early research on children’s art during the Holocaust, Stargardt argued that children’s perspectives have the potential to radically alter our perception of the Holocaust’s effects. Through examining Jewish children’s drawings, what Stargardt terms “frozen moments of historical time,” historians can more fully comprehend how children and younger adolescents understood the caesurae of Nazi domination. Furthermore, his talk emphasised some of the most fruitful areas of research in the field, such as the nature of children’s agency and the uncertain postwar realities facing child survivors. Stargardt’s keynote address provided a key quotation which summed up the conference – “Half of how we cope with our present is imagining the future.” If nothing else, this rationale undergirds the need for further studies in the field.

The third panel focused on the postwar world and the impact of genocide on children`s identities. LORRAINE MCEVOY (Dublin) began the panel by introducing two case studies on recuperation initiatives of children in Britain and Ireland after the Second World War. McEvoy traced the phenomena as an international one, arguing that it was seen as a solution to the horrors of war and its impact on children. The second speaker, VERENA BUSER (Potsdam/Galilee), presented a more chaotic case study of the displaced children in UN children’s centers. Buser examined the heterogenous encounters of child survivors and the deliberations that went into bringing the children ‘home,’ and if this endeavor was indeed possible. CHIARA RENZO (Venice) brought us back to postwar Italy and the conflicts over the educational future of Italian children. Renzo illustrated the battle for Italian Jewish identity after the war as fought by teachers, rescuers, and political actors between the aims of Zionists and the Italian Jewish leadership’s ambivalence to Zionism. The final paper by DROR SHARON (Tel Aviv) problematised the experiences of the nearly 4000 children who entered Britain as refugees from Spain after the Spanish Civil War. By focusing on what she calls the category of adolescence - children over the age of 12 as the older members of the emigrant group - complicated the conference’s distinction between childhood and adulthood. All four papers, while coming from varied geographic perspectives, emphasised children as central concerns of postwar nation-states.

Panel four, a continuation of the third panel’s focus on children’s experiences in the postwar period, was perhaps the most thought-provoking session of the conference. JAKUB GAŁĘZIOWSKI (Warsaw) and SILKE HAKENESCH (Cologne) both provided fascinating overviews of Afro-European child refugees in postwar Poland and Germany, respectively. Gałęziowski’s paper particularly highlighted the absence of Afro-Polish children in the historiography of postwar Europe. Hakenesch, drawing on the recent outgrowth of Black-German studies, argued for historians to decode the transnational dialogue taking place between German and African American press in the late-1940s. SARAH ROSEN (Ramat Gan) and RAKAFET ZALASHIK (Tel Aviv) rounded out the panel with analyses of psychological relief efforts carried out by Allied aid organisations. Both presenters focused their presentations on the agendas of caregivers in ‘rehabilitating’ children who managed to survive the Nazi onslaught. The panel’s question and answer session was particularly fruitful, with audience members probing Gałęziowski’s provocative claim that Afro-German children became contested icons of Poland’s postwar national rebirth, even though many had not set foot in Poland prior to 1945. This panel made it clear that the intersections between race and childhood provides an important path for future research in the field.

Returning to atrocities committed against children, the fifth panel started with RUTH AMIR (Yezreel Valley) unpacking the legal concept of forcible child transfer. Amir examined the vagueness of child transfer as an analytical category and challenged the perpetrator-based justifications which tear children away from their homes and communities. EDITA GZOYAN (Yerevan) presented a powerful example of forced child transfers during the 1915 Armenian genocide. By using surveys of survivors drawn from the League of Nation archives, the Nansen Fond, and the Armenian Orphanage in Aleppo, Gzoyan showed the ways that abducted children in orphanages reacted to the forced assimilation practices. Prohibited from using their native language renamed by perpetrators, children continued to make efforts to remember their Armenian ancestry. The panel concluded with LUKAS SCHRETTER and NADJESCHDA STOFFERS (Graz). Here the presenters examined the case of children born in the Wienerwald Lebensborn maternity home near Vienna. Through mining the emotions and expressed identities in three interview-based case studies, Schretter and Stoffers demonstrated the effect of the Lebensborn program in the lifespans of Lebensborn children.

