Save the Children

by Rafael Ordonez

The Children of eastern Europe

When we learn about history, we learn very little about the lives of children. In class, Together and Apart in Brezany, was the first piece of work that had chapters that were devoted solely to them. I was intrigued to see how children’s lives were affected as tensions between different groups escalated.  The story of children is equally as  important as adults in understanding how people lived during WWI.  They would become the future generation and their attitudes would shape Europe over the course of the next century. The war would have a profound effect on children because they would grow up without fathers.

Children return from a soup kitchen after a pogrom has taken place (6)

Roberta Newman’s, “Photos of Jewish Children in Eastern Europe,” (YIVO Annual Of Jewish Social Science, 1991)” helps give us a glimpse of children’s experiences during WWI. The first picture  shows three children returning from a soup kitchen after a pogrom that has taken place in Galicia. Tensions were high between Poles and Ukrainians so massive relief activities would come about after the war to help aid these children. In the meantime, children were forced to live in terrible conditions and are forced to grow up to take care of their families or themselves. Some children, like these are forced to grow up, to endure the hardships of life, while others remain juvenile and delinquents. Other sources that I found seek to address why this delinquency is occurring.

The Rise of Delinquency

Winter, Jay’s,”The Cambridge History of the First World War,”(Cambridge:Cambridge University Press,2014) is a great source in addressing what influenced children and could make them become delinquents. In this book, Chapter 2 is particularly useful as it is a whole section dedicated to talking about children during the war. However, the details are somewhat general and there is more information about Western accounts, but it is still good for background information. The chapter talks about how children become fully integrated into the war often through posters or war bonds to try and mobilize the population. Children were often exposed to literature about the war with lots of crude language and children would often swear or denounce their enemies as they had learned to do from the books. Here is an account from an Austrian schoolgirl:

“Dear Tsar! You are my biggest Enemy! You know you are less than me because I am from Austria and from Tirol! If I was older, I would come with our brave soldiers in a balloon to drop a bomb on your head… you dared to attack our good Emperor…” (35)

Children growing up during the war would be exposed to the brutality of it and all the nationalist sentiment that was there. It is surprising to see that a child is saying this, a young girl nonetheless! Children’s perceptions on the world were changing as they learned to hate other people at such early ages. This was one of the sources that I found that gave direct accounts of what children said and felt during the war and it was useful in understanding general facts about children.

Socialization through schools

Children could be influenced in many ways, especially with a lack of a father figure. Jan Molenda’s article, focuses on life for children in peasant communities, “War and Children and Youth:The Impact of the First World War Upon Changes in the Position of Children in the Peasant Family and Community”(Poland:Wydawnictwo Naukowe Semper,1999) Before the war, education rates were low because parents didn’t want to send their children to school. However, during the war, writing letters to fathers or families that migrated to the U.S became increasingly important but barely any of the children knew how to read or write. School became important not only for education and being able to talk with their fathers,  but it also kept children out of trouble. Here is an account from a villager of the town describing children:

“A town youth, learning either in school or in a workshop, enjoys suitable surveillance and care. Meanwhile, the village youth, having completed two or three village classes, ends his education and is a ‘graduate’ of a sort; frequently, such a 13 or 14 year-old is left quite alone and grows up wild, like an unpruned tree. (175)

Children that stayed in school were often part of civil society and could participate in art festivals or town dialogues, but uneducated children would be on the streets, drinking, smoking, and throwing rocks at passersby. Societies had to deal with this delinquency problem, but unchecked children would remain menaces to societies. This article fails to give a reason or explanation for the parents or elders failing to discipline the children. We can only assume that the villagers would blame single mothers for failing to discipline their kids and it is hard for them to do so as they are the breadwinners of the family and don’t have as much time to be at home.

