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United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Lilo, Jack and Micha Plaschkes

STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.9, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.4, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, RI.6-8.9, RI.6-8.10, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Time, Continuity, and Change • People, Places, and Environments • Individual Development and Identity

FLASHBACK

World War II

Survivors

Thousands of kids lost their families and homes during World War II. This is the story of their incredible will to survive—and the center that helped hundreds of them reclaim their lives.

As You Read, Think About: How did World War II and the Holocaust affect children?

Any minute could have been their last. For days, Erwin Farkas, 15, and his brother Zoltán, 17, had been forced to march endlessly at gunpoint by German Nazi soldiers. It was April 1945, and the Jewish teens were headed, along with thousands of other prisoners, to a German concentration camp called Dachau.

Many hundreds of prisoners had died of hunger or sickness along the way. Others had been executed when they couldn’t keep up. “If you fell, you were shot,” Erwin recalls.

Any minute could have been their last. For days, Erwin Farkas and his brother Zoltán had been forced to march at gunpoint by German Nazi soldiers. Erwin was 15. Zoltán was 17. It was April 1945, and the Jewish teens and thousands of other prisoners were headed to a German concentration camp called Dachau.

Many hundreds of prisoners had died of hunger or sickness along the way. Others had been executed when they could not keep up. “If you fell, you were shot,” Erwin recalls.

Then one day, after falling asleep in a barn, the boys awoke to a great commotion. Outside, the Nazis were running around in confusion. American tanks had suddenly appeared and were ­shooting at them!

As the boys would soon find out, World War II (1939-1945) was finally coming to an end in Europe. The Allies—led by the United States, the United Kingdom (U.K.), and the Soviet Union—were closing in on Berlin, Germany’s capital. Within weeks, the Nazis would surrender.

Almost out of nowhere, “we were liberated!” says Erwin today. And not a moment too soon. “We could not have lasted much longer. We were all just skin and bones.”

Still, where could the brothers go? They were more than 500 miles from their village in Romania. They feared their parents and sisters were dead. Tragically, they were right. Most of their family had been killed by the Nazis at the concentration camp Auschwitz. More than 1 million people died there, most of them Jewish.

Erwin and Zoltán, like many thousands of other teens and children, had lost their family and home in the deadliest war in history. For them, and for all of Europe, the future looked very uncertain.

Then one day, the boys fell asleep in a barn. They awoke to a lot of noise. Outside, the Nazis were running around in confusion. American tanks had suddenly appeared and were shooting at them!

As the boys would soon find out, World War II (1939-1945) was finally coming to an end in Europe. The Allies were led by the United States, the United Kingdom (U.K.), and the Soviet Union. They were closing in on Berlin, Germany’s capital. Within weeks, the Nazis would surrender.

Almost out of nowhere, “we were liberated!” says Erwin today. And not a moment too soon. “We could not have lasted much longer. We were all just skin and bones.”

Still, where could the brothers go? They were more than 500 miles from their village in Romania. They feared their parents and sisters were dead. Tragically, they were right. Most of their family had been killed by the Nazis at the concentration camp called Auschwitz. More than 1 million people died there. Most of them were Jewish.

Erwin and Zoltán had lost their family and home in the deadliest war in history. So had thousands of others teens and children. For them and for all of Europe, the future looked very uncertain.

Horace Abrahams/Keystone/Getty Images

Young concentration camp prisoners as they are liberated by the U.S. Army in 1945

Land of the Displaced 

The end of World War II left the world in shock. Germany’s bid to conquer Europe had left tens of millions of civilians dead. Some 6 million of them were Jewish. They had been targeted by German dictator Adolf Hitler in the Nazis’ attempt to murder all the Jews of Europe. This mass slaughter is known as the Holocaust (see sidebar, below)

The war also created a great wave of displaced people. In 1945, about 11 million Europeans were homeless. Some were Jewish Holocaust survivors. Others were non-Jewish citizens of German-occupied countries who had been forced from their homes to work in labor camps. Like Erwin and Zoltán, untold numbers of the displaced were kids separated from their families. Often alone and haunted by the horrors of war, they roamed through villages or remained stranded in refugee camps. 

But the Farkas brothers were lucky. After wandering for weeks, the boys encountered a group of American troops. The soldiers put them in touch with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). That international organization had been formed to address the refugee crisis caused by the war. In August 1945, the boys were taken in at the group’s newly established refuge for displaced kids near the German city of Munich: Kloster Indersdorf.

The end of World War II left the world in shock. Germany’s attempt to conquer Europe had left tens of millions of civilians dead. Some 6 million of them were Jewish. They had been targeted by German dictator Adolf Hitler in the Nazis’ attempt to murder all the Jews of Europe. This mass slaughter is known as the Holocaust (see sidebar, below).

