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Vaguely Known Children

Book Essay on: Deborah Dwork, Children with a Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Germany
( : Yale University press, 1991), 380pages.
UCSB: D804.3.D86 1991

by Jasmin Garcia
March 23, 2010

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in European History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2010

About the Author
& Abstract
Book available at

About Jasmin Garcia

I am a fourth year Sociology/Chicano Studies double major with double minor in applied psychology and history. I have been interested in the Holocaust after learning about it in middle school. I always wanted to know how one individual (Hitler) had the means to manipulate and murder so many individuals. Through this course however my interest has shifted from Hitler to the experiences of Jewish population. I chose Children with a Star because after having watched “The boy in the striped pajamas” I became intrigued to discover what children had undergone during that period of time.

Abstract (back to top)

Deborah Dwork's book examines the lives of Jewish children before, during and after the Holocaust. Through interviews and hospital records Dwork is able to illustrate the treacherous life experiences these children as they were ripped of their child hood, lost their families, and lived in hiding and in the concentration camps. Children were exposed to inhumane situations that would be unthought-of of for children. They were faced with seeing death, abandoning their families, starvation, and a new way of life. It is crucial to acknowledge the life stories of children during the Holocaust because they allow us to be aware of how a vaguely known population was affected emotionally, mentally, and physically when robbed of its childhood. Dwork’s compilation of their stories allows us to admire the strength the children possessed in order to live through the Holocaust and become functioning individuals in spite of the treacherous recollections they held within themselves.

Essay (back to top)

Adults, elderly, and children all underwent distinctive experiences during the Holocaust. The history of the holocaust has mainly been told by referencing to the experience of adults. The history of children of the Holocaust is not extensive because only 11 percent of them survived. However through oral reports, diaries, and archives Deborah Dwork is successful in bringing to light the experiences of children through vivid illustrations in Children with a Star. These children survived by hiding, being hidden or by coincidence in the camps. Dwork claims that there is a basic assumption that children merely starved to death, froze to death, or died of common diseases” (Dwork, xliii). However her objective is to demonstrate that there is much more than that to their lives and experiences. It is crucial to acknowledge the life stories of children during the Holocaust because they allow us to be aware of how a vaguely known population was affected emotionally, mentally, and physically when robbed of their childhood. Dwork’s compilation of their stories allows us to admire the strength the children possessed in order to live through the Holocaust and become functioning individuals in spite of the treacherous recollections they held within themselves.

Before the Holocaust there was evidence of some antisemitism, but Jewish children and their families managed to live comfortably in their communities. Children attended school, had friends and lived a normal childhood. Children’s normal lives however were crushed as antisemitic legislation began to segregate the Jewish community from mainstream (Dwork, 20). At their young age these children were not capable of comprehending what was occurring. They could only possibly see that it was occurring because of their Jewish identity. Some of the children began feeling ashamed of their Jewish identity because they could not return to their normal schools. Unconsciously these children began being affected mentally as they aimed to understand what it was about being Jewish that was caosting them their ordinary lives. Children with the exception of the very young ones as well as adults had to wear a star on their clothing. The purpose of the star to many children was unknown but a man recollects that as a child he wished he had one “I envied them…I wanted to have one as well and I wasn’t allowed; I was too young” (Dwork 24). He like others did not understand that the star was a visible emblem that made them outsiders to the community they once considered their own. On the other hand children that were a little older and could to some extent, comprehend that the star excluded them used that understanding as a reason for the actions that were taken upon them. A woman remembers that as young girls they held their books in a way as to hide their stars, to prevent them form being picked on and having students make jokes (Dwork, 27). This woman’s recollection illustrates further that children’s psyches were affected as they began constructing their own methods of keeping themselves from the harm of other children. Children were not only trying to defend themselves, but once Jewish families began to be gathered up to be sent to transit camps and ghettos, parents would send their children to hiding.

In an attempt to ensure the survival of their children during the Holocaust many parents would give their children away to relatives or strangers. Children experiences of hiding were unique to each individual; however they were all affected emotionally as they shared fear and contempt.. Children went into hiding by the assistance of two different networks. One of the networks was family groups such as family relatives and friends, and the second network was groups that were run by people who came together with the objective of saving children (Dwork, 55). In some instances individuals who hid the children claimed that the children to be their relatives or orphans that had survived the war. Commonly children’s registration records were destroyed for the purpose of not making the children identifiable as being Jewish. By doing so a child was literally being ripped of his or her identity, they were told that they were no longer were who they were and to learn a new name, and accept new parents, and a new identity (Dwork, 92). Children were forced to accept their new identity and in order to survive they were forced to suppress any emotions they might have felt, or any mental complications they felt in regards to their identity. Another practice of the networks was the example in Heerleen in which children were sent off to foster homes and individuals in the second network would, with the parents’ permission, smuggle the children out of the child day care center (Dwork, 40). The assumption could be made that children who hid were better off than children who did not however because they were not in concentration camps did not mean that they lived happy pleasant lives.

