Hidden Children

Rounding Up Jews
Jews from the Warsaw ghetto surrender to German soldiers after the uprising. Keystone / Staff/ Hulton Archives/ Getty Images

Under the persecution and terror of the Third Reich, Jewish children could not afford simple, childlike pleasures. Though the seriousness of their every action may not have been known in absolutes to them, they lived in a realm of cautiousness and distrust. They were forced to wear the yellow badge, forced out of school, taunted and attacked by others their age, and disallowed from parks and other public places.

Some Jewish children went into hiding to escape the increasing persecution and, most importantly, the deportations. Although the most famous example of children in hiding is the story of Anne Frank, every child in hiding had a different experience.

There were two main forms of hiding. The first was physical hiding, where children physically hid in an annex, attic, cabinet, etc. The second form of hiding was pretending to be Gentile.

Physical Hiding

Physical hiding represented an attempt to hide one's complete existence from the outside world. 

  • Location: A place to hide had to be found. Through family and friends, information spread through a network of acquaintances. Someone might offer to hide the family for free, others might ask a price. The size, comfort, and security of hiding places varied tremendously.
    I don't know how the contact was arranged, but there we stayed in what was actually a cabinet, only sixty or seventy centimeters wide. The length of it would have been a couple of meters, because we could all lie on top of each other comfortably. My parents couldn't stand, but I could, and I sort of walked between them. This cabinet was in a cellar, so it was well hidden. Our presence there was so secret, not even the children of the hiding family knew that we were there. That was where we stayed for thirteen months! 1
    ---Richard Rozen, six years old when went into hiding
    Children were most often not told about the presence of the hiding place in advance. The location of the hiding place had to remain an absolute secret -- their lives depended on it.

    Then would come the day to finally move into their hiding place. For some, this day was preplanned; for others, this day was the day they heard word about impending harm or deportation. As nonchalantly as possible, the family would pack a few remaining, important items and leave their home. 

  • Daily Life: Each day, these children woke up, knowing that they must be extremely quiet, must move slowly, and that they would not be allowed to leave the confinement of their hiding place. Many of these children would go months, even years, without seeing daylight. In some instances, their parents would make them do a few indoor exercises and stretches to keep their muscles active. In hiding, children had to remain absolutely quiet. Not only was there no running, there was no talking or laughing, no walking, and even no flushing the toilets (or dumping the chamber pots). To keep busy, many children would read (sometimes they read the same couple of books over and over because they didn't have access to any new ones), draw (though the supply of paper was not plentiful), listen to stories, listen to adults talking, "play" with imaginary friends, etc. 
  • Fear: In "bunkers" (hiding places within ghettoes) the fear of Nazi capture was very great. Jews hid in their hiding places when they were ordered for deportation. Nazis would go from house to house in search of any Jews that were hiding. The Nazis looked in each house, looked for fake doors, fake walls, mats covering an opening. 
    When we got to the loft, we found it crowded and the people very tense. There was one young woman trying to comfort an infant who was crying. It was just a tiny baby, but he wouldn't go to sleep, and she couldn't stop him from crying. Finally she was given a choice by the other adults: Take your crying baby and leave -- or kill the infant. She smothered it. I don't remember if the mother cried, but you didn't have the luxury of weeping. Life was so precious and so cheap at the same time. You did what you could to save yourself. 2
    ---Kim Fendrick, six years old when went into hiding
  • Food and Water: Though the families brought some food and provisions with them, no family was prepared to stay in hiding for several years. They soon ran out of food and water. It was difficult to get additional food since most people were on rations. Some families would send one member out at night in the hopes of catching something. Fetching fresh water was also not easy.
    Some people couldn't take the stench and the darkness, so they left, but ten of us remained in that sewer - for fourteen months! During that time we never went outside or saw daylight. We lived with webs and moss hanging on the wall. The river not only smelled terrible, but also it was full of diseases. We got dysentery, and I remember Pavel and I were sick with unrelenting diarrhea. There was only enough clean water for each of us to have half a cup a day. My parents didn't even drink theirs; they gave it to Pavel and me so that we wouldn't die from dehydration. 3
    ---Dr. Kristine Keren
    Lack of water became a problem for other reasons too. With no access to a regular supply of water, there was no water to bathe in. Opportunities to wash ones' clothes became few and far between. Lice and diseases were rampant.
    Even though I wasn't eating much, I was being eaten unbelievably. The lice down there were very bold. They would walk out onto my face. Everywhere I put my hand, there was another one. Fortunately Rosia had a pair of scissors an cut off all my hair. There were body lice too. They would lay eggs in the seams of our clothing. For the whole six or seven months I was down there in the hole, the only real fun I had was cracking the nits with my thumbnail. It was the only way in which I had even the slightest control over what was going on in my life. 4
    ---Lola Kaufman, seven years old when went into hiding
  • Sickness and Death: Being completely secluded also had many other problems. If someone got sick, they could not be taken to a doctor, nor could one be brought to them. Children suffered through many maladies that could have been tempered if not controlled by contemporary medicine. But what happened if someone did not survive the illness? If you did not exist, then how could there be a body? One year after Selma Goldstein and her parents went into hiding, her father died. "The problem was how to get him out of the house," Goldstein recalled. The people next door and the family across the road were Dutch Nazis. "So my father was sewn into a bed and the neighbors were told that the bed had to be cleaned. The bed was carried out of the house with my father in it. Then it was brought to a country estate out of town where a good policeman stood guard while my father was buried." For Goldstein, the normal process of mourning the death of her father was replaced by the horrible dilemma of how to get rid of his body.
  • Arrest and Deportation: Though daily life and the problems they encountered were difficult to deal with, the real fear was being found. Sometimes the owners of the house they were staying in would be arrested. Sometimes there was information passed that their hiding place was known; thus, the need to evacuate immediately. Because of these situations, Jews often moved hiding places relatively frequently. Sometimes, though, as with Anne Frank and her family, the Nazis discovered the hiding place - and they were not warned. When discovered, adults and children were deported to the camps.

