Reflections on the Role of Children in the Archival Record
By Hallel Yadin
Archivist and Special Projects Manager, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
There is a group that lives in virtually every community in the world, yet is seldom considered in the context of archival collecting: children. In archival collections, we often find adults describing or reflecting on events they experienced as children; however, it is rare that archival material is collected directly from children themselves, leaving a gap in the historical record from this tender vantage point.
This paper will explore two cases, one historical, and one contemporary, which both embody the rare exception of children at the forefront of the historical record. The first is the Genia Silkes Collection at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which centers around the experience of children in Warsaw during World War II. The second is the ongoing Queens Memory Covid-19 Project, which is not exclusive to young people but encourages their active participation in documentary and archiving processes.
Children in the Archival Record
Many questions come to mind when exploring the topic of children’s narratives in the archival record. What does it mean to have an entire demographic whose contribution to the historical record is heavily mediated by adults? What are the ethical considerations of working with children, especially around consent and privacy? Are children reliable narrators? If not, are they unreliable in ways different from adults? Professional insights into these questions are limited, as much of this academic discussion surrounds the administrative records of institutions that work with children. Such records have been a key source for historians of childhood, although scholars in the field note that these sources are narrow in scope (Sköld & Vehkalahti, 2016, p. 406). For this reason, expanding on the availability of resource types that document the lives of children could be potentially invaluable across fields.
In Memory, justice and the public record, Gudmund Valderhaug explores how a lack of available records documenting the experience of Norwegian children during the post-war period of 1945–1955 gravely informed the reparation system of the 1980s that sought to compensate them for violations of their civil rights. Having limited evidence from which to draw, the system did not benefit the majority of survivors (Vaulderhaug, 2011). Valderhaug uses his analysis to call for more comprehensive archival practices and highlights the archivist’s role in bridging the gap between the available public record that bureaucratic entities rely on to administer justice, and the undocumented, personal accounts of these “war children” (Vaulderhaug, 2011). This demonstrates how having unmediated, first-hand accounts from children would be beneficial — not only would the victims have been compensated, but the broader society could heal and, with this knowledge, collectively work to prevent future harm.
Collecting, preserving and making available the first-hand accounts of children can also have personal affects. For instance, the remote volunteer program at the YIVO Archives includes nearly 40 volunteers who write English summaries of Jewish youth autobiographies from interwar Poland. Volunteers often express how touched they are to learn about diarists’ lives in their own words, as this kind of documentation from interwar Poland is quite rare.
The evidentiary value of children’s archives is diminished when firsthand testimony from children is omitted. Archives serve the critical function of collecting and preserving primary source material of historic events. The historical record, insofar as it is maintained by archives and similar repositories, cannot be complete if it does not include the testimonies of a meaningful proportion of the population.
The Silkes Collection and Children in the Holocaust
The papers of Genia Silkes are held at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York City. Genia Silkes was born in Poland in 1913, studied at the Yiddish Teacher’s Seminary in Vilna, and later worked as a teacher in Warsaw until World War II began. She continued to teach in the underground schools of the Warsaw Ghetto until she was transferred to Treblinka; she escaped by jumping off the train to the death camp. She lived in hiding for the remainder of the war. After the war she taught in Paris before coming to New York City and joining YIVO’s staff.
Silkes was an important contributor to the Jewish community’s immediate post-Holocaust collecting efforts. Within weeks of the liberation of Poland, a group of activists formed a committee that would ultimately become the Central Jewish Historical Commission. Silkes was one of its first survivor-historian staffers. What makes Silkes unusual though, was her focus on collecting the wartime experiences of Jewish children.
In addition to Silkes’s personal papers, her collection at the YIVO Institute contains the material she collected directly from children, constituting a discrete archive of children’s Holocaust experiences. This portion of the collection contains notes and manuscripts on children’s experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto, eyewitness accounts from children collected by the Central Jewish Historical Commission, essays written by children in Jewish schools in Poland on the theme, “Games I Played During the War,” and children’s drawings made during and after the war.
