I crossed the threshold, there was a huge number of children under 6 years. In small cotton jackets, in small cotton trousers. And the numbers were on the back and on the chest. Like prisoners. These were the numbers of their mothers. They are used to seeing only women around them, but they heard that there are dads, men. And then they ran up to me, they say: “Dad, Daddy.” This is the worst, when children have numbers. And on the barracks there are written signs: “Thanks to Comrade Stalin for our happy childhood.”
–David Kugultinov, Kalmyk poet sentenced in 1945 for his poems, memoirs about Norilsk
On April 6, 2018, on US President Donald Trump’s insistence, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions started to implement a “zero tolerance” policy towards illegal immigrants that introduced family separation. He stated: “If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally. It’s not our fault that somebody does that.”
A public outrage in answer to President Trump and his administration policy of separation of children from their parents—illegal immigrants, a comparison appeared in the press of this practice with the practice of the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden posted a picture on his Facebook of the entrance to Birkenau (Auschwitz) with the message, “Other governments have separated mothers and children.” However, some other liberal journalists wrote that this comparison is historically wrong. Trump’s supporters considered this comparison as hyperbolic. All these comparisons were about the Holocaust and what happened to Jewish families. But all authors who exploited this subject completely ignored that the Nazis racial policy included not only the Jews, but also the Poles, especially Polish children.
On August 22, 1939, after receiving a positive answer from Moscow regarding the Molotov-Ribbentrop’s Pact on the division of Poland and 8 days before attacking Poland from the West and almost a month before the Soviet attack against Poland from the East, Adolf Hitler spoke to his military commanders: “I have placed my death-head formation in readiness – for the present only in the East – with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language.”
Later a new idea was elaborated, Germanization of the Polish children. In a letter of June 18, 1941, Heinrich Himmler wrote Arthur Greiser, Reich Plenipotentiary and Gauleiter of the Wartheland (Reichsgau Wartheland was the Nazi name of the Nazis-occupied part of Poland):
I would consider it proper if young children of Polish families with especially good racial characteristics were collected and educated in special children’s homes which must not be too large. The seizure of these children would have to be explained by danger to their health. […] Genealogical trees and documents of those children who develop satisfactorily should be procured. After one year, such children should be placed as foster children with childless families of good race.
In a specially created concentration camp at Zamosc, Poland, after racial examination, children selected for Germanization were separated from their mothers. A similar facility existed in the city of Lodz. Located adjacent to the Jewish ghetto, it was opened in 1942 and processed children of both genders and ages from 12 to 16. Some of the selected children were sent for extermination in the Auschwitz. On February 23, 1943, 39 boys of ages 13 to 17, who arrived from Zamosc, were murdered almost immediately by phenol injections to the heart. In Poland as a whole, an estimated 200,000 Polish children were taken for Germanization between 1939 and 1945.
With the occupation of the Baltic countries and Ukraine in 1941, the Nazis policy also covered the populations there. On January 6, 1943, Himmler ordered the German authorities, police, SS intelligence and Einsatzgruppen (SS killing squads) to do the following:
The racial and political sifting of juveniles is to take place in collection centers [Sammellager]. Male and female children without racial value are to be assigned as apprentices to factories in concentration camps. Such children have to be raised and educated for obedience, diligence, unconditional subordination, and honesty toward their German masters. They must be able to count to 100, know traffic signs, and be trained as farmers, blacksmiths, masons, carpenters, etc. Girls are to be trained as farmhands, spinners, knitters, and for similar jobs.
The first children in Nazi concentration camps arrived in the late 1930s, usually with their parents, — Austrian gypsy female children were included in the first gypsy transport to Ravensbruck in June 1939, while 49 Spanish republican refugee children interned in the French transit camps after 1939 and deported with their fathers to Mauthausen in the fall of 1940. On the whole, 20,000 republican Spanish children were detained in the southern French camps throughout WWII.
