The innocent world of Jewish children living in Germany changed when the Nazis came to power in 1933. The Jews were a special target of Nazi ideology and policies, which ultimately resulted in the Holocaust. From the very beginning, Jews and their children suffered at the hands of the Nazis.
In the 1930s a series of Nazi laws were introduced aimed at removing the civil and economic rights of Jews and other groups. These laws had a severe impact on the lives of children. One of the first laws that affected Jewish students was the "Law against Overcrowding in German schools and universities" of 25 April 1933 that restricted the number of Jewish children in schools, not to exceed 1.5 percent of the total number of students. Jewish children of war veterans and those with a non-Jewish parent were initially exempted. Jewish children were banned from many public spaces, and everyday activities like going to the park or going swimming were forbidden.
After 1935, close friends suddenly avoided the company of their Jewish classmates, sometimes becoming hostile. Letters from German children to the editors of the Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer reveal a shameful potpourri of stupidity and fanaticism against their Jewish classmates. Jewish children in German classrooms were humiliated as they were taught "biology" that designated them as racially inferior.
On 15 November 1938, German Jewish children were prohibited from attending German schools. The segregated Jewish schools, facing steadily deteriorating conditions and increasing Nazi pressure, were finally closed on 7 July 1942, after the first wave of deportations of German Jews to the East had been completed.
Lack of funds and strict visa and immigration controls prevented many Jewish families leaving Germany. However, some were able to migrate to neighbouring European countries. Many of these Jewish refugees were often caught up in the Nazi regime again in later years.
Between 1938 and 1940, the Kindertransport (Children's Transport) was the informal name of a rescue effort which brought thousands of refugee Jewish children (without their parents) to safety in Great Britain from Nazi Germany and German-occupied territories. Some non-Jews hid Jewish children and sometimes, as in the case of Anne Frank, hid other family members as well. In France, almost the entire Protestant population of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, as well as many Catholic priests, nuns, and lay Catholics, hid Jewish children in the town from 1942 to 1944. In Italy and Belgium, many children survived in hiding.
The first group of children to be targeted by the Nazis for extermination were disabled children described as "useless eaters". They were taken away from their parents under the guise of receiving the latest medical attention and maybe a cure. In fact, they were part of a top secret euthanasia programme.
After 1939, there are four basic patterns that can describe the fate of Jewish children in occupied Europe:
- those killed immediately on arrival in concentration camps and killing centers;
- those killed shortly after birth (for example, the 870 infants born in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, largely to Jewish and Gypsy women, between 1943 and 1945;)
- those few born in ghettos and camps and surviving, such as the three year old Stefan Georg Zweig born in the Cracow ghetto and carried in a specially prepared rucksack through the concentration camp at Plaszow to Buchenwald in 1944, where he was hidden and protected by German communist prisoners; and
- those children, usually above the age of 10, utilized as prisoners, laborers, and subjects for Nazi medical experiments.
After the invasion of Poland in 1939, Jewish men, women and children were rounded up and forced to live in ghettos established by the Germans. Many died of starvation or disease.
Two years later, in the Soviet Union, the invading German army was followed by Einsatzgruppen (operations groups) who went from town to town rounding up Jews and shooting them.
Then in December 1941 the Germans began the "Final Solution". The ghettos were cleared and Jews moved to the extermination camps. Many children died on the trains or on arrival in the gas chambers. Two camps - Auschwitz and Majdanek - operated a selection policy where the fittest were chosen for slave labour, while babies, small children and their mothers were sent straight to the gas chambers. Teenagers had a better chance of surviving selection, particularly if they claimed to have a skill.
Long term survival was rare and most of those selected to work died eventually of exhaustion and disease. The conditions were so extreme that even the fittest people rarely survived more than a few months in the camps. Some children were kept back from the gas chambers so they could be used for horrific medical experiments.
In their "search to retrieve 'Aryan blood,'" SS race experts ordered hundreds of children in occupied Poland and the occupied Soviet Union to be kidnapped and transferred to the Reich to be adopted by racially suitable German families. Although the basis for these decisions was "race-scientific," often blond hair, blue eyes, or fair skin was sufficient to merit the "opportunity" to be "Germanized." On the other hand, female Poles and Soviet civilians who had been deported to Germany for forced labor and who had had sexual relations with a German man -- often under duress -- resulting in pregnancy were forced to have abortions or to bear their children under conditions that would ensure the infant's death, if the "race experts" determined that the child would have insufficient German blood.
More than 1.5 million children from across Europe were murdered under the Nazi regime. This figure includes more than 1.2 million Jewish children, tens of thousands of Gypsy children and thousands of institutionalized handicapped children who were murdered under Nazi rule in Germany and occupied Europe. The Nazis, obsessed with the notion of creating a 'biologically pure', 'Aryan' society, deliberately targeted Jewish children for destruction, in order to prevent the growth of a new generation of Jews in Europe.
Some of the children under threat spent years hiding from the Nazi authorities - either by hiding physically in barns, attics and cellars, or by taking on false identities. There are a few examples of resistance movements working to move children to safety. For example, the Belgium priest, Joseph André, worked with the Comité de Défense des Juifs to save hundreds of Jewish children by finding them hiding places in convents, monasteries and private homes.
By the end of the war only a few thousand Jewish children had survived the camps.