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Displaced Children: Victims of World War II

Colleen has a Master’s degree in English Literature and is an author of stories and articles focusing on the dynamics of human relationships

Child evacuees from Rotherhithe in Kent UK during 1940

Child evacuees from Rotherhithe in Kent UK during 1940

Children of World War II: Deep-Rooted Scars

During World War II, millions of children were evacuated from the most menaced areas of England to live in regions viewed as less likely to suffer enemy bombings. While this policy proved both wise and worthwhile, children wrenched from their families, even when the reasons were well-explained, were often bewildered and frightened.

Even those mature enough to fully understand the reasons experienced the grief of homesickness combined with a sometimes overwhelming sense of disorientation.

Would their foster parents be cordial, or might they view them as nuisances, accepted grudgingly, based upon a wish to seem generous-hearted, combined with governmental income? Various memoirs have documented the experiences of a variety of evacuees.

Acceptance and Understanding

According to the Terence Frisby memoir, Kisses on a Postcard: A Tale of Wartime Childhood, the parents who fostered him and his brother Jack had only intended to take in one child. But seeing the alarm in the young Frisbys’ eyes at the thought of being divided, the couple felt it would be callous to force them to be absorbed into different families.

Once the Frisby brothers were ensconced in this home, they soon understood they would be expected to adhere to the fair but definite rules of its framework. Still, the occasional reprimand was accepted as justified, enhancing their already deep respect for this couple who they sensed underwent some financial strain in order to keep them united.

Depth and Tenderness of Emotional Ties

During the Frisbys’ stay, their foster parents were notified their own son had been killed in battle. Grieving in her strong, quiet way, their foster mother insisted both boys write regular letters—quite lengthy for boys their age—to their parents. In recollection, Terence Frisby sensed she sought to do all she could to reinforce the Frisbys’ familial closeness.

So profound did his tenderness grow towards his foster parents that, when WW II ended, while eager to return to his family, he feared their household might seem empty, especially since they could no longer hope for the return of their son.

Hence, prior to their goodbye, he offered to stay. Agonizing as it had been for him to risk asking this question, he wondered if, as his mother had two sons, she might be willing to spare, or share the raising of one of them. With her characteristic tact and compassion, their foster mother explained no child could be replaced by another.

She added his own parents would be wounded by the idea of forfeiting one of their sons; this thought must have forced her to recall her and her husband’s own desolation.

Child evacuees with name labels

Child evacuees with name labels

Cruelty Masked as Compassion

Conversely, according to the memoir of Hilda Hollingsworth, They Tied a Label on My Coat, she and her younger sister, Pat, taken by train to a place thought to be less perilous and then identified by labels on their coats, spent the most wretched time of their childhood in the home of a malevolent couple.

Having lived in a few other households, these sisters were eventually sent to live in a Welsh mining village.

In addition to their mean-spirited foster parents, the sisters were forced to endure the incessant cruelties of an already established foster daughter who Hilda had previously known. This girl, dubbed “Merry Bridget”, hid her constant taunts beneath a saccharine giggle, meant to diffuse any sense of her genuine malice.

This laugh accompanied one of her earliest comments to Hilda in this new home:

I never liked you.

A Menacing Matriarch

Not surprisingly, Bridget and her foster mother were perfect compatriots. This woman’s torments ranged from chopping off Hilda’s hair, to locking her out of the house, thus forcing her to stay in the streets, while she and Bridget enjoyed a variety of jaunts and festivities.

Most vicious of all was her blatant fondness for Pat, to the point of stating her plan to take steps towards adopting her. This thought evoked such horror in Pat that her behaviour became somewhat bizarre.

In fact, this adoption plan never had the slightest likelihood of succeeding. Both girls’ true mother ached inside from the moment she felt impelled to relinquish her children for an indeterminate time. Hence, the moment the war had subsided to the point it was deemed safe to do so, she rushed to that house to reclaim her two cherished daughters.

Still, although the family seems to have resumed their lives much as they had been prior to the war, the vividness of Hilda’s memoir indicates the lingering sting of that barbaric experience.

Nazi Demi-Gods Strove to Create an Aryan Master Race

Logically, the optimal way to generate a race of blonde-haired, blue-eyed human beings, with no physical and/or mental flaws can be accomplished by culling and cultivating children with these characteristics from their supposed inferiors.

This ideal is akin to the mating of pedigreed animals, such as dogs and horses, who seem likely to produce pups and foals with the most sought-after traits and abilities.

Tragically, logic often isolates scientific evidence, dismissing human emotion as irrelevant self-indulgence.

In order to pass the screening needed to be viewed as Aryan, infants and young children had to first be found, abducted if necessary, and then tested. In addition to hair and eye colour, the arrogance of the Nazis was such as to allow them to believe they could ascertain the racial priorities of those children they felt they had the right to appropriate.

The Anguish of Being Chosen

One motivating spur of the time was, “Give a child to the Fuhrer.” Horrifically, this seems to have encouraged women to give birth and raise a child Hitler would have been proud to have fathered. Awards of varying value were given to women who produced infants viewed as worthwhile.