But at the time of the development of the Nazi policy of taking children for “Germanization”, the practice of placing children of the “enemies of people”, “spies”, and “traitors of the Motherland” had existed for a while in the Soviet Union was one of the worst crimes of Stalin’s regime. But at first on April 7, 1935, the well-known decree (law) of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR (Soviet government) “On measures to combat juvenile delinquency” was published, which amended the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. According to this document, children from the age of 12 could be convicted for theft, violence and murder.” At the same time, a “top secret” instruction “Explanation to prosecutors and court chairmen”, signed by the USSR Prosecutor Andrei Vyshinsky and the Chairman of the USSR Supreme Court Alexander Vinokurov stated: “The criminal penalties under Art. 1 of the decree include the supreme measure of criminal punishment (execution).” Therefore, since mid-1935, the death penalty for children starting from 12 years of age existed in the Soviet Union.
As usual in Stalin’s time, after that a hypocritical propaganda image about a happy childhood under the guidance of the Stalin was created. The official slogan of the year 1936 trumpeted: “Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for our happy childhood!” Throughout the whole country buildings were covered with various posters with this slogan, including, unfortunately, the poster created by my future aunt, Nina Vatolina (she married my uncle later, in 1946).
The year 1936 was Stalin’s preparation for the Great Terror. In August 1936, the first Show Trial against the “anti-Soviet united block of the [so-called] Trotskyists” (followers of Leo Trotsky) took place in Moscow. 16 former high-level Bolshevik (Communist) Party functionaries were accused of planning the murder of Stalin and other Party leaders and sentenced to death. Later similar trials followed in many Soviet cities and on the whole, 160 additional arrestees were sentenced mostly to death.
On September 26, 1936, Nikolai Yezhov was appointed Commissar of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD). On October 6, Stalin and his cronies (essentially the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party) approved a list of 585 persons presented by Yezhov for arrest and execution. This was the beginning of the persecutions of 1936-38, known as the “Great Terror.” During this period, Stalin and other leaders signed numerous NKVD “death” lists. According to official data, in 1937-38, 1,548,366 persons were arrested on charges of anti-Soviet activity, and 681,692 of them were sentenced to death and executed. Of these allegedly 200,000 were “spies”. In other words, during that period 1,200–1,300 executions were carried out per day throughout the country. Including prisoners who died in prisons and GULAG labor camps during that period, the number of victims was more than 1 million.
Communist Party and NKVD leaders did not forget about the children of the persecuted. On August 15, 1937, at the height of the Great Terror, NKVD Commissar Nikolai Yezhov signed NKVD operational order no. 00486 “On the operation to repress the wives and children of traitors to the Motherland.” According to this order, the wives of those convicted of “counter-revolutionary crimes” were to be arrested and imprisoned in labor camps for 5-8 years, and their children aged 1-1.5 to 15 years were sent to orphanages. The sentenced wives of the executed and their children were called “chsiry” or “members of the families of traitors of the Motherland.” In the order, the procedure of taking children was elaborated in detail:
In the process of arrest of wives of convicts, children are seized from them and, together with their personal documents (birth certificates, student documents), accompanied by special persons within the arresting group, — an employee or a member of the NKVD, — they are brought to:
a) children under 3 years of age, to the orphanages and nurseries of the People’s Commissar for Health;
b) children from 3 to 15 years of age, to the reception and distribution points;
c) socially dangerous children over 15 years of age, to specially designated premises for them.
Here is how the procedure worked. Lyudmila Petrova from Leningrad, daughter of arrested parents, recalled:
They [NKVD officers] put us in a car. Mom was dropped off at the prison “Kresty” [“Crosses”, the infamous prison in Leningrad/St. Petersburg], while we were taken to a children’s reception and distribution point. I was 12 years old, my brother was eight. [There,] first of all, they shaved off our hair, then a plaque with a number was hung on the neck of each of us, then they took our fingerprints. My brother cried very much, but they separated us, did not let us meet and talk. Three months later, we were taken to the city of Minsk from the children’s reception point.
