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Hiding Jewish Children during World War II: The Psychological Aftermath

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 19:1-2 (Spring 2007)


Hiding Jewish Children during World War II: The Psychological Aftermath

Bloeme Evers-Emden

Jewish children were hidden in the Netherlands from 1942-1945 to save them from Nazi deportation. After the war the few surviving Jewish parents, deeply traumatized, began the difficult search for their children. The children’s return home involved many psychological problems both for themselves and for the parents. Often the hidden children had had to change addresses several times, leading them to “turn off their feelings” so as not to be overwhelmed by grief. After the war many of them could not “turn on” their feelings and suffered from emotional deficiency. As for the parents, many had undergone “anticipated mourning” out of expectations that they or their children would be killed before they could reunite, and this made it difficult for them to receive the returned children. Sometimes the natural parents also could not “forgive” the “hiding-parents” for caring for their children. The hiding-parents, for their part, often suffered from grief after the child’s departure.

The hiding of Jewish children during 1942-1945 in the Netherlands had psychological and practical consequences. During 1940-1945 in many occupied European countries, including the Netherlands, Hitler or one of his major subordinates appointed a Reichskommissar. In the Netherlands it was the Austrian Dr. Arthur Seyss-Inquart, a well-known and violent anti-Semite who was particularly zealous to persecute the Jews.

In the Netherlands the persecution developed slowly, with new anti-Jewish laws being promulgated every few weeks. In July 1942, Jews aged sixteen to thirty-five were ordered to report mostly to their local train stations to be sent to destinations in Germany for forced labor. There, many of the young Jews were murdered immediately upon arrival.

As 1942 progressed, many Jews sought to evade the deportation orders by hiding. These Jews now also included the old, the ill, and the mentally handicapped, whom the Germans had begun to deport as well.


The Children and Their Parents

Parents’ decision about hiding their children was not an easy one for several reasons. First, as of July 1942 there was no organized underground network for hiding children. Second, Jews’ identity cards carried a large black J that could not easily be removed (children aged six and younger did not need an identity card). Third, one needed a place where the children could hide. Finally, hiding children required at least a little money, sometimes a lot. Not every hiding family could handle the costs, and some demanded payment as compensation.

By the end of 1942 an underground network was more or less functioning, but by that time most of Dutch Jewry had already been murdered. The young people who belonged to the underground organizations tried to persuade remaining parents to send their children into hiding. These were difficult conversations because the idea of relinquishing their children distressed the parents. They did not know where they would be sent, whether they would be safe, whether the strangers would care for them well, or how much the children would suffer from the sudden total separation from their parents. Often the underground members were sent away empty-handed.


The Hiding-Parents

The people who took the heavy risks of hiding Jews often did not realize the sorts of punishments the Germans could mete out to them upon discovery. Many were killed, sent to concentration camps, or had their homes and belongings burned. Hiding Jews also entailed grave consequences for their familial and social life. Their children were generally forbidden to speak about the “guest” and could not bring friends home from school; often the families themselves could not receive visitors. Moreover, food and clothes became scarce and families had limited resources.


Children and Their Parents after the War

The author mainly investigated those children whose parent(s) had also survived the war.[1] Hardly any of the “hiding-parents” foresaw the severe difficulties after the war. In most cases, most of their family and friends had been killed and their social network had disappeared. Although non-Jews told Jews they were lucky to have survived, the Jews did not see themselves as having much luck.

By the time the war  ended in May 1945, most of the parents were traumatized by their own experience of hiding. They had to adapt to their host family, always be friendly and polite, never be free to do or say what they felt or thought, and often were unable to leave the house or even the room where they were hidden. This was coupled with the never-ending fear of betrayal from the outside. Inside the house there were problems with authority and eventually with sexual stress, being forced to speak softly and to hide in a kind of dugout whenever there were visitors or Germans around, and so on. Those parents who returned from concentration camps were ill, emaciated, exhausted, and deeply damaged.

Nearly all parents, however, went to look for their hidden children. Hardly anyone knew where to seek; for many reasons children were often shifted to other addresses or even arrested and deported. Means such as advertisements, the Red Cross, former underground organizations, and hiding-parents who told the authorities they had a Jewish child under their care, helped to identify and find the children.

In most cases, babies and toddlers did not know their name or thought that their protectors were their real parents. Older children sometimes forgot their real name because they were forced to use a new one instead of the Jewish one. In most cases parents recognized their children, although young children in particularly had changed a good deal over the period-on average, two and a half years-of hiding. In such cases, however, the children would still resemble some relative. Often they could be identified by a birthmark or special characteristic. The author’s research found only a few parents who doubted if the child was their own; more often, children doubted if this was really their parent(s). These were, of course, severe dilemmas.