The war also created a great wave of displaced people. In 1945, about 11 million Europeans were homeless. Some were Jewish Holocaust survivors. Others were non-Jewish citizens of German-occupied countries. They had been forced from their homes to work in labor camps. Like Erwin and Zoltán, large numbers of the displaced were kids separated from their families. They were often alone and haunted by the horrors of war. These kids roamed through villages or remained stranded in refugee camps.

But the Farkas brothers were lucky. After wandering for weeks, they met a group of American troops. The soldiers put them in touch with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). That international organization had been formed to deal with the refugee crisis caused by the war. In August 1945, the boys were taken in at the group’s newly established refuge for displaced kids near the German city of Munich. It was called Kloster Indersdorf.

What You Need to Know

Franklin/Getty Images

U.S. troops fire at German soldiers in France in 1944.

World War II (1939-1945) The deadliest war in history, it was sparked by Germany’s attempt to conquer Europe. The conflict pitted the Allies (led by the U.S., the U.K., and the Soviet Union) against the Axis Powers (led by Germany, Italy, and Japan).

Nazi Party A political party that controlled Germany from 1933 to 1945. Led by Adolf Hitler, it aimed to dominate Europe and destroy the Jewish people. 

World War II (1939-1945) The deadliest war in history, it was sparked by Germany’s attempt to conquer Europe. The conflict pitted the Allies (led by the U.S., the U.K., and the Soviet Union) against the Axis Powers (led by Germany, Italy, and Japan).

Nazi Party A political party that controlled Germany from 1933 to 1945. Led by Adolf Hitler, it aimed to dominate Europe and destroy the Jewish people. 

A Center for Children

A month before, in July, a team of 11 international volunteers had opened the children’s center in a former convent, or home for nuns. The team expected it would house 75 to 100 youths. By September, almost twice that number had arrived—with hundreds more yet to come. 

Many of the young people who showed up at the refuge came through aid groups. Others, seeking shelter, had made their way to American soldiers’ camps and were directed to the center. 

Many arrived in rags, deeply traumatized by what they had experienced. Szlama Weichselblatt, then 16, from Ukraine, had hidden from the Nazis for two years in a cave. He had emerged looking like a human skeleton. Fifteen-year-old Katalin Szász of Hungary had survived Auschwitz with her sister, but the rest of her family had been killed. Stanislaw Janowski, 15, from Poland, had been forced to work in a German factory. After searching in vain for his mother after the war, he was spotted, alone and starving, at an aid center by UNRRA worker Greta Fischer.  

The center’s young residents came from more than 20 countries. They were “the lost children of Europe,” as Fischer would call them.

A month before, in July, a team of 11 international volunteers had opened the children’s center. It was in a former convent, or home for nuns. The team expected it would house 75 to 100 youths. By September, almost twice that number had arrived. Hundreds more were yet to come.

Many of the young people who showed up at the refuge came through aid groups. Others had been seeking shelter. They had made their way to American soldiers’ camps and were directed to the center.

Many arrived in rags. They were deeply disturbed by what they had gone through. Szlama Weichselblatt, then 16, was from Ukraine. He had hidden from the Nazis for two years in a cave. He had come out looking like a human skeleton. Fifteen-year-old Katalin Szasz was from Hungary. She had survived Auschwitz with her sister. The rest of her family had been killed. Stanislaw Janowski, 15, was from Poland. He had been forced to work in a German factory. After the war, he searched in vain for his mother. Alone and starving, he was spotted at an aid center by UNRRA worker Greta Fischer.

The center’s young residents came from more than 20 countries. They were “the lost children of Europe,” as Fischer would call them.

Becoming Kids Again

The Kloster Indersdorf staff dedicated themselves to giving the children “a place where they could piece together the fragments of their shattered lives,” writes Anna Andlauer in a book about the center. First came the basics: nutritious food, medical care, clean clothing, and warm, dry beds.

Just as important was getting the kids to tell their stories so they could heal from what they’d been through. Some were so terrorized they couldn’t talk at first. Others couldn’t stop reciting their stories over and over. 

The Kloster Indersdorf staff dedicated themselves to giving the children “a place where they could piece together the fragments of their shattered lives,” writes Anna Andlauer in a book about the center. First came the basics: nutritious food, medical care, clean clothing, and warm, dry beds.

Just as important was getting the kids to tell their stories. That was to help them heal from what they had been through. Some were so terrorized they could not talk at first. Others could not stop telling their stories over and over.

The center gave kids “a place to piece together the fragments of their shattered lives.”

The volunteers tried to give the children as normal a life as possible. For example, the kids ate regular meals at tables using forks and knives. Most of them could not remember a time when they hadn’t been forced to fight for every scrap of food. They had to be constantly reassured that they were not in danger of going hungry.

The children were also given daily language lessons and something equally critical: the chance to play. Sports, art classes, and acting in plays helped them experience some of life’s joys that had been stolen from them—allowing them to be kids again.

After experiencing such hardship and persecution during the war, many of the kids could hardly believe their good fortune to be safe among caring adults. Years later, one survivor said that he burst into tears when the first UNRRA volunteer he encountered treated him with kindness.

