Images of Childhood Evacuation in Wartime
A middle-aged man wanders into an unused part of London’s Liverpool Street Station, stares up at the light coming in through the windows above him and suddenly sees himself arriving on one of the Kindertransports that brought Jewish children out of Czechoslovakia in 1939. (Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald, 2001)
A young Finnish boy stands with his mother on a station platform in 1942 waiting for the boat train to Sweden. His mother points to the name tag hanging around his neck. “Whatever you do, don’t lose this,” she warns. “Without this tag, you are NO ONE.” (Dragons Over Helsinki, Kjell Westö, 1996)
A brother and sister recently evacuated from the London Blitz stand against a wall in a building in a small Welsh mining town. Local families pass by, scrutinizing the new arrivals. Carrie and her brother are not taken until the end of the selection process, until there are only a few children left unchosen. (Carrie’s War, Nina Bawden, 1973)
Images of evacuation, of trauma, of childhoods sundered by war. Images the Europeans believed had been relegated to the history books or to the pages of novels.
And the image that shattered these illusions? The wan face of a child looking down from the window of a train in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. A father stands on the platform below, his arms raised, his hands pressed against the glass in farewell.
The evacuation trains are rumbling across Europe once again. Will the children they are taking to safety eventually return to the homes they are fleeing? Did they make it home the last time?
In W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Jacques Austerlitz does make it back to his native Prague, but not until fifty years have passed and his parents have long since perished in the camps.
Adopted at the age of four-and-a-half and given a new name by a Welsh minister and his wife, Austerlitz’s life has always been “clouded by an unrelieved despair he has never understood.” It is only after his strange epiphany in Liverpool Street Station that small details start trickling back to him. He remembers an older couple dressed in the clothes of the nineteen thirties. He remembers his favorite rucksack being taken from him and imagines that he can still feel the “slow dying away of his native tongue.”
Henrik Bexar, in Kjell Westö’s Dragons Over Helsinki, returns to Finland two years after his evacuation to Sweden. Henrik is met on the same platform he departed from by his mother and now his father who has returned from the war. His mother throws her arms around her son. His father pats him on the head, yet Henrik holds back. He remembers the fear of the outward journey. He remembers sitting in the hold of the ship with hundreds of other silent children, chewing on the name tag his mother warned him not to lose, chewing until the words that identified him were soaked and unreadable.
Carrie and her brother Nick also have name tags hanging from their necks and gas masks slung over their shoulders. They were taken to the trains by their teachers, after being told to come to school with a packed lunch and a change of clothes.
Finally chosen and taken to a house where the sister is kind and the brother is not, Carrie and Nick struggle to adapt to their new surroundings. They do, however, end up making friends with an eccentric family in an old house called Druid’s Bottom. When their mother, safe in Scotland, finally sends for them, they have mixed feelings about going.
The 1.5 million Ukrainian children who have been made refugees so far cannot know if they will be afflicted with a lifelong restlessness and sadness, or if, when the time comes, they will be reluctant to return. They and their families can only focus on the here and now, the journey out, the rush to safety. They pack the trains leaving eastern and western Ukraine. They cluster around the “blue dots” of the UNICEF tents that line the sides of the roads in Poland, Romania, Moldova, and Hungary. They accept the help of the multitude of aid agencies working to expedite, to support, and to soothe their passage out of fear and chaos. Mothers and children are being put up in gyms, in churches, in community centers and, most heartening of all, gathered up and taken into people’s homes.
It would appear that lessons have been learned from the mass evacuations of the nineteen thirties and forties. Children are not being shoved into the holds of ships or lined up against a wall to be chosen or rejected. Families are not being separated. Mental health services are being provided. To try to stabilize children’s lives as quickly as possible, the receiving countries are fast-tracking Ukrainian students, teachers, and teaching assistants into their schools. Finland is already offering instruction in Ukrainian. Ireland has translated more than one hundred lessons of its curriculum to serve its newest students.
But the long-term questions remain unanswered. Most of the Ukrainian children came out of Ukraine with their mothers, but others came alone. Many were brought out by mothers who, as soon as they got their children to safety, returned to participate in the defense of Ukraine. Will the fathers who said goodbye at the station survive the war? Will the mothers return to reclaim their children? Will children, long separated from their native land, put down roots in the communities they were resettled in? Will they learn new languages? Make new friends they don’t want to leave?
The Jewish parents who put their children on the Kindertransport trains in 1939 had, in one sense, more answers than we do. Most of them knew that their children weren’t coming home again. The Finnish children who returned from Sweden after the war bore the scars of the years spent worrying about their families. The children who were evacuated from the London Blitz bore these same scars and returned to a city of missing people. Many evacuees didn’t return. Orphaned by the war, they stayed with the families who had taken them.
It is already clear that there will be too many Ukrainian orphans. We know that the cities and villages many of the children and their mothers fled from are being brutally erased. The predictions now are that the Russian-Ukraine War might drag on for years. What does it do to a child, to anyone, to watch from afar as their families and cities disappear?
The largesse of a continent, of the entire West, has been marshaled to try to beat back these grim truths as it seeks to resettle and to support the children and families of the Ukrainian conflict. Is this largesse also trying to beat back uncomfortable memories of Syrian children and families standing at closed borders behind coils of barbed wire?
The reality is that the shock of the Russian-Ukraine War and what it has done to the children of Ukraine is not merely the shock that another pointless and brutal war is driving children from their homes. It is the shock that children are being driven from their homes in a Europe that was supposed to have moved beyond.
The mothers of these European children must now make the decisions that African, Middle Eastern, Asian, Latin, and Central American women have had to make for too many years. They must confront the unthinkable. How can I ensure my child’s survival if something happens to me? What can I do to save them?
A mother in Kyiv makes identification cards with her daughter’s name, birthdate and the child’s parent’s phone numbers on them. She plans to pin these cards on two-and-a-half-year-old Vira in case the family is separated, or worse, in the evacuation. Then it occurs to her what could happen to such small, fragile pieces of paper in the chaos of war or simply at the hands of a frightened child. She turns her child over, bares her back and writes the information on her skin.
The girl is too young to understand what her mother is doing. She will understand when she is older if her mother chooses to tell her. Where will she be when this story is shared? Will she be in the south of France where she is now? Or in Kyiv, returned to chance a life in a free or truncated Ukraine? Will little Vira no longer be little? Will the scars of survivor’s guilt have already begun to set in? These are questions for the child’s future. For now, Vira and her parents are the lucky ones. They made it to a part of Europe where the sun is shining and no bombs are falling.
Yet it is surely an act that a mother doesn’t ever fully return from. Writing your daughter’s name on her back so that if the worst happens, her past will not be completely obliterated. So that whoever ends up caring for your child will use the name that you gave her and maybe, just maybe, in the repeated hearing of that name, some memory of you might remain.
Images: Provided by the author. Top: NBC news, photographer: Emilio Morenatti / AP March 4, 2022. Bottom: Photo by Aleksandra Makoviy.