Yesterday I read an article on the BBC about hundreds of missing babies who were secretly adopted by childless couples in the 1950s, shortly after the founding of the Israeli state. One parent, Leah Aharoni, was a Yemeni refugee who had given birth to premature twins in central Israel. Shortly thereafter, she was told her twins were moved into special clinic in Tel Aviv. She then learned that one twin had died. Although she never saw a body or grave, Leah and her husband accepted this horrific news. Years later, her 18 year old daughter was called up for national military service. However, two letters arrived – one for her living daughter and the other for the deceased twin. Apparently, this type of bureaucratic error was experienced by numerous families whose children had supposedly “died” while in state care years previously.
Now called the Yemenite Children Affair, the state archives have been opened to reveal a large government cover up. Since the 1950s, over 1,000 families have claimed their children were systematically kidnapped and put up for adoption, often abroad. Wealthy American couples, some of whom had survived the Holocaust, wished to preserve the Jewish line by adopting Jewish children. Some children, sadly, were also the objects of medical experiments, whereby they were injected with proteins, had their healthy hearts removed for US doctors to dissect, and were even tested for “negro blood.”
Three committees investigated the Yemenite Children Affair, but all reached the same conclusion: most children died in the 1960s in hospitals and were buried without notifying their families. Although this would still be a harsh reality for grieving families, the deception goes deeper. The recent approval by the Israeli government to open state archives now allows mothers, such as Leah Aharoni, to learn the fate of their kidnapped children. It is expected that the following months will uncover many unwelcomed truths…
At the crux of the Yemenite Children Affair is the fact that Israel was a new state. Why does this matter? Yemeni refugees flooding into Israel in the 1950s were considered eastern Mizrahi Jews and not nearly as desirable to the foundation of the new Israeli state as Ashkenazi Jews, from European descent. But, so what?
In the wake of both the First and Second World Wars, nations grappled with how to create homogenous nation-states. The wartime devastation forced communities to come together to rebuild their homes, governments and cultures. In the 1920s, the creation of passports, human rights laws, and international humanitarian organisations allowed nations the ability engage in discussion about policies on both international and national levels. The unprecedented suffering of children was brought to the fore by NGOs, such as Save the Children Fund, and the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1924) helped to internationalise the value of children, and called for their protection.
It was during this tumultuous interwar period that children’s value became heightened. Although some would argue that children’s social value was already well defined within Western nations (especially through labour laws as a result of the Victorian Age), the interwar period was, I believe, the crucial moment when “children” and “transnationalism” merged. Children were no longer limited to just one national boundary. Within international humanitarian circles, children’s rights were finally extending beyond national laws. And, due to the unimaginable devastation of the First World War, children’s survival now depended on their ability to adapt to new geographies, new cultures, new identities.
Naturally, governments decimated by war began to capitalise on the fluid identities of these migrant, displaced and orphaned children. By adopting, kidnapping, brainwashing, relocating children, a nation could bolster its national image and its biological stockpile. Children, it became clear, were the biological future of the state. (For more on this topic, please see Tara Zahra’s book “The Lost Children: Reconstructing Europe’s Families After World War II”).
Children were absolutely central to this power-struggle among nations. Governments found unusual, discriminatory, and often macabre ways to fulfil their national agendas to adequately rebuild their countries. And one such method was exploited: Children’s Homes.
Children’s Homes, or long-term (usually) state-run institutions for children, fulfilled different roles and purposes in the last century. I have compiled some of these Children’s Homes into groups. There are certainly exceptions, and categories overlap, and it is by no means entirely comprehensive but….
A) Children’s Homes that forcibly cultivated a new national identity while remaining within the original political boundaries.
This was often achieved by simply invalidating their original cultural “backward” identity. Although parents may have been aware their children were being taken away, they did not always give their consent. Some examples:
Canadian Residential School System. In the 19th century, the Canadian government wished to quickly assimilate the First Nations communities. By removing 150,000 aboriginal children from their communities and forcing them to attend 80 Christian schools throughout the country, it led to widespread physical and sexual abuse. The last school was closed in 1996.
Swiss Red Cross Children’s Homes. During the Second World War, the Swiss Red Cross founded multiple Children’s Homes in German-occupied France and Belgium. Children were considered temporary residents (maximum three-month stays for Belgian children, for example), and parents had to give consent. Many children survived as a result of the protection they received in these homes (at La Hille in France, the Swiss nurses secretly saved Jewish children by walking them over the Pyrenees into Spain). However, the Swiss curricula taught Swiss songs, history and culture, subsequently undermining the authentic nationality of the child.