Hidden Identities

Just about everyone has heard of Anne Frank. But have you heard of Jankele Kuperblum, Piotr Kuncewicz, Jan Kochanski, Franek Zielinski, or Jack Kuper? Probably not. Actually, they were all the same person. Instead of hiding physically, some children lived within society but took on a different name and identity in an attempt to hide their Jewish ancestry. The example above actually represents only one child who "became" these separate identities as he transversed the countryside pretending to be Gentile. The children who hid their identity had a variety of experiences and lived among various situations. 

  • Varied Experiences: Some children stayed with their parents or just their mother and lived among Gentiles with their host not knowing their true identity. Some children were left alone in convents or among families. Some children wandered from village to village as a farmhand. But no matter what the circumstances, all these children shared the need to hide their Jewishness.
  • Children Who Could Hide Their Identity: The people that hid these children wanted children that would be the least risk to them. Thus, young children, especially young girls, were the most easily placed. Youth was favored because the child's past life was short, thus did not greatly guide their identity. Young children were not likely to "slip up" or leak information about their Jewishness. Also, these children more easily adapted to their new "homes." Girls were more easily placed, not because of a better temperament, but because they lacked the tell-tale sign that boys carried - a circumcised penis. No amount of words or documents could cover or excuse this if it were discovered. Because of this risk, some young boys that were forced to hide their identity were dressed up as girls. Not only did they lose their name and background, they also lost their gender.
    My fictional name was Marysia Ulecki. I was supposed to be a distant cousin of the people who were keeping my mother and me. The physical part was easy. After a couple of years in hiding with no haircuts, my hair was very long. The big problem was language. In Polish when a boy says a certain word, it's one way, but when a girl says the same word, you change one or two letters. My mother spent a lot of time teaching me to speak and walk and act like a girl. It was a lot to learn, but the task was simplified slightly by the fact that I was supposed to be a little bit 'backward.' They didn't risk taking me to school, but they took me to church. I remember some kid tried to flirt with me, but the lady we were living with told him not to bother with me because I was retarded. After that the kids left me alone except to make fun of me. In order to go to the bathroom like a girl, I had to practice. It wasn't easy! Quite often I used to come back with wet shoes. But since I was supposed to be a little backward, wetting my shoes made my act all the more convincing.6
    ---Richard Rozen
    • Continually Tested: To hide amongst Gentiles by pretending to be Gentile took courage, strength, and determination. Every day these children came upon situations in which their identity was tested. If their real name was Anne, they had better not turn their head if that name were called. Also, what if someone were to recognize them or question their supposed familial relationship with their host? There were many Jewish adults and children who could never attempt to hide their identity within society because their outward appearance or their voice sounded stereotypically Jewish. Others whose outward appearance did not bring them into question had to be careful of their language and of their movements.
    • Going to Church: To appear Gentile, many children had to go to church. Having never been to church, these children had to find ways to cover for their lack of knowledge. Many children tried to fit into this new role my mimicking others.
    We had to live and behave as Christians. I was expected to go to confession because I was old enough to have already had my first communion. I didn't have the slightest idea what to do, but I found a way to handle it. I'd made friends with some Ukrainian children, and I said to one girl, 'Tell me how to go to confession in Ukrainian and I'll tell you how we do it in Polish.' So she told me what to do and what to say. Then she said, 'Well, how do you do it in Polish?' I said, 'It's exactly the same, but you speak Polish.' I got away with that -- and I went to confession. My problem was that I couldn't bring myself to lie to a priest. I told him it was my first confession. I didn't realize at the time that girls had to wear white dresses and be part of a special ceremony when making their first communion. The priest either didn't pay attention to what I said or else he was a wonderful man, but he didn't give me away.7
    ---Rosa Sirota

    After the War

    For the children and for many survivors, liberation did not mean the end of their suffering. 

    Very young children, that were hidden within families, knew nor remembered anything about their "real" or biological families. Many had been babies when they first entered their new homes. Many of their real families did not come back after the war. But for some their real families were strangers.

    Sometimes, the host family was not willing to give up these children after the war. A few organizations were established to kidnap the Jewish children and give them back to their real families. Some host families, though sorry to see the young child go, kept in contact with the children.

    After the war, many of these children had conflicts adapting to their true identity. Many had been acting Catholic for so long that they had trouble grasping their Jewish ancestry. These children were the survivors and the future - yet they did not identify with being Jewish.

    How often they must have heard, "But you were only a child - how much could it have affected you?"
    How often they must have felt, "Though I suffered, how can I be considered a victim or a survivor compared to those who were in the camps?"
    How often they must have cried, "When will it be over?"