Child Exiles: A New Research Area?

By Kroger, Marianne | Shofar, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Child Exiles: A New Research Area?


Kroger, Marianne, Shofar


ABSTRACT. The author explores the meaning of childhood and adolescence under exile conditions 1933-45 and examines coping mechanisms used to deal with terrifying experiences.

Against the backdrop of exile research, the author asks why it is that it has taken this long for attention to focus on the mostly Jewish "child exiles." She suggests that the lack of attention corresponds in part to the interests of the child exiles, who had learned early in life to remain unobtrusive and adapt to changing circumstances, and who may often have felt shame when comparing their own fate to that of those murdered in the Holocaust.

In addition, the paper examines three novels in which child exiles and their experiences occupy center stage: Irmgard Kenn (Kind aller Länder/"Child of all Countries"), Stefanie Zweig (Nirgendwo in Afrika/"Nowhere in Africa") and Lore Segal (Her First American/Ihr erster Amerikaner).

Persecution and exile are phenomena which are neither exclusive to the National Socialist dictatorship, nor are they simply historical and therefore no longer relevant. In the twentieth century, mass persecutions occurred on a scale that considerably exceeds the earlier experiences of terror and expulsion. For this reason it has been described as the century of the refugee.(1) However, international research into other historical exiles is only in its infancy,(2) so that the German-speaking exile of 1933 to 1945 represents the most widely researched mass expulsion. This experience can, therefore, serve as the basis for analyzing the most varied exiles of the twentieth century.

Even today, child refugees still suffer abuse in many states. This applies also to the German Federal Republic as a reception country.(3) Self-evidently, exile studies should concern themselves with opposing persecution in the present and with the creation of humane asylum conditions, since such studies reveal the pressures to which exile children and adolescents are subjected. Exile is neither an unalterable accompaniment of the modern age, and therefore to be seen as pre-ordained, nor is it a metaphor for universal human existential sensitivity. Rather it is an injustice attributable to the constellation of political power.

So what did childhood and adolescence under exile conditions between 1933 and 1945 mean, and what did such an experience include? First, exile was not an individual experience. There are only vague estimates of the total number of under-age refugees at that time. In the contemporary standard work, the Handbuch der deutschsprachigen Emigration, there is an assumption that between 1933 and 1939 more than 30,000 children under 16 years fled from German-speaking areas, most of them unaccompanied by parents. Around 12,000 Jewish young people from Germany and the surrounding occupied countries emigrated in accordance with the arrangements for Youth Aliyah to Palestine. Around 10,000 additional under-age children, mostly Jews, were able to escape to Great Britain in 1938/1939 via the Kindertransports. 16,000 children, the great majority of them from a Jewish background, but some from an actively socialist milieu, were collected by the charity OSE (Organisation pour la santé et l'éducation) and taken to France.(4) According to another source listed, there were probably over 18,000 German-Jewish boys and girls who emigrated up to the end of 1939.(5)

The realization that terrifying experiences from early childhood are not forgotten but rather affect the person concerned for a lifetime began late in the day. In general, western societies completely denied until very recently the long-term effect of psychologically damaging events. This particularly applied to children who were assumed not to understand what was going on around them, and accordingly could not suffer as a result of it. West German compensation courts as late as in the sixties were refusing submissions on behalf of persecuted children on the grounds that the events concerned occurred at a time when the children were so small that they could not remember what happened. …

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