As Nazi conquests expanded, so did their power to control the lives of the offspring of each newly-conquered land. Hence, when Yugoslavia was occupied by the Nazis, Erika Matko along with half a million infants and toddlers, was abducted from Yugoslavia.

Erika was rechristened by the Nazi's "Ingrid Von Oelhafen". In her memoir, Hitler’s Forgotten Children: One Woman’s Search for Her Real Identity, she recounts, after intensive research, the various tests to which these captured children were subjected.

Ms. Von Oelhafen, approved after her examination, was placed in the foster home of a couple dedicated to the edicts and principles of the Third Reich. From her earliest days, Ingrid was mystified, not only by both “parents” aloofness, but by their refusal to discuss any aspect of her birth and the months thereafter. At any rate, her stay with these “parents” was fairly short-lived.

Heinrich Luitpold Himmler 7 October 1900 – 23 May 1945) established the Nazi SS Race and Settlement Office

Heinrich Luitpold Himmler 7 October 1900 – 23 May 1945) established the Nazi SS Race and Settlement Office

The Weeding Process Continued

Later, within the Nazi race and resettlement program, Ingrid was transferred to Lebensborn, a home where the elite would be further bathed in the Aryan mindset. A separate group of children, perceived as mediocre, were returned to their birth families, perhaps in hopes of their becoming a secondary resource for future use.

Those children found to have any physical or mental disability were sedated. Once quieted by these drugs, they were given minimal food and water. This was considered a gentle and merciful form of euthanasia.

Other accounts have revealed these unfortunates would be placed in the thinnest clothing, and then sent outside during snowstorms or climatic conditions almost certain to bring about pneumonia, which was left untreated.

Who Was She, Truly?

As time passed, increasing inconsistencies led Ingrid to seek understanding as to her true parentage. The guardians of this information, even decades later, seemed determined to frustrate efforts at disclosure.

Still, in overcoming this series of deliberate delays, eventually meetings with other survivors enabled Ingrid to learn and share details which helped the group, as a whole, to understand and accept their origins and abductions.

Intriguingly, having excavated her roots, Ingrid found they made little difference. Having lived more than half a century as she was, her discovery turned out to be almost pointless. Her memoir ends with the sense that, though it may be enlightening to find our roots, ultimately we are what we become through the lives we are given.

Ingrid Von Oelhafen

Ingrid Von Oelhafen

Survivors of the Hell of the Jewish Holocaust

Having read numerous memoirs and watched documentaries regarding the holocaust, my most vivid knowledge stems from private conversations with those survivors who have spoken to me about their own sufferings, or the last hours of those dearest to them.

One elderly, widowed neighbour, Leah, still weeps when recalling her final weeks with her younger sister, Rachael, in the Treblinka Concentration Camp. Their parents having already been killed in the Nazi gas ovens, these two girls, 11-year-old Leah and 6-year-old Rachael did their utmost to sustain one another.

In time, Rachael, several years younger and always quite frail, succumbed to a combination of malnutrition and typhoid fever. Holding her hand near the end, Leah asked if there was any song she could sing, or a story she might retell, which might soothe her a little. Rachael, by then barely able to speak, said, “I only wish I had a doll I could cuddle.”

More shocking from my post-war perspective were interactions with Thelma, a generally buoyant classmate and friend. During a conversation about the miseries caused by wars, Thelma said her father had set aside a substantial fund to ensure their family escaped, if any hint of a similar massacre reoccurred.

Hard as I tried to conceal my incredulity at the thought of that type of slaughter, Thelma must have noticed.

A few days later, as she and I walked towards the dorm elevator, we saw an unmistakable swastika, drawn just above the call button. Touching my arm, she said, “So, now do you see? Even here, at this supposedly left-wing, liberal college, a lot of students hate my people, and would be happier if we all died.” I could only hold Thelma close to me, and hope my hug might give her some comfort.

Adolf Hitler: born 20 April 1889 died 30 April 1945 was the leader of the Nazi Party who developed the racial theory of an aryan master race as an ideology for Germany and beyond

Adolf Hitler: born 20 April 1889 died 30 April 1945 was the leader of the Nazi Party who developed the racial theory of an aryan master race as an ideology for Germany and beyond

Pre-Concentration Camp Screening

As World War II escalated, the zeal and desperation of Nazis to erase non Aryans from the earth grew more intense. While eventually, the Gestapo incarcerated and/or killed anyone who seemed beneath their elitist standards, initially they evaluated those able to perform enough work in the concentration camps to justify their subsistence.

In an effort to ensure some level of productivity, both the elderly and small children needed to be eliminated. Even half a century later, those involved in these decisions were reticent to discuss their participation.

Still, difficult as it must have proved for Israeli psychologist Dan Bar-on, he acted on his belief in the need to gain and record knowledge as to the thought processes and emotions of those given power to decide who would live or die, before dementia or their own deaths erased this information.

Consequences of Research

According to Dan Bar-on’s book, Legacy of Silence: Encounters with Children of the Third Reich, numerous inquiries led to 49 people, over a period of years, agreeing to comply with his wishes.

