Bombing, siege and destruction

In a total war like WWII, the traditional distinction between military and civilians completely disappeared. Civilians, including children, were targeted more than ever. At an age when they were supposed to play and study, enjoy their childhood innocence and grow up in the warmth of the family home, children lived in a daily environment of violence and vulnerability. The indiscriminate bombing of their villages and towns, sometimes defenceless, was also part of their daily life and caused numerous civilian casualties.

Aerial bombardment at Saint-Pierre-des-Corps (France). Drawing by Suzanne Chavanne (c. 1940). ©Réseau Canopé – Musée national de l’Education (1979.09324.61)
London paediatric clinic bombed by the German aviation. © Archives du Comité International de la Croix-Rouge (V-P-HIST-01336)

Its purpose was the destruction of military and industrial targets and cities. It also struck at the morale of enemy civilians, to break their will and force the capitulation of their countries. Between 1940 and 1941, the German air force employed this tactic against the United Kingdom. During the Blitz, the Luftwaffe bombed strategic points and cities, mainly London, causing more than 40,000 civilian casualties. Some 7,736 children were killed and 7,622 were seriously wounded.

The British and U.S. air forces also employed this method. On the one hand, strategic bombing in occupied countries, such as France and Italy. In each country, more than 50,000 civilians were killed by bombs. On the other hand, Germany was massively bombed. In 1943, during Operation Gomorrah, the Allies ravaged Hamburg with firestorms. The goal of the operation was psychological: to terrorize civilians, especially workers. The attacks resulted in more than 40,000 civilians killed and as many wounded. In February 1945, Dresden, an industrially and militarily non-strategic city, was reduced to ashes in one of the most controversial Allied bombing raids in Europe. The toll was more than 35,000 dead, including women, children and the elderly.

The bombing of Dresden (13 February 1945), by the Young Italian Angiolino Filiputti. © CC BY-NC 4.0 / International Bomber Command Centre Digital Archive, University of Lincoln
“Children in a home destroyed by the Nazis” (author unknown, 1943). © Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow (MDF KP-1202/32 FII-12586 GC 27155292)

Although Germany was the most heavily bombed country during the war, one of the deadliest attacks took place over Tokyo. U.S. air force bombs killed more than 100,000 civilians, shortly before striking Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Elsewhere, strategic bombing was part of protracted military actions. It occurred in the siege of Leningrad (1941-1944), during Operation Barbarossa launched by Germany against the USSR. By means of incendiary bombs, destruction of homes, blockade and cutting off supplies, the aim was to annihilate the resistance of the civilian population, composed almost exclusively of children, women and the elderly.

The siege lasted 900 days, trapping 3,200,000 residents, including 400,000 children, in the city. There were nearly one million civilian deaths. More than 90% perished from starvation, cold, disease and enemy fire. Until 1944, the Germans dropped 148,478 artillery shells, 102,500 incendiary bombs, and 4,638 explosive bombs on the city.

Resistance and survival in the besieged city was mainly due to women, Soviet and foreign: grandmothers, mothers, daughters, workers and fighters. Among them, more than a hundred young Spanish women evacuated to the USSR during the Civil War who contributed to the defence of the city and to the care of the inhabitants and the wounded.

Leningrad under siege (1942). The sign reads “Death to child murderers!” near a destroyed house. Author: Sergey Strunnikov. ©Wikimedia Commons
“This is everybody's war. The enemy has made it so. May you never know what it means to be a refugee... to be hungry... to be homeless. Be sure this never happens to you!. Produce for victory”. © National Archives (NAID: 515239)
In a French town, near the front, a little girl writes on an unexploded bomb “For Hitler with our best wishes, 1945” (Pour Hitler avec nos voeux, 1945). © United Nations Archives and Records Management Section (S-1167-0008-00004)

Resistance and combat

The invasion and occupation of vast territories in Europe by Nazi Germany sowed terror, fear and submission among the civilian population. Also collaboration for ideological, racial and survival reasons. On a daily basis, civilians coexisted with the occupier who displayed uniforms, armbands and insignia, placed red flags with swastikas on buildings, and launched collaborationist propaganda, counter-propaganda and censorship. The omnipresence of the elements of the Nazi triumph and the occupation of their countries provoked the reaction of civilians and combatants in Belgium, France, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Poland, Slovakia, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece and the USSR.

