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September 8, 2007 -- Vol.12, No.1

Through the Eyes of a Child: Using Works by Children to Understand the Holocaust
by Christine Colin, Ph.D.


            The purpose of this article is to address the issue of using children’s sources as texts for examining the Holocaust. Children view the world from a completely different perspective than adults, and therefore their memoirs, poetry, literature, and songs give us a unique view of the Holocaust, through the eyes of a child. While these experiences of these youth do reveal pain, loss, and hardship, more importantly, they express optimism, resilience, and a strong will to live, attributes often absent in adult victims of the Nazi atrocities. As we read these sources, it becomes evident that children experienced the Holocaust in a special way, protected by their innocence from some of the more abstract dangers of the Holocaust, while also affected more deeply by the isolation and confinement than their adult counterparts were. This analysis includes works by Halina Nelken, excerpts from children’s diaries compiled by Laurel Holliday, the memoirs of Claude Morhange-Bégué, Children’s Drawings and Poetry from Terezin complied by Hana Volavkova, and two compilations of songs from the camps and ghettos, among others. These sources reveal a poignancy that can not be grasped in traditional memoirs or stories about the Holocaust. They paint a desperate portrait of lot childhood, abandoned innocence, and devastating isolation. Yet underlying all of the accounts is a consistent refusal to completely forsake the belief in humanity and goodness. For example, Halina Nelken, in her book entitled, And Yet, I Am Here!, concludes that the legacy of the Holocaust “is the prevalence of human integrity and goodness of heart, indestructible even in an ocean of cruelty and evil, which gave me courage, hope and strength to survive, and to live free of bitterness and hatred (Nelken 273). Compare this optimism and affirmation of the human spirit to the pessimism and despair revealed in memoirs of adult survivors like Primo Levi. The conclusions they reach are far more condemning and emphasize the struggle to survive as an individualized one. This distinction may be explained by the ages of the victims and the process in which they began to recall their stories.

            It has only been in recent years that the Children of the Holocaust societies have been created in Warsaw and the United States, that the AMCHA organization was formed in Israel, and that historians and psychologists have begun to tackle the problems of the children who survived the Holocaust. Finally, the issues of the “children without identity” have begun to be addressed by historians and psychologists alike. Now it is becoming quite clear that these children of the camps do have memories, did not forget quickly, and that attempts to suppress their memories actually inflicted more pain and conflict on them than talking about their experiences would have done.

            While oral history and memory must be challenged by historical facts, and in instances may be proven to be inaccurate, these sources provide invaluable resources for understanding the experiences of the victims of the Holocaust. The very fragmentary nature of many of the child survivors’ recollections makes them even more powerful, demonstrating that the memories can not be suppressed, even when the children do not fully comprehend what they are remembering. The testimonies, particularly the words of children, personalize the events of the Nazi process in ways that other sources simply can not. So, the conclusion of this article is that, while the works of children must be read with a highly critical eye, and in conjunction with other scholarly sources that can validate the authenticity of the experiences, these same works can provide a powerful glimpse into not only the horrors of the Holocaust, but also into the traumatic effects of stealing childhood from the young.

Winter is upon us, savage and murderous.  I am cold as ice and can’t sleep.  My benefactors give me strength to persevere and console me that I will yet find safety on the Aryan side of Cracow.  I cannot persuade myself to believe them.  All mankind is egotistic.  They think first of themselves and of their own welfare.  I have no strength to hold up, to hope, to live.  But in my ears there still echo the last words of my mother.  ‘Carry on, do not despair, for your mother’s sake!’  Only these words keep the spark of life aglow within me!” 

--Janina Heshele, 12 years old, survived the Holocaust by hiding on the Aryan side of Cracow[1]


Writing about my childhood today, I have come to see that those were not ordinary times.  But for me, as a child, they were; for I had not known any others.

--Claude Morhange-Bégué, a French Jewish child whose mother was taken and who passed as a Catholic child for the emainder of the war.[2]


            When one mentions children of the Holocaust, perhaps the most immediate image is Anne Frank, the teenager made famous through her diaries and reflections kept while in hiding during the Nazi occupation of Holland.  And yet, Anne Frank, seen by many as the quintessential representative child of the Holocaust, was, in many ways, not representative of the children’s experiences.  As Laurel Holliday points out in the introduction to her book, Children in the Holocaust and World War II:  their secret diaries:  “Because she was in hiding, [Anne Frank] did not experience life in the streets, the ghettos, the concentration camps, as it was lived by millions of children throughout Europe.”[3] Therefore, while Anne Frank’s diary is a significant resource for examining the experience of Jews in hiding, the writings of other young people help to illuminate the totality of the Jewish experience under the Nazis.  In the preface to her memoir, child survivor Eva Mozes Kor remarks that she was moved to record her experiences in 1983 because of a speech by President Ronald Reagan, in which he expressed his sorrow for the deaths of over one million children during World War II.  That speech struck a chord with Eva, who stated, “At that time, something started in me; some kind of idea was born in me that I had to show those who were glorifying the deaths of children in Auschwitz that surviving it was also deserving of glory and was a tribute to the ingenuity and indomitable spirit of children everywhere.”[4]  It is this unrelenting spirit found in children that provided them with a singular perspective on the Holocaust.  Through the eyes of a child, the Holocaust takes on a unique tint.  While the experiences of these youths do reveal pain, loss, and hardship, more importantly, they express optimism, resilience, and a strong will to live, attributes often absent in adult victims of the Nazi atrocities.

