Parting Once Again
Parents faced the impossible decision of parting from their children and delivering them into the arms of strangers in order to save them. In many cases, at the end of the war, these children were torn again from the families that cared for them, causing enormous suffering to the children and their rescuers.
Realizing the magnitude of the murder, many parents faced terrible dilemmas over separating from their children in order to save them: Should they relinquish their children and hand them over to strangers? Should they send them off to an unknown fate, doomed to fight for their lives all alone in an indifferent or hostile world? Many parents agonized, finding it impossible to make the excruciating decision to part from their children, and the murderers caught up with them before they could actually do anything; others translated their fears and trepidation into action.
We can only imagine the intense nature of the trauma experienced by children who were torn from their families and thrown into completely foreign surroundings. Children of all ages were forced to contend with their longing for their parents, and the need to adapt to a new and different environment – to a different social group, different surroundings, a different religion, and in many cases a different language. They usually hid their sadness at being separated from their parents, did not complain, and did whatever they could not to become a burden. Even the youngest children made great efforts to be liked by their rescuers. The separation from the parents, which they often perceived as abandonment, bolstered their tendency to suppress their feelings and keep them under wrap. Those who were moved from one rescuer to another and who experienced recurring separations feared growing close to people or places, lest they once again be forced to leave them.
Many families became very attached to the children they had taken in, surrounding them with warmth and love, and treating them exactly like their own. Consequently, bidding farewell to their adoptive families after the war exacted a very high price not only from the children, but also from the rescuers who had cared for them for months and even years. The words "It broke my rescuers’ heart" recur again and again in testimonies. Even when the original intent had been to provide shelter for the child until after the danger had passed, in time, the rescuers became extremely attached to the children placed in their care; in some cases, when the child’s family members or Jewish organizations came to take the children back, the rescuers balked and refused to return them.
In some situations, the ties between the benefactors and the children they had saved developed into profoundly close relationships, with the shared experience during the Holocaust period fusing the families into a single unit. After the war, rescuers and survivors visited each other and celebrated together on family occasions. In other cases all ties were cut off because one side or the other could not bear to have to experience over again the excruciating pain of separation. In certain circumstances, ties were cut because of disputes, including legal ones, related to the continued custody of children. Some rescuers refused to return the children, believing with all their hearts that their biological parents would be unable to give the children a warm home or raise them properly due to the traumas they had experienced during the war. When no family members survived and the child remained all alone in the world, the rescuers could not understand why the child should be raised in an orphanage at a time when they themselves could offer him or her a loving family. The children were helpless witnesses to these disputes.
Many children found it extremely difficult to return to the Jewish world and to their families, the memory of whom they had in many cases tried to suppress while in hiding. Sometimes, they still had a faint memory of their original family, which was overshadowed by what they viewed as being abandoned; in other cases, parents or relatives suddenly reappeared in the child’s world as complete strangers. The upheaval was terrible – for a second or third time, children were forcibly cut off from the life and family to which they had worked so hard to become accustomed. Their original family was in a fragile state; the challenge of rebuilding a new life after the terrible destruction was enormous, and the parents, who had returned from the camps brutalized and penniless after experiencing the horrors of the Holocaust, themselves needed to be rehabilitated. Thus children often ran away to return to the homes of their rescuers, because they viewed them as their "real family." The strong ties with the rescuers increased the tensions between the families. Parents feared that the rescuers posed a threat to the fabric of their own family, and were also envious of those who had had the fortune to raise their child instead of themselves. These feelings intermingled with gratitude and immeasurable debt towards those who had risked their lives to save their children, resulting in a sense of guilt about their ambivalence towards the rescuers. In the period immediately following the war, when the universal wisdom was that it was best to leave the past behind and "forget" the traumas, many believed that cutting off ties with the rescuers was the best solution for the children.