Explore touching stories of Polish citizens victims and witnesses of totalitarian crimes

“Why did the teacher make me do this exercise?”

Dorota Sadowska


They buried dad while I was in the country. They let my brother go after a few days, but I never saw my mum again. It is only then that I felt my Mother and Father’s absence. My sister went away somewhere, and my brother and I were thrown to the winds of fate. Hunger and destitution began gnawing away at us slowly.

(From an essay by Jadwiga Skłodowska)


In the course of every war, a child is undeniably the victim. And if a child survives, he or she has to live with psychological, emotional, and often physical wounds – as a witness of crime, a heroic soldier, sometimes a cripple, an orphan or half-orphan, or perhaps the sole breadwinner of the family. Mature beyond their age – especially if they are alone in the world – children have to fend for themselves in a constant struggle for survival. Accustomed to death, they are not afraid to take risks, stealing to stave off hunger and launching attacks instead of waiting to be attacked. They take up smoking and drinking, imitating adults, for they – while only a dozen or so years old – have stopped being children a long time ago.

Poverty and the destruction brought about by the war led to a significant escalation of pathological behavior among children and youths, the disorganization of family and social life, and increased educational and parental neglect. These developments were considered deeply alarming by pedagogic milieus,[1] which initiated research and conducted analyses with the objective of assessing the scale of the problem, determining a classification, working out and implementing remedial procedures, educating and preparing teaching staff, and establishing proper care centers for children disadvantaged by wartime evacuation, deportation, and detention in concentration camps. Another impulse encouraging the provision of organized aid was the appeal made by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Quemadmodum (Pleading for the Care of the World’s Destitute Children) of 6 January 1946, to which the Polish Caritas responded in the second half of the 1940s by holding mercy weeks to support children.[2]

The first international congress for child victims of war (Semaines d’études pour l’enfance victime de la guerre, SEPEG) took place already in September 1945 in Zurich, the next one – three years later, in May 1948 in Otwock. Meanwhile, debates on the subject were also held during the congresses of the International League for New Education in August 1946 in Paris, and of the International Union for Child Welfare in April 1947 in Geneva.[3]

In Poland, scientific research on children’s recollections and the negative impact of war on the psyche of minors and youth was conducted by, among others, Stefan Szuman and Ludwik Bandura, who based their work largely on an analysis of written assignments and drawings, which were produced in great quantities after the war. Spontaneously or under instruction from their teachers, within three years of the end of the Second World War children wrote thousands of essays describing what they actually experienced and felt during the conflict.[4] This made it possible to conduct broad research with the participation of educators. The materials collected for the purpose of analysis comprise a wide range of works, such as school essays, literary pieces and artwork – the latter typically made by younger children.[5]

Compositions of this kind were also created in response to a competition organized in primary schools[6] in 1946 with the approval of the Ministry of Education and under the supervision of regional education authorities and school inspectorates. Younger children (classes I–III) were encouraged to present their recollections through the medium of drawing,[7] using techniques of their choice. The competition was announced in “Przekrój” magazine, no. 43, of May 1946. Letters were sent to school headmasters, asking older primary school pupils (classes IV–VII) and youths from vocational and secondary schools to complete written assignments. Presently, a large portion of these materials is stored at the Central Archives of Modern Records in Warsaw, as fonds 2/283 of the Ministry of Education in Warsaw, from the years 1945–1966.[8]

In the second half of the 1940s, the essays were locked away in files and remained there for almost seven decades, attracting little interest. Their contents were known mainly to historians, psychologists and educators specializing in the subject of wartime childhood and orphancy. A rather small portion of the materials was made available and loaned to various institutions for anniversary exhibitions, although a selection was used in 1983 in the Polish-English album entitled The War through a Child’s Eyes; this was reissued in the same format in 2009, featuring mostly drawings and only a few essays, some of them in the form of short excerpts, as a supplement to the graphics. The materials were selected and edited by Katarzyna Iwanicka and Marek Dubas, while the cover was designed by the outstanding illustrator Janusz Stanny. In 1985, a Polish-Japanese edition of the album was published by the Green Peace publishing house.

