Wednesday, March 29th | 8 Nisan 5783

February 23, 2023 12:01 pm

Do Child Victims of the Holocaust Explain Israel’s Baby Boom?

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avatar by Jacob Sivak


Purim, 1939. Lucy Lipiner and her sister, who also survived the Holocaust, Frieda, are on the far left next to the teacher. Lucy is the one on the far left next to the teacher. Everyone else in the picture were killed in Auschwitz. Photo: provided.

I recently read 50 Children, by Steven Pressman, a 2014 book that describes how Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, a Jewish couple from Philadelphia, brought 50 Jewish children from Germany to the United States months before the outbreak of World War II. The effort involved dealing with bureaucratic hurdles imposed by the State Department (the 50 visas needed were charged to unused visas from quotas for a previous year), as well as having the courage (as Jews) to go to Berlin and Vienna, organize the process of choosing the children, and then bringing them, by ship, to the US.

An estimated 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered during the Holocaust, an incomprehensible number. Some children were rescued, including 10,000 mainly Jewish children brought to Britain in the Kindertransport, just before the war. Most were the only members of their family to survive. But, according to “50 Children” (and the Holocaust Encyclopedia, which is run by United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), between 1,000 and 1,200 unaccompanied Jewish children made it to the US between 1933 and 1945. The 50 saved by Gilbert and Eleanor Krause was one of the largest single groups.

While not entirely new to me, the details concerning the Wagner-Rogers Bill was the most disturbing aspect of the book. The bill, raised in both houses of Congress in 1939, proposed to admit 20,000 refugee children, 10,000 each in 1939 and 1940. While not stated explicitly, it was understood that they would be Jewish children, who would be admitted as an exception to the established immigration quotas. Unfortunately, because of significant opposition, the bill never went to a vote.

Most Americans opposed increasing immigration quotas, even for children, and President Roosevelt did not lend it his support. The book includes a photo of a memo from Roosevelt’s assistant, Edwin “Pa” Watson, asking for the President’s views on the Wagner-Rogers Bill in response to a question from a member of Congress. The President’s handwritten reply is “File no action FDR.”

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Laura Delano Houghteling, wife of the US Commissioner of Immigration, and the president’s first cousin, opposed the bill. At a dinner party in Washington, she was overheard (by State Department official Pierrepont Moffat) to say that 20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.

Just one year later, in the summer of 1940, when England was besieged, a bill, nicknamed the Mercy Ship Bill, was proposed to admit British children outside the normal immigration quotas. Some newspapers suggested that as many as 200,000 children would be evacuated to the US. This bill was quickly approved by Congress and signed by the president. But in September 1940, a ship carrying refugees, including children, to Canada, was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine, and that was the end of the scheme. Nevertheless, the comparison between this effort and the one intended to save Jewish children, speaks volumes as to the role of prejudice on American immigration policy at that time.

The current focus for news items about Jewish children is Israel’s unusually high fertility numbers. Birth rates in the industrialized world, including the US, Canada, Europe, Japan, and Korea, have been below the replacement value of 2.1 children per family for some time. It was recently reported that China’s population has decreased for the first time in six decades, and the population of countries such as Japan and South Korea have been dropping as well.

The decrease in fertility is attributed to urbanization and reduced familial and religious pressures to have babies. But, as Diana Kraft reports, a sustained baby boom in Israel, for both Orthodox and secular Jews, has resulted in the highest per capita rate of population growth in the developed world.

So why is Israel an outlier? Why have fertility values not dropped off as for other developed nations?

Ofir Haivry attributes these numbers to an emphasis on family welfare and continuity, arguing that Israeli society has balanced rising levels of affluence and education with continued adherence to a family-oriented culture. Israeli medical advances in areas such as prenatal care and fertility treatments have also contributed.

Does the Holocaust have anything to do with the baby boom? I think it might, and so does Haivry. He writes, “the shared experience of being or representing the survivors of the Shoah, or of the Jewish communities expelled from Islamic countries, and survivors as well of decades of unrelenting wars, terror, and hostility, has forged a widespread resolve to uphold the family and its continuity.”

Or, as Israeli sociologist Orna Donath puts it (cited in the article by Diana Kraft), children symbolize a continuance of life — of survival.

Jacob Sivak, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, is a retired professor, University of Waterloo.

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