The Lost Children of Europe: The Displaced Persons Children’s Centers in the U.S. Occupation Zone of Germany and the Challenges for Relief Workers

As Germany commemorates the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the Holocaust, we have an opportunity to reflect on life in the immediate postwar period for the youngest victims: Jewish displaced children. This essay is one example of a growing contingent of young German historians and social scientists who focus on Germany’s Nazi past and its consequences.


By the end of the Second World War, approximately one and a half million Jewish children and adolescents had fallen victim to the National Socialist race and extinction measures. Only about 180,000 children and adolescents survived,[1] for example in concentration camps (very limited), in hiding with non-Jewish families, in monasteries, in partisan units, or in the Soviet Union. After the war, many of these child survivors found themselves without accompaniment of a parent or a near relative and outside of their home countries, often on German territory. The necessity of giving these orphaned and unaccompanied children[2] shelter and food was obvious.

The military administrations, and several international humanitarian organizations took part in these difficult tasks. One of them was the transnational relief agency United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), which was founded in 1943.[3] At the same time, adult Jewish Displaced Persons (DPs),[4] Jewish institutions like the Jewish Agency for Palestine (JAFP), and Zionist Youth organizations looked after Jewish child survivors as a high priority. They were considered a symbol of the future and the continued existence of the Jewish people. The DPs believed that the Shoah had proven the dangers of the Diaspora and that only in Palestine would Jewish children be free—a point of view that was not shared by the UNRRA, which sought to remove the children as quickly as possible from Germany and to support them in “normal” living conditions, for example, in Great Britain. As a consequence of these different views, a controversy over the fate of these children quickly emerged. These divergent intentions, however, were embodied in the assistance and care of the children and adolescents.

The Accommodation of Children in DP Children’s Centers: Goals and Activities

The historian Margarete Myers Feinstein explains that both adult DPs und UNRRA officials alike recognized the need to organize orphaned and unaccompanied children and to provide them with adult supervision in her in 2010 book “Holocaust Survivors in Postwar Germany, 1945-1957.” Initially, accommodations for children were created within the DP camps where the children could live collectively with a person in charge, for example, a foster mother or father. Children who had survived ghettos and concentration camps by cunning and instinct now needed to be socialized and taught self-discipline. The adults who tried to provide structure for these children confronted apathy, rebelliousness, and a host of other problems.[5]

Many UNRRA workers feared that DP adults were not able to detach themselves enough from the children to consider their needs; nor did they believe that adult survivors had the emotional and psychological strength to deal with the children successfully. Furthermore, some relief workers feared that the black market activities of adult DPs as well as the adults’ over-identification with the children were having negative effects on the children.[6] For this reason, they welcomed a separate accommodation for the minors. Orphaned and unaccompanied children were the subject of this separation. Children who were in the care of their parents or close family members could remain in their custody. However, in their desire to facilitate their children’s emigration, some parents gave aid workers the impression that they had abandoned their children, resulting in a curtailment of their parental rights. DP parents faced difficult decisions when trying to guarantee their children’s future. Relief workers interpreted the apparent ease with which some parents separated from their children as evidence of neglect, whereas Jewish survivors viewed it as a sacrifice to speed their children’s departure from Europe.[7]

The DP Children’s Centers were established by the UNRRA mainly in the U.S. Occupation Zone of Germany[8] and existed from 1945 until 1951. There were a total of five international DP Children’s Centers and thirteen exclusively Jewish DP Children’s Centers.[9] The main functions of the DP Children’s Centers were the initial reception and primary care of the children and young people and their preparation for repatriation or emigration. In the international DP Children’s Centers, in addition to UNRRA staff, employees were occasionally also Germans and adult DPs. However, the number of German personnel was kept as low as possible. In the Jewish Children’s Centers, several Zionist groups and members of the JAFP were active.