Moving away from purely historical analyses, the sixth panel focused on the psychological effects of war on children. The panel started with DAVID FREIS (Augsburg) who examined the various intersections between childhood trauma and Eastern European Jewish identity in the immediate post-WWI era. Drawing on alternative sources such as children’s drawings, Freis endorsed Stargardt’s keynote findings by emphasising the diverse psychological responses of Jewish children to the extreme violence of pogroms. ANNA PARKINSON (Evanston) followed with a discussion of German-Dutch psychoanalyst Hans Keilson and his role in the treatment of Jewish child survivors from the Holocaust. Parkinson persuasively argued that Keilson’s work can help scholars mediate silences in sources relating to children’s war trauma. Continuing the panel’s focus on individual psychoanalysts, CLAUDIA MOISEL (Jena) invoked the case of British child psychiatrist John Bowlby. Moisel argued that Bowlby’s development of attachment theory, a key element of 20th century child psychology, can be directly traced to his experiences interacting with child survivors of the Holocaust. The panel concluded with BEVERLEY CHALMERS (Canada), whose paper was a call for historians of childhood to renew their focus on studying the sexual abuse of children during periods of conflict. Drawing from her recent publication, Chalmers discussed the methodological pitfalls of exploring this stigmatised subject and reminded the participants that the most fruitful histories of childhood draw upon sources with significant silences.

The final panel focused on the key methodological challenges facing historians of childhood. ZOFIA TRĘBACZ (Warsaw) began by examining how contemporaneous letters and postcards written by children during the Second World War showcases a level of children’s agency. Trębacz’s focused on longing as a theme present in many children’s letters demonstrates the continuing centrality of the history of emotions to childhood studies. WIEBKE HIEMESCH (Hildesheim) turned our attention to the absence of children’s voices in violent conflicts throughout the twentieth century. Her overview, arguing that children’s drawings can avoid the bottleneck of written communication, is of use to scholars studying children’s lives in extreme conditions. MARCIN GOŁAB (Warsaw), drawing on Charles Taylor’s concept of ‘social imaginaries,’ explained how Polish children’s drawings ca. 1944-1945 can aid our understanding of how children comprehended to and responded to wartime violence. Gołab’s analysis of materiality vis-à-vis these creations highlights the continuing methodological challenge in finding children in official sources. The panelist who created the most buzz amongst the participants was organiser JOANNA MICHLIC (London) who provocatively probed the dangers of sentimentalising child survivors’ lives. Citing prevailing narratives in the United Kingdom on groups such as the ‘Windermere children’, Michlic contended that discourses of redemption belie the harsh postwar realities Jewish children experienced after liberation.

The conference touched on many of the issues which continue to be prescient in the field of children’s history. Concepts of accelerated maturation, parent-child role reversal, and the militarisation of children for political ends dominated the discussions. The participants successfully argued for the continued relevance of children’s perspectives to transform larger national narratives surrounding the Second World War. However, what is left to be done? Firstly, the composition of the conference demonstrated that scholars still have difficultly expanding our studies of childhood and war in the twentieth century beyond the Holocaust – an inclusion of a broader geographical range of papers would have enhanced discussions greatly. Additionally, historians of childhood and war need to more carefully interrogate the concepts of agency and representation which were central to the present conference. Some of the participants took the concept of children’s agency as a given. More fruitful discussions could have arisen by exploring the limitations of agency as an analytical concept in children’s histories. These foundational disciplinary questions will continue to inspire the field for years to come. Finally, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we will likely see a continuing relevance of Eastern European military history for contemporary politics. What scholars of childhood can contribute to this debate, including those working on non-Holocaust topics, must remain at the top of research agendas for the foreseeable future.

Conference overview:

Welcome and Introductory Remarks
Frank Bajohr (Munich) / Joanna Michlic (London) / Sybille Steinbacher (Frankfurt am Main) / Yuliya von Saal (Munich)

Panel 1: Soviet Childhood Experiences and WWII
Chair: Anna Ullrich (Munich)

Oksana Vynnyk (Edmonton): Surviving Starvation in Soviet Ukraine: Children and Soviet Healthcare in the early 1930s

Natalie Belsky (Duluth): Into the Vast Unknown: Jewish Children’s Experiences in Evacuation on the Soviet Home Front

Lea Prais, Bar-Ilan University (Tel Aviv), Jewish Children in Family Camps in Byelorussia's forests

Panel 2: Children of the Shoah and their Experiences of War
Chair: Andrea Löw (Munich)

