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Silence Within a World of Words: Why it Took Almost Fifty Years after the Holocaust for ‘Hidden Children’ to Speak Out

 

We are not only the unsung but also the forgotten heroes of the Holocaust. The victims have been offered monuments. The rescuers are honoured by the state of Israel.  We have only silence.  We do not want monuments…we want words.  Now it is time to tell our stories to the worlds of today and tomorrow, to show those worlds not only that we have survived, but also that we are alive.

—André Stein

Who were the ‘hidden children’ of the Shoah and why have we not heard about them until recently? Though widely known within circles of academia and described more thoroughly in Holocaust literature, hidden children in general are the least known group of survivors from World War II. These children, anywhere between their infant years and their late teens, were given away either temporarily or permanently by their parents in order to save them from the concentration camps. Although there were several variations on the child’s hiding situation, they were usually sent to live with Christian families with whom they took on false identities throughout the duration of the war, or were physically hidden until the danger of arrest and deportation had passed.  

The stories of this subset of survivors became more widely known when 1,600 former hidden children met for the first ‘International Gathering of the Hidden Child’ in New York City in 1991. A similar conference, ‘Het ondergedoken kind’ (‘The Hidden Child’), followed soon afterwards in the Netherlands and was opened by the former mayor of Amsterdam, Ed van Thijn, whose perspective is given below. Both conferences raised the awareness that for some, the Holocaust did not end in 1945 but continued with fifty more years of hiding their stories from society, their families, and even from themselves. For many Dutch hidden children, these conferences were the first time they had been able to speak about what they had experienced. To understand why it took so long for these stories to come to light, we interviewed Frieda Menco, Ed van Thijn, and Peter Hein, three former hidden children who themselves waited decades before speaking out.  

Though there are similarities in how hidden children responded with silence during the post-war years, it is important to differentiate between experiences and reactions because too many factors were unique to each child’s situation, making generalization difficult. We illustrate this by comparing our three interviewees’ hiding situations with their post-war reactions. Finally, we describe what encouraged them to speak out after so many years of silence. From the lessons that they have learned, we suggest possible solutions for confronting one’s past after a traumatic event in order to move ahead with the future.

Three Hidden Child Experiences: A Background

Being in hiding is complete dependency; I felt lonely, beat into a pulp, and scared. The only thing I had left was myself.   —Peter Hein

Often when hearing about the hidden children of the Holocaust, the gravity of experiences endured is not easily grasped. According to the Anti-Defamation League, some children were hidden in the open as Christians in convents or orphanages, while others faced ‘silent and solitary childhoods in haylofts, woods, basements or sewers.’ Those hidden in the open were often separated from their families during crucial years of emotional and psychological development. They were usually given false identities and sent to live with other families, sometimes without explanation of why their parents were leaving and why their true identities had to be shrouded in secrecy.  Often, they lost contact with their families and did not know when they would see them again. Other problems resulted from post-war loyalty conflicts between the child survivor and their host families and real families (occasionally resulting in legal custody battles, or in hidden children distancing themselves emotionally from their parents), as well as identity conflicts resulting from the conversion between Christianity and Judaism during and after the war.

Frieda Menco, who from age 14-16 hid in one room with her parents, described her experiences as such: “We were treated like slaves and starved. For two years all of us stayed in one room. We had to whisper and could not walk around. We were afraid and very hungry. We gave the people a lot of money but often at the end of the evening my father or I begged them to give us one slice of bread that we could share. They were really bad people.” This experience ended with her family being betrayed and sent to the concentration camps, where she survived two years in Auschwitz with her mother. She told us that her experiences in Auschwitz coloured her world far more than being a child in hiding.

Ed van Thijn, the former mayor of Amsterdam and currently a member of the Dutch Senate, was moved frequently among 18 different addresses. There was worry that his health problems and noticeable Jewish appearance might arouse the suspicion of informers and put himself and his host families at risk. He describes one experience that illustrates the difficulties of being a hidden child. On his tenth birthday in August of 1944, he remembers being very excited about the festivities that he hoped would ensue at his ninth family’s home, but was disappointed upon finding out that their Catholicism prevented them from celebrating his birthday. “I burst into tears and cried out ‘then I don’t want to become a Catholic!’ That very evening they came and took me off to Overijssel [a province in the northeast of the Netherlands] just before the part where I had been staying was liberated. I had to wait much longer for my freedom.”  Soon after this experience, he was deported to a concentration camp where he was liberated at the end of the war.