In July 1945, the first international DP Children’s Center opened in the monastery in Indersdorf (near Dachau, Bavaria). Other international DP Children’s homes followed in the next few months. Among the first residents were only a few Jewish children and adolescents. They were mostly older than 13 years and male. Frequently they shared the common fate that they were survivors of the concentration and extermination camps. During the Shoah, all these children were forced to make decisions on their own—in many cases decisions about life and death—and they had to fend for themselves for their daily survival, at an age when this normally is done by parents or close relatives. As a result, these children had lost their trust in adults and the decisions that were made by them, such that conflicts arose between relief workers and the young people. For the children, the re-subordination to authority meant a loss of autonomy. Furthermore, many of them did not want to live in camps again. For a successful rehabilitation of the minors, a two-track approach was necessary for the relief workers: to win the children’s trust and to give them the feeling of security; and to establish a structured daily routine that included fixed mealtimes, education, and organized leisure activities.

After the experience of Nazi persecution, UNRRA relief workers were keen to serve and to teach Jewish and non-Jewish children together in activities where neither religion nor nationality should play a role. Despite their efforts, relief workers realized within a short time that this goal was infeasible. Language barriers and the fact that the minors could choose their room and table mates promoted not only their identification with their own group, but also their separation from the other children. Tensions developed between different nationalities and religious groups. For example, many of the conflicts arose between Polish Catholics and Polish Jews, originating in the anti-Jewish attitude of many Polish Catholics in pre-war Poland; as well as in the desire of Jewish children and adolescents who had survived the Nazi reign of terror together to be allowed to remain together. Frequently these friends had become surrogate families.

Relief workers did also encourage children and adolescents in their religious and national identity—for example by celebrating religious holidays, which helped Jewish children who had survived under a false identity to identify themselves as Jews.

The Aftermath of Persecution: Psychological Trauma

A major challenge for relief workers and adult DPs was the psychological effects the war experiences had on the children, often overlapping the physical symptoms they presented. A report on the International DP Children’s Center Prien (Chiemsee, Bavaria) demonstrates clearly the horrific consequences of persecution the children had to endure. Years of malnutrition led not only to physical ailments, but also to psychological disorders that frequently persisted even after the children’s physical condition was adequately treated: “A psychological appetite associated with hunger has developed in a large number of children. They suffer chronic hunger even although they have sufficient food. Even small babies wish to eat, eat, eat, and scream furiously when food is not forthcoming.”[10]

The report also drew attention to “ugly scars” which many children bore and which were evidence of the brutal physical treatment they had suffered, and of the emotional and mental shock they had experienced: “Some children have suffered severe personality trauma and many very small children had rooted ticks, denoting insecurity, e.g. continuous ‘rocking’, thus sucking, screaming, head-tossing.”[11]

Other behavioral problems were, for example, violence to enforce their own interests, lying, cheating, stealing, mistrust, and disrespect. Some less experienced UNRRA relief workers did not always express empathy and understanding. Those with educational and psychological training, however, could readily classify this behavior. A mechanism for the social rehabilitation of the minors was the opportunity to talk about their wartime and persecution experiences, a method which recent scientific studies have confirmed as salutary,[12] but one that was little-known or disputed after the Second World War. On the one hand, when members of the Jewish aid organization American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) observed DP teachers discussing with children and adolescents their wartime experiences, the JDC members objected, believing that repression of memories was necessary for rehabilitation.[13]

On the other hand, Greta Fischer, a UNRRA relief worker at the International DP Children’s Center Kloster Indersdorf, reported positively about her experiences with child survivors recounting the past: “When the children first arrived at Kloster Indersdorf, they talked and talked and talked—about their experiences in the concentration camps and as slave laborers. Horror stories were intermingled with ordinary events, with little show of emotion. It took time for them to relax and play. Nearly all of the first-creative plays given by the children included scenes from the concentration camps, punctuated with dry bits of humor that did not seem funny to the UNRRA workers.”[14]

The children and adolescents repeated their stories many times and finally their stories and dramas reflected also more fortunate events.

Jewish DP Children’s Centers and the Role of Zionism

In the Jewish DP Children’s Centers, the approach to the care and rehabilitation of the minors was quite different. The first Jewish DP Children’s Center was established in Struth (near Ansbach, Bavaria) in January 1946, for the primary care of “infiltree children.”[15] These children and adolescents were not accommodated in international DP Children’s Centers. They arrived in large, well-organized groups of the Zionist youth movements, which they had already joined in Poland or Hungary, and they did not want to be separated. Their final destination was Eretz Israel” in contrast to the international DP Children’s Centers where the aim of the relief workers was mainly the repatriation of minors and where those who rejected repatriation remained until they had an opportunity for emigration to a new country. Many Jewish children who had previously lived in the international DP Children’s Center had left already during 1945 or in the first half of 1946; the few who still remained in these facilities waited for their departure, for example, to the U.S.