            Children view the world from a completely different perspective than adults do, and therefore their memoirs, poetry, literature, and songs give us a unique view of the Holocaust.  As we read these sources, it becomes evident that children experienced the Holocaust in a special way, protected by their innocence from some of the more abstract dangers of the Final Solution, while also affected more deeply by the isolation and confinement than their adult counterparts.  Works by child survivors like Halina Nelken and the excerpts compiled by Laurel Holliday reveal a poignancy that traditional memoirs or stories about the Holocaust cannot clearly portray.  When paired with the poetry of the children at Terezin and Auschwitz, they paint a desperate portrait of lost childhood, abandoned innocence, and devastating isolation.  Yet underlying all of the accounts is a refusal to completely forsake the belief in humanity and goodness.  For example, Halina Nelken, in her book entitled, And Yet, I Am Here!, concludes that the legacy of the Holocaust “is the prevalence of human integrity and goodness of heart, indestructible even in an ocean of cruelty and evil, which gave me courage, hope and strength to survive, and to live free of bitterness and hatred.”[5]

Compare this optimism and affirmation of the human spirit to the pessimism and despair revealed in memoirs by older survivors like Primo Levi. Captured at age twenty-four by the Fascist Militia, Primo Levi entered the Nazi system of destruction.  In his accounts, there is pessimism, despair, resignation.  In Survival at Auschwitz, he declared:  “ It was the very discomfort, the blows, the cold, the thirst that kept us aloft in the void of bottomless despair, both during the journey and after.  It was not the will to live, nor a conscious resignation; for few are the men capable of such resolution, and we were but a common sample of humanity.”[6]    His complete surrender is also demonstrated when he stated, “Clearly they will kill us, whoever thinks he is going to live is mad, it means that he has swallowed the bait, but I have not; I have understood that it will soon all be over…”[7]  Such dark thoughts permeate the memoirs and demonstrate the inability of Levi to conjure up any real sense of hope or optimism about their future. This process of destruction is clearly revealed near the end of the memoir, as Levi declared, “To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one; it has not been easy, nor quick, but you Germans have succeeded.”[8]

The conclusions that Levi reach are far more condemning than those of the children, and they emphasize the struggle to survive as an individualized rather than a communal one.  In other words, for adult survivors such as Levi, concern could not extend beyond the idea of self-preservation; for children, often the emphasis became a communal existence, working together to frustrate the Nazi efforts at exterminating the prisoners’ wills.  As Halina Nelken reflects, “In this stark black and white world without nuances, we faced decisions – moral choices, in fact – all the time.  Although the circumstances might have excused negative behavior, I like to stress that the choices were mostly ethical….And people helped others, if possible, with direct action, if not, with an encouraging word, song and poem, a friendly smile or kindly gesture, a reassuring glance – all equally important for not giving up hope!”[9] The Holocaust experiences of children reveal pain, loss, and hardship, certainly, but they also represent strength, resilience, and hope that provide a strong will to live.  These children, pressed into premature adulthood by their experiences, exist in a nether-region, balanced delicately between youthful optimism and idealism on the one hand, and the cynicism and hopelessness of reality recognized by maturity on the other. 

As Jiri Weil has pointed out, the children who passed through Terezin arrived there with no knowledge of the realities of the Final Solution.  They knew only the path of humiliation of the ghettos and deportations, restrictions felt at every stage of the process but still incomprehensible to the minds of innocent children.  And yet, as these children began to observe the strange new surroundings, they did perceive reality while managing to maintain their child’s outlook, “an outlook of truth that distinguishes between night and day and cannot be confused with false hopes and the shadow play of an imaginary life.”[10]  As part of their experience, these children saw all that the grownups saw:  starvation, death, executions, mistreatment, roll call, prayers.  However, the children also were able to see what the grownups were blind to – “the beauties beyond the village gates, the green meadows and the bluish hills, the ribbons of highway reaching off into the distance….the animals, the birds, the butterflies” -- all this lay beyond the camp gates and could be seen only from afar, with the optimism of childhood.[11]  Through their writings and artwork, the children of Terezin expressed their experiences as a cruel fairly tale complete with evil characters and morality statements.  Most of all, however, these are the voices of truth, optimism, and hope.  Of the 15,000 children who passed through the gates of Terezin, only 100 would survive.  Yet the works of both survivors and casualties of the Holocaust contain this spirit of optimism.  These portraits provide a unique interpretation of the Holocaust, as we view it through the eyes of a child.

