Through the Eyes of Innocents: Children Witness World War II

Through the Eyes of Innocents: Children Witness World War II

Through the Eyes of Innocents: Children Witness World War II

Through the Eyes of Innocents: Children Witness World War II


Drawing on diaries, letters and journals kept by children, Emmy Werner shows the universality of war experience. Children from many countries are represented through some 150 eye-witness accounts, revealing their endurance, and how they were changed forever by events beyond their control.


After my mother died, we readied our home on the river Rhine for a new occupant. We packed and stored things she had treasured--among them an old photo album with fading pictures. One caught my eye: Three children, dressed in their Sunday best, are lined up on the steps that lead from our house to the rose garden. They are ten-year-old cousins who have met with their parents for a summer reunion on a hot day in August. The year is 1939. I am the oldest, born in late May, two weeks older than my German cousin Helga. The youngest of the three is cousin Eddy, son of a French army officer who lives in Strasbourg. He had come to visit his aunts and uncles and to be treated to his favorite dessert: sweet raspberries from our garden, served with rich toppings of whipped cream. We clown for the camera, our dresses and shirts stained red from the berries. We look as if we have no care in the world!

Two weeks later, on September 1, 1939, World War II broke out in Europe. Young Eddy, Helga, and I were now declared "enemies." Our fathers, uncles, brothers, and cousins would soon fight each other in a war that would eventually engulf the whole world. Six years later, when the fighting finally stopped, some 55 million individuals had been consumed in the global conflagration. Military casualties alone, including both Allied and Axis soldiers, had reached the staggering figure of 15 million killed and more than 25 million wounded.

By the spring of 1945, all of the adult males in our three families had died on the battlefields of Europe or languished in crowded prisoner of war camps in France and Siberia. Women and children who had been our neighbors or schoolmates were dead as well--killed by indiscriminate saturation bombing, machine gun fire from lowflying enemy planes, artillery shells, and shrapnel from anti-aircraft guns.

World War II would become the first modern war in which more civilians than soldiers were killed or maimed. By August 1945, when the Japanese surrendered, some 40 million civilians had died on both sides of the conflict. Many of the civilian casualties were ordinary children--like us--children who had once smiled contentedly in the summer sun. My cousins and I looked different now than at age ten--unkempt, dirty, hungry--used to foraging in the ruins of bombed-out houses and in abandoned beet, potato, and turnip fields. But we had survived a global conflict in which more children had been killed and maimed than in all previous wars in the world.

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