A total of thirteen Jewish DP Children’s Centers was established in the U.S. Occupation Zone of Germany. These centers usually operated under the administration of a UNRRA team. Jewish organizations as well as volunteer groups from abroad were active in these centers as well. In the Jewish Children’s Transit Center Rosenheim, for example, several Zionist groups were active, where they lived separated from each other in kibbutzim (collective social and political communities). The kibbutzim represented a wide political spectrum from the socialist Hashomer Hatzair to the right-wing Betar. The religious Zionist (Mizrahi) and Aguda Israel organized kibbutzim as well.

The intention of the kibbutzim organizers was that life in a collective would safeguard the moral fiber and morale of Jewish youth while preparing them for productive labor in Palestine, with the care in these centers greatly influenced by Zionist ideals and Zionist pragmatism. Daily life consisted primarily of preparing to live in Palestine through training for agricultural and craft professions. In addition, the children received lessons in Hebrew, geography, and history of Palestine from adult DPs and teachers from the JAFP. The collective philosophy of the kibbutzim provided the minors with some semblance of surrogate family. Thus, they left little room for individualized care of the children and adolescents, differing in approach from the international psychologists and UNRRA relief workers. The focus of rehabilitation in the kibbutzim was not the memory of the terror years. Rather, the children and adolescents should leave the past years behind and prepare fully for their future life in Eretz Israel.” This Zionist indoctrination was criticized by some UNRRA and JDC workers. However, there are examples of children who affiliated themselves with national movements being more purposeful than unaffiliated children, as documented by Greta Fischer:

“The Zionist groups showed evidence of social, as well as political motivation. […] The Zionists were concerned with promoting good living habits and ethics. They prohibited lying, stealing, smoking or at least attempted to do this. They emphasized physical activity, too, but more through folk dancing, games and work activities. Education was stressed strongly; cooperative and collective living was promoted. There was conscious development of leadership through organizational practices.”[16]

At long last, having an aim helped the child survivors in their uphill battle to reclaim life. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Zionism as an ideology was not the goal of all the Jewish children and adolescents: Many of them considered Zionism and life in the kibbutzim merely as a way to leave Europe—and to start a new life in a new country.


International humanitarian organizations, adult DPs, as well as various Zionist organizations were eager to help unaccompanied Jewish minors. Their approaches were different, which often led to conflicts. Nevertheless, they were often the first ones who gave the children a place where they were welcome after years of terror and persecution. The overwhelming majority of the often severely traumatized children and adolescents succeeded in paving a way back to life. Many of them managed to start a career, have a family, and to earn a living—but not without the pain of a lost childhood, and in particular over the loss of the family. No one could help them to take this pain away.

Ina Schulz is a PhD student at the Free University of Berlin. She obtained her M.A. in history and political science at the University of Trier in 2010. From February 2012 to February 2014 she worked as a research assistant at the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen.

This essay is based on a PhD project, which the author is currently pursuing at the Free University of Berlin and the Institute for the History of the German Jews in Hamburg. The PhD thesis “Life after the Shoah. Jewish Displaced Children in the U.S. Occupation Zone of Germany,” provides a systematic examination of the history of unaccompanied Jewish children and their assistance and care in Displaced Persons (DP) Children’s Centers. The project is funded by the Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich Studienwerk.


[1] Approximately 150,000 Jewish minors survived in liberated Europe, outside the Soviet Union. Further 30,000 Jewish children and adolescents—who were younger than 16 years—were able to survive in exile in the Soviet Union, under mostly catastrophic living conditions. Zorach Wahrhaftig, Uprooted. Jewish Refugees and Displaced Persons after Liberation (New York, 1946), p. 119 and Tara Zahra, The Lost Children. Reconstructing Europe’s Families after World War II (Cambridge, MA, 2001), p. 11.

