United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Plight of Children
Life in Shadows: Hidden Children and the Holocaust

Difficult Choices

Stories of the Hidden

Quest for Family

Artifact Gallery

When World War II began in September 1939, there were approximately 1.6 million Jewish children living in the territories that the German armies or their allies would occupy. By war's end, over 1 million of them, and perhaps as many as 1.5 million, were dead – targeted victims of the Nazis’ calculated program of genocide.

Driven by a racist ideology that viewed Jews as “parasitic vermin” worthy only of eradication, the Nazis implemented genocide on an unprecedented scale. All of Europe’s Jews were slated for destruction: the sick and the healthy, the rich and the poor, the religiously orthodox and converts to Christianity, the aged and the young, even infants.

All Jews were targeted for death, but the mortality rate for children was especially high. Only 6 to 11% of Europe’s prewar Jewish population of children survived as compared with 33% of the adults. The young generally were not considered useful for forced labor, and the Nazis often carried out “children’s actions” to reduce the number of “useless eaters” in the ghettos. In the death camps, children, the elderly, and pregnant women routinely were sent to the gas chambers immediately after arrival.

Following the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, the world learned of the staggering human toll of the Holocaust. Few Jewish children survived. Liberation from Nazi tyranny brought no end to the sufferings of the Jewish girls and boys who remained alive. Many would face the future without parents, grandparents, or siblings.

Among the small number of European Jewish children still alive at the end of the Holocaust, thousands had survived because they were hidden. With identities disguised, and often physically concealed from the outside world, these youngsters faced constant fear, dilemmas, and danger.

Theirs was a life in shadows, where a careless remark, a denunciation, or the murmurings of inquisitive neighbors could lead to discovery and death.

I’m Steve Luckert, co-curator of Life in Shadows: Hidden Children and the Holocaust. When we began work on Life in Shadows, we started looking for an image, an artifact, that somehow would encapsulate the story of hidden children and the Holocaust. One of the photographs that we examined showed a group of children at a Catholic orphanage in eastern Poland. It was taken in 1942-1943. What was interesting about the photograph was that it showed Jewish children hidden among Polish children. One girl, in the foreground, looks almost directly into the camera. Another child, right near the nun in the photograph, the face has been removed. What happened is that the girl whose face is not visible was told by that nun that she looked too Jewish, and that she shouldn’t have her photograph taken any more. To remedy that, she scratched her face out of the photograph, so that it would not be visible. The other child was deemed not to look Jewish, and so could be shown. It is not a formal portrait, but rather an informal one taken of a gathering, in itself it conveys a certain sense of mystery.

Read the exhibition script.

Credits for illustrations used throughout this Web site:
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collections (donors listed with individual items)
National Archives
Instytut Pamieci Narodowej—Komisja Scigania Zbrodni przeciwko Narodowi Polskiemu, Warsaw, Poland
Joods Museum van Deportatie en Verzet, Mechelen, Belgium
Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive, University of Michigan-Dearborn
Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel
Zydowski Instytut Historyczny, Warsaw, Poland