Recently I read a book titled Lifesaving Letters: A child’s flight from the Holocaust by Milena Roth. Ms. Roth’s harrowing story was not even recognized by the public until 1989. During a ten-month period up to the outbreak of war in Europe on September 3, 1939 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children were sent by rail and then boat to England. The evacuation was known as the Kindertransport. Because they survived the war in relative safety they were not considered to have suffered trauma like their families had. However their tragedy began as soon as they were put on the trains and sent away. In an instant they lost everyone and everything that was familiar to them: mother, father, siblings, friends, school, culture, language, customs, etc.
The foster families they were placed with were not necessarily ideal. Some of the host parents had mental illness. Others looked for a girl who was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years old to act as a servant. When the country ran out of families the rest were put in youth hostels. Those placed in the hostels as well as many in foster settings were never again to know the sense of comfort and belonging that comes with being part of a family until they married later in life and created their own. These were disoriented children who desperately needed gentleness, patience, and understanding. The author insightfully shared that most of the foster parents could not give it because they were the last generation to grow up during the Victorian era. It had been bred into them that nothing unpleasant was discussed; the classic British “stiff upper lip.” In addition although Great Britain was certainly not as anti-semitic as other parts of Europe, Jews were considered a lesser class by the English, and the children sensed that. Another layer of devastation was added when after the war many of the children discovered that Hitler had eradicated every member of their often large, extended families. There was no one to return to, no one to even correspond with. Ms. Roth also touched on the emotional trauma of those who survived the war by hiding in small, closet-like rooms for years or ran for their lives from barn, to shed, to forest, dodging bullets, eating whatever they could find, until it was over.
Ms. Roth writes, “Reflecting seriously on the problems of recovery from loss, I and all the former refugees I know have found it a long, hard road. With no guidance, we had first to negotiate the minefield of grief. In our case, grief was not acknowledged as having an existence; in fact it may have been an insult to our host families, and therefore was in many cases hidden from ourselves and everyone around us. But such grief doesn’t go away. Pushed underground it came out as loneliness, depression, feelings of poor self-worth, and anger, which we were impotent to express.” Ms. Roth had a career as a psychiatric social worker and had access to all the treatments and help available at the time. Even with all that it took 50 years for her to recover from her emotional pain.
The effect of childhood losses and tragedy simply do not go away with time. However help is available to heal and rise above what has happened to us. Here is a Web site of counselors in the Dayton area who can provide direction through the journey of grief and loss: http://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms/prof_results.php?city=Dayton&state=OH&spec=14