[2] The term “unaccompanied children” was attributed to children and adolescents who were citizens of an allied nation or had been persecuted as Jews or gypsies because of the National Socialist race policy and were now found without their parents or other adult relatives as a consequence of the Second World War. The International Tracing Service has registered 22,884 children and adolescents as unaccompanied until August; 8,211 of them were Jewish. ITS Bad Arolsen, Digital Archive, Predecessor Organizations, 6.1.1, Folder 0046, part 1: History on the Search of unaccompanied children, Prepared and submitted by Herbert H. Meyer, Chief Child Search Branch, Esslingen 1950, Document ID 82506044.

[3] The main task of the UNRRA was the support of the military administration in the repatriation of so-called Displaced Persons (DP or DPs). Furthermore, the UNRRA was given the additional task of looking after the Displaced Persons camps in the liberated areas. The agency worked until 31 December 1946 in Europe and was then replaced by the International Refugee Organization (IRO). For more see George Woodbridge, UNRRA. The History of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. 3 volumes (New York, 1950) and Louise Wilhelmine Holborn, The International Refugee Organization. A Specialized Agency of the United Nations. Its History and Work 1946-1952 (Oxford, 1956).

[4] Under the status “DP” were more than ten million people who had been fleeing as a result of World War II from their homes, or who have been expelled or deported. In practice, DPs were former forced laborers, concentration camp inmates, prisoners of war, and civilian Eastern European workers who either had involuntarily supported the German economy after the war began or who had fled the Soviet army in 1944.

[5] Margarete Myers Feinstein, Holocaust Survivors in Postwar Germany, 1945-1957 (Cambridge, 2010), p. 164.

[6] Ibid., p. 165.

[7] Ibid., p. 166.

[8] There were also a few DP children’s homes in the French and British Occupation Zones in Germany, for example, the Youth Center Verden in Lower Saxony. However, the number of Jewish children was very low. An exception was the Children’s Health Home in Hamburg-Blankenese. The home was exclusively for Jewish orphans and unaccompanied children. For more see Erhard Roy Wiehn, ed., Cherries on the Elbe – The Jewish Children’s Home in Blankenese 1946-1948 (Konstanz, 2013).

[9] ITS Bad Arolsen, Digital Archive, Child Search Branch (Tracing Service) under UNRRA and IRO, 6.1.2, Folder 0004a, Report on Field Trip to U.S. Zone, Document ID 82487194#1-82487206#1.

[10] ITS Bad Arolsen, Digital Archive, Documents and Correspondence Related to the Clarification of Children’s Fates,, Folder 0037, International Children’s Center on Chiemsee, UNRRA Team 1609 at Prien, April 1947, Document ID  87411151#1-87411160#1.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Daniel L. Schacter, The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (Boston, 2001), p. 171.

[13] Margarete Myers Feinstein, Holocaust Survivors in Postwar Germany, 1945-1957 (Cambridge, 2010), p. 165.

[14] USHMM, Greta Fischer Paper, RG.-19.034*01, Greta Fischer: D.P. Children’s Center Kloster Indersdorf Kreis Dachau, p. 37.

[15] “Infiltree” was the term for c. 20,000 Jewish survivors, mainly from central and eastern Europe, who illegally crossed the border to enter Germany, Austria, and Italy, as a result of renewed anti-Semitic attacks and pogroms in their home countries. They often arrived with the assistance of Jewish organizations such as the Zionist Brichah (Hebrew: escape or flight), a clandestine organization, initially set up by the leaders of Polish Zionist fighting groups, which transferred Jews, mainly from Poland, either via DP camps or directly to Palestine. Under these “Infiltrees” there were also up to 30,000 children and adolescents. Approximately 6,000 of them were unaccompanied. See Juliane Wetzel, “Ziel: Erez Israel. Jüdische DP-Kinder als Hoffnungsträger für die Zukunft,” in: Rettet die Kinder, ed. Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt (Frankfurt a.M., 2003), pp. 75-78 and Atina Grossmann, Jews, Germans, and Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied Germany (Princeton, 2009), pp. 1-2.

[16] USHMM, Greta Fischer Paper, RG.-19.034*01, Greta Fischer: D.P. Children’s Center Kloster Indersdorf Kreis Dachau, pp. 41-42.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.