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How the care of children was used as a weapon in the Holocaust

To cover up their deportation plans which targeted Polish Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Nazis re-opened schools. In her inaugural lecture, historian Sarah Cramsey demonstrates with examples how care was used ‘as a weapon’ during the Holocaust. She also stresses that care is a unifying cement in society and calls for more historical research.

Despite all that has been written about the Holocaust, the topic of care deserves more attention, Cramsey argues in an interview following her inaugural lecture. ‘If you look at the Holocaust in Central Europe through this lens, you will discover many examples of how the care of children was used as a weapon.’

Sarah Cramsey is Professor by Special Appointment of the History of Central Europe, Migration and Diasporas, which is funded by the Austrian Government and the Foundation for Austrian Studies at the Leiden University Fund.

Deportation to Treblinka

In her inaugural lecture on 7 June, Cramsey recounted what happened in the Warsaw Ghetto before the Uprising in April 1943. How did the fighters in the Ghetto know when to ready themselves for battle? According to an eyewitness account given by Zivia Lubetkin during the 1961 trial of SS officer Adolf Eichman, members of the Jewish Fighting Organization predicted that Nazis would liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto after one particular announcement from a Gestapo officer. Two days before the Jewish feast Passover in 1943, a Nazi official announced that Jewish children in the Ghetto would soon benefit from an increase in vegetables, the reopening of schools and the creation of new playgrounds. Similar policies had been enacted in the spring and summer of 1942 before the so-called Great Deportation in which more than 250,000 Jewish men, women and children had been deported to the gas chambers of Treblinka. That is why Lubetkin and other fighters knew that it was time to defend themselves from imminent deportation.   

Toys and baby bottles

Care was weaponised in other places as well. Different eyewitness accounts, pictures from the Auschwitz Album and paintings from the Sonderkommando prisoner David Olère reveal that Nazi officials at Auschwitz-Birkenau allowed parents to bring toys and items such as baby bottles for their children to the threshold of the gas chambers. This was true even amongst groups that had been selected for imminent death. ‘It was a deliberate tactic to mislead people and keep them calm. Caring for children was used as a tool to enable genocide.’

From eyewitnesses to photographs

Cramsey is working on a book on the subject of care: The Other Holocaust: Care, Children and the Jewish Catastrophe. This involves research in archives from across Europe, Israel and the United States. She approaches child care from various angles in the book and discusses how both Jewish and non-Jewish residents within Nazi occupied territories helped Jewish children during the 1940s. She also considers how Jewish children were targeted and harmed. Her approach is interdisciplinary: ‘My source material ranges from administrative documents and memoirs to paintings, poems, lullabies and photographs. I am developing a theory of how we as historians can look at caring for children.’ 

Current wars and conflicts

Her inaugural lecture is mainly about the Holocaust but Cramsey is, first and foremost, a historian of Central and Eastern Europe. Within this region, she focuses on the complicated Jewish history which was rooted between Salzburg, St. Petersburg and Sarajevo until it was uprooted during the 1940s. Historians, Cramsey noted, are often hesitant to comment on ‘current’ events. She did, however, note that the care of children continues to be weaponised in current conflicts around the world. ‘From Hamas hostage takers who targeted babies and children on October 7 to the kidnapping of Ukrainian children by Russian forces over the past two years of that conflict. Overall, studying conflict and war, be it in Gaza, the Sudan or elsewhere, demands attention to the care of children as well as those who are caring for them. It is often during times of massive displacement and upheaval that the invisible work of childcare becomes visible.’

Photo: Warsaw Ghetto, Spring 1943/Wikipedia


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