            The entire process of writing and keeping a diary was both difficult and dangerous for these children of the Holocaust.  Writing materials were in short supply; in fact, some diary entries were discovered written in the margins of other texts.  If, indeed, one found the resources to write, the next challenge was to find a safe hiding place, for discovery could mean deportation or grave punishment.  The notebook that Halina Nelken used while in the camps was small enough to conceal in the palm of her hand or in the bottom of her shoe, allowing her to smuggle it out of the camp with her.  These precious diaries provided outlets for the anger and rage which burned against the Nazis and those who stood idly by while the persecution of the Jews continued.  These also served as reservoirs for typical adolescent emotions, questions, desires, and fears.  Anne Frank reveals this trust in the diary as a confidante in the clearest terms, stating, “I hope I shall be able to confide in you completely, as I have never been able to do in anyone before, and I hope that you will be a great support and comfort to me.”[12]  These diaries often served as a way to find meaning and purpose in the chaos that surrounded them.  Their entries helped the children to preserve some base sense of personal identity, even as their experiences depersonalized and dehumanized them on a daily basis.  These youngsters survived with a mental strength and spirit, due in large part to the outlet provided by their writings.

            As Laurel Holliday asserts, “The diaries portray what it was like to live with constant Gestapo harassment, the daily grind of searching for the basic necessities, and the terror of seeing friends and relatives deported to their deaths.  And they depict the ways some of these children fought back against their oppressors, not the least of which was to write what they personally witnessed of Nazi brutality as a historical record.”[13] The diaries also provide insight into how these children experienced and survived trauma.  Holliday concluded, “It is clear that the children retained their sanity, their insight, and even humor while living in life-threatening conditions.  Many of them gratefully acknowledged that their diaries helped them to do this.”[14] The desire to have the testimony survive to inform the world of the atrocities of the Final Solution was strong for these children, who hoped that their diaries would speak for them once the war was over.              

            The hopes of these children were not in vain, for in fact, their diaries have spoken for them.  These works, to which we may now turn, reveal much about life under Nazi persecution.  One emotion that is clearly seen in the reminiscences of the children is a loss of innocence, which is reflected in some of the songs from the ghettos, as well.  One in particular, entitled “Yisrolik,” depicts the activities of life on the ghetto streets for a “street smart” youth.  The chorus represents the pride and resilience of these youngsters:  “Call me Yisrolik – I’m the ghetto kid.  Call me Yisrolik – I’m tough and I’m young.  Although I’m always broke, I still can manage a whistle and a song!”[15]  Yet the same song also recognized the pain and hardship of life in the ghetto:  “Call me Yisrolik – But when no one’s looking quietly I wipe away the tears from my eyes.  But, about my misery – better we shouldn’t talk.  What’s the point of remembering?  Who needs a heavy heart?”[16]

            Obviously, even the young were not immune to despair in the face of such desperate conditions.  This emotion is demonstrated time and time again in the writings of these young individuals.  Yitskhok Rudashevski, a fourteen-year old in the Vilna Ghetto expressed his sense of hopelessness in this way:  “I think of nothing:  not what I am losing, not what I have just lost, not what is in store for me.  I do not see the streets before me, the people passing by.  I only feel that I am terribly weary, I feel that an insult, a hurt is burning within me.”[17] In yet another entry, Yitskhok laments, “We are so sad, so lonely.  We are exposed to mockery and humiliation….I am ashamed of our helplessness.”[18]

From Halina Nelken, at age seventeen, comes this powerful diary entry, lamenting the futility of life under the Nazis.  She wrote, “Because we are Jewish people, the achievements of culture and civilization are forbidden to us.  But I am also a human being! I have hands and legs, a mind and a loving heart.  I want to live, for heaven’s sake!  Live and study and work and love!...I realize that the world has forgotten us while they [the Germans] are pushing us down into degradation and moral and physical destruction….How much longer will this nightmare last?”[19]

Another youth, Moshe Flinker, a sixteen-year old Dutch boy who would die in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, reveals the depth of his despair in these words:  “Some three or four months ago I would have had no trouble answering these questions (about his involvement in resistance), because then I was attached to my brothers with all the fibers of my heart and soul, but now all has changed.  From the moment I became empty, I have felt as if all this no longer concerns me.  I feel as if I were dead.”[20]  And the diary of an eighteen-year-old Polish girl, Sarah Fishkin, laments: “All thoughts of staying alive become shrouded in great sadness.  I feel in my heart the desire to perish together with my family, to end my young life beside my parents….: Emptiness and desolation, saddened aching hearts, are our present constant companions.  There seems to be no future for the Jewish population.”[21]

            Perhaps the most poignant expression of hopelessness is found in the short entries by an anonymous boy and his sister, scratched into the margins of a French novel that was discovered in the ruins of the Lodz ghetto after the war.  He writes, “My little sister complains of losing the will to live.  How tragic.  She is only twelve years old!  Will there be an end to our suffering?  When and how, great heavens?  Humanity, where are you?”[22]  This entry was followed by yet another, exhorting the forces of humanity to come to their aid: 