Yemenite Children’s Affair. After their kidnap into state care, some Yemeni children were eventually adopted by other Israelis and absorbed into “western” Ashkenazi Jewish family structures while remaining within Israel’s state borders.
B) Children’s Homes that deceptively relocated children through bureaucratic channels to new nations.
This was accomplished often without parental knowledge and sought to improve the national collective identity (by either absorbing or expulsing children from the nation). Some examples:
Nazi Lebensborn Homes. These homes initially provided care for unmarried German women who had given birth to “racially pure” children by SS officers. After the outbreak of war, the drive for an Aryan state led to the kidnapping of thousands of Polish children (up to 100,000) deemed racially pure. Older children were led to believe they’d been abandoned by their biological parents. By 1946, it was estimated that 250,000 children had been forcibly removed from their parents.
Yemenite Children Affair. See above. Some Yemeni children were adopted by childless couples abroad without parental consent or knowledge.
British Child Migrants to Canada and Australia. From the mid-1800s until the 1970s, over 130,000 British children were sent to Canada, New Zealand, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and Australia. These children were not necessarily orphaned, but generally from poor backgrounds and, it was believed, would lead happier lives due to their ability to adapt quickly. Some parents consented with full knowledge, others were unaware as to the fate of their child(ren) abroad. Children were often shipped to rural locations as farm labourers, or state-run orphanages, or religious institutions. This led to widespread physical and sexual abuse. The British government’s motivation was to ease the burden on UK orphanages while also increasing the populations in the colonies with “good, white British stock.”
C) Children’s Homes for Medical Experimentation and Extermination.
These homes go hand-in-hand with the overall growth of eugenics in the early 20th century, but as the Yemenite Children Affair indicates, they were not just a product of the Nazi regime. Some examples:
Am Spiegelgrund Clinic in Steinhof, Vienna . This Nazi-run institution sought to experiment on its 7,500 patients, with one particular children’s ward called Am Spiegelgrund. Almost 800 children died as the result of medical experiments between 1940-1945. The survivors’ testimonies are harrowing.
Auschwitz “Kindergarten.” Approximately 232,000 children arrived at Auschwitz. Although many were shipped directly to the gas chambers, some were held in a family camp in 1943, whereby Dr. Joseph Mengele had easy access to children in the attached “Kindergarten.” No clear statistics exist to indicate how many children were victims of Mengele’s experiments. The family camp and “Kindergarten” were liquidated in May 1944.
Yemenite Children Affair. As discussed earlier, Israeli doctors examined children’s blood in order to assess its negro qualities.
Velpke and Rühen Children’s Home. These homes were established in May 1944 to care for the infants of the Polish female forced laborers who worked on the farms near Wolfsburg and Helmstedt (100km east of Hannover, Germany). Conditions were atrocious and deaths of nearly 100 infants resulted from outright neglect and starvation. Importantly, these homes only existed as a way to placate the mothers and to increase their economic output.
Okay, but so what?
Remarkably, the Yemenite Children Affair could be placed in each and every category within my proposed list above. The goal of this discussion is to not just showcase the unusual qualities of such Children’s Homes, but to embed them within a broader history of the period. Some Children’s Homes existed to fulfil a racially-driven ideology, others to bolster a certain culture or language. Such Children’s Homes and migration projects were somehow fulfilling nationalist agendas, either by absorbing more children or by expulsing them from a country’s borders. And, especially after the devastation of the First and Second World Wars, governments wrestled with their own notions of nationhood, bringing children to the very fore of their post-war reconstruction.
Children’s Homes demonstrate that such governments and institutions believed fully that children’s identity was fluid and adaptable. Unlike adults, children’s nationality could be quickly (and even secretly) “switched” due to the innocence of youth and the lack of a familial structure. As long as a government got them at a young age, then their long-term economic, social and biological value in that community could be ensured. Now we can begin to understand why it’s so important that the children of Yemeni refugees were seen as undesirable “eastern” Mizrahi Jews, although it certainly does not justify their systematic murder.
As Tara Zahra states in The Lost Children (pp. 244), “The story of refugee children, in particular, demonstrates that the histories of humanitarianism and of ethnic cleansing in twentieth-century Europe are neither unrelated nor contradictory.” Children’s Homes were one aspect of the child refugee narrative. Although these institutions were often cloaked in an altruistic declaration to “save the children,” they simultaneously served less than humane nationalist goals. We may begin to understand why institutions such as Children’s Homes were created, but their everlasting effects will continue to taint the history of nation-building in the 20th century.