What Happens When Children Grow Up in Concentration Camps

Anna Freud with children liberated from the concentration camp
Anna Freud with the liberated children

Extreme circumstances sometimes reveal truths about human beings that hide themselves in ordinary times. The late Judith Rich Harris tells us such a story in her book The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do.

Seventy five years ago, at the conclusion of World War II, six children between three and four years old were liberated from a Nazi concentration camp. The children, three boys and three girls, were brought to England where Anna Freud, the daughter of the Sigmund Freud, observed them as they were being cared for there.1

“The only scrap of stability” in their young lives

Having lost their parents in the camps, the children had been cared for by other adults, none of whom survived. As Harris writes, during their camp ordeal, they just had each other,  “the only scrap of stability in the chaos of their young lives.”

Freud chronicled their arrival in England:

During the first days after arrival they destroyed all the toys and damaged much of the furniture. Toward the staff they behaved either with cold indifference or with active hostility. . . . In anger, they would hit the adults, bite or spit…. They would shout, scream, and use bad language. 2

More concerned about each other than themselves

They disdain they expressed toward adults and their new environment was completely absent in their relations with each other, however. Here’s how Freud described the situation, summarized by Harris:

It was evident that they cared greatly for each other and not at all for anybody or anything else. They had no other wish than to be together and became upset when they were separated from each other, even for short moments. . . . The children’s unusual emotional dependence on each other was borne out further by the almost complete absence of jealousy, rivalry, and competition… There was no occasion to urge the children to “take turns”; they did it spontaneously since they were eager that everybody should have his share…. They did not tell on each other and they stood up for each other automatically whenever they felt that a member of the group was unjustly treated or otherwise threatened by an outsider.

They were extremely considerate of each other’s feelings. They did not grudge each other their possessions, on the contrary lending them to each other with pleasure…. On walks they were concerned for each other’s safety in traffic, looked after children who lagged behind, helped each other over ditches, turned aside branches for each other to clear the passage in the woods, and carried each other’s coats… At mealtimes handing food to the neighbor was of greater importance than eating oneself.3

Extraordinary. A group of six children aged three and four had formed their own little society, complete with its own moral codes, in the midst of one of the most inhumane environments ever experienced by humans.

Children’s long-term well-being has a great deal to do with peer relationships

Can you imagine a worse environment for children? Would you have guessed that the children would have come through this experience with this much care and commitment to each other? This story is as shocking as it is uplifting to me. 

As Harris writes, “Isn’t it amazing that little children could come out of a concentration camp more concerned about feeding their companions than feeding themselves? Each of these children must have been responding to the neediness he or she perceived in the others. It was like a game of House that never ended—each child playing the role of Mommy or Daddy to the others, while simultaneously maintaining a real-life identity as Baby.”.4

In 1982, when the children were about 40 years old, Sophie Dann, Anna Freud’s collaborator, wrote that the children had grown up and were “leading effective lives.” After all that.

Harris tells this story to illustrate a central point of her book: children’s long-term wellbeing has a great deal to do with the relationships they build with peers throughout childhood. Her overarching thesis is that parents are less important and peers are more important than most people think.

I think she was on to something. I hope this story inspires you to think more about how your children’s peer relationships are shaping them—or could shape them—in ways that may reverberate for the rest of their lives.

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What Happens When Children Grow Up in Concentration Camps
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  1. Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, p. 143.
  2. Anna Freud and Sophie Dann, S (1951) An experiment in group upbringing Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 6, 127-168, reprinted in Anna Freud (1969) Indications for child analysis, and other papers, 1945-1956, Chapter 8, pp. 163-229.
  3. Harris, p. 144.
  4. Harris, p. 144.
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