Drawing by Pierre Cavellat. “Arrival of Germans in Quimper” (Arrivée des All[emands] à Quimper), 22 June 1940. © Archives départementales du Finistère (18 Fi 167)
In the French Alps, a veteran maquis shows young combatants how to use weapons. © Yad Vashem (503/5586)

The Resistance movements expressed themselves in multiple forms: attacks and operations against troops, officers and military installations; sabotage of railroad tracks; assassination of informers; organization of protests; rescue of minors and adults; aid to fugitives; forgery of documents; obtaining and transmitting information for the Allies, etc. Those “shadow armies” were made up of many anonymous heroes. Along with adults, children and teenagers participated, following the example of their parents, fighting for freedom with adventurous spirit, courage and recklessness

Some fought on the front lines, others did so as saboteurs, messengers, spies or information agents. However, the Resistance consisted not only of them individuals. Women played key missions in risky and clandestine situations. The European Resistance included spies, liaison agents, secretaries, social workers, doctors, nurses, aviators, snipers, radio operators, etc. In addition, many of them hid the persecuted, cared for the wounded and supplied the resistance fighters.

Act of sabotage by a youth in the Danish resistance. © Frihedsmuseet-Museum of Danish Resistance
Two girls assemble PPD-40 Tokareven machine guns at an arms factory in Leningrad (Author: Sergey Strunnikov, 1943). © Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (Public Domain)
Poster showing Zina Portnova, created by Semyon Bondar y Naum Karpovsky (1972). ©Historical State Museum of the Southern Urals (CHOKM OF - 3102 / 44. GRF - 91 / 21)

Among its ranks were very young heroines, such as Zinaida Portnova, who took part in acts of sabotage, distributed leaflets and collected and hid weapons for the Soviets. As a kitchen assistant infiltrating a Nazi garrison, she poisoned the food, causing a hundred casualties. She was subsequently captured, tortured and executed by the Gestapo. Another example of struggle and courage was that of the partisan and nurse María Pardina Ramos who acted on the Leningrad front, together with Spanish children taken in by the USSR between 1937 and 1938.

Despite their age, the minors were resistance fighters and anonymous fighters for freedom in a Europe at war. As one French resistance fighter revealed, “My father taught me when I was very, very young to fight for freedom. Fight for your country. Fight for humanity”.

Photograph of the youngest participant in the Warsaw Uprising, Polish survivor Różyczka Goździewska, who helped in the rebel hospital. ©Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego/ Creative Commons CC0 License (Public Domain)
The partisan brigade of the “red devils” in the swamps of Codroipo-Aris, in Italia (Angiolino Filiputti, 13 April 1945). © CC BY-NC 4.0/International Bomber Command Centre Digital Archive, University of Lincoln
“Saving Miriam”, Amsterdam, 29 November 1943 (Hein Robert Korpershoek, 1987). The drawing shows an operation by three members of the Dutch resistance, two men and a woman, to rescue little Miriam Dasberg who was going to be deported. © Yad Vashem Art Museum

Persecution, deportation and extermination

Over 1.5 million children and teenagers in Germany and the occupied European countries were murdered by the Third Reich and its collaborators for racial, biological and political reasons. During the Holocaust, nearly one million Jewish children perished in deportation or in ghettos, victims of starvation, disease and subhuman conditions; in concentration camps, as a result of forced labour, brutal medical experiments and dehumanization; and in extermination camps, as children under 13, pregnant women and those over 50 were sent directly to the gas chamber.

Autobiographical painting of the deportation of children, women and men from Vilna, Poland (present-day Lithuania), by Arie Singer, based on his memories as a 13-year-old partisan. © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (2006.125.34)

Their destinations were the ghettos of Poland, Ukraine, Hungary and Romania, the Baltic States and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and the death centres of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka.

Drawing by Ervin Abadi, a young Hungarian Jew, deported to Bergen-Belsen. © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (36722)

Other “undesirable”, “asocial” and “racially inferior” children, such as Roma and Sinti minors, also victims of Nazi systematic extermination or Porrajmos, arrived in some of these camps. During WWII, some 500,000 Roma were subjected to deportation in Poland; internment in the special camps of Marzahn (Germany), Lackenbach and Salzburg (Austria); imprisonment in the concentration camps of Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Mauthausen, and Ravensbrück. The Zyclon-B tests at Buchenwald, the medical experiments at Ravensbrück, Natzweiler-Struthof and Sachsenhausen, the gas chambers at Auschwitz and the mass shootings in Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Albania caused the deaths of thousands of Romani minors.

In a tragically shared fate, Roma children, Jews and non-Jews perished together with their families in the mass shootings perpetuated by the SS-supported mobile execution squads (Einsatzgruppen) in the German-occupied Soviet territories. One of the most tragic chapters of the “Holocaust by bullets” was written in the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev in September 1941. The largest murder of Jews, Roma, Ukrainian civilians and Soviet prisoners of war during WWII took place there. The massacres continued until the autumn of 1943, with 100,000 Jewish and non-Jewish victims, mostly children, women, the sick and the elderly.

