Wolfson History Prize Blog Tour: Survivors

I was delighted to be invited to take part in the blog tour for the Wolfson History Prize for the third year running. The Prize celebrates historical writing which ‘combines excellence in research with readability’ and you can see the full 2021 shortlist here.

The winner of the Prize will be announced on 9th June 2021.

Today, I’m reviewing one of the shortlisted titles: Rebecca Clifford’s Survivors: Children’s Lives After The Holocaust. Clifford is an Associate Professor in History at Swansea University and specialises in twentieth-century European history, oral history, Holocaust history, and memory studies. You can see her full academic profile here.

Survivors Cover Art

Felice Z., alongside her parents and older sister, was deported from Baden to the internment camp of Gurs in the south of France in October 1940, when she was just one year old. In early 1941, she and her sister were rescued from Gurs by the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE), and Felice was hidden with a French Catholic family until the Liberation. Her parents were killed in Auschwitz. Despite these wartime experiences, Felice remembered being criticised and belittled by adult survivors of the Holocaust when she attended the first American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in 1983, saying:

I questioned whether I should go because I’d never been in a camp… I used to want to have a number [tattooed on my arm] so I could show people the pain… They used to say ‘You were a child, what do you know? You don’t remember.’

This reflected earlier ideas of who counted as a ‘Holocaust survivor’ – originally, ‘survivors’ were considered to be concentration camp survivors – but also the general exclusion of child survivors of the Holocaust from the category, even if they had been in a camp. In the immediate post-war period, child survivors were called ‘unaccompanied children’ or ‘Jewish war orphans’ instead. Recently, Clifford writes, child survivors have taken on more of the familiar public roles we might associate with a ‘Holocaust survivor’ – giving talks, speaking to school students, and volunteering at Holocaust museums – but ‘there is a clear rationale behind the shift: they are the only ones left’.

Survivors focuses on child survivors of the Holocaust who were born between 1935 and 1944, making them ten years old or younger at liberation in 1945. This deliberate choice by Clifford shows how things we think we know about the experience of Holocaust survivors changes when young children are placed at the centre of the story. For example, she argues, for child survivors, who experienced a certain amount of stability during wartime, the end of the war could often be a more difficult period. Maurits C., who spent the war in hiding in the Netherlands, recalled that ‘My war began in 1945… When I learned that my father and mother would not come back, and my brothers, then the war started.’ Counter-claims on Jewish child survivors after the end of the war added to this uncertainty. Jewish organisations were determined to reclaim children whom they thought had been taken by Christian families, while countries such as America, Canada, Australia and Britain were keen to care for ‘Jewish war orphans’ – but only if they were very young, ideally female, and full orphans, which many child survivors were not. Child survivors did not always want to be reunited with families they could not remember. Felice was forced to leave the Catholic family who had cared for her during wartime, which she remembered as traumatic: ‘I think they [the OSE] might have said… “you have to start being Jewish.” But I couldn’t understand what being Jewish meant’. 

Their limited memories of the war hampered child survivors throughout their adult lives, calling the validity of their ‘testimony’ into question, especially after the rise of Holocaust denialism, when there was a greater emphasis on survivors’ accounts being fixed and factually accurate. This was often impossible for child survivors. They were marked out in other ways: the West Germany Federal Indemnification Law of 1953 was meant to allow financial compensation for survivors from West Germany, but it was difficult for even adult survivors, let alone children, to supply the kind of ‘proof’ that was required. They could also be further severed from the Jewish community. Esther T. was in Auschwitz as a child, but as an adult, she found she needed her parents’ birth certificate to marry in an Orthodox synagogue: ‘you have to prove you’re Jewish to get married in a shul, and I couldn’t prove it!’

As a historian of childhood, what I found most brilliant about this book was the way in which it integrates histories of childhood into the kind of bigger historical narrative where children are usually absent or only included in a tokenistic or stereotyped way. Clifford shows how changing ideas of childhood and trauma immediately following the Second World War conditioned reactions to child survivors and forced them into unhelpful binaries: either they were seen as unaffected by the trauma they had endured because they would not remember it, or the separation from their mothers they had endured at an early age was believed to have left them permanently damaged. Neither of these narratives were helpful for child survivors, whom, in retrospective interviews, often felt they had to ‘prove’ they weren’t forever ‘maladjusted’: Denny M., who was interviewed in 1977, said ‘compared with so many messed-up adults that I’ve seen, I think I’m reasonably normal’. 