We are so tired of ‘life.’  I was talking with my little sister of twelve and she told me: ‘I am very tired of this life.  A quick death would be a relief for us.’  O World! World!  What have those innocent children done that they are treated in such a manner?  Truly, humanity has not progressed very far from the cave of the wild beast.  Thank heavens that I’m no realist for to be a realist is to realize and realizing the whole horror of our situation would have been more than any human could endure.  I go on dreaming, dreaming about survival and about getting free in order to be able to ‘tell’ the world, to yell and ‘rebuke,’ to tell and protest.”[23]  

Certainly, these emotions seem strikingly somber for such young souls. 

            Yet, despair was not the only emotion revealed in the personal musings of these diaries.  There was also a great deal of optimism among the authors.  For example, thirteen-year-old Eva Heyman, of Hungary, was able to make plans for after the war and to recognize the relative value of objects.  She wrote:  “Agi said we should be happy they’re taking things and not people.  She’s right about that, because after the war I may even have a Zeiss-Ikon camera I’ll be able to work with until I’m old enough to be a news photographer, but a mother or a grandfather can never be replaced.”[24]   Faced with the thought of choosing between objects and people, the young Eva was forced to recognize the brutality that confronted them on a daily basis.

            Brutality was a common denominator for the Nazi Regime.  One of the most diabolical creations of the Hitler and his Nazis was the transit camp at Theresienstadt, located in the Czech fortress town of Terezin.  It was designed as a “model camp” for the Nazi propaganda machine, to be used to demonstrate to the world (especially the Red Cross) the humane treatment of Nazi “prisoners of war” and “traitors”.  In its earliest stages of existence, Terezin was an inhumane ghetto, where the Nazis gathered a cultural population of intellectuals, artists, composers, musicians, and ordinary Jews.  Later, this camp became the showcase for the Holocaust, serving as a deceptive ruse for the Nazi machine. In 1944, the Red Cross made an official visit to the camp to observe the treatment of Jews by the Nazis.  This tour was designed to prove to the world that the Nazis were providing a safe haven for Jews.  Terezin became a façade, a movie set dressed for its visitors.  As part of this deception, designed to show the world that the Jews were living well in a safe environment while ordinary German citizens were suffering the hardships of war, the Nazis constructed a café, a sports field, an outdoor concert bandstand, planted trees, and whitewashed the exterior of the camp buildings.  At first glance, the town seemed quite pleasant.    Behind this false front, however, the truths were staggering.  In the café, one could buy only a cup of watery soup; in the luggage store, one could “purchase” their own valise, seized from them upon arrival; and in the art studio, the only acceptable artworks were drawings approved by Nazi officers.  Beatings, torture, starvation, and disease were commonplace in this hellhole.  Close to 34,000 people perished after entering the gates of this camp, 15,000 of whom were children.  More than 88,000 innocent victims boarded transports from Terezin to the ovens of Auschwitz and other death camps.  It was truly a center of genocide.

            Of the 15,000 children who passed through Terezin,  almost all of them were sent to die in one of the death camps.  Within this system of terror, the adults in the camps attempted to shield the children from the worst atrocities surrounding them.  The children were encouraged to write poetry, create drawings or paintings, and to sing songs.  The collection of songs, Innocent Voices:  The Verse of Terezin’s Children, attempts to put music to some of the most poignant poetry created by the children of this model camp.  Most of the verses were discovered at the end of the war, upon liberation of the camp.  AS AJ Harrison has stated, “Art has many definitions.  It is many things to many people.  Yet, perhaps it is at its most courageous when its creation is an act of hope in the most hopeless of times and places…when it is a humane act of defiance in the face of manmade evil.”[25]

            And from the poetry of the children at Terezin, discovered upon liberation of the camp, come these simple, powerful words, reflecting the sense of longing for a better life:


I’d like to go away alone

Where there are other, nicer people,

Somewhere into the far unknown,

There, where no one kills another.


Maybe more of us,

A thousand strong

Will reach this goal      

Before too long.

--- (Alene Synkova – one of the few child survivors of Terezin)[26]


We are all children, little ones,

Playing with a colored ball.

We cry easily with ruddy cheeks,

And then, with glowing faces

We look at a silvery world,

At green hillsides,

At life.  We look ahead…

---Hanus Hachenburg[27]


And from an anonymous poem written in 1943, come the following lines, reinforcing the necessity of hop.  They assert the need for fortitude and faith, despite their immediate suffering:


People walk along the street,

                        You see at once on each you meet

                        That there’s a ghetto here,

                        A place of evil and of fear.

                        There’s little to eat and much to want,

                        Where bit by bit, it’s horror to live.

                        But no one must give up! 

                        The world turns and times change.


                        Yet we all hope the time will come

                        When we’ll go home again.