According to the rules, siblings were always separated. Another survivor, Anna Ramenskaya from Khabarovsk (in Siberia), recalled:
I was put in a children’s reception in Khabarovsk. For all my life I remember the day of our leaving the point. The children were divided into groups. Little brothers and sister, having got to different groups, desperately cried, clinging to each other and asked not to separated. But neither the request nor the bitter weeping helped […] They put us in train freight cars and we moved. This is how I got into the orphanage near the city of Krasnoyarsk. It’s a long and sad story how we lived in the orphanage headed by a drunken woman, with drunkenness, knife stabbing, and so on.
Children of the “enemies of the people” from Moscow were taken to the Ukrainian cities of Dnepropetrovsk and Kirovograd, from Petersburg, to Minsk (the capital of the Belarus) and Kharkov (Ukraine), from Khabarovsk to Krasnoyarsk (both in Siberia). The children had to forget who they were, where they came from, who and where their parents were. They were given new names.
By August 4, 1938, 17,355 children were seized from parents and another 5,000 seizures planned. This number did not include those children who were taken from mothers who gave birth in prisons and labor camps and transferred to the orphanages, as well as numerous street children and children of special settlers, the so-called “kulaks” – efficient peasants who were forcefully exiled beginning from 1929 from their homes to distant regions.
Babies appeared in the orphanages not only from the arrested parents, but also from women who gave birth in pretrial prisons or labor camps. A woman-prisoner could become pregnant when she was raped by a prisoner-criminal, a free zone worker or a guard. As one of survivors described, there were all conditions created in the camps for woman-prisoners to be raped:
Male criminals worked in all camp baths, a bath was fun for them, they also made “sanitation” of women and girls [i.e., raped them – V.B.], those who rested taken by force. Gradually, women were instilled with shamelessness, which became one of the reasons for my camp laxity and prostitution, which was widespread. In the village “Vakkhanka” there was an epidemic of venereal diseases among prisoners and free men.
By April 1941, in the NKVD prisons there were 2,500 women with babies, in labor camps there were 9,400 children up to four years old and 8,500 pregnant women, about 3,000 of them in the ninth month of pregnancy.
Pregnant women-prisoners in the camps were released from work only just before the birth of a child. After the birth, the mother-prisoner was supposed to have several meters of cloth, and for the feeding period of the baby, she was given 400 grams of black bread and soup of black cabbage or bran three times a day, sometimes even with fish heads. In the early 1940s, nurseries in the zones were created in the camps.
Babies were kept in the nurseries while mothers worked. For feeding mothers were brought under escort, most of the time the babies were supervised by nannies, — women convicted of domestic crimes, who had, as a rule, their own children. Former woman-prisoner G. Ivanova recalled:
At seven o’clock in the morning nannies woke the babies up. […] They kicked babies in the backs with fists, then, while showering them with foul language, changed the baby clothes and washed them with icy water. The babies even did not cry. They only groaned like old people and made a “gouck” sound. You could hear this horrifying “gouck” sound from babies’ beds.
Yevgenia Ginzburg, who worked for a while in a camp nursery, recalls in her famous autobiographical novel Journey into the Whirlwind : “Inarticulate screams, facial expressions, fights prevailed. ‘How can they talk? Who did teach them? Who did they hear?’, Anya explained to me with an emotionless intonation. “In the infants’ group, they always just lie in their beds. No one can take them in the arms, even if they burst from screaming. It is forbidden to take them in arms. It’s allowed only to change wet diapers. If there are, of course, enough of them.”
Visits of nursing mothers-prisoners with children were short, from 15 minutes to half an hour, every four hours. In 1934, the period of stay of the child with the mother was 4 years, but in 1937 a secret NKVD instruction reduced this time to 12 months. The Polish-French writer Jacques Rossi, who spent many years in the GULAG, described:
Forced extractions of camp children were planned and conducted like real military operations — so that the enemy is taken by surprise. Most often this happens at night. But it is rare to avoid heartbreaking scenes, when crazy mothers rush to the guards, to the barbed wire fence. The zone is shaken for a long time by yelling.