For children in hiding it was essential that they leave no evidence or sign of their presence. Some children were taken to families where they were considered to be one of their own and were granted love and attention. Although this might have been the scenario for some children the majority of children were not so fortunate. Although other children lived with a family they were alone and “…were not so fortunate as to have been accepted into their foster families…”(Dwork, 89). The child had no emotional connection to the family, no compassion and once again they were forced to suppress their emotions in order to not irritate the family they were staying with. After all they had to be grateful that they were given hospitality. However by hiding their emotions children are mentally affected as they do not feel wanted in a family, and might question what is wrong with them for not being accepted, and blame themselves for their situation. Many children were forced to hide in “Tiny hidden spaces within a wardrobe or closet, under the stairs or floor, in the attic or cellar were constructed with false walls and floors” (Dwrok, 73). It was difficult for children to live under those circumstances as children are constantly active yet they were forced to adapt to their new lifestyle. Children who were in hiding were denied a normal childhood, their education, developmental of abilities, models for familial relationships and normal socialization process. Instead they suffered deprivation and persistent psychological dilemma (Dwork, 81). Children who were able to read enjoyed doing so as a pastime which helped them get away from their existence and their newly acquired reality (Dwork, 72). The experience of the hidden children was not the only new reality in which they faced emotional mental or physical distress.

Children who were not killed or hidden faced the different reality of being deported and living in transit camps. In the camps children suffered physically, from malnutrition and bad treatment, and at the same time emotionally and mentally. However they were happy as they were around other children. Children would play with each other, how they did in their past lives. In order to keep themselves alive on a day to day basis, children would play games that had to deal with imaginary food. This not only kept them entertained but it also helped them psychologically to ease their hunger. Even though adults tried to help to normalize the lives of children by allowing them to play with one another their fate and strains continued when deported to slave labor camps.

When children entered slave and labor camps they were mistreated physically like the adults. The guards did not have pity on them even though they were children. Their psyches were forced to leave their childhood behind. They were forced to look out for themselves as their families were either separated or were unable to help them. When entering the camps they were forced to take their clothes off and they had their heads shaved. Young children are normally terrified when they get a haircut, it must not have been different for children in the Holocaust, however they were forced to keep their emotions, for if they did not they might receive a brutal beating. In one instance when this was done to one young girl, she felt so humiliated and was in deep despair that she ran towards the electric fence. She knew she was going to die either way and she decided to shorten the suffering. She felt that she was no longer human. She had no optimism and all her strength left her and she became a “vegetable” (Dwork, 225). This clearly illustrates how children were overwhelmed emotionally and could not bear their situation that led to their mentality to overpower any idea of survival and attempt suicide. When they were taken to the labor camps they had no other option than to die or be stripped of their childhood and become the adult workers that they were expected to be. Not only were children expected to be like adults but at a young age children witnessed their parents being beaten and abused by the guards.

The experience of older children was different from younger kids as they understood the injustices that were committed against them. Furthermore they were witness see and feel their parents’ powerlessness (Dwork,144). For these young individuals, in instances, they thought that even though they were with adult relatives they had the responsibility of being adults as they were stronger and felt the need to protect them (Dwork, 231). Many children who were able to better understand the situations they lived in hoped to survive and be reunited with their families (Dwork, 242). The desire to be reunited with their families was a strength that many children abided and lived by, however that strength was often diminished when many of the children were not able to be reunited with their families.

Both the experience of hiding and being in transit and concentration camps not only stripped the children of their childhood but had a deep emotional strain. Children’s emotions and feelings were buried within them in order to live day by day. For example, a woman recalls that as a child “I didn’t think. And didn’t feel…I certainly did not cry when my parents were taken, because I was so busy getting myself into a place, into a safe place for survival”(Dwork, 94). Children of younger ages were also ignoring what was going on around them. Another young girl whose father was killed was not able to mourn him in a regular practice, rather yet she was faced with the dilemma of how to get rid of his body so as to not give away her family’s hiding location. “I suppressed all emotions, otherwise I could not survive” (Dwork, 249). Some children forced their psyches to suppress their emotions while others did it unknowingly. A group of children played even though there was the body of a young boy lying alive or dead by their play area. They took notice and one of them said “let’s move on, he gets in the way”(Dwork, 189). This shows how children were no longer affected by death and suffering. They had gotten used to it or they were putting those feelings away in order to live day by day.

When the camps were liberated the survivors were faced with more issues, especially children. They had not only been stripped from their identity, had their childhood taken away, were affected emotionally, mentally and physically but many had also lost all their family. When they returned to their homes they received no sympathy from their neighbors whom still perceived as outsiders. They were not part of the mainstream and could not be reintegrated (Dwork, 266). Those children who had lost their education were not helped as there were only minimal programs that were available to normalize their lives. They were left to deal with their difficulties alone (Dwork, 268). It may be argued that even though children suffered, they had a life ahead of them to overcome any memories. But is it possible to get over a trauma of being ripped of their childhood and be given a different identity and lose their family? Children were asked to not talk about their experiences, such being an example of a girl who was 18 after re-entering society. When going to school to be a nurse she was told by the head nurse “… you come to learn to be a nurse, and we won’t speak about the war and you don’t speak about your Jewish background. No stories” (Dwork, 270). Now as adults many of those children who lived through the Holocaust have not shared their experiences with their families. The author asked why they had not shared their stories and why they shared them with he, to which they simply replied “because you asked” (Dwork, 270).