Perhaps the limited interest in children’s compositions as a distinct form of historical testimony is the reason why these works have been preserved in such an excellent condition (if we pass over the damage caused by folding and unfolding sheets of paper, creases created while hastily putting papers away in a file, and discoloration occurring over time), and are still deeply moving. The style, vocabulary and beautiful calligraphy which characterize the essays are typical of the period in which they were created. The drawings are different in this respect, because the colors and outlines are so vivid, and the images so clear, that it seems as though the little artists had finished them just moments ago.

The materials gathered in the Archives in Warsaw comprise over 2,500 drawings and a disproportionately smaller number of texts, about 600. Included in these are mixed forms, i.e. drawings incorporating text and texts with illustrations. Written mostly by older pupils of primary schools, the essays vary in length. Some of them resemble small books illustrated by their authors. Taken together, they survive as a unique collection of authentic accounts of the pain and tragedy which befell scores of children in the years 1939–1944.

The war experiences described by the youngsters can be divided into those concerning: “1) being a witness to armed fighting, 2) separation and other tragedies which beset families, 3) evacuation, deportation – being forced to leave one’s place of residence, 4) terror and persecution at the hands of the occupier.”[9]

The young authors usually placed their narratives within the beginning and end dates of the Second World War. It is worth noting that for the children in the eastern territories of Poland, the conflict ended in July 1944, with the withdrawal of German troops and the advance of the Red Army. For these children, however, the wartime experience was not limited solely to the Nazi invasion and consequent atrocities, but also included the simultaneous pogroms carried out by bands of Ukrainians.[10]Their attacks intensified after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

Children recalled 1 September 1939 as a day of extraordinary tension, full of commotion and heightened feverish activity in the streets, all this punctuated by the growl of approaching bombers, the thud of exploding bombs, and the crash of collapsing buildings.

They often mentioned sound – either as something accompanying the most dramatic events, or as their direct result: the wail of sirens, machine gun bursts, the whistle of projectiles, grenades exploding, the groans of the wounded, crying women and children, neighing horses and mooing cattle. The same goes for light, which they presented not as a symbol of hope and joy, but as a token of danger: a blaze, the fiery sky over a bombed city being consumed in flames, burning cottages, or the flash of anti-aircraft floodlights searching for bombers. The most frightening time in the cities was the day, due to the air raids; in the villages – the night, because of the marauding bands of Ukrainians, the so-called rezuns. While city folk sought shelter in the countryside, the residents of rural areas – especially on the other side of the Bug River – found refuge in forests, bushes, grain fields, underground shelters, potato fields, village settlements or towns.

During the first year of the occupation, many civilians led relatively normal lives – children went to classes (but the schools were German, and teaching the language and history of Poland was forbidden), played, and helped out around the house and farm. Their parents had to labor to make a living. In the countryside, they worked in the fields, raised cattle, and oftentimes starved, being forced to give away obligatory quotas to the occupier. In the cities, they gradually sold out their property, for everyday life was getting harder: food was becoming more and more expensive and scarce, while the terror and repressions introduced by the invader intensified. Rural farmsteads were being robbed and pillaged by the Nazis and the bands of Ukrainians.

The child’s mind began to understand the meaning of new words: a roundup, deportation, execution, forced labor, “the wires,” a camp, Auschwitz, Majdanek, Dachau, crematorium ovens,[11] torture. People lived in constant fear, uncertain about their own fate and that of their loved ones, ready to run at all times, keeping all their belongings stuffed in bundles on top of carts, in case they had to flee and hide in the forest.