                        Now I know how dear it is

                        And often I remember it.[28]


Each of these verses demonstrates the maturity and pragmatism of these child victims of the Final Solution.  There is a definite recognition of the desperate situation behind the walls of the ghettos and camps, yet also an optimism for the future, and a belief that the terror must soon end.  It was this optimism that helped many of them survive the Holocaust, and differentiates their accounts from those of their adult counterparts.

            This optimism is reflected in Halina Nelken’s writing, as well.  She struggles with the destruction she sees around her, declaring, “No, there must be something noble and beautiful in the world – unless all the books were just lying, unless parents and teachers were also lying when they told us about goodness and human ideals.  How can one obliterate and forget what makes us human?”[29]  This refusal to accept that humanity was evil served as a strong motivation for the youth in the ghettos.  Hannah Senesh, a Hungarian Jew, supported this sentiment.  At age twenty, she wrote:  “Despite everything, I believe the world was created for good.”[30]   She refused to relinquish her hold on optimism for the future.

            Yitskhok Rudashevski, a fourteen-year-old Lithuanian boy, experienced the Nazi atrocities as he and the Jews of Vilna were systematically dehumanized, disempowered, and confined to the ghetto.  In his diary, Yitskhok described the efforts of the Vilna youth to continue their cultural and educational activities which made them human.  He asserted, “I think about our future life.  I think that we pioneers will not remain aloof in the struggle.  I feel that we shall be useful.”[31]  His optimism about the future is expressed throughout his diaries, as he declared, “I imagine life under the Germans as a short provisional period.  I look at the entry of the Germans and I am already thinking of their departure.  I imagine them fleeing back, beaten up and without heads.”[32]   In fact, Yitskhok’s optimism is so great, and his devotion to his intellectual activities so intense, that he is able to remark, “I often reflect, this is supposedly the ghetto yet I have such a rich life of intellectual work:  I study, I read, I visit club circles.  Time runs by so quickly and there is so much work to be done, lectures, social gatherings.  I often forget that I am in the ghetto.”[33] This is a strong affirmation of hope for the future.

            The power of the human spirit to overcome adversity and to put aside trauma is also witnessed in Claude Morhange-Bégué’s writings.  She remembers that as she spent her months in hiding, posing as a Catholic child, she forced herself to forget the painful images of her mother being interrogated and taken away.  She recounts:


Never during my life of hiding in what to me are foreign regions do my thoughts return to that morning, but sometimes I set myself to remembering my mother, or imagining her, to see how much I can bear of her fictive presence-which renders her real absence more unbearable still….Only rarely does my glance venture all the way up to her head, to her wavy blond hair, her pink cheeks, her smile, her dark brown eyes.  Whenever I dare to look that far up the lump forms in my throat, it scalds, it hurts.  My eyes remain motionless and dry, I stiffen, I stand there; I am swept by a flood of grief, of nostalgia, but all that outpouring remains concealed, those tears of mine, that despair, a great inner burning, a great bitterness.  The rest of the time, I play, I look at the world about me, I breathe it in, I am filled with wonder.[34]


Claude’s emotional words portray the monumental effort it required for her to compartmentalize the separation from her mother, and to focus on the future at hand.  Despite her loss, she is still able to soak in the wonders of the world around her, and feel positive about life.

            In June of 1941, Sarah Fishkin of Poland penned this brief and poignant entry in her diary, reflecting the state of mind in the Jewish community of Rubzewitz, when the Nazis launched their assault. She wrote:  “The moment has now arrived to make a person look for a way to save his own life, to hide from the bombs which may be coming in the very near future.  Many leave their homes.  They ride off without a destination.  One looks the end of life squarely in the eye:  the bullet could hit soon.  Still, the desire to spite Fate and go on living is very strong:  one wants to see what the end will look like when it does arrive.”[35]  The young Sarah, faced with the blatant reality of war, still manages to hold tight to her convictions that life will go on, and a determination to see the events through to their inevitable conclusion, whatever that might be.   

            Blended neatly into this youthful optimism is a strong will to live among the adolescent writers.  As Sarah Fishkin wrote in August 1941:  “We seem now to have reached the end of everything.  But one wants to live.  One craves more of youth and joy.  However, the present time presents little other than tragic pictures, all of them mirrored in the eyes of thousands, of millions of individuals.  One’s sole thought is to survive this painful, oppressive time and to see something better before one’s eyes.”[36]  And Eva Heyman, the thirteen-year-old Hungarian girl, who saw her best friend, Márta, killed by the Nazis, convinced herself that she would find a way to survive, even alone and in hiding, engaging in whatever actions might be necessary to guarantee her continued existence.  She wrote:  “Dear diary, ever since the Germans came here I’ve often wondered:  had Márta known…what a horrible death was in store for her when she went with her father, would she still have gone?  Dear diary, I admit that I very much want to live, so much so that if I were given the same choice as Márta, I would stay even without Papa and without Agi and without anybody at all, because I want to stay alive!”[37]   The end of her diary closes with these powerful words of conviction:  “Even though, dear diary, I don’t want to die; I want to live even if it means that I’ll be the only person here allowed to stay.  I would wait for the end of the war in some cellar, or on the roof, or in some secret cranny.  I would even let the cross-eyed gendarme, the one who took our flour away from us, kiss me, just as long as they didn’t kill me, only that they should let me live.”[38]   This was a repeated mantra among these youth: let me live, let me live.  These sentiments resound through their writing.

