Memoria [EN] No 42 (03/2021) - Page 10





"The most famous images of small children trying to support their families in the Warsaw ghetto are those representing little smugglers of food. The children begged for food on the Arian side, risking their own lives”. In spite of such representations that entered into collective memory and popular culture, only fragments of the fate that Jewish children experienced during WW2 are available. Before 1939, among the Jewish community of Poland represented by ca. 3.5 million individuals, there were several hundred thousand children. In 1945, the Central Committee of Polish Jews registered only 5 thousand Jewish children, Survivors of the Shoah. Next to senior Jews and the ill, children would often be the first victims of the Nazi. For this reason, the accounts of the youngest Survivors of the Shoah are rare and these individuals, usually born in the 1930s or during WW2, are nowadays among the last who remember the Shoah.

Joanna Beata Michlic, historian at the Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London, in her book Piętno Zagłady provides the analysis and interpretation of the accounts by the children of the Holocaust – those who were little kids or maximum teenagers when the Germans and their supporters forced them to hide in the forests, get falsified christening certificates, pretend to be Polish, conceal their Jewish identity. She usually refers to the accounts and examples from occupied Poland. Using source documents, written testimonies (among others from ŻIH Archives), recordings and interviews with Survivors the author presents the reality of those for whom childhood had been marked by the necessity to hide, escape, by experiencing the death of their dear ones, losing identity.

The image of children-Survivors does not fit the stereotype of stories with “happy ending”, appearing from time to time in connection with “simple, fortifying public presentations of these children as “carefree young people beginning their new lives” immediately after the Shoah”. Apart from the accounts of Jewish children, Michlic interprets “the accounts and letters dating back to the same period and prepared by a group of Christian Poles devotedly rescuing Jewish children”.  She describes in details the tragedies which stand in contradiction to stereotypes and break clear classifications. The book begins with the story of Lena Atlas, a girl maltreated by the Poles who used to hide her. After WW2 Lena found herself under the custody of Mina Halberstadt-Kapłan, Jewish guardian at the orphanage who, inspired by the papers by Janusz Korczak, supported the girl in her recovery and in adapting to the presence of other children:

Jewish children who survived WW2 often had to face the next trauma – they found themselves in orphanages, their guardians changed, they met their forgotten parents. Sometimes they would discover their past after many years or decide to reveal their original identity. In her book “Piętno Zagłady, Joanna Beata Michlic refers to the accounts, memoirs and documents to present the unknown episodes from the life of the youngest Survivors of the Shoah.

Przemysław Batorski, the Jewish Historical Institute