Painting by young Latvian Jacob Barosin of a Roma woman and her children. © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (31762)
The Last Walk or Taken to the Slaughterhouse - Babi Yar (1947). Oil painting by Russian artist Yosef Kuzkovski. Photograph: Michael Amar. ©Knesset Archives

Among other tragedies of innocents was the annihilation of the Czech village of Lidice. Nazi troops committed a cruel revenge against its population as punishment for the attack of a Czechoslovak commando against the “Butcher of Prague”, Reinhard Heydrich, the governor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and one of the ideologists of the “Final Solution”. Civilians were falsely linked to the bombing and Heydrich’s subsequent death. The Germans executed 173 men and teenagers, deported 203 women and young girls to Ravensbrück, and gassed 42 girls and 40 boys at Chelmno. A memorial was erected in their memory and that of so many other innocents.

Memorial to the child victims of the war in Lídice (Marie Uchytilová & Jiří V. Hampl). © Creative Commons Atribución-CompartirIgual 4.0 Internacional
Young survivors of Buchenwald. One of them, Joe Dziubak (Lodz, Polonia) writes in German: Where are our parents? © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (44251)
Family reunification. A mother finds her daughter (Austria, 1946). © Archives du Comité International de la Croix-Rouge (V-P-HIST-02215)

Liberation and postwar

From May 1945, military and civilians celebrated the Allied liberation and victory in a Europe in ruins. That victory followed the death of some 70 million combatants and non-combatants, with the USSR, China, Germany and Poland being the countries that suffered the greatest human losses. During the war, civilian populations were its victims, suffering countless violations of their rights. In addition, millions of civilians, minors and adults, had to leave their homes, becoming displaced persons and refugees. On a daily basis, children, women and the elderly lived with and faced war, destruction, hunger, deprivation, disease and climatic extremes.

Drawing by Hungarian Ervin Abadi, representing the arrival of the liberators (Germany, 1945). © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (George Bozoki, 36760)

The situation of children mobilized humanitarian organizations which, on the basis of religious, humanitarian, ethical, charitable or philanthropic principles, acted on the ground to alleviate their suffering. One such organization was the Commission Mixte de Secours, which helped children and teenagers in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Finland, Greece, Yugoslavia, Poland, Italy and the Baltic countries.

“Children suffer”. Croix-Rouge suisse- Secours aux enfants poster. ©Bibliothèque de Genève (SGA 56.20)

This rescue work was aided by the Croix-Rouge Suisse- Secours aux Enfants, whose humanitarian action with food, medicines and vitamins focused on French, Belgian, Finnish, Greek, Italian, Serbian and Croatian minors. The Œuvre de Secours aux Enfants established a network of 25 houses to protect Jewish children, remove them from French camps or evacuate them abroad in collaboration with the American Friends Service Committee. The Quakers distinguished themselves by their work in French camps and hospitals, feeding refugees, caring for minors in colonies, and running food services for children.

During the war and post-war period, the protection of children was made possible by female humanitarian aid volunteers, nurses, doctors, caregivers, educators and teachers, who worked for the physical and mental protection of children. In fact, more than 40% of the staff of the great post-war humanitarian organization, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), were women. In 1945, UNRRA began its work in Greece, a country that suffered a terrible famine after the German occupation.

Children collected daily by Red Cross nurses in Yugoslavia (1942). © Archives du Comité International de la Croix-Rouge (V-P-HIST-03168-13)
Asprangeli schoolchildren (Greece) enjoy UNRRA food (1945). ©UNRRA, Harry S. Truman Library & Museum (61-173-11)

Until their dissolution in 1947, UNRRA missions and their humanitarian aid with food, clothing and medicine reached Austria, Germany, Albania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Ukraine, Belarus, Finland, Italy, as well as African and Asian countries.

The organizations of the time had to cope with unprecedented waves of refugees and a humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions that devastated civilians. The post-war period witnessed the existence of millions of deported, refugee or displaced, unaccompanied, abandoned or orphaned children. Also the tragedy of thousands of children with “Aryan characteristics”, taken from their homes by Nazi forces in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Belgium, Holland, Norway or the USSR and sent to Germany for Germanization in Lebensborn-Heime centres or through adoption. Unfortunately, history repeated itself. Many war orphans were separated from their adoptive families or stolen by the victors to repopulate their territories. The physical and psychological aftermath of the conflict haunted those war children, often for life. The same was true of the children who survived the atomic bombs dropped on the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Shortly thereafter, Japan surrendered, marking the end of World War II.

Mothers and children in a cave in Naples (Italy). © United Nations Archives and Records Management Section (UNRRA, S-0800-0003-0004-00012)
Nous voulons un monde meilleur (“We want a better world”). OSE pedagogical and career guidance newsletter (April 1945). © Œuvre de Secours aux Enfants
The Last Push, 1945. A drawing depicting a battered and wounded world, with bandages reading "World War II," while a soldier rides atop an atomic bomb and says, "Peace - Isn't it wonderful?" (Whitey). © TriCollege Libraries Digital Collections (sc:95559)