Our third interviewee, Peter Hein, described a memory of his mother’s friend taking him on a trip that seemed normal because she did this often. This time she brought him to the home of strangers and left him alone there; he was only three years old. He would not see his parents again for another three years. This became the first of 14 homes that would house him in secrecy. He spoke of one experience where he suffered at the hands of two young daughters who enjoyed hitting him constantly: “They played with me the way a cat hunts a mouse. I didn’t allow myself to cry. Never in my life had I been in such a dirty slum.”  

It is possible that situations like these contributed to years of silence among hidden children after the war—some learned not to argue or complain to their hiding families since they could be turned out within a moment’s notice.  Thus, many used silence as a coping mechanism to deal with situations like the aforementioned in order to survive.

Post-War Experiences: The Return From Hiding

Dutch society after the war:

In the summer of 1945, Jews suffered from anti-Semitism even as they were trying to adapt to the disruption of their pre-war lives. Dienke Hondius was one of the first social scientists who studied post-war anti-Semitism in the Netherlands: “For the Jews who returned, the war was a breach in their existence. Most of them returned to a social environment shattered from the loss of so many family members, friends, and acquaintances. Often, they also lost their homes and jobs and had to start their lives anew. In these experiences after the war, the Jewish survivors stood alone in comparison with most of the Dutch.”

After the liberation, the first contacts between Jews and non-Jews were marred by a lack of understanding; everyone had suffered during the war and was preoccupied with rebuilding his or her own life. Because of this, it was common for Jewish survival stories to be discredited or ignored. Frieda Menco discovered this for herself when she returned from Auschwitz: “When we came back we tried to tell people our experiences, but nobody wanted to listen. Some had suffered from starvation and did not want to be bothered. As nobody wanted to listen we shut up and I remember feeling guilty about troubling people.” Because of her inability to tell her stories and express her pent-up emotions, she felt like a psychological outcast for years.

The role of the Dutch government in post-WWII society was dubious because they refused to offer psychological or material help even though most Jews had lost everything. Although the government’s purpose for this policy was to prevent further classification and differentiation between Jews and non-Jews, the policy still aroused bitterness because it was seen as uncaring and ignorant of the additional help needed by Holocaust survivors. As noted in Dienke Hondius’ book ‘Terugkeer’ (‘The Return’), “Jewish people had to rebuild new lives within a sphere of death, devastation, distress, and loneliness. They felt obligated to act normal again, which was an almost impossible task.” 

Within families after the war:

Apart from the reactions of post-war society, many children also had to deal with the lack of understanding from their parents. Many adults thought, ‘what could they possibly know or remember?  They were only children.’ Ed van Thijn was confronted with this reaction from his mother after the war. After almost two years of separation, he was lucky to find his parents alive. However, he also discovered that it was impossible to tell his story to his mother because “it was my mother’s war, not ‘my’ war.” He felt as though they treated him like a child, without recognizing all that he had gone through; his status was quickly downgraded from ‘first’ to ‘second’ generation war survivor. He became a problem child: “I was dragged to dozens of doctors, specialists, and even a child psychiatrist.  I underwent the craziest treatments, including electroshock therapy. Not once did the subject of the war come up. Never once did one of those brilliant minds ask me to tell my story.”

Peter Hein had the same experience with his mother; she also refused to hear his story. She would not even read ‘Logeren’, the book he wrote on his experiences during the Holocaust. As an adult, she was seen as a ‘real survivor’ of the Holocaust. He, on the other hand, had only been a child; what could he possibly remember or know?

Various factors that contributed to the silence of hidden children after the war:

Some former hidden children had additional battles to fight before ‘returning to normalcy’ after the war. For example, Peter Hein did not recognize his parents when he first met them after the liberation. He was three years old when he went into hiding and almost seven when he returned. His parents appeared like strangers to him; living with them felt like a sixth year in hiding. He also had another confusing situation to deal with upon his return. One of his hiding mothers, Aunt Cor, stayed with the family for a year after the war. She was an uninvited guest who ordered them around (e.g., telling them to recite Catholic prayers even though before the war they had been orthodox Jews). Although her behaviour was unreasonable, they felt compelled to obey her because she had saved Peter’s life. A year passed before they gathered the courage to ask her to leave. 