            The poetry of Terezin’s children  also reflects this strong will to live, despite the terrible hardships they faced.  Many of these poems were discovered upon the liberation of the camps, some tucked away in secret hiding places, safe from Nazi eyes.  Eva Pickova, only 12 years old from Nymburk, penned the following poem, entitled “Fear,” revealing the depths of her conflicting emotions.  She wrote:


My heart still beats inside my breast

While friends depart for other worlds.

Perhaps it’s better – who can say? –

Than watching this, to die today?


No, no, my God, we want to live!

Not watch our numbers melt away.

We want to have a better world,

We want to work – we must not die![39]


            In her diary, Halina Nelken also penned some lines of poetry, revealing the depths of her budding emotions.  In one poem, written on 25 October 1941, she echoes the optimism of the poetry of the children from Terezin, looking ahead, to a time when the suffering had ended and life could be good once more.  She wrote:


I know that you’ll come to me some day,

Answer my summons with a smile,

Bring into my life, on a gray ordinary day,

The radiant glow of the sun – you, only you.


Sadness and loneliness will vanish then,

And the yearning for years over you.

When, at last, without words,

We find each other again

And the world smiles its happiness on us.[40]



It is important to remember that these youths were, in fact, growing and developing.  They were in the midst of becoming adults when the war and the Holocaust intruded.  Their development is also reflected in the writings and diaries.  There is a definite progression from youthful innocence, through struggles to grow and shape their identity, to the development of mature insight into the reality of their situations.  These children were robbed of their childhoods; forced to grapple with dehumanization, starvation, and death; and thrust into premature adulthood.  The changes in these young people were drastic and remarkable.

In her memoirs, Claude Morhange-Bégué recalls the strength she exhibited in the face of despair while in hiding from the Nazi occupiers.  She states:   


And when I resift this whole period I am struck by the silence I maintained, I wonder at my capacity for asking no questions, at my ability to bounce from place to place and land intact in each, quickly picking up in one school where I left off in the last, receiving kindness first from these strangers and then from those, and at all times, just as on the first day when I listened to the clock tick above the white expanse of the big bed I had never been in before, dumbstruck, incapable of a word or a gesture, unable to let out a cry, unable to shed a tear in public, unable to talk about my mother and to ask grownups whether they thought I would ever see her again.  And what if my mother were to disappear forever the way my father had already done?  Sometimes, without clearly formulating them to myself, I have moments of deep despondency that I do not disclose to others: at such times the only feeling left in me is of that loss, the so urgent need of my mother’s lovingness that I cannot possibly have, and the painful feeling of the great lump in my throat, of the tears I am holding back.[41]

Claudes’ poignant statement illustrates the resilience of the youth of the Holocaust, bouncing back from events, adapting quickly to new situations, assimilating quickly to new surroundings.  These are all mechanisms of self-preservation, and are representative of youth.

The youthful innocence of the diaries is exposed in Eva Heyman’s writings, when she asserts: “Dear diary, I’m still too little a girl to write down what I felt while we waited to be taken into the Ghetto.”[42]  And yet, only a few weeks later, Eva is thinking and writing in new ways.  She stated:  “Interesting, but it occurred to me only when we got to Szacsvay  Street that we weren’t going to have an apartment, because the commission had said: Your place to sleep will be at 20 Szacsvay Street.  It makes a tremendous difference, dear diary, because a normal person has an apartment, while people talk about ‘place to sleep’ only in connection with animals….as far as the Aryans are concerned, we’ve become like animals.”[43] In just a matter of days, Eva had changed from a naïve young girl who could not express her feelings to a wise young woman who understood the social complexities of the Nazi process of dehumanization. 

            Hannah Senesh also demonstrates the innocence of childhood in her desire to please her mother.  She wrote:  “I would like to be as good as possible to Mother, to wear my Jewishness with pride, to be well thought of in my class at school, and I would very much like always to be able to believe and trust in God.”[44]  These words seem appropriate for a young girl, anxious to please her mother and do what was expected of her.  And yet, Hannah realized, in that same passage, that the reality of Nazi persecution did not allow for perfect behavior.  “There are times I cannot (believe and trust in God), and at such times I attempt to force myself to believe completely, firmly, with total certainty.”[45] The determination of youth to follow proper codes of conduct shines through, despite the questions raised by the Nazi persecution.  These sentiments are echoed by Halina Nelken, as she writes, “No sun. No spring, No school. No work. No money. How are we to live?  I grumble to myself, but soon, with a polite smile, I will set the table for lunch and wash the dishes afterwards.  Mama is sick, so I have taking care of our housekeeping.”[46]  The teen managed to maintain order and structure, despite the challenges laid before her as part of life in the ghetto.