Education in Cities

Unlike in the villages, schools in cities could actually promote and help foster delinquency. Zahra’s book, “Kidnapped Souls: National Indifference and the Battle for Children in the Bohemian Lands,” (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,2008) ties into this story of misguided and troublesome youth and expands it even further.  She begins off Chapter 3 with a mother talking about her children:

“My boys will become nothing but thieves, liars, and murderers, if you, dear Sirs, don’t intervene soon,” she complained. “The fathers are in the military, the male teachers are mobilized, and I work in the factory. You want to do nothing, so where should I begin? Since you have taken away their father, why don’t you take the children as well, let the boys be locked up or shot, so that I don’t have to see them anymore.”(79)

This is strikingly similar to the villager’s account of children who don’t go to school, however, the nationalists would respond with child welfare programs and schools would actually help cause the bad behavior, rather than prevent it. She says that their bad behavior is formed through the school systems, since teachers often encourage students to follow their national duties like their fathers and to hate their enemies. Boys would be encouraged to join the war and girls would learn to sew and to support the men. Czech children began insulting German men and would get in big trouble for it. Nationalists would blame their parents, usually single mothers, for their bad behavior and the state would assume the parental role through social welfare activism. Below is a picture taken from her book about the mobilization of children to war.

Mobilizing children for war, 1917. Schaffende Arbeit und Kunst in der Schule: Zeitschrift für die praktische Ausgestaltung der Arbeitsschule und der Kunsterziehung 2, no. 6 (1915).


Nationalism and Identity

Continuing on her previous work, Zahra’s  has another article, “Each nation only cares for its own”: Empire, Nation, and Child Welfare Activism in the Bohemian Lands, 1900-1918.“(The American Historical Review 111, 2008) This source details how nationalists are competing to get children to become loyal to them. As we have learned in class, French and Czech nationalists sought to assimilate or exclude other minority groups, which was the same thing that had happened during WWI.

“Government officials in the new Ministry for Social Welfare planned to create nationally segregated city and regional youth welfare offices, guardian councils, and provincial commissions to care for the physical and moral welfare of the empire’s children and youth.”

Not only were officials trying to separate nationalities and religions, but they were trying to separate children in all parts of life as well. Nationalists were becoming more integrated into social life and soon could decide what to do and how to deal with orphans or starving children. The state took on the role of the father to these children and Zahra points out that it is in these cases where the state has involved too much is eugenics and population control.

Saving the Children During the War

During the war, children were often the ones falling to diseases or starvation. Friederieke Kovacs article, “The ‘Other’ Child Transports: World War I and the Temporary Displacement of Needy Children from Central Europe,”(Journal of the History of Irregular Childhood,2013) helps to show the domestic aid programs in Austria-Hungary. However, the article’s primary focus is on the transportation of children to places with more food options. In the end of 1917, children were sent to Switzerland to improve their health for a few weeks, but in early 1918, Swiss people didn’t want to waste its remaining resources on strangers. (89) The majority of the transportation would occur from Austrian cities to Hungarian rural areas and Hungarian cities to the Austrian sea shore. Apart from relief for children, there were political goals as well. Kaiser Karl seemed to want to reconnect these two countries as the collapse of the Austria-Hungarian empire was imminent. The exchange of children would allow for relationships to continue, and this is something we have seen in class, where peasant children were traded to learn other languages. This source has useful information about aid and transportation and it also has great photos.

Children waving goodbye as they leave by train (91)

Saving Children After the War

As we have seen from Kovacs article, foreign aid would only come in after the war had ended, but even that was met with opposition. I found a primary documents from the American Relief Association which is, “The Relief of the Children of Eastern Europe”(New York:National Allied Relief Committee, 1919)This source was written in 1919 in response to the hunger problems in eastern Europe. It begins with an address by Vernon Kellogg, not to be confused with the Kellogg who created the cereal, and he talks about how the end of the war was just the beginning of Europe’s troubles. Children had been malnourished over the course of the war and he is trying to get more aid and support for helping out the children. Other parts talk about the psychology of hunger and how children are less able to deal with it than adults. The rest of the paper is about relief in Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia and it also talks about the types of food aid that is given which can be seen below.

Different food options amounting to 500 Calories. (7)