Because of difficulties associated with resolving problems from their past, many hidden children found that focusing on the future was the only way they could move on with their lives. Although not a solution, many found that succeeding in life provided the only real relief from their suppressed memories. As noted by Frieda Menco: “Earning money was the aim; buying and buying…climbing in society, smiling, and telling yourself how wonderful life was.” This type of attitude allowed many former hidden children to find momentary relief. However, the time would come for some when outer success was no longer enough, when returning to unhealed issues from the past was necessary before further advancement could be made. 

After Years of Silence, a Turning Point

I wanted to know the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the catastrophe and learn for myself my own coordinates.  How did we live and survive; how was our liberation and homecoming? Why did the world act deaf and blind in our darkest hours both during the war and after it?   —Gerhard Durlacher

The 1991 hidden child conference in the Netherlands became a turning point for many survivors who were ready to speak about their experiences during the Holocaust. The event was organized by Jewish Social Work (JMW) to help several former hidden children who had developed psychological problems over the years and needed additional help in dealing with them. Some examples of psychological problems encountered include depression, anxiety, aggression, anti-social behaviours, and inclinations toward suicide. These conferences brought survivors together to share and learn from each other’s experiences in order to realize that they were not alone.

Both Frieda Menco and Peter Hein found that Ed van Thijn’s speech at the first conference in Amsterdam was an important step in the process of speaking out. However, Ed himself felt uncomfortable speaking so publicly about his experiences, which to him meant dwelling on the past: “Until 1969-1970 I was able to ignore [the Holocaust] more or less when all of a sudden in the Netherlands it became an issue. It was traumatic for me to become confronted with other people’s stories of suffering during the war.” After speaking at the hidden child conference, he immediately faced an internal struggle: “After my speech, I ran away, I didn’t want to be a part of that meeting. But immediately after I ran away I couldn’t stand it. I felt like I had an obligation to speak out, to honour the resistance. It is a duty to honour [the rescuers and the resistance] because nobody can imagine what those people did.”  For him, talking about his hiding and post-war experiences is difficult because he does not want to live in the past or see himself as a victim. However, he has positive memories overall of the many courageous people who saved his life. Four of his rescuers died to save him, and it is for them that he continues to speak out.

Frieda was unable to speak in-depth about her experiences until 1979, when she attended a conference for Holocaust survivors in the United States, after which she stayed up until five a.m. sharing her memories with a friend. By this time, it had been more than 30 years after the Holocaust before she had been able to speak about what she went through. Since then, she has been able to share her story more frequently in order to raise awareness of what happened during the Holocaust. It has only been within the last few years that she has allowed herself to think about her experiences and cry. However, telling her personal story now takes a heavier toll on her health, which makes her question how much longer she can continue to speak publicly about her experiences.

“The Deafening Silence”: What Prevented Them from Speaking Out?

Although the three survivors interviewed had different experiences, they had similar reasons for remaining silent throughout the years. For Frieda Menco, it was difficult for her to speak to her husband, who was also a Holocaust survivor but did not want to speak of the past. Her husband’s unwillingness to speak or hear about the Holocaust also made it difficult to discuss her experiences with her sons; she referred to this as the ‘deafening silence’ that prevailed within her household. The only person she would have been able to speak to was her father, but he had died in a concentration camp. She could talk to her mother about her experiences, but only when masked by jokes. In general, she believed that Holocaust survivors needed to ‘keep their mouths shut’ from 1945 until 1979, when the first movie on the Holocaust came out and made the subject more acceptable within societal discourse. Until then, “everyone had been too preoccupied with their own lives to be bothered.” Rather than speaking out and having her story rejected, she changed her focus toward preparing for the future.

Age was also a factor that contributed to silence after the war. According to Peter Hein, the credibility of survivors’ memories and their ‘right to speak’ depended on the individual’s age at the time of the experience. He also believes that not talking about the past was necessary in order for families to rebuild their unity after the war. To make the process of starting over easier, they did not speak of the experiences that had once threatened to tear them apart.  