His research subjects, while at first disconcerted by Bar-on’s taping of their encounters, soon understood the recording as an effort to provide an objective, accurate account of their responses to relevant questions.

One interviewee, a doctor, recounted, when first hired by the Nazi party, his job struck him as benign and nondescript. Subtly, he was, in all likelihood, being evaluated in terms of endurance regarding that work for which he had truly been sought.

Gradually, promoted to a position with higher pay and prestige, this doctor was told, implicitly, he would be in charge of deciding which of those people brought to his hospital, had enough vigour left in them to make them worth saving.

A Lack of Guilt

The doctor interviewed told Dan Bar-on of one colleague, unable to reconcile his assigned work with his sense of ethics, committed suicide. On the other hand, this doctor, despite some early fears and misgivings, opted to view his tasks as he would any other form of employment.

In terms of his own survival, he became convinced any show of reluctance on his part could quickly result in his being placed before a firing squad.

Responding to Dan Bar-on’s question as to what echoes the choices he had made in the past had impacted upon his life afterwards, he admitted the primary difference occurred in his garden. When finding snails there, he felt impelled to kill all of them. If even one eluded his hoe by trying to escape underground, he strove on, until he had crushed it.

Perspective of His Adult Child

Allowed to interview the doctor's son, now middle-aged, Dan Bar-on was provided with equally honest responses. During the time period being discussed, the doctor’s son lived with his mother in an area well outside the major areas of war. Hence, his childhood was as buoyant and filled with play as those of most middle-class children.

His father visited him and his mother as often as his work schedule allowed. Once there, family life was in no way marred by his professional obligations. Thus, whatever he learned regarding his father’s part in the holocaust, his recollections were of a dad who romped and frolicked about with him; there would always remain a fondness between them.

To summarize, however disturbed and troubled by the travesties of the past, it will always be our own experiences which form and determine our memories.

© 2016 Colleen Swan


Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on July 13, 2017:

Hi Graham, I am saddened to hear your sister had such a horrific experience. I am not surprised the trauma haunted her for the rest of her life. While by no means as dreadful, I went away to boarding school at 8. I will never understand the joy some adults find in harassing vulnerable children.

Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on July 13, 2017:

Hi Colleen. An excellent hub from you. Informative and covering many issues in a concise way. I reminds me of my own sisters unhappiness when she was evacuated during the war. Foo parcels sent by my parents were never given to her. A letter my parents wrote telling her to look at the moon when possible at 9.0 pm each evening and know that her mum and dad were looking at it at that time were never given to her she knew nothing. She felt abandoned and was heart broken. The family she was with treated badly. She never forgot it. Thank you for such an excellent hub.


Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on May 07, 2017:

Hi Paige, I think if you read the paragraph above again, it will be clear that the things he was forced to do during the war touched a violent streak which he has been unable to quell.

paige on May 07, 2017:

I don't get the part when it shows the snail.

Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on November 09, 2016:

Hi, Yes, children are often the greatest sufferers and most ignored victims of war. I hope the struggles you endured in your childhood did not scar you too badly. Our childhoods are always interwoven with our adult lives, so all we can do is hope things are better for future children. Colleen

ValKaras on November 08, 2016:

Excellent hub, Colleen! Brutalities of war, any war always hit kids the most. You just can't but wonder how heartless and inhuman must be those who initiate such a mass tragedy.

I was born in post-war Europe, and although I didn't experience the trauma of those kids in the hub, I can clearly remember those shortages of food, electricity, firewood, everything, and those always worried faces in my household.

We ate mostly of Red Cross, no toys, and with nerves shattered by 5 years of bombing, my folks couldn't excel at something like "parental skills". There is nothing left to forgive though, because war was ruining everyone's life, and we shared the same misery of it.

Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on September 30, 2016:

Hi Stella, I learned a lot too researching this article. Some of it was painful to read, but I felt the need to know more about children's perspectives. Nice to hear from you again. Colleen

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on September 29, 2016:

A wonderful hub, and one I know little about. I read a lot about WWII, but nothing that deals with the children. Learn something new about the war. Thanks, Stella

Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on September 28, 2016:

Thank you MsDora; some of the research for this hub was heartbreaking, but I also believe it expanded and deepened my knowledge of the various plights of the children.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 27, 2016:

Colleen, thank you for expanding our knowledge of childhood during the war. Look at the children smiling in the pictures, not knowing their fate. The stories of the kind foster parents are encouraging.

Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on September 25, 2016:

Hi Larry, thank you for your uplift. Colleen

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on September 24, 2016:

Wonderfully done.

Colleen Swan (author) from County Durham on September 24, 2016:

Thank you for your comment and advice. I wasn't sure about the URL. I have changed it. I agree, and in time more secrets will be revealed. Colleen

Setank Setunk on September 23, 2016:

World War Eleven? In the absence of Roman Script it is appropriate to simply write WW2.

Very nice article. But German efficiency was seriously hindered ( Thank God) by their need to be secretive.