Research Update: A Time to Rebuild: The Education and Rehabilitation of Jewish Children in Postwar Germany and Poland, 1945 – 1953

By Nikki Freeman, PhD Candidate in History

Center for Jewish History in NYC

Displaced children and incomplete families were a major international concern among governments, nations, and humanitarian organizations in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. My dissertation studies the rehabilitation, care, and education of Jewish children after the Holocaust in Poland and the US Zone of Allied-occupied Germany. I specifically focus on children’s centers, orphanages, schools, and summer camps as transnational sites where competing relief organizations and Zionist youth movements aimed to influence the future of Jewish life on the local level. Thanks to funding from the Global Mobility Project, I was able to spend three weeks at the Center for Jewish History in New York City conducting archival research for my dissertation.

During my time at the Center for Jewish History, I was particularly interested in learning more about Jewish infiltree children. In 1946, the US Zone in Germany received an influx of Jewish refugees, known as “infiltrees,” who fled from postwar antisemitism in Eastern Europe. I read one archival report that estimated that 76,924 infiltrees entered the US Zone between June and November 1946. Of that number, 13,878 were children. It is important to note that the majority of Jewish infiltree children were from Poland. Their wartime experiences can be divided into three categories. The largest group were children who fled with their parents to central Soviet Union or western Ukraine in September 1939. Then at the end of 1939 or early 1940, they were transported to Siberia. The second group were Polish Jews who lived in the area invaded by the German army in September 1939, but then were ceded to the Soviet Union and occupied by the Red Army. Finally, the third group were Jews who could not escape and stayed in Poland. Some were sent to ghettos and concentration camps while others hid on the Aryan side or in the woods with partisans.

Inside the Center for Jewish History – the Reading Room

In 1946, approximately 2,458 unaccompanied infiltree children entered the US Zone usually in kibbutz groups. They were organized under the care of youth leaders known as madrichim. Each kibbutz had its own political, social, and religious philosophies and teachings. They came to Germany with the intention of eventually immigrating to Palestine. The Child Welfare Division of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) accepted responsibility for providing care for unaccompanied Jewish infiltree children in the US Zone. They coordinated with the Jewish Agency for Palestine, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the Central Committee for Liberated Jews. Archival documents suggest that this was not an easy task, and they encountered many problems.

For example, many unaccompanied infiltree children were not orphans. In fact, many had one or even both of their parents. Jewish families gave up their children to kibbutzim for many reasons. Unaccompanied children received better care and provisions, and they were given priority to leave Poland sooner. Once they reached the US Zone, they temporarily stayed at a reception center and then transferred to a more permanent children’s center. According to one report by Susan Pettis (child infiltree officer of UNRRA), this caused further problems because when the families learned that their children were not going to move immediately through Germany, they began appearing at centers to claim the children as their own. Pettis wrote that the Jewish children experienced emotional conflict because they had become attached to the kibbutz. It was also difficult to prove the relationship between the child and relative. In other cases, these children were under a lot of pressure from the Zionist youth movements and did not really want to go to Palestine. UNRRA had to intervene and remove the child in these particular situations because they believed “a child’s wishes should be recognized.” My larger project exposes tensions between these competing organizations and youth movements that all claimed to have the child’s best interests in mind.

Receiving the Global Mobility Project grant allowed me to finish an essential portion of my doctoral research in the US, and now I am able to focus on my archival research in Europe. I look forward to sharing my research in the near future at academic conferences.

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