In 1984, ‘Pauline’ finally revealed a dark secret. A hidden child of the Holocaust, as a young girl she had been molested by those who had sworn to protect her from the Nazis. For two years she endured the abuse, afraid her abusers would denounce her if she told. According to Joan Ringelbaum, who interviewed her for her book, “Women in the Holocaust,” ‘Pauline’ carried her secret and her trauma long after the Shoah ended.
“She didn’t tell the Jewish woman who checked on her periodically. She didn’t tell her twin sister. After the war she did not tell her husband or her daughter,” Ringelbaum wrote. Forty-four years later, ‘Pauline,’ who still is too ashamed to reveal her real name, acknowledged when she told her tale, “This is the first time I ever admitted this.”
In the years since the Holocaust, the atrocities of death camps, forced labor and ghetto life have been widely testified to by the victims. Yet until recently, many child survivors, like ‘Pauline,’ have remained silent about the sexual abuse they endured as young victims, in part because of the terror and shame of such an admission.
“[The] desire to reveal or even to remember may be intercepted by a fleeting terror and splitting of consciousness or dissociation,” noted psychiatrist Paul Valent, who works with child survivors of the Holocaust.
Others, Valent claims, tried to bury their past once the war was over. “Certainly few, even (or especially), parents, wanted to know how they were affected,” he said. “The children responded by continuing to not feel or think but again hoped for the future.”
Recently, a number of former child survivors have found the strength to share their stories. Their accounts reveal a dark side for some of the children ‘lucky’ enough to be hidden away from the Nazi terror.
1 in 6 Hidden Children Sexually Abused
The trauma endured by children hidden during the Holocaust has long been overlooked. Unlike their peers, who starved to death in the ghettos or died in concentration camps, most hidden children survived the war and many were reportedly treated well by their well-meaning surrogate caregivers.
Yet for some, physical and sexual abuse was a way of life in their hidden homes. While exact numbers are unknown, experts estimate that one in six children in hiding during the Holocaust were sexually abused and at least five percent were treated ‘very badly’ by those charged with their care.
Anne, who was a young girl during the Holocaust in occupied France, recounted her tale of abuse to Dr. Valent. “I moved from family to family each three months. They were not fond of me; they were paid to have me. They made sure I suffered,” she revealed.
Anne was both physically and sexually abused by those who hid her. “I had to have sex with men, kneel on wooden chairs to which they tied me; I was made to lie in prickles. They punished me because their lives were in danger.”
Like ‘Pauline,’ Anne was threatened with violence and denouncement if she told. “They threatened me with the wall oven. I knew Jewish children had been burnt in a synagogue. They threatened to turn me over to the Germans.”
While extreme, over 50 years later, the pain Anne suffered still caused nightmares and trauma for the now-adult. “And they are the same pains as I had kneeling, sleeping on wooden floors, feelings with the men,” she told Dr. Valent. Like many hidden children who suffered sexual abuse, the memories remain vivid, even after many years.
Vivid Memories of a Painful Childhood
In fact, the pain of sexual abuse often impacts childhood survivors far greater than other losses and traumas endured during the Holocaust. In a 2006 study, the first of its kind, Professor Rachel Lev-Wiese of Haifa University interviewed 22 men and women, whose average age was 68 at the time of interviews, about the sexual abuse they endured while on the run from the Nazis during Shoah.
From the outset, Lev-Wiese realized that the pain of revealing their childhood trauma would be too much for some, who ultimately were not included in the study. For those that were able to speak about their abuse, the traumas remained vivid, even half a century later.
"This abuse still causes incessant thoughts on the subject and nightmares," Lev-Wiese said. Lev-Wiese’s research also showed that the lingering trauma of sexual abuse had a greater impact on survivors than the loss of their parents, separation from families, death of loved ones, hunger and other Holocaust related traumas experienced by the child survivors.
This may be in part due to the intense conflict caused by the ‘lucky’ hidden children who faced sexual abuse at the hands of their savior-abusers. “They cannot reconcile the feelings of having been saved from death by their saviors, and concomitantly, abused by them while in their care,” Carla Lessing said in 2011.
Trying to Forget and Move On
For many after the war, the painful memories of sexual abuse were often buried and not discussed. Lessing points out, “The adults often could not listen to the children’s sorrowful stories of their lives while in hiding.” The abuse also left many hidden children unable to form strong bonds that would allow them to share their experiences with others.
“Trauma during childhood greatly affects the development of trust in others. Violent childhood victimization, such as sexual abuse, has a harmful effect on attachments and intimacy,” Lessing adds, pointing out that this left the young victims of sexual abuse even more isolated.
For some, the pain was just so strong that they wanted only to suppress it and try desperately to move on and focus on other things. In 2007, the Australian Jewish News recounted the story of Dr. Simonne Jameson, who, at age 12, endured sexual abuse in a dank basement in occupied France.
“She tries to forget about the daily rapes [by police officers], the small food rations, the loneliness and the unwavering fear,” the paper reports. “Instead, she focuses on the books, which she says ‘kept my sanity and gave me a refuge from reality.’"
Other childhood victims feared they would not be believed or were silenced when they tried to speak up. Unlike the atrocities of the concentration camp, the intimate crime of sexual abuse leaves little evidence years after the abuse occurred, and the subject was often taboo to discuss, even among loved ones. As result, Dr. Valent points out not only were the child victims not asked about the abuse in the years following the war, they were often invalidated when they summoned the courage to tell their tales.
“The sexually abused were not asked for their memories, in fact they were discouraged to have them, they were invalidated, called crazy, told they were too young to remember, they were wrong,” Dr. Valent reported about his experiences working with child survivors.
The Courage to Speak Up
As the survivors of the sexual abuse age, however, they often find that the painful memories are too much to bear. No longer distracted by the busyness of raising a family, building a career, or starting a new life, the former hidden children are finding that as they ease into retired life, the change of pace and status can bring back painful memories full force.
“The change of status and social identity may be a burden for many aging people, but in the case of Holocaust survivors it brings back warded-off memories, survivors’ guilt and mistrust,” states Dr. Haim Dasberg.
For Anne, retiring from work gave her too much time to think about her painful past. “The Holocaust is keeping coming back and I get depressed,” she told Dr. Valent. “I have done well. I have a husband and three children. But since I am not working, I think more.”
After meeting with Dr. Valent to help deal with her sexual abuse in her 60’s, Anne finally decided to talk to other childhood survivors about her story to help others know they are not alone. On her past anonymity, Anne finally concluded, “That is a mistake, because it denies my identity.”
In recent years, childhood survivors are also forming support groups specially geared toward the discussion of molestation and sexual abuse. In 2001, at a conference of the Hidden Children of the Holocaust held in New York City, sexual abuse was first openly acknowledged. Since then, some have found a safe place to share their stories among other survivors.
Researchers are also beginning to study the impact of sexual abuse on these young lives and encouraging survivors to speak out about their painful past. In 2011, based on her research with the aging survivors, Lev-Wiese published a landmark book, “Hell within Hell: Sexually Abused Child Holocaust Survivors,” to make certain the children’s hidden lives during the Holocaust and their lifelong trauma would not be forgotten.
For ‘Pauline,’ Anne, Simonne, and other victims, remembering is not the problem, it is the all too vivid painful memories and conflicted feelings of their past as children hidden by savior-abusers that continue to haunt them decades later. “Regardless what he has done to me, I can’t hate him,” one recounts in Lev-Weise’s study. “ I wonder if he ever loved me… after all, he saved my life.”