            Halina Nelken also provides a strong example of the maturation process during the Nazi persecution.  The young Halina was just entering puberty, just beginning to develop the adolescent emotions that most teens experience, when the war broke out, crushing her youth and innocence.  She wrote:  “Anyway, who cares about going out, it is war now and one does not know what to do with oneself.”[47] Halina struggles with confusion, grasping for some sense of understanding in her mixed-up adolescent world.  “I am ashamed of my tears, because I am already grown-up, but I feel lost and unhappy, and I cannot change as quickly as Hela and the others.  But who knows?  Perhaps they also feel immature and lost like me?”[48] These are typical adolescent fears, magnified by the pressures of Nazi occupation.  She also expresses the normal angst of a teen on the brink of womanhood, longing to engage in relationships.  She laments that she is not as attractive as her friends, writing:  “Great to talk with!  I am always the intellectual friend and never the femme fatale, the women for whom men burn with desire….where is the man to seduce me?”[49]

            In her book, Chamberet:  Recollections of an Ordinary Childhood, Claude Morhange-Bégué also reflects on the experience of being thrust into adulthood.  At the end of the war, she and her mother (who had been interned at Auschwitz) both survived and were reunited.  She remembers how “…over the course of those months I had somehow turned irrevocably into an adult.  From then on it was incumbent upon me to protect my mother who had come close to dying and who would remain fragile for a long time….”[50]

            Nelken also expressed the profound insights of these special children.  At age fifteen, in 1939, she declared, “What a curse this anti-Semitism is.”[51]  And when war begins, she writes, “War…war…so far an empty word for me, acquired now a terrifying and dangerous meaning.  War…there really is a war.”[52] And this young girl was also able to sense the dangers of Nazism, when she stated, “I do not understand politics, but I sense that something terrible is going to happen again.”[53] By November of 1941, now seventeen, Halina expressed the full extent of her despair:  “I realize that the world has forgotten us, while they [the Germans] are pushing us down into degradation and moral and physical destruction….How much longer will this nightmare last?”[54]  Innocent children become hardened, skeptical adults before their time.

            In conclusion, historians may draw some basic lessons from these sources.  The diaries, memoirs, poetry, and songs written by the children of the Holocaust represent the experiences that stole innocence and optimism and replaced them with pragmatism, solemnity, and even despair.  The youth who were persecuted by the Nazis lost not just their freedom and their families, but they lost their childhoods as well, turning them into little adults before their time.  The harsh realities of life in the ghetto or the camp bled through the normal oblivion of childhood, and these youngsters saw with great clarity the dangers that surrounded them.  Yet these young people also had enough youthful innocence to maintain a sense of hope, and to believe that the end of the suffering must come soon.  It was this great optimism and the will to live that distinguishes their works from those of adult survivors.  A child who does not fully comprehend the depths of evil cannot help but believe in the ultimate goodness of humanity.  Thus, it was in these writings that we see efforts at resistance, not only in actions against the Nazis, but also in the unbreakable spirit of the young authors.  In fact, in many cases, the mere act of keeping a diary was an act of resistance in an atmosphere where such activities, if discovered, could be punishable by deportation, beatings, or even death.  Still, these children persevered, facing adversity with resignation, moving forward through the quicksand of persecution.

            Through the eyes of a child, the Holocaust adopts a new persona. It appears like a kaleidescope of colors, all mixing and churning together, as the hopes, fears, and dreams of the children took shape.  As Vaclav Havel expressed , the poems of the children of Terezin “are full of longing for a world different from the miserable life they led, a longing for games and freedom, for gentleness and beauty.  Death, which was so close, appears only between the lines….[and in their drawings, there] is only a shadow of grief and anxiety in them, there is much more about dreams of spring, of flowers, butterflies, birds, and also a great longing to be happy and carefree.”[55]  And Havel’s final conclusion is this:  “The souls of these children used poems and drawings as a defense, sometimes by giving vent to anxiety and at other times by depicting a dream.”[56]The Holocaust experiences of these youths do reveal pain, loss, and hardship, certainly; yet, surprisingly, they also  represent optimism, resilience, and a strong will to live.  The perspective of these children, then, differs significantly from that of adult survivors of the Nazi atrocities, in whom these attributes are often absent.  The children of the Holocaust, forced prematurely into the adult world, adapted well and took on the responsibility of telling the world.  In life, and in death, the words of these young heroes reflected the desperate conditions of the time, yet also looked forward to better times ahead.  Their memories and diaries stand as a testament to these brave children, and they leave a powerful legacy behind.



Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl. New York: Washington Square Press, c1972.

Hear Our Voices: Songs of the Ghettos and the Camps. CD. Newton, MA: HaZamir Recordings, n.d.