The testimonies that Silkes collected are typically several typewritten pages long, and they are quite vivid. Eleven-year-old Esther Beller details, in two pages, trying to pass as Polish, being beaten by the Gestapo until she admits she is Jewish, and being sent to Auschwitz. Young Esther details how she was saved from the gassing line by being selected as an “errand girl”, and how she was granted half an hour to see her aunt who was also at the camp. “I was moved to tears — that after such a long period of loneliness I could see a family member,” Esther recounted. “I don’t have the words to describe my feelings … once again I was shrouded by my sadness, but the sadness couldn’t completely cover up my half hour of joy” (Beller, n.d.).
Another story is that of Noami Centnerschwerer, who was born 1931 in Śniadowo, escaped deportation, and hid in the forest until a peasant agreed to hide her in a pile of potatoes, feeding her once every several days. Eventually, the peasant told her she had to move on. She was alone, eleven years old, and all she wanted to do before she continued running was wash her hair, which she described as, “oily and dirty from not having been washed for so long” (Centnerschwerer, n.d.).
Another account comes from Dvorah Frymet, who was born 1930 in Volodymyr-Volynsky, Ukraine. In her testimony, she described her state of mind after unsuccessfully attempting to escape the ghetto where she had been confined. She recollected, “No one was on the streets and I saw no one … Everything around threw me into a panic. It seemed to me that from the corners dead Jews are crawling out … ” (Frymet, 1947).
Throughout the testimonies Silkes collected, young people grapple with how their experience of the Holocaust impacted both their personal identities and broader understanding of the world. Some participants remember the moment they felt they shifted from a child to an adult. Hollna Hoffman, born 1934 in Chrzanów, recalled his mother crying when his sick father was taken away, “She did not want to reveal the truth to me, so that I should not get upset. But, I, nevertheless, felt the disaster” (Hoffman, n.d.).
Others describe the moments when they came to understand the scale and depravity of the danger they faced. Shmulik G., born in Rozyszcze, Poland in 1930, watched the execution of Jews who had resisted in the Lutzk Ghetto. He said, “Watching this execution, I felt that I was losing my mind. With my own eyes I saw the end of our Jewish people…I understood that no matter where I would wander death awaited me. So I returned to [my village]. I crept into a haystack and decided I’d stay there until I died of hunger — as long as I don’t fall into the hands of the German murderers” (Shmulik G., 1946).
Shayeh Gartner, who was born in 1927 in Łódź, had a similar realization. Gartner’s story begins when she is fourteen years old in a Polish labor camp, desperate to be reunited with her parents. When interrogated by the Gestapo, she expresses this desire, assuming that they must take pity on her. She recalled, “I was interrogated. I did not conceal anything. I still believed then that the Germans will have mercy on a child. I did not know the Germans so well yet…” (Gartner, n.d.).
Another theme present in the testimonies is the respondents’ shifting relationships to their Jewish identities. For some, their experiences fortified their connection to Judaism, while for others, it had an eroding effect. Zalman Bernfeld, born in 1933 in Medynia Głogowska, Poland, survived the war by working as a shepherd for a boss who helped him to conceal his Jewish identity. Still, he always longed for the company of fellow Jews. In his testimonial he recalls that after the war ended, a neighbor suggested that he “should convert and not return to Jews” (Bernfeld, n.d.). Unpersuaded, he recounted, “In my heart I always felt like a Jew even though I always used to go to church and to confession. I yearned very such [sic] for Jews. I did not even know if Jews lived at all.” Others found their Judaism distressing. In one testimony, the child seems to genuinely believe that she was born Aryan, although she remembers her conversion to Christianity. Here, Silkes steps in and suggests, “This child is very depressed. She speaks drily and briefly and demonstrates confusion in her thoughts about Jews and non-Jews” (Bernfeld, n.d.).
