Hidden children, like Tswi, were told to be quiet. They were given new names, a new family, a new religion, and a completely different and new identity. The were told not to remember their old lives. Their new identity was their lifeline. Even after the Holocaust caretakers and professionals told them not to talk about it. There was no possibility to express oneself. The adult survivors, those of concentration camps, were easily recognizable, but the hidden children had suffered different traumas.
Tswi outlined the different traumas common among child survivors. They had to part from their parents, losing security, shelter and identity. When they were taken in by a new family, they were in the constant fear of losing them. Many children were taken from family to family, one of Tswi’s friends had twelve different homes during the war. Every time they were moved to a new home, they got new names, new families and new religions (different Christian sects, so they had to learn new prayers). Tswi said, “You don’t know to whom you belong, your foster family didn’t know either how you had to be.” He had no role model, later in his presentation, Tswi told us that he found his father’s diaries and in them he found a role model. These children were also subject to the same terrors as any wartime civilian, running from cellar to cellar to escape bombings.
After the war, 8,000 Jewish children were without homes and without parents. If family members survived they could take the children from the foster homes they had known for years. Then the children would have to learn their true identities, some in the case of Twsi never knew their real name. (Twsi was an infant during the war.) They were introduced to Judaism again. But it was not always easy for surviving family members to get custody of their children. A mother, who had survived Auschwitz, came back to Holland to claim her two daughters, but the state deemed her unworthy to care for her children. They stayed with their non-Jewish family, and this was often the case; the government made it difficult for the children to leave their non-Jewish homes. In many cases too, the Dutch government kept inheritance from child survivors for many different reasons. Unfortunately, in order to get the inheritance money was needed to pay for lawyers, money that they just didn’t have.
In Tswi’s case, his grandmother had survived and was able to care for him after the war, but their relationship was strained. She always introduced him as, “this is the son of my son,” not grandson. Tswi said this was common among child survivors, that a depersonalization would happen. Tswi’s grandmother didn’t actually tell him his real name, she said he was called Hermann. When Tswi found his father’s diaries he also found out his name, he was nine years old at the time.
Tswi’s grandmother emphasized another common trauma for the child survivors, the unimportance of the past. Fortunately, Tswi was able to stay with just one family during the war. After the war without a moment to say goodbye, Tswi’s grandmother came to get him. He was not allowed to see them again. She said, it’s not important, you have a new life now. He was expected to forget his past but this is impossible. The general attitude in Europe was that the war was over and they wanted to wash their hands of it. But they couldn’t because it wasn’t over. Many child survivors could never stabilize themselves, they led lives that led them into addictions and unhealthy relationships, so even in adulthood family was taken from them.
When Tswi went back to school, he was going back to school with children of the collaborators. They said to him “They forgot to gas you, dirty Jew.” But Tswi didn’t even know that he was Jewish, he had to come home and ask his grandmother about what it meant to be a Jew. She was too traumatized to help him. She didn’t know where to start. Some child survivors even today do not know their Jewish identity. Tswi lived a sort of double life: one at school and in public, and one at home and they never mixed. He had no one to talk to about his public life, and no one to talk to about his Jewish life. When we asked Tswi why his grandmother lied him, he couldn’t answer. He said I had enough on my hands to analyze myself, I couldn’t analyze her also.
Tswi also talked about the lack of family. All of his family on his mother’s side and father’s side vanished, “my entire family… and they were good Dutch citizens.” In his coming of age Tswi had no one to rely on. No one to celebrate holidays with, no one to ask for a loan, no one to consult on how to be a parent. These are the lasting traumas of a child survivor.
We asked Tswi if he had a community with the other child survivors. He said “in principle we don’t talk about these things.” At a conference for child survivors, another survivor of a concentration camp told him that he wasn’t a survivor. She said Tswi had it easy at home, and that she was truly a survivor. It was very hard to be told even by the community that you belong to, let alone the world, that you were not a survivor.
A normal Holocaust presentation has a life before the war, life during the war, and life after the war. Tswi’s story is very different. It doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending, but that makes it more realistic and more useful. Tswi said, “The Shoah did not stop in May 1945…”
He often goes to high schools in Germany and tells his story. At the end of his presentation one of the students generally asks him, “do you hate us?” He says, “how on earth can I hate you for something your grandparents did?” As he parted ways with us, he said what he also says to students in Germany: “Learn your history so that you know your future.”
You can read more about Tswi Herschel’s story here: http://www.jpost.com/Features/Magazine-Features/Gathering-clouds-308661
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website