Amidst the horrors of war, it is common for children to find some solace through artistic endeavors. But in an astounding discovery, we’ve also now seen that there is a clear connection between the art made by children during the Holocaust and the art created by the children witnessing the current war in Israel and Gaza. Why is this the case, and what can it teach us about the experiences of children witnessing the slaughter of their people, 80 years apart?
Since the horrific events of October 7, and the subsequent weeks of terror, loss, and mourning, many are asking themselves how on earth the people of Israel will ever be able to find the strength to rebuild. With so much sadness, so much pain and grief, it sometimes seems impossible that there could be any hope left.
As Israel keeps fighting, however, there exists a chorus of small but persistent voices pervading the darkness: voices that belong to little children, asking in their innocent tones for us to please keep going. For them.
There are few people born in Israel who did not have a childhood punctuated by one of the country’s many wars or intifadas, so the now-grownup adults know that despite all the many challenges facing us right now, we need to stay strong for our children. Many of them will grow up with memories of this war, and it is our job to make sure that those memories are of a strong nation, one who can rise through the ashes, not only to succeed on the battlefield but also, ever so slowly, to rebuild as a people and find a way to rekindle the hope.
Amidst the horrors of war, it is common for children to find some solace and a means of expressing their feelings through artistic endeavors. For little brains with big thoughts, their emotions can’t always be expressed adequately in words, but their creativity can serve as a form of therapy, providing a safe haven whereby they can process complex emotions, understand the strange and ever-changing world around them, and, as a byproduct, leave behind a poignant testimony to their resilience which even adults can draw strength from.
We know that children have a remarkable capacity to adapt to their surroundings, even in the most horrific of circumstances. In times of war and fear, one way of doing this is by using art as a tool to cope with their emotions, escape from the harsh realities around them, and channel their inner thoughts into something more tangible. The emotional catharsis of expressing their fear, anger, and sadness in a non-verbal manner often aids in gaining a sense of control over their feelings.
One of the most poignant examples of children using art to cope with the destruction that lay around them was the art created by Jewish children during the Holocaust. Despite the unimaginable horrors that they endured, many of these children found solace through artistic expression. To this day, we are still finding pictures drawn by children from within the walls of the concentration camps and ghettos, and continue to document these images as vital Holocaust records. The children’s art continues to serve as a testament to the young human spirit’s ability to endure and transcend suffering, or at least make sense of their anguish, in ways that adults are often unable to do.
In Auschwitz and Warsaw, Treblinka and Vilna, in fact all across Eastern Europe, Jewish children in the 1930s and 40s turned to art as a means of survival. Drawing and painting memoirs of happier times, or their dreams for the future, offered them a glimmer of hope and a way to maintain their humanity in the face of the most dehumanizing conditions.
Through their art, some of these children also depicted the atrocities that they witnessed. They drew scenes of deportations, crowded barracks, and Nazi brutality – innocent young people simply copying the scenes that they saw all around them and thus making sense of what was happening, and in doing so, leaving behind witness to the injustices that they faced.
But interestingly, so much of the art created by Jewish children during the Holocaust also provides glimpses into their innocence, as they portrayed scenes of camaraderie, smiles from the people around them, their favorite animals and flowers, and simple moments of daily life. As much as the darker artistic material shows us how traumatizing this experience was for the children, it is often their scenes of naivety which strike us harder. What hurts so much is seeing the way that these children remembered and documented the world as it used to be for them and probably how they hoped it still could be, combined with the hindsight that these children had no idea of what lay in wait for them.
Today, children have more access to information and knowledge of current affairs than ever before. As more young people have their own digital devices and social media accounts, it’s hard to shield our youth from what is happening around them. A never-ending stream of information, video footage and propaganda is being released from nearly every media source straight into our devices, and as a result, the youngsters of Israel and Jewish children around the world are more aware of the atrocities occurring than ever before.
But creative activities offer children a temporary escape from the traumatic events that they may be experiencing or witnessing. Art allows them to focus on something encouraging and constructive, if only for a brief moment. And more importantly, art empowers these children to take control of their own narratives. In this time of chaos, it allows them to create a world that they are in charge of, making decisions about what exists on their page and in exactly what form, and thus shaping their own imaginative realities. A sense of control when otherwise they would have none.
With this in mind, shortly after the war broke out last month, the National Library of Israel launched a special initiative for students worldwide. We reached out to educators with the message that “We are inviting your students to share letters and drawings to Israeli soldiers and families that our team will print and send out.”
It is a meaningful way to show support and raise people’s spirits in these difficult times. These, like the many letters and pictures made by children in previous wars, will also be preserved in the NLI collections.
The results of this new project have been astounding to see, as we continue to receive hundreds of images which provide glimpses into the minds of the young Jewish children who are just trying to cope with the realities of this war, the way we all are.
They’ve also shown us that as the world progresses at break-neck speed, the minds of children will forever be young. In looking at these images we can see clear connections between the art made by children during the Holocaust and the art created by the children witnessing the current war in Israel and Gaza.
This is perhaps to be somewhat expected: children often employ universally understood symbolism in their art to represent certain figures, ideologies, and the impact of war on their lives. Through these symbols and drawings, they are able to explore and interpret the radical events occurring around them. Thus, it may be only natural for the images of the children who have borne witness to the slaughtering of their people to be similar, despite being created decades apart.
Most of the children whose pictures are included in this article did not survive the Holocaust, but their art did. It now serves as a poignant historical record, offering exceptional insights into the minds of children during that time, and leaving behind invaluable artistic testimonies of the Holocaust for future generations.
As the National Library of Israel continues to collect the art of the Jewish children experiencing the current war in Israel, we simultaneously create a new set of records, soon to be historic, which will always serve as a reminder of what young Jewish children lived through in the year 2023.
We hope and pray that Israel will return to peace soon, but we know that for a long time even after this war ends, the question will remain of how to rebuild a country which has lost so much. As our children turn to us for answers on how to keep going, we may also find ourselves turning to them. As we look towards their small but hopeful faces and see the power of their yearning for peace, maybe these images will enable us to put one foot in front of another, one foot in front of another, until it becomes natural to do so once again.
If you know a child who would like to share a piece of art or a letter with the NLI and our brave IDF soldiers, please follow the link: https://educationnli.involve.me/words-make-difference