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In 1940, Howard Kershner, director of European relief for the American Friends Service Committee wrote that “[o]ne of the greatest tragedies of all times is the separation of families in Europe today: wives in one country, husbands in another…babies who have never seen their fathers.”

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As historian Tara Zahra writes, this was a new concern at this time. It wasn’t just that the war and the Nazi regime tore families apart in unprecedented and horrific ways. The perspective of relief workers was also shifting, reflecting an intellectual climate in which Freudian ideas were growing in significance and the nuclear family was becoming a key pillar of liberal democratic ideology.

“Kershner articulated an emerging perception among child-welfare experts and policy makers that the separation of families represented a humanitarian crisis and a human-rights abuse as severe as bombings, disease, and starvation,” Zahra writes.

The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) became a major force in addressing the crisis of displacement. Its workers were largely Americans, often trained in social work and knowledgeable about the psychological theories of the time.

For aid workers with the UNRRA and other organizations, Zahra writes, the kids displaced by the war were both pitiable and frightening. American Freemason Alice Bailey wrote in 1946 about European “wolf children” who “have known no parental authority; they run in packs like wolves; they lack all moral sense and have no civilized values and know no sexual restrictions.”

The new focus on refugees’ wounded psyches was part of a rising ethos of individualism, seen as an antidote to totalitarian regimes’ elevation of the state over the person. And, for UNRRA workers, the central factor in the development of a healthy individual identity was the nuclear family. This reflected American hostility to Nazi and Soviet policies that encouraged women to work while placing children in government-run daycares.

In contrast to the UNRRA, some Europeans preferred more collectivist solutions. Zahra notes that Austrian psychologist Ernst Papanek viewed the Jewish refugee homes that he directed as places of security for children whose parents had been unable to protect them. Because Jews had been persecuted as a group, he argued, they needed to be part of a social environment where their Jewish identity would be affirmed.

When Papanek surveyed children in the homes, he found that many of them liked being around other children in a climate of equality. One eighteen-year-old told him “every child should be in an institution for some period!” Similarly, many Jewish relief workers preferred that Jewish children who had lost their families be sent to kibbutzim in Palestine rather than placed with relatives.

In some cases, UNRRA workers came to support such group placements—not because they approved of collectivist institutions, but because they viewed refugee families as too traumatized to adequately care for children.

“At the same time that child-welfare activists invested the family with utopian potential to renew European societies, they condemned actual [displaced] families as dystopian sites of dysfunction,” Zahra writes.

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Central European History, Vol. 44, No. 1, HUMAN RIGHTS, UTOPIAS, AND GENDER IN TWENTIETH-CENTURY EUROPE (MARCH 2011), pp. 37–62
Cambridge University Press on behalf of Central European History Society