When the Germans carried out the roundup of the Danish Jews the night between October 1 and 2, 1943, the Jewish families took flight head over heels from their homes. Frightful rumours spread about the dangers of fleeing to Sweden. In addition stories went around that children were choked or thrown over board when they failed to keep quiet during the crossing. The families also worried about what would become of them in Sweden. The situation forced some families to take the drastic decision to leave their children at home in Denmark in order to protect them from the dangers. Those who helped the Jews were also worried about small children. On some routes there were doctors along, who could sedate the children during the crossing, but complete sedation of small children was risky and did not always succeed. A crying child would reveal everyone, even the refugees' helpers and the fishermen. Therefore certain routes refused to take small children into the boats.
The age distribution of the hidden children indicates how the parents and helpers judged the risk of bringing along small children. Up to 60 % of the hidden children were under 5 years old. 25% were under or close to 1 year old. The youngest was only 6 days old, the oldest 17 years.
The parents of the hidden children came from all social classes and professions. Nothing indicates that parents were forced to leave their children for financial reasons. Only in an absolute minimum of cases was there any payment between the parties involved, and then only for specific expenses such as the child's clothing, toys and other equipment. As far as is known, no foster parents received compensation for their efforts.
A diverse mixture of routes brought the children to their foster families. A great many went to live with non-Jewish family members: grandparents, aunts and uncles, others stayed with their nannies, who brought the child to safety. Other parents found children's homes or boarding schools through personal contacts where the children were accepted. Still, a fair number of children ended up with foster parents who were total strangers: distant acquaintances of the family or home who had contacts in the resistance movement. In some cases the children moved underway and their parents in Sweden no longer knew where they were.
Naturally the children became attached to their foster parents. By far most loved and cared for the child as if it were their own. The youngest of the children had no recollection of their biological parents who returned home in1945. They were retrieved by people who were strangers and separated from the foster parents who made up their whole world. Many of the children experienced a double betrayal. First they were left behind by their parents, and now they had to leave the foster parents to whom they had strong emotional bonds.
In fact for the children the worst experince was not that they were left behind, for most had enjoyed a good stay with their foster parents, but rather that their parents never talked about these experiences with their children. The explanation is not only that the parents felt guilt and shame. The general medical and pedagogical assessment was that traumatic experiences should not be discussed with children. They should be forgotten.
The hidden children felt that since their experiences were not spoken of, it must be because they were without meaning and significance. They had not themselves chosen silence and did not know that there were others with the same experiences with whom they could speak. Not until 65 years after the liberation did the number of hidden children and their stories became public knowledge. First then did they understand that they were not the only ones with these experiences and they then achieved a new common identity as hidden children.
Do you know a child who was hidden in Denmark during the war? Or do you have any information about foster parents who took care of a Jewish child?
Research on the conditions for the hidden children continues at the Danish Jewish Museum. If you have information or source materials you are most welcome to contact us at info@ jewmus.dk.
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