Death was so common that it no longer confounded even the youngest: “Antoś was dead. I felt bad for him, but what can I say? It’s war,” remarked Marian Komar upon hearing that his friend had been shot. Children witnessed mass executions, pacification operations, torture and rape, persecution, and the desecration of corpses. They saw their parents being brutally abused, looking on at their suffering and death. Children of all ages experienced beatings, maltreatment, hunger, and humiliation at the hands of the occupier. They experienced the tragedy of separation from their parents and siblings, of homelessness – and the horror of harassment. But that was not all: in Volhynia and Eastern Lesser Poland they also had to run from the mobs of Ukrainians. Danuta Różańska, who survived a Ukrainian Insurgent Army attack on a church gathering, wrote thus: “I didn’t know whether I was alive” – such words stay with you for a long time.

Many traumatic memories involved air raids – the roar of approaching planes, the whistle of bombs and shells, the sight of buildings collapsing, torn apart by explosions, the sheer panic, chaos, fear and uncertainty, and the groans of the injured, the dying, and those buried under the rubble. This is what September 1939 was really like, how the death throes of Warsaw were seen by those who witnessed the Uprising of 1944, how Polish towns and villages appeared in the midst of war. It is simply impossible to comprehend the scale of the moral injustice caused to children during the period of occupation and war.

But the works are not only a record of the terror and hardships of life in occupied Poland – they also reference the mentality, attitude, and world view of a major part of Polish society in the 1940s.

The children’s essays from 1946 clearly show profound religiosity and trust in God. Faith is a source of strength, hope, and relief, and the Mother of God comes across as motherly protector. Polish families celebrated holidays even during the war. It was obligatory to attend Sunday Mass, to bless Easter food, and to celebrate First Communion. Family ties remained strong, people showed concern for one another and great attachment to their home and land. In the majority of the essays, the words “daddy” and “mommy,” were used instead of “mother” and “father”; the descriptors “little brother” and “little sister” also appear frequently. Orphaned children felt responsible for their younger siblings, as well as for horses, cows and pigs – for the farmstead. From a very young age, they worked hard on the land, even if all of their family members were still alive. Just like adults, children looked after the property and experienced a painful shock upon seeing the family house in ruins, the fields laid to waste, and the animals dead, or when they were forcibly evicted from their homes under the German deportation campaigns – especially in winter, when it was freezing outside.

The children’s attachment to Warsaw – not exclusive to those living in the capital – along with their great hope for the restoration of the city, is very moving. Born in the sovereign Second Polish Republic, they were proud of their homeland, reborn after 123 years of partitions. They were raised in the spirit of Romanticism, on tales of the uprisings (some of the January insurgents were still alive at the time), and thus believed it their duty to fight – and if need be die – for the freedom of Poland. God, honor, motherland and family were the values which the war children held in the highest regard.

Their accounts are uniformly honest and forthright. At times somewhat awkward, short and blunt, at others detailed and extensive, they present the everyday hardships of war and the occupation – the suffering, the fear, the hunger, and the injustice. Children wrote about events they considered significant and dramatic. And although it may seem odd that they talked in the same manner about crying for a father who had been arrested and crying for a lost toy, one must remember that the world of children, and especially of the youngest, is different from ours. In a child’s world, a stuffed animal is a friend – just as important as a family member – while tanks, planes, and cannons may spark not only fear, but also curiosity and fascination, especially at the beginning of war.

Memories are always personal, and present a subjective perception of events. These children were not selective in their choice of content, they wrote about experiences, emotions, events which they viewed as important – usually those that were traumatizing (such as their own misfortunes and suffering, or the sight of brutal beatings and corpses) or joyful (for example a parent’s return from a camp, being able to escape death, the sight of a white and red flag raised in the air). They recognized traces of human kindness even in an enemy – a Gestapo man who let an arrestee eat supper and say goodbye to his family, who did not shoot even though his gun was at the ready, or a Ukrainian who told people on the road to turn back because his countrymen were viciously murdering their Polish neighbors. The children did not hide their overwhelming emotions – those of hatred, anger, resentment, despair, and the desire for revenge. Their accounts differ depending on whether they were created spontaneously or in the classroom, and whether or not the assignment was to be graded or supervised by an adult – a parent or a teacher. These differences manifest themselves mainly through vocabulary, style, and the length of individual essays. This is why in the case of such essays and drawings the context and circumstances accompanying the creative process are so important.

