Years ago, I met a woman who, after World War II and in the wake of the lost millions, worked to locate and retrieve surviving Jewish children. She herself had survived the Holocaust in a Siberian labor camp, cutting down primordial forests for lumber. When she made her way back to her native Poland, just 3% of Jewish children were still among the living. Many had adopted false identities and were harbored by Christian families or convents. The woman was in her early 20s then, and she joined an organized effort to find the children, remove them from their Christian placements, and return them to Judaism.
As a parent, as a philosopher, and also as a Jew, I was struck by the moral complexity inherent in the work of reconstituting a lost collective — the Jewish people — by reclaiming individual children, some of whom had likely forged bonds with their Christian caretakers after losing their parents and extended families. The children were not being returned to their original homes and families (for they had perished), but placed in a Jewish setting, such as a children’s home, a Jewish orphanage, or a kibbutz led by Zionist emissaries, in preparation for journeying to Palestine.
The woman described her operation to me: She traveled to Polish villages and, in the taverns, she bought rounds of drinks for the locals. When they became loose-lipped, she casually asked about children in the village. If she learned of wartime arrivals, likely hidden Jewish children, she would approach the household and offer money to reclaim them. If the family refused, and if repeated attempts at negotiation did not work, she told me in her lilting voice, “I’d go into the fields at dusk and I’d steal the children.”
Despite her use of the word “steal,” she clearly thought of the work as saving Jewish orphans, as did others involved in the mission. The children had been placed outside their faith community in an arrangement that, at first, everyone hoped would be temporary. But the children’s parents did not survive to take them back, and, with so few left, retrieving those last remaining children felt essential to ensuring Judaism’s future.
Many of the children put up a fight as they were taken. Some grappled in an ongoing way with being displaced, not once but twice: first, when they lost their Jewish families of origin, and again when they were taken from their Christian families. For the youngest children, the latter was often the only home they remembered. It was easier for those who knew their Jewish roots, and for those who did not find kindness in their refuge, though there were also rampant fear and a sense of grave danger associated with Judaism.
Notably, individual children’s circumstances and feelings did not factor into recovery efforts after the mass genocide, and no one sought to parse the work on such a basis. The Jewish people had been persecuted as Jews, and the reclamation proceeded in the same vein: the children, as Jews, belonged back with their people.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this little-known post-Holocaust history, or the woman with her huge green eyes, her shelves crowded with family photographs, and her offer of tuna sandwiches, as she told me her startling stories. After our meeting, I sought out scholarly and personal accounts, and read interviews and testimonies.
I discovered a mix of feelings among operatives who did this work. All had been driven by a moral imperative to save Judaism (and to honor lost parents’ final wishes to leave descendants). Yet, on reflection, some later questioned whether particular — and particularly wrenching — child removals were justified. Linguistic disagreements over how to describe the work were telling, with terms ranging from “rescuing,” “redeeming,” and “reclaiming,” to “ransoming” the children.
As this Jewish-directed effort proceeded, others had different ideas for the children’s “rescue.” Some in the Catholic Church resisted the return of harbored children to a Jewish fate. In the face of petitions, even by surviving relatives, they initiated baptisms to ensure the children’s Christian salvation; in some cases, they absconded with the children to hide them from authorities. The French “Finaly Affair,” concerning the kidnapping of two young brothers, Robert and Gérald Finaly, made a big news splash. Subsequent reporting, bolstered by the long-awaited unsealing of Vatican archives, revealed the role that the Vatican and Pope Pius XII himself played in the resistance to returning these boys to a Jewish upbringing.
A significant feature of the Jewish-led mission to reclaim children, as the woman told me, was its aim to reconstitute a people nearly exterminated. Given this context, was it stealing, or saving? Was it both? Many believed that the children would come to value a return to Judaism, however distressed they felt at the time. This happened for some, while others struggled with pain and loss, and a crisis of identity: after the trials and pressures of hiding their Jewishness and adopting a new Christian identity, the demand to readjust to Jewish society brought anguish and confusion.
Children’s fates get tangled up in the net of adults’ belief systems, adult wars and ideologies, as well as efforts to protect and rescue and retrieve. The fact that children represent “the future” can, as we’ve seen, lead to the direct manipulation of their circumstances. I read the testimony of one Jewish operative, Yeshayahu Drucker, who was quite heedful of the children’s distress. For years afterward, he kept in contact with those he retrieved, tracing their development and integration. He wrote: “We carried out an operation for the good of the nation. But for the children themselves, this return to the Jewish fold fomented in many of them a psychological crisis from which I fear they have not recovered to this day…I have often heard these children say: I want to be someone’s already; I don’t want to be everyone’s.”
A genuine moral tension marks this bit of history — unlike Russia’s current abductions of the children of Ukraine — to be understood against the backdrop of the Holocaust and the extreme antisemitism that raged after World War II, distressingly on the rise once again. In a process intended to return Jewish children to their roots and rebuild a collective future, many lost what fragile sense of belonging they had found amid war’s ruptures.