After about three months nearly all the parents had found their children.


Psychological Problems of the Children

Only a few of the psychological issues caused by the hiding can be described here. Children have a strong attachment to their parents; they know well how dependent they are on their caretakers. A good quality of attachment gives a child a feeling of safety and strength and the means to develop. If there is no sense of safety and the child is fearful, the child seeks ways of feeling safe and this can hamper development.[2]

In “normal” separation-situations-for example, an admission to a hospital-a child may cry a long time and become depressed, and this results in mourning the “loss” of the parents.[3] When the child comes home, it might take a few days before he trusts the parents as he did before the hospitalization and the seeming abandonment.

In the situation of hiding, however, there was no coming home. A psychologically normal child can-usually only once-form new attachments to people who replace the parents. But the hidden children had to adapt to a totally new situation and people, sometimes very rapidly.

When further separations take place, as when children were taken away from hiding-parents to go to new families, mistrust grows and a defensive reaction occurs: not to invest in affection. In order not to be overcome by mourning and depression each time they were shifted to a different family, many, perhaps most, of the children succeeded in “putting away their feelings.” They did not undergo grief or desperation, took the situation as such, and did not form new attachments.

However, after the war many of the hidden children, as well as older people who were hidden, did not succeed in reforming their attachments. The younger the child was when losing the first attachment, the more serious the implications for later life. Losing (part of) one’s feelings was not a visible process; people did not notice it until later experiencing their own indifferent responses, their inability to form emotional ties.

When the author’s interviewees were asked: “Is it possible that, because of the hiding, you lost (a part of) your capacity to feel and your capacity to love?” there was often a dramatic effect. In a number of cases this question prompted a first realization that the hiding period had damaged the person’s feelings. They were elated at the discovery because until then they had considered themselves cold, unresponsive individuals.

Terms such as “capacity to feel” and “capacity to love” are not easily defined. The interviewees gave answers such as:

     “I told my children: my lap is too small to sit on.”

     “My husband was also hidden; we both have difficulties ‘to love.'”

     “I love my kids but I cannot kiss or hug them.”

     “I feel a thick wall around my emotions.”

An especially moving story concerned a person who was a young child in 1936 when his German Jewish parents, who already feared the fate of the Jews, brought him to his Dutch family. After some time he went to another family. During the worst days of Jewish persecution, he was moved to nine different hiding addresses.

When the author visited him in his Haifa home, we spoke Dutch; his five daughters, the oldest twenty-nine, could not understand the conversation. None of the daughters were married, which is unusual in an Orthodox family. Asked about this, he replied: “I don’t know if I love my wife, she is a kind of comrade.” At the suggestion of damage to the capacity to love because of the hiding, he said sadly: “I must have transferred it to my daughters.” He was, however, relieved that it was because of the harsh circumstances and not because he was cold by nature.

The responses to a questionnaire used in the author’s research were striking. The 321 research subjects were asked: “Many of the former hidden children think that they cannot love fully, which is manifested in their relationship with their partner and/or their children. What about your own case?” They replied:

No answer/don’t know               15             4.5%

Cannot love fully                       81           26.1%

More or less true                      96           31.0%

Can love fully                          119           38.4%

Searching for other literature on this topic has proved fruitless, so that the findings cannot be compared with those of other researchers.


Postwar Problems of the Hidden Children

Adapting to the natural parents after rejoining them following the war was a serious problem for these children. During the hiding period, nearly all the children are described by the hiding-parents as having been pleasant and obedient. A possible explanation is that even very young children sense instinctively when something dire is happening, especially when there is danger to life. Their agreeable behavior, then, was a kind of survival strategy. A study of Dutch children in Japanese camps in the former Dutch East Indies made the same observation.[4]

Particularly younger children, to whom it could not be explained why they had to leave their parents, may also have felt the displacement as a punishment for bad behavior. Lest this happen again, they were as nice as possible with their new caretakers and even seldom got ill. They suppressed their mourning, grief, and aggression toward their parents for seemingly abandoning them.