It’s necessary to add that the mothers were not told where the children were sent to, so if the mother survived, it was very difficult for her to find her child.
The conditions in the orphanages were horrible. Nelya Simonova, recalled:
In our orphanage there were children from infants to the school age. They fed us badly. It was necessary to search for food in garbage cans, to pick up berries in the forest. So many children were sick, many died. We were beaten, forced to stand for a long time in the corner on the knees for the slightest prank […] Once during a quiet hour [sleeping time during the day—V.B.] I could not fall asleep. “Aunt” Dina, a teacher, sat down on my head, and if I had not turned, I would possibly have suffocated.
Anna Belova, arrested as a chsir (her husband, a high-level military commander, had been executed as a “traitor” in 1938), recalled when her mother tried to find her three-year-old granddaughter in an NKVD orphanage, she was told: “Klementina had died of hunger […] We do not bury enemies’ offspring […] Do you see that trench? Go there, there are many of them. Dig out the bones; possibly, you’ll identify those of your child.”
Vladimira Uborevich, the daughter of an executed Soviet military commander Jerome Uborevich, who at the time of her parents’ arrest was 13 years old, wrote in her memoir:
We were not allowed to mingle with other children, we were not allowed even to come up to the windows. No relative was allowed to visit us from their relatives […] Me and Vetka were 13 years old then, Pet’ka was 15, Sveta T. and her friend Giza Steinbrück were 15. The rest of the children were younger. There were two tiny girls of five and three years old. And the little one kept calling “Mom” all the time. It was pretty hard. We were irritated, angry. We felt like being criminals, everyone started to smoke and no longer imagined ordinary life, or school.
In the NKVD orphanages, physical punishment was widely used. Natalia Saveleva from the city of Volgograd remembered:
The method of education in the orphanage was beating. Before my eyes, the woman-director beat the boys, beat their heads against the wall and punched their faces with her fists because during a search she found bread crumbs in her pockets, and she suspected that they were preparing the bread for an escape. Teachers told us: “Nobody needs you”. When we were taken out for a walk, the children of nannies and teachers pointed at us with their fingers and shouted: “Enemies, enemies are going!” And we, probably, actually looked like enemies. Our heads were shaved, we were extremely poorly dressed.
The category of the “socially dangerous children over 15 years of age” was sent to labor camps. Until 1940 (and, possibly, later) these children were forced to work with adults. The order in the Norilsk Labor Camp (one of the most terrible group of camps above the Artic Circle) from July 21, 1936, stated:
6. When using children at the age of 14 to 16 years old, it should be a 4-hour day with 50% work norm established for an 8-hour working day of a full-time prisoner.
At the age of 16 to 17 years, it should be a 6-hour working day with 80% work norm established for an 8-hour working day of a full-time working prisoner. The rest of the time, youngsters should be at school to learn literacy at least 3 hours daily, as well as participate in cultural and educational work.
In 1938, Spanish children taken from Republican parents appeared in Soviet labor camps. The former GULAG prisoner Cheburkin recalled:
When the Civil War in Spain ended in the victory of Franco, the Republicans began to leave their homeland. Several steamships with the Spaniards arrived in the city of Odessa. The last of them had to stand for a long time in the roadstead […]
Anyway, when the unfortunates were brought to Norilsk, many of them died of camp “hospitality” … Juan, whose name had been changed to Ivan Mandrakov, because of his age was at first put in the orphanage, from where he fled. He became an ordinary homeless child, stealing food at the market …He was caught and sent to the Norilsk Labor Camp, whence it was no longer possible to escape.
As already mentioned, in France children of the Republican Spaniards were put in the Nazi concentration camps two-three years later.