The volunteers tried to give the children as normal a life as possible. For example, the kids ate regular meals at tables using forks and knives. Most of them could not remember a time when they had not been forced to fight for every scrap of food. Again and again, they had to be reassured that they were not in danger of going hungry.

The children were also given daily language lessons and something equally important: the chance to play. Sports, art classes, and acting in plays helped them experience some of life’s joys that had been stolen from them. This allowed them to be kids again.

These kids had experienced such hardship and persecution during the war. Many of them could hardly believe their good luck to be safe among caring adults. Years later, one survivor said that he had burst into tears when the first UNRRA volunteer he met treated him with kindness.

Searching for Home

One of UNRRA’s chief goals was to get the lost children back to their home countries. Some Eastern European nations quickly began to take in their displaced kids. 

A few Western countries, including the U.K., volunteered to accept groups of younger children. Inspired by their contact with U.S. servicemen, many of the kids at the center wanted to go to America. But like other nations, the U.S. had quotas limiting how many refugees it would take in. 

Meanwhile, the center did its best to help kids search for any surviving family they might have. A photo was taken of each child with his or her name written on a slate (see examples, images at top of page). The images were published in newspapers around the world in hopes that a relative would see them. A few of the kids found family thanks to the photos. Most did not.

Many teens at the center wanted to travel back to their homes, hoping family members might have returned. They were given backpacks, food, and official papers to help them get across international borders. Zoltán made the long trip to Romania, often riding on the outside of trains. But like so many Jewish children, he found that his immediate family had been killed.

One of UNRRA’s chief goals was to get the lost children back to their home countries. Some Eastern European nations quickly began to take in their displaced kids.

A few Western countries, including the U.K., volunteered to accept groups of younger children. Inspired by their contact with U.S. servicemen, many of the kids at the center wanted to go to America. But like other nations, the U.S. had quotas limiting how many refugees it would take in.

Meanwhile, the center did its best to help kids search for any surviving family they might have. A photo was taken of each child with his or her name written on a slate (see examples, images at top of page). The pictures were published in newspapers around the world in hopes that a relative would see them. A few of the kids found family thanks to the photos. Most did not.

Many teens at the center wanted to travel back to their homes. They hoped family members might have returned. They were given backpacks, food, and official papers to help them get across international borders. Zoltán made the long trip to Romania. He often rode on the outside of trains. But like so many Jewish children, he found that his immediate family had been killed.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Lilo, Jack and Micha Plaschkes

UNRRA volunteer Greta Fischer with some of the center’s young residents.

Safely Into the World

Yet gradually, most of the center’s kids found places to restart their lives. In 1947, Greta Fischer brought a group of them to Canada. Thanks to a friend from the center who had settled in the U.S., Erwin and Zoltán found relatives in New York City to take them in. 

In America, they both got work, attended night school, and later joined the army. The brothers had long, successful careers, Erwin as a psychologist in Minnesota and Zoltán as a scientist in California. 

The children’s center closed for good in late 1948. During its brief existence, it took in more than 1,000 young people and helped them pass safely into the world. It was also a model for at least five other displaced children’s refuges that were created in the aftermath of World War II.

Erwin Farkas recalls his time at the center with deep gratitude. Thanks to the volunteers, “we began to feel like normal young people,” he says. Following one of the darkest times in history, he notes, the center allowed Europe’s youngest, most vulnerable residents to begin “looking towards a future with hope.” 

Yet gradually, most of the center’s kids found places to restart their lives. In 1947, Greta Fischer brought a group of them to Canada. Thanks to a friend from the center who had settled in the U.S., Erwin and Zoltán found relatives in New York City to take them in.

In America, they both got work. They attended night school and later joined the army. The brothers had long, successful careers. Erwin was a psychologist in Minnesota. Zoltán was a scientist in California.

The children’s center closed for good in late 1948. During its brief existence, it took in more than 1,000 young people. It helped them pass safely into the world. It was also a model for at least five other displaced children’s refuges that were created after World War II.

Erwin Farkas recalls his time at the center with deep gratitude. Thanks to the volunteers, “we began to feel like normal young people,” he says. Following one of the darkest times in history, he notes, the center allowed Europe’s youngest, most vulnerable residents to begin “looking towards a future with hope.”

Write About It! After World War II, what challenges did displaced children face? How did other people help them?

The War in Europe 

By the end of 1942, the Axis Powers dominated much of Europe.

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

MAP SKILLS

1. What is Germany’s capital? 

2. Which Axis countries are shown on the map? 

3. Which nations on the map were Allied countries?

4. What did France, Belgium, and the Netherlands have in common in 1942?

5. Did Ireland back the Allies, the Axis Powers, or neither?

6. What section of Germany was separated from the rest by part of Poland?

7. What was Dachau?

8. Auschwitz was located in which country?

9. In which direction would you travel to get from Munich to London?

10. About how many miles separate Paris and Berlin?

Check out Map Skills Boot Camp
for more geography practice.

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