After the war, when there was no further danger to life, many of the former hidden children were very difficult, and a third of the questionnaire respondents engaged in “impossible behavior” as they described it. They wanted nothing, refused to go to school, flouted the normal rules of the house, and so on. All the suppressed aggression now seemed to be vented at the parents who had “put them away” and given them to strangers. Even older children, who understood why their parents had sent them into hiding, sometimes could not discard the sense of having been abandoned. In some cases the fear of abandonment stayed with them for decades. Some children were not “difficult” but lapsed into psychosomatic diseases such as asthma.


Hiding-Parents, Children, and Natural Parents: A Difficult Triangle

“How was your family life if you did return to your parents or to one of them?”

This question brought to light much grief and misunderstanding between the parents and the formerly hidden child. Often there was also grief and misunderstanding between the natural and the hiding-parents. The former often harbored jealous feelings toward those who had been so near their own child, seeing the first steps, the first school day, and so on. During the author’s research with the hiding-parents (not included in a publication), it emerged that even after forty years many of them had mourned the “loss” of “their” child. When a child stayed for a long time in the same house, often love blossomed between the child and the caretakers. Some people prayed for the return of the natural parents while hoping deep in their heart that they would not return.

One former hiding-mother related:

One morning after the war I went with the child to the bakery, and suddenly a car stopped in the street. My grip on her little hand tightened, and I felt it immediately: these are her parents. They were indeed, and although I was happy for the parents, I mourned for at least nine months. My husband felt the same way, but of course we did not speak together about it.

Indeed, in that period expressing feelings was not practiced in the Netherlands; pedagogic trends favored facts rather than emotions.

After the liberation, some parents who finally found their child took him or her suddenly from the foster parents, who often loved and were loved by the child. This became another trauma for many hidden children, and also often for the hiding-parents. However, most parents understood that they had to win their child back gradually. When the natural parents were asked if they had had any idea of the possible grief of the hiding-parents, they usually were astonished. It should be noted that not all hiding-parents mourned the loss of their “child.”

The former hidden children came to Jewish families, foster- or  their own, who may have been very traumatized and usually had to struggle with income, housing, health, and above all, unbearable grief. This was not an ideal environment for children who also had undergone trauma.

The author was able to speak with only a few surviving parents and ask about their child’s relationship with the hiding-parents. Frequently the natural parents were jealous of the love that the child felt for the hiding-parents. In many cases the child craved the presence of the nontraumatized hiding-parents. The natural parents saw that the beloved child had lived a much better life in the “hiding” home. Some of the natural parents broke off the ties with the caretakers of their child during a dangerous time, but most more or less maintained the ties.

In the first years after the liberation many children were allowed to go to their hiding-parents during holidays. Many natural parents, including ones living both in Israel and in the Netherlands, asked the Israeli government or Yad Vashem to honor their children’s hiding-parents; so did many of the children when they were older. Nevertheless, there was often much ambivalence in the natural parents’ attitudes. To this day, however, many children of the former hidden children have ties with the children of the former hiding-parents.


Problems of the Hidden Children when Returning to Normal Life

After the war there were a number of court cases to decide the residency of Jewish children whose parents had not survived. Sometimes, Jewish orphans’ organizations or a sibling of one of the parents wanted the child to be returned to Jewish circles. The hiding-parents would claim the right to raise and educate the child they had saved from the German slaughter. This was very difficult for the children who were aware of the struggle.

It also was a matter of identity: the children often did not know if they were Christians or Jews because they had adopted a new name during the war, realizing that if they forgot or made a mistake in their name it could mean death. After the war there was sometimes an intense quandary: am I Maria Johnson or Yehudith Polak? Also, sometimes the hiding-parents had imposed the new religion on the children, and in many case the children themselves wanted to adopt the religion of the hiding-family as this was deemed much safer.[5]


Problems of Parents and Their Former Hidden Children

Another major problem, hardly recognized or understood, occurred in two-thirds of the cases: the children who returned to their own family did not feel welcome. There were two factors at work: the estrangement and what could be called the anticipation of mourning. That is, parents, fearing that they or their children would be killed during the separation, had already undergone a preparatory process of mourning for them.[6]

Almost all the parents who sent their child into hiding did not see the child again before May 1945. If the child was still small and the parents did not see him for, say, two and a half years, then they had not seen the first teeth, the first steps, nor heard the first word the child uttered. If the child was older, many other developmental events were missed. The parents had not been able to give the daily care and concern that manifest parental love. The parents and children were estranged from each other; meanwhile the children had formed strong attachments to people who had been total strangers.