From April 1940, children started being put in separate labor colonies. By that year, there were 50 such colonies. The same Jacques Rossi wrote:
Children’s corrective labor colony, which contains underage thieves, prostitutes and murderers of both sexes, are turned into hell. There are children under the age of 12, because it often happens that a captured eight or ten-year-old thief hides the name and address of his parents, and the militia [i.e., police] do not insist and records that “the age is about 12 years”, which allows the court to “legally” sentence the child and send him or her to the camp. […] The author met many children in the camps at the age of 7-9 years. Some did not yet know how to pronounce individual consonants correctly.
In 1941, after the beginning of WWII, Efrosiniya Kersnovskaya, who later created a heart-breaking series of drawings about her prison experience, was transported with teenage girls to the labor camps. She wrote:
I’m looking at my fellow travelers. Were they juvenile criminals? No, they were still children. Girls of the average age of 13-14 years. The oldest, about 15, gives the impression of a really spoiled girl. No wonder she had already visited the children’s correctional colony and had been “corrected” for her whole life.
The girls look at their older girlfriend with fear and envy. They have already been convicted under the law “about three spikes” [a 1932 law under which hungry people were convicted for picking up a few spikes of wheat or rye on a harvested field – V. B.], caught on a theft of a handful of grain. All of them were orphans or almost orphans: father in the Red Army at the front, there is no mother or she had been taken for work.
Manya Petrova is the smallest, she is 11-year-old. Her father was killed, her mother died, and the brother was drafted into the army. […] She grabbed an onion. Not the onion itself, but the leek. They [i.e., judges] were kind, they sentenced her not to ten, but one year [in a labor camp].
Even children from Leningrad who survived the horrible German siege of the city were sentenced and sent to the GULAG. Kersnovskaya recalled:
These dystrophic girls are still children, they are 15-16 years old …
Toma Vasiliev and Vera. Together with adults, they were digging anti-tank ditches. During the [German] air raid, they rushed into the forest. When the threat passed, they looked around […]
Together with other girls they went to the city. And suddenly they bumped into the Germans. The girls fell to the ground and cried out. The Germans calmed them down, gave chocolate, delicious lemon biscuits. When they let the girls go, they said: after three kilometers there is a field, and there is a field kitchen on that field, hurry up. The girls ran away.
For their trouble, they told everything to the [Soviet] soldiers. The girls were not forgiven [they were sentenced]. It was awful to look at those completely exhausted children.
The number of children taken from their parents in the Soviet Union is unknown. The number of those children who died in the GULAG is at least 10,000. But even those who survived were traumatized for the rest of their lives.
As a historian who knows the history of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, I’m terrified to see that to some extent the current administration of President Trump follows the same policy.
- For information on non-Jewish children in the Nazi camps, see http://motlc.wiesenthal.com/site/pp.asp?c=gvKVLcMVIuG&b=395115#2t%20translation%20in%20Green%20Series%205:103
- For details of the “Great Terror” see http://old.memo.ru/history/y1937/hronika1936_1939/xronika.html
- For information on Jacques Rossi, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Rossi
- For information on the GULAG, see Jacques Rossi. The Gulag Handbook: An Encyclopedia Dictionary of Soviet Penitentiary Institutions and Terms Related to the Forced Labor Camps, translated from the Russian by William A. Burhans. New York: Paragon House, 1989, Efrosinia Kersnovskaya. How Much is a Person Worth? (album), http://www.gulag.su/album/index.php?eng=1 , and G. M. Ivanova. History of the GULAG, 1918-1958: Social-Economic and Politico-Legal Aspects. Moscow: Nauka, 2006 (in Russian)
- For more information on children in the Gulag, see https://lenta.ru/articles/2017/03/11/enemykids/ , https://zona.media/article/2014/26/09/gulag-dlya-samykh-malenkikh , https://7×7-journal.ru/post/101345 , https://istpamyat.ru/lyudi-i-sudby/deti-gulaga/ , and Children of the GULAG, 1918-1956, compiled by S.S. Vilensky et al. Moscow: Demokratiya, 2002 (in Russian).