Even at the time, child survivors could be pathologised for being either ‘too bad’ or ‘too good’. The Buchenwald boys were a group of boys, ranging in age from 8 to 18, who were liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp in April 1945 and sent to an OSE-run reception centre in Normandy. On the way there, ‘they destroyed property, stole and assaulted civilians; there is some evidence that they raped German girls as an act of revenge’. Rather than seeing this behaviour as relating to what they had been through, the OSE’s chief psychiatrist suggested that they had survived precisely because of their ‘insensitivity and indifference‘. However – reflecting new psychological post-war ideas about middle childhood as an innately gregarious and energetic period – a welfare officer in the Jewish DP camps located in the US zone of occupation in Germany worried in 1948 that the children in these camps were too obedient and not ‘mischievous, high-spirited and imaginative’ enough.

Children themselves were aware of adult expectations about trauma and played into these; as Clifford puts it, these ‘wary children’ had good reason to distrust adults in authority and so ‘fabricated suitable pasts’. Two children who were placed in a children’s home in Surrey, Weir Courtney, learnt how to exhibit the correct emotions and tell the right stories. Fritz F. was bullied in the home, and was found crying by the matron who tucked him in at night: ‘I told her I was thinking about my mother. I wasn’t’. Unlike some post-war settings, Weir Courtney prided itself on being a place where children could be open about the past, but children may have been forced to talk about things they would rather not have discussed to play into the psychoanalytical narrative that disclosure was cathartic. We can speculate that this might have led to some false stories. Mina R. told the matron that she had seen her mother shot through the head in front of her, and the matron was pleased with the subsequent change in the girl, who had, she wrote, been ‘much quieter and clearer since‘. However, it was later discovered that Mina’s mother was still alive.

This is a really excellent book, intelligent, thoughtful and empathetic; I would be delighted to see it win the Wolfson History Prize.

Make sure to check out the other stops on the first week of the Wolfson History Prize blog tour:

WHP 2021 Blog Tour Banner Week 1


Life histories or career trajectories? Oral history and gender

This blog post originally appeared on the Warwick Oral History Network blog.

As part of a pilot for one of my postdoctoral projects, I recently interviewed 15 male and female Oxfordshire teachers who started their teaching careers in the 1970s, exploring how their relationships with the pupils they taught changed as they themselves grew older. These were not traditional ‘life history’ interviews, but drew upon elements of the approach pioneered by Stephen Ball and Ivor Goodson’s work with teachers, aiming to situate these participants’ personal stories alongside their professional identities. [1] Strikingly, however, while my female interviewees seemed to instinctively perceive the close relationship between the public and the private, my male interviewees often resisted or neglected this narrative, preferring to focus entirely upon their career trajectories as teachers. This reflects a trend perceived by numerous oral historians, who argue that the ways we remember the past are gendered; for example, Penny Summerfield has explored how women forgot or minimised those elements of their war work that did not fit into public narratives of commemoration. [2]. More broadly, it has been suggested that women are socialised to remember relationally, to fit their own stories into networks that reflect the most important relationships in their lives, whereas men tend to tell stories where they are the only important actor. [3]

In this brief post, I will focus on the aspect of my participants’ stories that highlighted the most striking gender differences; the experience of parenthood. Without exception, all of my female interviewees who had had children of their own volunteered the observation that  becoming a mother had been a significant influence on their teaching careers, not solely because it usually entailed taking a break from teaching, but because it meant that they related to their pupils in a different way. As one participant wrote in her initial questionnaire in answer to the question What have been the biggest influences on your teaching throughout your career?’, ‘My own children! I learnt so much more about child development.’[4] One of my female interviewees was single and childless, but even she, without being prompted, commented that having the chance to get to know her friends’ children had made her a better teacher. In contrast, my male interviewees, all of whom were fathers, did not mention their children unless specifically asked about them. When asked whether becoming a father had been an influence upon their teaching careers, some simply said that it had not, while others admitted that it had, but that they had ‘never thought about that before.’ Unlike their female counterparts, they had not constructed parenthood as a crucial part of their career histories.

Male teachers tended to see being a teacher as a professional role that was separate from their private life, and told me stories about their career trajectory. In contrast, female teachers viewed their role as a teacher as inextricable from the wider roles as either mothers or carers of children, and so situated their careers in life histories. This was indicative of a wider gendered split that I observed in my doctoral research between men and women’s attitudes to teaching as a ‘profession’ or as a ‘vocation’, and suggests that gender not only affected these participants’ career paths at the time, but also the way they remembered their careers from the vantage point of retirement.

[1] Stephen J Ball and Ivor F. Goodson, Teachers’ Lives and Careers (East Sussex, 1985)

[2] Penny Summerfield, ‘Culture and composure: creating narratives of the gendered self in oral history interviews’, Cultural and Social History, 1, 1, 2004, 65-93

[3] Richard Eley and Alyssa McCabe, ‘Gender differences in memories for speech’ in Paul Thompson, Luisa Passerini and Selma Leyesdorff eds., Gender and Memory (Oxford: 1996)

[4] Oxfordshire Pilot Project, Questionnaire 0x.015.