Dieter Steinert (Wolverhampton): Testimonies of Jewish child forced labourers: Challenges and opportunities

Dana Mihăilescu (Bucharest): Early Postwar Accounts about Romanian Jewish Orphans’ Holocaust Experiences in Transnistria

Moderation: Sybille Steinbacher (Frankfurt am Main)

Nicholas Stargardt (Oxford): Restoring the subjectivities of children in the Holocaust

Panel 3: After the Genocide: Identities and Coming to Terms, Part I
Chair: Tobias Freimüller (Frankfurt am Main)

Lorraine McEvoy (Dublin): Experiences and Recollections of Post-Second World War Recuperative Holidays

Verena Buser (Potsdam / Galilee): Close Encounters in liberated Germany: Displaced children in UN Children Centers

Chiara Renzo, (Venice): Italian Jewish children after the Holocaust and the debate around "Jewish education"

Dror Sharon, Tel Aviv University (Tel Aviv): “The Spanish Youth and Girl Mature Very Early”: Adolescent Refugees from Spain and the Boundaries of Childhood in Great Britain, 1937-1950

Panel 4: After the Genocide: Identities and Coming to Terms, Part II
Chair: Gaelle Fisher (Munich)

Sarah Rosen (Ramat Gan): “The Most Fascinating and Happy Year of Our Lives”: The Testimonies and Rehabilitation of Orphaned Children from Romania in Apeldoorn, Netherlands

Jakub Gałęziowski, (Warsaw): The best interests of the child in national terms – the inclusive policy of the Polish communist authorities towards the children of Polish female forced laborers and DPs and fathered by foreigners

Silke Hackenesch, (Cologne): “’Orphans’ of the War“: The ‘Brown Baby Plan’ and Transnational Adoption from Germany to the US after 1945

Rakefet Zalashik (Tel Aviv): From Victims of Genocide into Agents of Democracy: The Politics of Psychological Relief for Young Jewish Displaced Persons in the Aftermath of the Holocaust

Panel 5: Forced Transfer of Children
Chair: Rachel O’Sullivan (Munich)

Ruth Amir (Israel): What is Forcible Child Transfer? Conceptualization and Legal-Historical Comparisons

Edita Gzoyan, (Yerevan): Forcibly Transferred and Assimilated: Experiences of Armenian Children during the Armenian Genocide

Lukas Schretter (Graz): Ambivalent but Not Indifferent: Identities and Emotions of Children Born in a Lebensborn Maternity Home

Panel 6: Child Experts: First Studies of War Effects on Children
Chair: Giles Bennett (Munich)

David Freis (Augsburg): Catastrophic Times: Childhood Trauma, Psychology, and Jewish Identity in Eastern Europe after the First World War

Anna Parkinson (Evanston): On the Other Side: Capturing Children’s Wartime Experiences through the “Talking Cure”

Claudia Moisel (Munich): Orphans, Child Experts and Attachment Theory: Social Casework Files as Archives of Childhood in War

Beverley Chalmers (Canada): Child Sex Abuse in the Holocaust: Concealing Sensitive Experiences

Panel 7: Testimonies and Sources of Children
Chair: Veronika Duma (Frankfurt am Main)

Zofia Trębacz (Warsaw): “Dear Daddy. You ask me how I spend the whole day, from morning to evening I think about you..” Children’s letters and the emotions hidden behind them

Wiebke Hiemesch (Hildesheim): Children’s Drawings of War and Genocide – Children’s Voices, Witnessing and Politics

Marcin Gołąb (Warsaw): Polish Children's Drawings of War with Easter Eggs on the Back. Practising Childhood in Postwar Poland (1944-46)

Joanna Michlic (London): The Missed Lessons from the Holocaust: Representations of Difficult and Painful Past in Testimonies of Child Survivors

Closing Remarks and Outlook
Moderation: Anna Ullrich (Munich) / Andrea Löw (Munich) / Joanna Michlic (London) / Yuliya von Saal (Munich) / Nicholas Stargardt (Oxford)

1 Sarah Maza, “The Kids Aren’t All Right: Historians and the Problem of Childhood,” American Historical Review 125, no. 4 (October 2020): p 1261.
2 See Tara Zahra, The Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe’s Families after World War II, Cambridge 2015; Rebecca Clifford, Survivors: Children’s Lives after the Holocaust, New Haven 2020.