Lost Children: Displacement, Family, and Nation in Postwar Europe*

  • Citation: Zahra, Tara. “Lost Children: Displacement, Family, and Nation in Postwar Europe.” The Journal of Modern History 81, no. 1 (March 2009): 45–86.
    • Topics:
    • Transnational Issues
    • Keywords:
    • child care
    • world wars
    • care and treatment
    • refugee children
    • displacement

At the end of the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of children were missing. Their faces adorned Red Cross posters, under the banner “Who knows our parents and our origins?” Whether through bombings, military service, evacuation, deportation, forced labor, ethnic cleansing, or murder, an unprecedented number of children had been separated from their parents during the war. The German Red Cross received over 300,000 requests to trace missing children or parents between 1945 and 1958, while the Interna- tional Tracing Service traced 343,057 lost children between 1945 and 1956.1 The problem of reuniting families after World War II proved to be more than a daunting logistical puzzle, moreover. Although they represented only a small fraction of the millions of displaced persons (DPs) in postwar Europe, so-called lost children held a special grip on the postwar imagination. They stood at the center of bitter political conflicts between military authorities, German foster parents, social workers, Jewish agencies, East European Com- munist officials, and DPs themselves, all of whom competed to determine their fates. These battles were linked, in turn, to emerging ideals of human rights, the family, democracy, child welfare, and the reconstruction of Euro- pean civilization at large. In the words of Vinita A. Lewis, an officer with the International Refugee Organization (IRO) in Germany, “The lost identity of individual children is the Social Problem of the day on the continent of Europe.”2

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