While today it would be considered unprofessional for an archivist to insert their assessment of a narrator’s state of mind into the archival record, Silkes had no such reservations. Silkes regularly added personal commentary to the conclusion of the testimonies she collected. In the account of a child who, in Silkes’s words, “became overcome,” Silkes wrote, “Her narration is cut off with this sentence. She is tired and frightened.” On the testimony of Zalman Bernfeld, the youth who survived the Holocaust by posing as a Christian shepherd, Silkes commented, “He is very oppressed, depressed and frightened. All the years being in the village with the gentile shepherds affected his paucity of speech — he is a silent type and the pall of sadness never withdraws from him” (Bernfeld, n.d.).
This commentary is one sign that Silkes created these records for a very specific audience: YIVO’s American constituents. The original testimonies were largely transcribed by hand in Yiddish, and then translated into English to make them readily accessible to American researchers. All of these interventions are related to an interesting element of Silkes’ work, which is that she did not believe that children were reliable narrators in their own right, and thus did not believe that the testimonies she collected were of evidentiary historical value (Michlic, 2014, p. 302). In fact, Silkes maintained that she collected material from children for psychological studies. Despite Silkes’ intent, the testimonies and other documents she collected throughout her career offer immense historical insight for a wide range of researchers today.
Queens Memory COVID-19 Project
Seventy-five years later and halfway around the world, another archiving project sought to collect the experiences of young people as they navigated a world-changing event: the COVID-19 pandemic. This initiative, named the Queens Memory Covid-19 Project, was created through the joint efforts of the Queens Public Library (QPL) and Queens College, CUNY, with the mission of documenting the lived experience of the local community, with particular emphasis on teenagers, in Queens, New York from the onset of the pandemic. The Queens Memory Covid-19 Project is a special collection within the Queens Memory Project, which was originally founded in 2010.
The mission of the Queens Memory Project is to engage the public with local history collections and to collect archival documentation from the diverse communities of Queens. The Queens Memory COVID-19 Project, spearheaded by Natalie Milbrodt, Queens Memory Director, and Meral Agish, Queens Memory Community Coordinator, extensively documents the lived experience of Queens youths, ages 14 to 18, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This COVID-19 archive, like much of the rest of Queens Memory’s materials, is permanently housed in QPL’s Digital Archives.
Milbrodt and Agish shared a number of the logistical, ethical and legal considerations they faced before they could launch the program. In particular, they worked with Queens Public Library’s legal team to ensure that all relevant laws regarding minors’ privacy and protection on the Internet were followed. For instance, upon donation, guardians have to sign consent forms for minors for their materials to be made available in the community archive.
The Queens Memory COVID-19 Project garnered a robust response from young people. Submissions included a trove of photographs and stories, video essays, podcasts, and even a book made by a six-year-old that details all the fun things she did at home during lockdown.
Milbrodt and Agish found the contributors openly discussed the strain, social anxiety, and loneliness they endured during a time in their lives when expectations of reaching milestones traditionally loomed. In May 2020, seventeen-year-old Flora Ho submitted a drawing and a photograph to the project, writing, “I was really looking forward to the second semester of my senior year but due to the pandemic that is happening right now, it is safe to say that we probably won’t be going back to school anytime soon. All my classes are online and even though we can attend class in the comfort of our own home, it isn’t the same because my friends aren’t here in person” (Ho, 2020).
Milbrotd sought to articulate the complexity of this moment for kids, “Youth are experiencing a crisis that people know about, but also, they don’t,” she told me. Learning about teens’ experiences directly from teens, as opposed to through media created by adults about teens, offers the public an authentic and immediate glimpse into their worlds. An example of this lies in an episode of the Queens Memory Project COVID-19 podcast, featuring twelve-year-old Jason Tejada. During lockdown, Tejada did well academically, though he struggled with remote learning. “To be honest with you, I don’t think it’s the same, learning online through Zoom or Google Meet or whatever people use. It’s not really the same as being in like classroom…” he said. Still, he understood the importance of staying inside, noting that his “mom didn’t really let me out that much … I understand it. I understand it’s a hundred percent acceptable to me and I understand ’cause they don’t want anybody getting sick” (Agish, 2020).
