Jewish History & Culture: Survivors – an extract

This next post in our series on Jewish History and Culture features an extract from Survivors: Children’s Lives After the Holocaust by Rebecca Clifford which follows the lives of one hundred Jewish children out of the ruins of conflict through their adulthood and into old age. This extract tells the story of Zilla C.

Zilla C. was born in Mannheim, Germany, in June 1940. At the age of six months she was deported to the internment camp at Gurs, in the south of France, along with her parents, her toddler brother Eric, and most of the other Jews of Baden and the Palatinate region in the south of Germany. She passed her first birthday in the camp. Her parents were then transferred to another French camp at Rivesaltes before being deported to Auschwitz, while Zilla and her brother were among the children rescued from Gurs by the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), an aid organization that rescued an estimated 5,000 Jewish children trapped in Vichy France. She was taken to an OSE-run care home for infants, the Pouponnière, in Limoges. When the OSE was forced to close its wartime care homes after the fall of unoccupied France to the Nazis in November 1942, Zilla was smuggled into the countryside and hidden with an eighteen-year-old French girl. Later – towards the war’s end – she was moved to the home of the Apard family in Oulches (Indre), who hid her under the assumed name Cécile Apard.

After the liberation, the OSE took Zilla back into their care, placing her first in a care home at Montintin, and then in August 1945 in a home at Draveil, where she was reunited with Eric, a brother she could not remember. She was five years old, and she had experienced seven different ‘homes’: her birth home, an internment camp, two host families, and three institutional care homes. The war had passed, the liberation had come and gone, but still Zilla’s peripatetic existence seemed to continue: the constant transfer of attachments to different places and people was the only life that she had ever known.

When psychoanalyst Judith Kestenberg interviewed Zilla in 1987, Zilla explained that, although she was then forty-seven years old, she still struggled to make any sense of these early years. The war’s end had not brought with it a sense of closure; rather, it had marked the beginning of a decades-long effort to try to piece together the story of her life when she had only meagre scraps of information to work with, few family members who could help, and no pre-war existence that could be resurrected:

Judith Kestenberg: Where do you belong?

Zilla C.: I don’t belong anywhere, you see. I don’t belong anywhere. [. . .] For
most survivors who are not young child survivors, there was a before, you
see. There was a before. There was a time when their life was normal, then
there was this horrible interruption, and then to whatever degree they could, they continued. There was a base in family, there was a base in religion, there was . . . they had some normalcy. With me, I’ve never been normal, you see. [. . .] When the war ended, there was no base for me to go back to.

For young child survivors, another war began after the fighting ceased on the European continent. Adult survivors, and even older children and adolescents, had memories of pre-war life and a pre-war identity: this identity may not have been re-attainable, it may have had to be abandoned after the war was over, but it was there. What makes the lives and experiences of very young child survivors distinctly different from those of adults and children in or on the cusp of their teenage years is that there was no pre-war self that could be remembered, no identity that could be revisited and re-assumed or set aside. Rather than a descent into madness, the war years were these young children’s earliest years of simply being alive. Children are adept at treating the exceptional as normal, and because they had no other life to compare it with, the years of persecution did not necessarily feel dangerous, fraught or chaotic to young survivors. For a great number of them the true moment of disorientation and shock was not the period of the war, but the months and years immediately afterwards.

The ‘liberation’ had a dark emotional heart. It brought with it a great deal
of insecurity (physical, financial, geographical, existential), and the first tentative confrontations with unfathomable loss. It was a moment that demanded that children, even children who were barely more than toddlers like Zilla C., fundamentally recraft their identities – but equally a moment when adults could provide few tools to help with this process. The adults involved in caring for children after the war, whether surviving parents and relatives or aid agencies’ care staff, hoped to ‘reconstruct’ children’s identities, but where children could not remember their early lives, such claims to be facilitating a return to an authentic pre-war self made no sense. After all, children who survived had often done so by deliberately concealing their origins, their Jewishness, their native languages, their very names. New names and new identities had been
part of the fabric of their childhoods in the war years, woven into their notion of who they were, where they belonged, and what daily life was like. The end of the war turned these constructions upside down.

During the war, the scope of adults’ plans for children’s survival (and children’s plans for their own survival) was focused overwhelmingly on the present. Their decisions reflected the hope to survive a day, a week, or a month, because the long-term future could not be predicted. After the war, survivors had to begin to make provisions for the future, both immediate and long-term, but the future had collapsed. It no longer appeared to belong to them. Adult and child survivors alike had spent months and years removed from their communities of origin. Virtually all extended families had been ruptured, and no Jewish community was unaffected by the murder of its members. Homes and possessions were gone and could not be reclaimed. Both adults and children were forced to work towards the realization that loved ones would not return, a realization that took years and even decades to reach its full, terrible maturity. Thus survivors faced decisions after the war that seemed to offer no real path forwards. They were forced to consider how to proceed with their lives in the absence of any means, whether material or emotional, with which to do so.

Although the book Survivors places its emphasis on child survivors’ post-war lives, we can only make sense of their post-war emotions, experiences, and decisions if we understand how and why they lived through the war. There were countless ways in which children managed, against enormous odds, to survive the Holocaust, but here we will look at four of the key routes that defined children’s wartime experiences: survival in hiding, in flight to a neutral country or Allied territory, in ghettos and transit camps, and in concentration camps. Each of these four scenarios was of course very different (and the boundary between them is artificial: many children experienced more than one), but what is striking is just how similar were children’s emotional pathways out of them. The war’s end was a moment when a pronounced period of uncertainty began for most child survivors. This was the point at which a rift opened between a child’s history and his or her ability to make sense of the past, for as children were asked quickly to set aside wartime identities and don ‘reconstructed’ ones in their place, a child’s war experiences no longer seemed to fit into her own story. Where adults refused to talk about the past with a child, encouraged forgetting, or avoided a child’s questions, they further tore the social fabric of her memory. In exploring the question of how we can tell the story of our lives when we do not know where we have come from, we see that for many child survivors, the ‘liberation’ was the moment during which the life story fell apart. For some, it was also the starting point of the decades-long process of piecing it back together.

About the Book

Children’s Lives After the Holocaust

Rebecca Clifford

Shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize.

“In this major contribution to the history of the Holocaust, Clifford has written a highly original, deeply moving and perceptive study of the way child survivors struggled to come to terms with their personal tragedies.“—Saul David, The Sunday Telegraph

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