As for the anticipation of mourning, a possible explanation was found in the research literature. When Canadian soldiers served with the Allies during the invasion of France that began on 6 June 1944, their parents and spouses realized they might well not survive the war. In their dread, they underwent a kind of “labor of mourning.” The same process occurs, partly unconsciously, when a beloved person suffers from a fatal illness. When a Canadian soldier came home, this “labor of mourning” often had been so deep that it seemed he really had been lost, and the family had adapted to a life without him. The soldier, therefore, felt there was no longer any place for him in the family. Of course, these matters were much too painful to be spoken about or even consciously thought about.[7]

The same seems to have occurred with most of the parents of the hidden children. The chances that both parties would survive were smaller than the Canadian soldiers’ chances of survival.

In interviews with the former hidden children, fully two-thirds of them made statements such as:

“The relationship with my parents was never repaired.”

“I had the feeling that I was not made welcome.”

“It was as if I was a little bird fallen from the nest and had acquired a strange smell….”

“My parents gave my brother and me good food, asked how we did in school, but never ever asked us about our time during the hiding.”

“I sometime asked myself: why did I survive? My father didn’t appear too happy with me.”

What made the reality worse was, as noted, that many former hidden children who had been so agreeable in the home of the hiding-parents became, after the war, difficult, reproaching, demanding, and sometimes depressive. In many cases the parents of the children sent into hiding had intensely idealized them during the war.

Feelings that are repressed or ignored, that have no appellation and are not thought about, are the more intense once they emerge. Such feelings received no appellation because they were too painful. Only in the 1980s and 1990s did books on hiding, along with the horrific persecutions of Jews during the war, begin to be published.

In the interviews with the natural parents, only one-third admitted that the relationship did not return to what it had been before the long and total separation. It seemed too terrible to acknowledge this, since they had-in their own eyes-done everything that was possible for their children.

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 [1] The author has researched this subject area for over ten years and has published four books on it in Dutch, each of which has appeared in a Hebrew translation. The four books focus, respectively, on non-Jews who took in and hid a Jewish child; the hidden children themselves; the parents who sent their children into hiding; and the experiences and feelings of the children of the “hiding-parents.” See Bloeme Evers-Emden, Geleende kinderen: Ervaringen van onderduikouders en hun Joodse Beschermelingen (Kampen: Kok, 1994) [Dutch]; Bloeme Evers-Emden and B. J. Flim, Ondergedoken geweest-een afgesloten verleden? (Kampen: Kok, 1995) [Dutch]; Bloeme Evers-Emden, Geschonden Bestaan: Gesprekken met vervolgde Joden die hun kinderen moesten”wegdoen” (Kampen: Kok, 1996) [Dutch]; Bloeme Evers-Emden, Je ouders delen: Eigen kinderen en pleegkinderen, in de oorlog en nu (Kampen: Kok, 1999) [Dutch]. These books are available in Hebrew and Dutch at Binyamin ben Perach, 43/17 Yehudah Hanasi, Petach Tikva, Israel, tel.: 03-9089761, email: [email protected].

[2] John Bowlby, Attachment and Loss, Vol. 1, rev. ed. (London: Pelican, 1984).

[3] T. Field, “Attachment and Early Separations from Parents and Peers,” Intersections with Attachment (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991), 165-79.

[4] P. G. Bekkering and M. Bekkering-Merens, “Kinderen in Japanse kampen, de Bersiap en daarna” (Children in Japanese Camps, the Bersiap, and Thereafter), Nederl. Tijdschr. voor Geneeskunde (Dutch Magazine of Medicine), No. 129 (1985): 1546-49.

[5] Chaim Dasberg, S. Davidson, Gerard I. Durlacher, B. C. Filet, and Eduard de Wind, Society and Trauma of War (Assen and Maastricht: Van Gorcum, 1987), 14-38.

[6] Among others, Tizard discussed the institutionalization of special young children and their relations with their parents. See B. Tizard, “The Effect of Early Institutional Rearing on the Development of 8-Year-Old Children,” Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, No. 18 (1978): 99-118.

[7] E. Lindemann, “Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief,” American Journal of Psychiatry, No. 101 (1944).

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DR. BLOEME EVERS-EMDEN was born to a Jewish family in Amsterdam in 1926. In August 1944 she was seized by the Germans and sent to Auschwitz, which she survived. In 1973 she became a lecturer in psychology at the University of Amsterdam. Her research on Dutch Jewish children hidden during the war, and on their parents and “hiding-parents,” has been published in four books. She was decorated by the queen of Holland as an officer of the Orde van Oranje-Nassau. Today she is a teacher of Jewish subjects.