Representing the Children of the Holocaust

The word “genocide” evokes many strong thoughts, feelings and images, and each instance of genocide tends to have a specific image or icon associated with it.  For instance: the figure of the machete as the weapon of choice in Rwanda, the black pajama and red bandana wearing Khmer Rouge soldiers in Cambodia, or the mortar shells used to bombard the safe areas in the Balkans during the Bosnian genocide.  Despite the strength of these images, there is one that is still stronger: the children of genocide.  The Holocaust has many intense figures and icons associated with it—like Adolf Hitler, gas chambers, barbed wire fences, the swastika, and so on—but the children of the Holocaust still seem to have a more intense impact concerning the genocide. Mark M. Anderson says in his article “The Child Victim as Witness to the Holocaust: An American Story?”, the children “have consistently proved to be the most moving and believable witnesses” of the Holocaust. [1] My question is: how are the children of the Holocaust represented?  Why are their images so prevalent in the information we have from the event?  And another thing to consider: what is seen or not seen in these pictures, and why?

Now let’s start out with some background information

The Holocaust, as define by the United States Holocaust Museum, was “the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.” [2]  After they came to power in Germany in 1933, the Nazi party made it their goal to rid Europe of the Jewish “threat”.  Although they were not the only victims (Gypsies, Socialists, Communists, homosexuals, physically and mentally disabled people were targeted as well), they were the main target and were seen as “inferior” to the German Aryan race and they were sought out and murdered mainly by use of death camps and gas chambers.  This systematic mass murder was known as the “final solution” to the “Jewish problem” in Europe.  When Allied forces intervened, the Nazis moved the prisoners from camp to camp by means of “death marches” in an effort to evade the Allies.  It wasn’t until May 7, 1945 that the Nazis finally surrendered—ending WWII—and the prisoners were all set free.

Why children?

Why is there so much emphasis put on the children of the Holocaust?  In almost any institution or website you can find entire photographic galleries devoted solely to photos of children.  Some of the most popular Holocaust literature was written by, or from the perspective of, a child—like Anne Frank’s Diary or Elie Wiesel’s Night.  One might argue that it could sheer numbers that makes their stories so significant.  Of the six million Jewish people that were murdered, about 1.5 million of them were children.  The numbers are startling, but not enough to explain the extent to which children are represented.

The real reason that the kids are portrayed so much, in my opinion, is the sheer fact that killing a child is an act that is so evil that many people cannot even fully comprehend it.  Children are the epitome of innocence and helplessness, and that makes their murder all the more atrocious.  Presenting this cruelty seems to give victims a certain rallying point that truly embodies the evil of the murders. Again Mark Anderson sums up their effect by saying “[the children’s] defenselessness serves as a metaphor for the general plight of Holocaust victims […] their fate constitutes one of the most powerful indictments of Nazi criminality and the most heart-rending evidence of the victims’ loss.”


There is something so inexplicably haunting and heart-wrenching about seeing a child in pain and desolation.   Like this image of the three homeless children sobbing on the side of the road. This is the sort of thing that I believe forces people to share the photos and testimonies of these young victims.


Now comes my next question: what do we see when we look at the photos of these children? Or more interestingly, what do we NOT see?  Many pictures of the children came from before the genocide.  There are countless family portraits taken by the family members that depict the children as they were before the Nazis came or during the time they stayed in the ghettos.  For instance, there is this picture of two brothers sitting for a family portrait in the Kovno ghetto (one month before they were deported to the Majdanek extermination camp.  This photo is evidence that not even toddlers were spared the branding by the Nazis (as denoted by the Jewish star attached to their clothing).

Source: []

Then there are the pictures taken during the marches and at the camps.  Most of these pictures would, presumably, be taken by the Nazis.  Although there is often no proof of who exactly took the pictures, it is probably a safe assumption to say that the Nazis would have been the only ones with access to cameras, because the belongings of all of the prisoners had been confiscated.  The fact that it is the perpetrators behind the lens is a very important aspect of analyzing the photographs.  The images that we see are only the ones they would have wanted to be documented and seen by others in the future.

So what did the Nazis think was worth photographing?  There are countless photos of starving, dead, and dying children.  There are the ever-iconic photos of the emaciated children in the camps that are on the very brink of death and also photographs of piles of corpses of children that died from malnutrition, gas chambers, or disease.