Holliday, Laurel. Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries. New York: Washington Square Press, 1996.

Innocent Voices: The Verse of Terezin’s Children. CD. Jefferson Valley, NY: Lost Planet Records, Inc., 1986.

Karas, Joza. Music in Terezin, 1941-1945. New York: Beaufort Books, 1985.

Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz. New York: Collier Books, c1961.

Lewin, Rhoda G., ed. Witnesses to the Holocaust: An Oral History. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

Nelken, Halina. And Yet, Here I Am! Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986.

Valent, Paul. Child Survivors of the Holocaust. Intro. By Thomas Keneally. New York: Brunner-Routledge, 1994.

Volavkova, Hana, ed. I Never Saw Another Butterfly…Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp 1942-1944. Expanded edition. Fore. By Chaim Potok. Afterword by Vaclav Havel. Epilogue by Jiri Weil. New York: Schocken Books, 1993.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Bantam Books, c1960.


[1] Quoted in Laurel Holliday, Children in the Holocaust and World War II:  Their Secret Diaries (New York: Washington Square Press, 1996), 72.

[2] Claude Morhange-Bégué, Chamberet:  Recollections of an Ordinary Childhood. Trans. By Austryn Wainhouse (Marlboro, VT:  The Marlboro Press, 1987), 1.

[3] Holliday, Children in the Holocaust, xiv.

[4] Eva Mozes Kor, Echoes from Auschwitz. Dr. Mengele’s Twins  The Story of Eva and Miriam Mozes  (Terre Haute, In:  CANDLES, INC., c1995), v.

[5] Halina Nelken, And Yet, I Am Here!  (Amherst:  University of Massachusetts Press, 1986), 273).

[6] Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening: Two Memoirs. Trans. By Stuart Woolf (New York: Summit Books, 1985), 17.

[7] Ibid., 24.

[8] Ibid., 150.

[9] Nelken, And Yet, I Am Here!, 272.

[10] Hana Volavkova, ed.  …I Never Saw Another Butterfly….Children’s Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp 1942-1944. Expanded ed.   Fore. by Chaim Potok, Afterword by Vaclav Havel, Epilogue by Jiri Weil  (New York: Schocken Books, 1993), 102.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl  (New York: Washington Square Press, c1972), ix.

[13] Holliday, Their Secret Diaries, xiv.

[14] Ibid., xvii.

[15] Liner Notes, Hear Our Voices: Songs of the Ghettos and the Camps (Newton, MA: HaZamir Recordings,  n.d.),  HZ-909. 

[16] Ibid.

[17] Quoted in Holliday, Their Secret Diaries, 146.

[18] Quoted in Holliday, Their Secret Diaries, 143-144.

[19] Nelken, And Yet, I Am Here!, 104.

[20] Quoted in Holliday, Their Secret Diaries, 271.

[21] Quoted in Holliday, Their Secret Diaries,337-338.

[22] Quoted in Holliday, Their Secret Diaries, 400.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Quoted in Holliday, Their Secret Diaries, 112.

[25] Liner Notes, Innocent Voices: The Verse of Terezin’s Children (Jefferson Valley, NY: Lost Planet Records, Inc., 1996).

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Quoted in Volavkova, …I Never Saw Another Butterfly…, 47.

[29] Nelken, And Yet, I Am Here!, 63.

[30] Quoted in Holliday, Their Secret Diaries,329.

[31] Quoted in Holliday, Their Secret Diaries, 139.

[32] Quoted in Holliday, Their Secret Diaries, 141.

[33] Quoted in Holliday, Their Secret Diaries, 181.

[34] Claude Morhange-Bégué, Recollections of an Ordinary Childhood, 81.

[35] Quoted in Holliday, Their Secret Diaries, 337.

[36] Quoted in Holliday, Their Secret Diaries, 339.

[37] Quoted in Holliday, Their Secret Diaries, 113.

[38] Quoted in Holliday, Their Secret Diaries, 125.

[39] Quoted in Volavkova, ---I Never Saw Another Butterfly…, 55.

[40] Nelken, And Yet, I Am Here!, 101.

[41] Claude Morhange-Bégué, Recollections of An Ordinary Childhood, 77.

[42] Quoted in Holliday, Their Secret Diaries, 14.

[43] Quoted in Holliday, Their Secret Diaries, 116.

[44] Quoted in Holliday, Their Secret Diaries, 313.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Nelken, And Yet, I Am Here!, 79.

[47] Ibid., 57.

[48] Ibid., 63.

[49] Ibid., 77.

[50] Claude Morhange-Bégué, Recollections of an Ordinary Childhood, 114.

[51] Nelken, And Yet, I am Here!, 50.

[52] Ibid., 53.

[53] Ibid., 62.

[54] Ibid., 104.

[55] Volavkova, ed., I Never Saw Another Butterfly…, 104.

[56] Ibid.

Copyright © Christine Colin-Burns