Ed van Thijn offered other reasons for silence. During his time as mayor, “everyone in Amsterdam talked about Anne Frank; she was a symbol for this city. However, she died but we survived, which contributed to our silent shame in telling our stories.” His feelings are paradoxical. On one hand, he does not like hearing people complain about what they have been through. In doing so, he feels that they are defining themselves as victims and living in the past. On the other hand, he rejects the ‘hierarchy of suffering’ that robbed some people of a voice because their suffering was supposedly less than that of the ‘real’ survivors of the Holocaust. In reality, however, he believes there is no such thing as a ‘monopoly on sorrow’ and that regardless of what he or anyone else thinks, those who need to speak about their experiences should if doing so is necessary to heal and move on.

Healing with the Light of Day: Suggestions for Confronting One’s Past in Order to Move Ahead with the Future

Through studies on children who survived traumas such as the Holocaust, several researchers have suggested ways for interacting with and treating child survivors. Hans Keilson, a psychiatrist who did a study on hidden children’s behavioural and psychological reactions to the Holocaust within the decades following the war, described his findings in his book ‘The Sequential Traumatization of Children.’ He concludes that the social rehabilitation of children is highly dependent on the phase directly after the traumatic experience, such as when the child reunites with his/her family at the end of the war. The amount of love as well as emotional and psychological support received during this stage is crucial in reversing the chain of traumatic experiences and in helping to speed up the healing process. Strong personal support systems are necessary for the child to feel safe in sharing their experiences, rather than suppressing their memories and emotions with silence. Keilson’s main suggestion is that the family should make a timely request for assistance and supervision soon after the child’s return in order to deal with these issues as soon as possible: “This is a reason for considering whether the appointment of guardians for severely traumatized children should not be bound by a regulation providing for obligatory social-psychiatric supervision.”

Our stance is that there needs to be a balanced reception of traumatized persons who need to be reintegrated back into society. As shown by events within the Netherlands after the war, silence on the past is non-productive because it encourages ignorance and indifference. Without societal awareness, there can be no suitable help for trauma victims because there is no understanding of the root causes of the problems they are grappling with. However, there should be no automatic assumption that survivors of traumatic events should be treated as fragile persons unable to lead normal lives; this approach is disrespectful toward those who had heroic and loving hiding experiences, and toward those who had the sustenance to survive and were able to deal with their issues the best they could in order to continue with everyday life. We also think that the government should have taken a proactive stance on targeting the special needs of Holocaust survivors, not as a policy of social classification, but more as a realistic assessment of the needs of post-war reconstruction. This necessitates an honest evaluation of the population groups that were harmed more than others, just as it was likely recognized that some areas endured more physical destruction than others and needed additional assistance in order to return them to their pre-war state.

During the war, 94% of Dutch citizens were bystanders and did nothing to resist the genocidal policies of the Nazi administration. After the war, they were bystanders once more by not being receptive to or helping those who survived the Holocaust. From our interviews with Frieda Menco, Peter Hein, and Ed van Thijn, we found three courageous individuals willing to share their personal experiences that portrayed both the difficulties and successes encountered within their hiding experiences, and with confronting their past. After fifty years, the silence has finally been broken. As written by André Stein in his book ‘Hidden Children: Forgotten Survivors of the Holocaust’, “The First International Gathering of Hidden Children was for us the beginning of a childhood that had been lost...We have exposed our wounds to the healing power of light. Telling our stories has validated our losses and our grief.  Now we can go on with the business of living.”

 

References

 

Interviews

Dienke Hondius, 23 June 2004

Frieda Menco, 24 June 2004

Peter Hein, 26 June 2004

Ed van Thijn, 27 June 2004

Literature

Durlacher, Gerhard, Strepen aan de Hemel, Meulenhoff, 2004.

Hondius, Dienke, Terugkeer. Antisemitisme in Nederland rond de bevrijding,  SDU Uitgevers, Den Haag.

Keilson, Hans, Sequential Traumatization in Children, Jerusalem, 1992.

Levi, Shlomo P. (Peter Hein), Logeren,  Stadtmuseum,  Düsseldorf, 1991.

Stein, André, Hidden Children: Forgotten survivors of the Holocaust, Viking, Toronto, 1993.

Thijn, Ed, van, Het Verhaal, Amsterdam, 2000.

Websites

www.adl.org/hidden/history.asp

www.adl.org/holocaust/hidden_children_washington.asp

 

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Netherlands Netherlands 2004

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