In his studies of children lost during the Holocaust, Richard C. Lukas wrote that children were killed “in numbers so great that there is no historical precedent for it.” Their persecution and murder “constitutes probably the most horrible and most incomprehensible chapter of the National Socialist genocide.”
According to current estimates – precise numbers are unknown – 1 to 1.5 million under the age of 16 perished. In addition, one must add the untold numbers of non-Jewish children who were killed in war-related actions during World War II.
The victimization and killing of children during the Holocaust was senseless. One wonders why such tragic and evil acts against innocent children have been repeated since 1945, in hundreds of massacres and during full-scale genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur, and in hundreds of atrocities in Bosnia, Kosovo, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, to name just a few countries. Massive human-rights violations are documented in a variety of regions. Most victims have been adults, and regrettably, vast number of children.
The U.N.’s children agency estimated that “around 14 million children are suffering hardships and trauma from the war in Syria and Iraq.” (N&O, March 13) In South Sudan, for example, after five months of armed conflict this year, Doctors Without Borders has hospitalized 7,694 children under the age of 5. Tragically, children under 16 have been forced into military service as child soldiers in Sudan, South Sudan, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Burma. “The recruitment and use of children by armed forces destroys families and communities. Children are exposed to incomprehensible levels of violence.” (N&O, Feb. 22) Amnesty International concluded that “Worldwide, hundreds of thousands of children are recruited into government armed forces, paramilitaries, civil militias, and a variety of armed groups.”
Hanna Singer of UNICEF reported (N & O, March 13) that “young children are increasingly being pulled into active roles of conflict and subjected to intense indoctrination and training in the use of weapons. Not only are they victims, they have become involved more and more as perpetrators.” The International Community was told (N&O, July 20) that young Yazidi boys, members of a small religious group in Iraq, following their abduction by Islamic State extremists, receive instructions on how to behead captured Syrian soldiers. “Boys have been turned into killers and suicide bombers.” Another report cites “1,100 Syrian children under 16 who joined IS this year. At least 52 were killed in fighting, including eight suicide bombers.”
Adults are always responsible for starting hostilities and wars. And when wars start, civilians of all ages are subjected to threats, persecution, abuse, shelling, displacement, starvation, rape, injury, and death. One rule of war should be to protect all civilians, but children especially. Children should never witness violence and human destruction. They should never be forced, as was recently reported, into executing human beings.
In August, 1942 Janusz Korczak, the legendary Polish educator, desperately tried to save the lives of his 200 orphans in the Warsaw Ghetto. When he failed to prevent their deportation to Treblinka, he chose to board the train on their last journey.
“Children are our future,” Korszak reminded us. “They are the real princes of feelings, the poets and thinkers.” But millions of children today have an uncertain future. While the world looks on, they become helpless victims of violence and war.
Elie Wiesel remembered the terror of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. “The little faces of the children whose bodies I saw, turned into wreaths of smoke, beneath a silent blue sky.”
Hans M. Wuerth is a professor emeritus at Moravian College, He lives in Chapel Hill.