“They are so well taken care of. … They’re in facilities that were so clean,” President Donald Trump said during last week’s presidential debate, of the children his administration ordered separated from their parents at the southern border. As my colleague Jeremy Stahl points out, this isn’t the first time that an administration official has argued that because the separated children—over 500 of whom are still being kept from their parents—have (supposedly!) been physically taken care of, they should be “just fine.” But if the life histories of children forced to be parted from parents for years of their childhoods are any indication, these periods of separation will have long-lasting, devastating, and unpredictable effects.
I’ve been reading historian Rebecca Clifford’s new book, Survivors: Children’s Lives After the Holocaust, which is a painful history of Jewish kids who somehow made it through World War II when they were very small, and had to figure out how to forge a life afterward. Combining analysis of survivors’ testimonies recorded over the years, documents from the archives of organizations that came into contact with these children, and oral histories Clifford herself collected, the book shows how many of these survivors struggled with the act of making sense of their lives—even the lucky ones, who didn’t witness violence, and whose material needs were well met during the period of conflict and persecution. Clifford calls the work “fundamentally a book about the history of living after, and living with, a childhood marked by chaos.”
Survivors is, of course, about a group of children whose lives were marked by the Nazi regime, not about children fleeing violence in Central America, who were then separated from their families by Border Patrol agents. But it’s also fundamentally concerned with the human consequences of children’s separations from parents. In the group of survivors in Clifford’s history, there are kids who were sent to live with host families, who hid them until the war was over; kids incarcerated in different labor camps from their parents; kids who wandered the forests alone, tended only by older siblings.
Asking the historical record, and the grown-up survivors she interviewed, how this period of separation had affected the children’s lives in the long term, Clifford found things that she described as “not only unexpected, but shocking.” One such finding was the fact that for many of the kids, the war years were fine; it was liberation that was traumatic. “Children are adept at treating the exceptional as normal, and because they had no other life to compare it with, the years of persecution did not necessarily feel dangerous, fraught, or chaotic to young survivors,” Clifford writes. But after liberation, as well-meaning adults did everything they could to bring the kids back together with their surviving family members, or to find them places in Jewish homes, many of the separated survivors were profoundly destabilized. “My war began in 1945, not in 1940,” one such survivor said.
The German Jewish parents of Felice Z., who was born in October 1939, put their 1½-year-old daughter in the hands of aid workers in early 1941, and the girl spent the war years hidden by farmers in France. Felice Z. remembered in later interviews that she loved her host parents, and in particular her host mother, Madame Patoux: “All they were interested in was taking care of me. She basically saved my life. She was always ready to run. … I took it for granted that she was my mother, I called her meme (nana) and it was really the first close relationship that I had with another human being. I became very attached to them. Very.” At the end of the war, Felice got no joy out of being reunited with her sister, who had become a stranger. Soon after that reunion, she was removed from the family where she had grown up; as she remembered it, nobody bothered to explain why.
“Family reunions could be among the most difficult and distressing experiences that children went through after the war,” Clifford writes. “The youngest children might have no memory of their parents or relatives at all, and were effectively returned to strangers. … Not one child in this study who was returned to his or her family found this process easy or joyful.” The reunions brought up feelings of anger and terror—even if, as Clifford points out, the kids could rationally understand the reasons their parents had put them in safer places for the duration of the war. They had spent years suppressing childish impulses—“they had had to be obedient, quiet, and good to stay safe during the war, whether they were in hiding, in ghettos or in camps”—and often became explosive and “difficult to manage” after the separation was over.
Some of these kids were so alienated from their parents that the bond could not be repaired. Clifford finds stunning stories about siblings who actively conspired with one another to hide evidence that their parents were still alive from placement agencies, since children who had living parents could not be adopted. One girl sent letter after letter to her birth family, begging them to relinquish their claim on her, so that she could stay with her foster family in Canada. All of this is deeply uncomfortable, threatening our picture of children who will always, always prefer their birth parents over others.
The survivors knew their emotions made people uncomfortable. Clifford shows how they understood very well that some adults might write them off if they were honest about what the experience of an early childhood spent this way had meant to them. Right after the war, adults debated whether those children could ever be “rendered normal.” Social workers and psychiatrists called “war orphans” “mal-adjusted,” “war-damaged,” “war-handicapped,” “de-normalized.” The children, in turn, had, as Clifford puts it, “often developed a deep suspicion of adult motivations and behavior.” Adults working with children in group homes noticed that they trusted one another much more than any adult authority figure. In fact, they often preferred to stay in those group homes rather than be adopted into more traditional family settings—a preference that was not often honored, since care homes were supposed to be transient settings, and adults assumed adoption should be the end goal.
The survivors’ life stories show that they knew that people pitied them, and feared them; they weren’t sure which was worse. Robert, who was born in 1936, spent the war in Budapest. He remembered being left at a safe house by his mother, where she visited every Sunday, until one Sunday she didn’t make it: “I remember the feeling of being let down, the loneliness. I sat and sat in the window and I watched [for her], I remember the cold. It was becoming fall.” After the war, he was never reunited with his mother, who was presumed to have died. He was moved from aunt to aunt before his family put him in a care home; then, transported to Canada via a program aimed at finding homes for Jewish war orphans, he ran through foster families in the same way. “I had this feeling that I belonged nowhere, that I didn’t belong to anyone special,” he said. “It manifested itself in my behavior. There was this wildness, this uncontrollable behavior, and it kept on showing up.”
When young survivors of the Holocaust became adult survivors much sought after to tell their stories, they remained in the bind they had been in after the war. If they were to dwell on the emotional fallout of being separated from parents at a young age, rehearsing constantly every sad detail of their plight, the survivors risked being branded as “broken.” If they were to tell a story of resilience, such a story might not be quite true, or might cover up the way emotions about childhoods of “chaos” could shift over a lifetime.
“Childhood memories,” Clifford writes at the end of her book, “provided an insistent percussion over the span of a life: chiming away in the background, sometimes barely heard, sometimes deafening.” For some children who had been separated from parents at a young age, having their own children helped them. For some, “the birth of children could awaken latent fears,” Clifford writes. Paulette S. reflected on how profoundly her daughter turning 4—the age she was when her mother left her with a host family in the French countryside—affected her:
Every time I picked [my daughter] up, I felt how upset my mother must have been when I was her age, and not knowing what was going to happen to me. It reached the point when I couldn’t pick her up at all. I couldn’t kiss or touch her. It seemed completely beyond my control to fight these feelings. I bought her books, games, anything she needed, but I could not play with her.
As Clifford’s book, full of the ambiguity, confusion, and variability of survivors’ stories, shows, it’s impossible to generalize about what the experience of being separated from family for the past two years will mean to the kids our government took in 2017–18 and hasn’t yet returned. But, responding to the news of those 500-plus kids who had yet to be reunited, Los Angeles Times journalist Esmeralda Bermudez wrote a Twitter thread about her relationship with her mother; they had been separated when Bermudez was 2.
“By the time I met her at age 5,” Bermudez wrote, “she was a stranger to me. Every day, since then, our relationship has suffered deeply, painfully due to our time apart. … My mom and I have learned along the way that nothing seems to make it go away. Not her prayers. Not my ‘American Dream’ success. Not any logical explanation of how governments work or don’t work. My mother’s touch will always feel foreign to me.”