Although there were not many children survivors of the Holocaust, their experiences are crucial to understanding how they have managed to live with all their memories.. Their experiences allow for a broader look into the Holocaust experience. These children did not live an ordinary childhood. Even though children were not fully aware or competent to understand the Holocaust, they nonetheless, were human beings who were active targets and although they suffered emotional, mental and physical strains they have been able to make others aware of a vaguely known population during the Holocaust.


Annotated Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/23/10)

Book Reviews

  • Carol R. Glatt, "Children with a Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe (Book)." Library Journal 116.3 (1991): 207. MasterFILE Premier. EBSCO. Web. 28 Jan. 2010.

    Glatt speaks of the author’s success in portraying the non-mainstream view of a population strongly present during the Holocaust. The review emphasizes the powerful impact that “Children with a Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe” brings to the populations. Only ten percent of the children survived. The parents of these young children would sacrifice giving them up to Christian families in order to prevent them from undergoing the misery and devastating life of the Holocaust.

  • Deborah, Lipstadt, “Review of Children with a Star” The American Historical Review 97.2 (1992):547-548.

    Lipstadt explains how through this book one comes to understand that children’s experience of the Holocaust was different than that of adults. The children who escaped were to forget and suppress their own Jewish identity in order to survive. They were given away to strangers by their parents as they knew that it was in their benefit for surviving. When the concentrations camps initiated the majority of children were killed immediately as they were not useful to the attackers. It is explained how after the Holocaust the children’s experiences were not told and were not taken as important because they were simply children and that they were not different from that of adults.

  • Marc E. Saperstein, Reviews.Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23.1 (1992): 180. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 28 Jan. 2010

    The review describes the vivid images Dwork writes about in the book, of how young children were immediately murdered because they were of no labor use to the Reich. The book is written in chronological order, as life was before for the children and how they were affected and transformed. The review tells that the book gives a daily overview of the children’s lives, organizations built in order to keep them safe, and the psychological effects on the children. The fact that it is from a children’s point of view makes the book have a greater impact on the audience.

Books and Articles

  • George, Eisen, Children and Play in the Holocaust: Games Among the Shadows. University of Massachusetts Press, 1988

    This book illustrates the experiences of individuals during the Holocaust, but more specifically the author researched how Jewish communities attempted to normalize the lives of children during the Holocaust in order to provide them with an ordinary life as possible. Although the attempt was made to normalize the lives of children it was surreal, as they learned to play pretend for the children.

  • Maxine B. Rsenberg, Hiding to Survive: Stories of Jewish Children Rescued from the Holocaust. New York: Clarion Books, 1994.

    The author provides a brief summary of the Holocaust and further includes and gives descriptions of 14 first-person accounts of individuals who lived in hiding during the Holocaust--but hiding with non-Jews, not with Jews.These stories include both their experiences in living with non-Jews and descriptions of the relationship between the individuals after the war.

Relevant Websites

  • , United States Holocaust Museum Last updated: May 4, 2009

    The website contains contents from the overall experience of the Holocaust, in particular there is a section dedicated to only children, which consists of many images of children who died during the Holocaust as well as those children who survived. Further the website consists of memoirs from individuals who were children at the time of the Holocaust and have now shared their experiences.

  • Louis Bulow, The Holocaust, Crimes, Heroes and Villains

    This website also provides images of the Holocaust of adults as well as children. Furthermore the website commemorates the events and those individuals who suffered during the time and portrays the consequences. It also provides news updates on information that is relevant to Auschwitz and the overall Holocaust. The webpage also includes a section to sign as a “sign of memory” for the victims and the survivors.

  • , World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust

    This website is a form of support for the children who survived during the Holocaust and their loved ones. The page provides information on reunions and conferences the group will be holding as a remembrance to those who were lost during the Holocaust. Those members also share their experiences during the Holocaust and how they are now sharing their stories to promote awareness of the horrible event.

  • rachelaxonfire, Children of the Holocaust April 14, 2009

    This video shows vivid images of children before the Holocaust and their experiences during the Holocaust. The video adds emphasis to the experiences of these children by visually portraying some of the events that children underwent.

  • Firstname Lastname, The International Institute for Holocaust Research Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.2010

    The website provides a clear description of the institution and its purposes. It gives an overall recollection of the Holocaust. In order to continue with the research of the Holocaust the institution accepts donation from the visitors. The research serves the purpose of further discovering details about the Holocaust to further educate people. It provides the audience with a list of publications and digital photo galleries.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Jasmin Garcia on 3/23/10; last updated: 3/23/10
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