The Nazis' cold-blooded and vicious treatment of Jewish children during the Holocaust enters the realm of pure evil. Not only did the Nazi butchers and their accomplices kill more than one million Jewish children, they subjected countless others to situations that no human being, yet alone a child, should experience.
The creation of ghettos in Poland marked a profound change in the lives of Jewish children. Every defining feature of childhood, from innocence to freedom to security, was absent from their lives. The disintegration of the nuclear family within the ghettos meant that parents could no longer provide for or protect their children. Tens of thousands of Jews fell victim to hunger and disease. A contemporary observer exclaimed that the most painful changes affected the faces of children. They were "worn down to the bones by misery, lack of food, vitamins, air and exercise; [their faces were] disfigured by overwhelming worries, anxieties, mishaps, sufferings, and illness."
As epidemics raged through the ghettos and parents were deported to their deaths, thousands of children were orphaned. Half-naked, unwashed youngsters lay listlessly on the floors of the overcrowded orphanages. The lack of sanitary facilities, proper nutrition, and adequate shelter drove many to the streets. According to Chaim Kaplan of the Warsaw Ghetto, every morning one "would see their little bodies frozen to death in the ghetto streets." A welfare report written in February 1942 summarized the children's situation as follows: "Hunger, sickness and want are their constant companions, and death is the only visitor in their homes."
The unending terror of Nazi policy wreaked havoc on the lives of Jewish children. Most lived their tragically short lives without playing in a park or swimming pool. Worse yet, the closure of schools within the ghettos robbed youngsters of the intellectual stimulation fundamental to childhood.
Once the "Final Solution" began in 1941, only Jews who could work were kept alive. Since children served no productive role, most were killed immediately when they arrived at the camps. Youngsters who could pass as adults survived the notorious selection process. Regardless, the extermination centers consumed Jewish children remorselessly. Preadolescents accompanied their mothers into the gas chambers, while babies were often tossed into pits filled with burning corpses.
Young people who survived the selection process became slave laborers. As such they were starved, beaten, and worked to death. In the words of Jack Rubinfeld, a childhood survivor of the camps, "I had to grit my teeth and bear it, and try to show that I was tough, that I was just like the adults."
The Nazi terror system brutally eliminated the concept of childhood for millions of Jews. Those who survived, including Aljoscha Lebedew (pictured), lived with the horrors for the rest of their lives.