It’s not just the end product of an archival record or oral history that is important. The process of doing history by engaging in collecting and documentary practices is meaningful in and of itself. It is valuable as a reflective exercise, and as a skill-building endeavor. The very act of historical production is empowering, so long as the community can participate in the process and share in the products. Milbrodt and Agish strive to facilitate the process for as many people as possible so that youths can access these treasures for their personal use and to foster connections with others during periods of social distancing. “Young people are already so familiar with self-documentation,” Agish said. Part of her work is bringing children in conversation with the historical value of their experience during this time.
Select videos from the Queens Memory | COVID-19 Project:
The Silkes papers and Queens Memory’s COVID-19 Project are two very different collections that document the experiences of children during historically profound times, but archival sensibilities have certainly shifted from the post-war period to today. For instance, it is hard to imagine anyone conducting a study like Silkes’s today without the explicit consent of the children’s guardians. In contrast, the COVID-19 Project collecting initiatives encourage both family submissions and for parents to work together with their children. Finally, youth can learn valuable skills through the process of doing history, and participating in the creation of the historical record.
Children are members of their communities, and although archiving their experiences should be treated with care and deliberation, the same is true for all archival subjects. While in many ways adults are outsiders to the land of childhood, the two case studies outlined here are essentially community archives, facilitated by adults who underwent the same experience they are archiving. As Silkes wrote, “It is for me a real mystery not to find an answer on the ways of sorrow and heroism which Jewish children demonstrated during [sic] the years of Nazi domination” (Centnerschwerer, n.d.). When we do not consider children from their own perspectives, but only from institutional remnants of their lives, or from their memories as adults collected decades later, we leave behind unanswerable questions. A more inclusive and considerate approach to archival collecting could help mend the gaps in the historical record and weave a more accurate tapestry of the collective human experience as it occurred.
Agish, M. (Host). (2020, August 20). Connections (№3) [Audio podcast episode]. In Queens Memory Podcast. Queens Memory. https://queenslibrary.aviaryplatform.com/collections/943/collection_resources/28801/description?collection_resource_file_id=96275&
Beller, Box 1, folder 18, Record Group 1187 Papers of Genia Silkes. Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Bernfeld, Box 1, folder 18, Record Group 1187 Papers of Genia Silkes. Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Centnerschwerer, Box 1, folder 18, Record Group 1187 Papers of Genia Silkes. Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Michelle Caswell, Marika Cifor, Mario H. Ramirez (2016). “To Suddenly Discover Yourself Existing”: Uncovering the Impact of Community Archives. The American Archivist 79 (1): 56–81. https://doi.org/10.17723/0360-9081.79.1.56
Frymet, Box 1, folder 20, Record Group 1187 Papers of Genia Silkes. Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Gartner, Box 1, folder 21, Record Group 1187 Papers of Genia Silkes. Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Ho, F. (2020). Judge Moses Weinstein playground. Queens Memory COVID-19 Project. https://qplnyc.urbanarchive.me/sites/hSTRUYdT2TW/aW5Gap1wdEf
Hoffman, Box 1, folder 22, Record Group 1187 Papers of Genia Silkes. Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Michlic, J.B. (2014). An untold story of rescue: Jewish children and youth in German-occupied Poland. In Henry, P. Jewish resistance against the Nazis (pp. 300–318). The Catholic University of America Press.
Shmulik G., Box 1, folder 21, Record Group 1187 Papers of Genia Silkes. Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Sköld, J. & Vehkalahti, K. (2016). Marginalized children: methodological and ethical issues in the history of education and childhood. Journal of the History of Education Society, 45(4), 403–410. https://doi.org/10.1080/0046760X.2016.1177609
Valderhaug, G. (2011). Memory, justice and the public record. Archival science, 11, 13–23. DOI 10.1007/s10502–010–9110–5