Digital Yad Vashem

A new online exhibition, My Lost Childhood, marks Holocaust Memorial Day


“The children were by themselves. No parents, no family members, they had to start over”.

Yona Kobo is the curator of a remarkable new online exhibition from Yad Vashem, My Lost Childhood, to mark Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27. She has pulled together testimony and sometimes heartbreaking images of Jewish children who survived the war.

The children were found all over Europe, in “liberated camps, Christian homes, monasteries and convents, as well as wandering the streets and forests”. Some were too young to remember their own Jewish identities, some had been victims of abuse or torture. “In order to survive, they learned to be silent, to suppress their feelings and to trust no one”.

But help of a kind arrived in the form of a variety of ad hoc children’s homes, seven of which are now the subject of the Yad Vashem exhibition. It looks at homes established in Poland, Hungary, France, the Netherlands — and even Germany.

The homes, some of which operated for a few months, others for several years, were set up by organisations trying to redeem Jewish children from Christian environments — such as the home in Poland — or the Jewish Agency, hoping to bring the deeply traumatised children to mandate Palestine.

The German home was set up by soldiers from the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, in Blankenese, in the British zone of occupied post-war Germany. Yona Kobo says: “The soldiers saw children in the DP camp and were appalled: there was no school, nothing for them”.

The counsellors and teachers who staffed all the homes were often Holocaust survivors themselves, young adults aged 17-25.

But among those working at Blankenese was Reuma Schwarz, just 20 at the end of the war, who in 1950 married Ezer Weizman, later to be president of Israel. Mrs Weizman (who is still alive in Israel) was born in London in 1925, and her family moved to Jerusalem when she was one year-old. She was not a survivor, but was sent to work at the Blankenese home by the Jewish Agency.

At a reunion of children from the home in 1995, Mrs Weizman explained: “We had to hide from the British that the children were not from the British zone”. The problem was that the Mandate authorities in Palestine only issued a limited number of immigration certificates, only for orphaned children, and specifically only for children living in the British zone.

Unfortunately, she said, a Jewish Agency survey had found that most of the rescued children had been found in monasteries, or on farms, or even hiding with partisans in the forests — and they all ended up in southern Germany, which was the American zone.

“So we lied”, Mrs Weizman said, although she believed the British officers were aware of the pretence. The children were smuggled through from the American zone to the British zone and frequently given new names to confuse the British authorities.

One of the children at Blankenese, near Hamburg, was Renia Kochman, née Baaf, part of a group which eventually settled in Kibbutz Hulda. She recalled: “I emerged from the death camps after enduring the most terrible experience ever recorded in history…after indescribable losses — my family, my childhood and my friends — I was overwhelmed with emotional and physical pain. The ‘Kinderheim’ [children’s home] in Blankenese restored part of my lost childhood to me. It became my home. My teachers and the other girls I met became my friends and my family”.

Yona Kobo said: “The staff were often survivors themselves and working in the homes didn’t just help the children, it helped them, too, as they all learned to trust people again — it helped their mental health”. It was a difficult process, not least with children who had been first forced to part from their parents, and then — when brought to the children’s homes — to part from their “new parents, the Christians who had hidden or rescued them during the Holocaust.”

Zvi-Hirsch Peld was 17 when he was liberated at Buchenwald, one of 1,000 Jewish children and teens discovered in a barracks at the camp. The “Buchenwald Boys” were sent to a rehabilitation camp in France. He recalled: “I didn’t harbour lust for revenge against the Germans. We didn’t feel the destruction, so we certainly didn’t feel the liberation. In order to feel the liberation, it was necessary to feel, but we did not feel anything. We were not people. … at that point we were sick. Sick in body and spirit. Everything hurt – our hands, our feet, our whole bodies hurt, and our souls hurt too”.

“Each home”, says Yona Kobo, “was different — but the children were the same. They had suffered unimaginable trauma. The happy faces in the pictures don’t tell the whole story”.

“My Lost Childhood”, curated by Yona Kobo, Yad Vashem’s on-line exhibition co-ordinator, is available now.


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