While presenting the results of research on children’s drawings of their war experiences at the SEPEG conference in Warsaw in 1948, Stefan Szuman declared: “This collection of drawings is an admonition and a warning to humanity, which needs to understand that the brutality of war damages little children physically and psychologically in an inhumane manner, and that the unthinkable savagery of those who brutally destroy their fellow men finds its way to a child’s bewildered psyche, leaving deep and dangerous marks, as well as moral scars for life. I think that the drawings made by our children might convince those who still do not know or refuse to believe what happened in our country during the occupation to accept the truth.”[12] Similar conclusions can be drawn from an analysis of the essays. This is evident especially in the words of Jadwiga Malinowska, who recalled her childhood memories of war and complained: “Why did the teacher make me do this exercise when it makes me cry all the time?”

Witnesses to those events are slowly passing away. Successive generations have selective memories, while these recollections – especially those written down immediately after the end of the conflict – constitute an element not just of the Polish national memory, but also of our common European and global heritage. Therefore, it would be of great benefit to gather the accounts concerning the wartime martyrdom of Polish children in one exhibition space – to establish a Museum of Wartime Childhood – and broaden our documentation of the past to include research on children and childhood in various contexts, utilizing diverse scientific perspectives: the historical, pedagogic, psychological and literary, among others.

A child is always the victim, regardless of which side of the barricade it finds itself on, while “war is the worst example that adults can give to a child. War undermines the young being’s faith in the sense of existence.”[13]


Dr Dorota Sadowska

A Doctor of German Philology, a literary scholar, and a lecturer at the Institute of German Studies at the University of Warsaw, she specializes in the subject of children and wartime childhood during the Second World War in the context of literary theory.


[1] In Poland – clandestine research by Stefan Baley from 1944.

[2] See Wiesław Theiss, Sieroctwo wojenne polskich dzieci (1939–1945). Zarys problematyki, “Przegląd Pedagogiczny” 2012, no. 1, pp. 79–95.

[3] See Zbigniew Kwieciński, Sprawiedliwy. W stulecie urodzin Profesora Ludwika Bandury, in: Ludwik Bandura, Wpływ wojny na psychikę dzieci i młodzieży (fragmenty rozprawy doktorskiej z 1950 roku), Toruń 2004, p. 11.

[4] Ibidem.

[5] Ibidem.

[6] Before the Second World War, education at the lowest level was provided by the four-, six- or seven-grade primary school (szkoła powszechna in Polish). Under the education reform introduced after the war, this was replaced with the eight-grade primary school (szkoła podstawowa in Polish), however for the next couple of years the terms were often used interchangeably in an informal context.

[7] Their subjects were very diverse and largely unrestricted. Children could draw both the reality around them and their memories of war.

[8] Files of fonds 2/283 of the Ministry of Education also comprise other types of documents, such as covering letters from school headmasters to inspectorates and regional education authorities, written in response to the Ministry’s appeal, as well as children’s drawings which are seemingly unrelated to the subject of war and present, for instance, Easter motifs.

[9] Ludwik Bandura, Wpływ wojny na psychikę dzieci i młodzieży, pp. 42–43.

[10] Units of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN).

[11] Some children use the term “gas ovens” in their essays.

[12] Stefan Szuman, Wojna i okupacja w rysunkach dzieci polskich. Referat wygłoszony podczas konferencji SEPEG (23–28 maja 1948 r.), Central Archives of Modern Records in Warsaw, fonds of the Ministry of Education, file no. 4064.

[13] Ibidem.