Source: []

Clearly, the Nazis had no reservations about showing the death of these children.  After all, these kids were a part of the “Jewish problem” that they wanted to rid the world of, so why shouldn’t depict their demise.  After looking through hundreds of these photos, I had to ask myself: what is missing?  What aren’t they showing us?  And my answer was: actual photos of children dying at the hand of a Nazi.  All of the photos depict the effects of the treatment the Nazis gave to the kids, but they do not actually show them killing the children.  I thought this was incredibly interesting and wondered why I was not able to find an actual photo of a child being murdered by the soldiers.  There are many pictures of Nazi soldiers holding guns up to the heads of Jews, like this iconic image:

This photo exemplifies the preferred method of execution by the Einsatzgruppen  and SS squads: to shoot them by hand.  This particular photograph shows a young man watching from the Nazi youth labor organization.  ( ). So they were not shy about photographing the deaths of the adults, but they didn’t seem to photograph the children.  The closest images I could find of children dying at the hand of a Nazi soldier don’t actually show them killing the child:

The photo on the left is of a Russian Jewish woman in Ivangorod, Ukraine (1942) trying to run away with her child as an Einsatzgruppen officer takes aim at her head.  The child is not technically being shot at, but this is the only photo I was able to find in which a gun was aimed at, with intent to fire, the general direction of a child.  It is highly possible that the soldier was trying to save ammunition by taking out two Jews with one bullet, but it is still not a direct shot at the child.  The photo on the right is of a mass execution of Jews in Ukraine.  These men are all stripped naked and are lined up before a pit to await their imminent death.  If you look to the right of the picture, you can see a small boy following the line to the firing squad.  He too has been stripped naked, and there can be no doubt as to what his fate shall be, yet there is not photo of his actual death.  Photographic evidence is not necessary to prove that the Nazis did in fact kill all of those millions of children, but why wouldn’t they photograph it like everything else?  What makes the children any different than the adults?  Is it possible that the Nazis did in fact have some sort of moral dilemma with killing innocent children?

My answer is a firm: maybe.  From accounts of German soldiers, we can see that they did in fact have issues with killing children, despite their orders.  In Christopher Browning’s novel Ordinary Men [3] he presents accounts of Reserve Police Battalion 101 in Poland as they attempted to carry out the Final Solution.  Whilst the soldiers were clearing out towns, they spoke about the different reactions to the order of killing infants:

“Some claimed that along with the elderly and sick, infants were among those shot and left lying in the houses, doorways and streets of the town.  Others, however, stressed quite specifically that in this initial action the men still shied from shooting infants during search and clear operation. One policeman was emphatic ‘that among the Jews shot in our section of town there were no infants or small children,  I would like to say that almost tacitly everyone refrained from shooting infants and small children’” (p. 59).

It is evident that there was a sense of unease and discomfort associated with killing the children.  Another instance in the book showed even a higher-up official showing sympathy to the children: “a ten-year-old girl appeared, bleeding from the head.  She was brought to [Major] Trapp, who took her in his arms and said, ‘You shall remain alive’” (P. 69).

So did the Nazis avoid photographing the direct murder of children out of a sense of morality?  It is probably not wise to go so far as to say that, though, psychologically, most would not quite be able to stomach that type of photo.  It is highly unlikely that morality alone would have kept them from taking such a photo.  Certainly an aspect of culpability would have played a part in the documenting of murdering children. Photos of starving children, those that were experimented upon and those that had died could possibly bear a different explanation if the necessity arose (explanations like: “the experiments were for their own good” or “blame their parents for the fact that they have no food”, etc).  However feeble these explanations may be, they could possibly be plausible if they were forced to defend them, but a photograph of them holding a gun to a child’s head—there is no way escaping the guilt in that image, because there is no legitimate reason for killing someone so young and innocent.  It seems improbable that the Nazi officials would not have beared in mind that the international community would not have approved, nor would they have been able to turn a blind eye to, evidence of the murder of children.  None of this is to say that absolutely no picture exists where a Nazi is obviously murdering a child—it is absolutely possible that at least one exists somewhere—but I also believe that it is no accident that such a picture was not an abundant one.


In essence, the plight of the children of the Holocaust serves as an embodiment of the torturous struggle that every victim of the Nazi’s reign had to suffer through.  This is the reason why their photos and testimonies are so greatly represented in Holocaust literature.  To most people, the idea of harming something so innocent is almost unfathomable, and this is even evident in the fact that the Nazis rarely portray the actual act of murdering a child.  Despite their pride in ridding the world of the spawn of the “Jewish problem”, they notably leave out photographic depictions of this whilst still presenting images of the emaciated bodies and corpses. To me, this is a sort of commentary on the innate human morality concerning the sanctity of the life of a child.  Even those who have no problem exterminating hundreds of adults were met with uncertainty about harming children—if not uncertainty within, then a sense that the world would not be blind and overlook an act that violates human nature.


[1] Anderson, Mark M. “The Child Victim as Witness to the Holocaust: An American Story?” Jewish Social Studies 14.1 (2007): 1-22. Project MUSE. Web. 15 Mar. 2012. <;.

[2]  “Holocaust History.” Introduction to the Holocaust. UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM, WASHINGTON, D.C., 1 Jan. 2011. Web. 15 Mar. 2012. <;.

[3] Browning, Christopher R. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Print.