The Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe's Families after World War II

May 5, 2011

Over the past decade, historians working on the Second World War have shifted their attention from the origins of the conflict to its impact. Fighting across the world between 1939 and 1945 led to more than 60 million deaths, and the social fallout was considerable. In Europe, families were torn apart for years on end, and in the chaos and turmoil of the post-war years, reunion was no straightforward matter. Tara Zahra's latest work focuses on the lot of Europe's children. As questions of guilt and blame preoccupied the Allied occupiers of defeated Germany, children, with all the associated assumptions about their innocence, represented a potent symbol of the future.

But why did so many European children find themselves "lost" in the war's aftermath? A range of scenarios left children without their parents. Many Jews in Germany and German-occupied territories, for example, tried to save their children from persecution by sending them to the UK, the US, Palestine or France. At the end of the war, with so many Jews having perished in Nazi death camps, governments were faced with the huge logistical and moral dilemma of what to do with so many orphans, especially in cases where children had made new homes outside their country of origin. Who had the right to keep these children? Was it the families who had taken them in, often at great expense and great risk? Or did the rights fall to far-flung blood relatives whom might never have met the children? Zahra's research examines the difficulties inherent in attempting to mend the social dislocation caused by war.

The decision made at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 to incorporate Eastern Europe within the Soviet sphere of influence further contributed to the large numbers of "lost" children. For it was this decision that caused an enormous population movement across Europe, as more than 12 million ethnic Germans were expelled by the Russians. In this mass exodus, in which families were given as little as a few hours' notice to pack up their belongings, children were often separated from their parents. All of this led to the Red Cross in Germany setting up a dedicated Child Search Service to help parents find their lost children.

Zahra's work is principally concerned with the discourse that emerged in the late 1940s about how to deal with the unprecedented number of lost children. In the context of increasing internationalism, encouraged by, among other things, Marshall Plan aid, some humanitarian workers hoped for a supranational solution. In contrast to the end of the First World War, when the focus had been on addressing orphans' physical needs, namely accommodation and food, in the wake of the Second World War, developments in the field of psychology suggested that war had longer-lasting effects that needed to be addressed. If opinion among child welfare experts was initially divided, a broad consensus eventually emerged that children should be repatriated to their countries of origin, so that at the very least they had a nation to call home.

Although mildly repetitious and not always clearly structured, Zahra's work is insightful in considering what the treatment of lost children can tell us about broader developments in the post-war period, both in terms of how nations interacted with each other and how psychologists understood the impact of war on children.

The Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe's Families after World War II

By Tara Zahra Harvard University Press 320pp, £25.95 ISBN 9780674048249 Published 26 May 2011

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