Family & Childhood

‘Very few actual children’: Defining Childhood and Assessing Age in the Aftermath of the Second World War

In April 1948, Meir, a Romanian Jewish teenager who had been deported to Mauthausen, applied to be resettled in Canada. His application was reviewed a few days after his eighteenth birthday and immediately rejected. Only minors were considered at the time. Not long after, he filed a second application stating that he had given a wrong birthdate during his first application ‘because it was only as exactly as he could remember’. He had now obtained a birth certificate proving his actual birthdate and making him a few months younger. He was allowed to reapply and resettled in Canada a few months later.

What the story of Meir, like many others at the time, reminds us is how age, and especially chronological age, shapes experiences of refugeedom and migration. Age is today central to categorising populations and defining thresholds of vulnerability, ability, and responsibility such as the age of majority or retirement. The precise determination of someone’s age is therefore essential in matters of citizenship or criminal responsibility. In recent years, it has become crucial in assessment procedures relating to movement and asylum seeking. It is also a focal point of popular and media narratives around immigration with the figure of the ‘imposter-child’ being prevalent in anti-immigration rhetoric. The recent announcement by the British Home Office of its ambition to implement forensic age assessment is one of many examples of how age, and its supposedly objective measurement, is commonly used as a tool of exclusion.

Mania, one of the young Holocaust survivors who later resettled to Canada, with representatives of the Canadian Jewish Congress (ca. 1947, credit: Alex Dworkin Canadian Jewish Archives)

The growing importance and objectification of age have recently been the topic of several fascinating historical studies, for instance Ishita Panda on child marriage in colonial India or Susan Person on the birth certificate in the United States. In my article ‘Contested Childhood: Assessing the Age of Young Refugees in the Aftermath of the Second World War’ in HWJ 92, I explore how age shaped humanitarian responses to and experiences of displacement in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. I draw on the resettlement of young Holocaust survivors to Canada to examine how a wide range of actors (the International Refugee Organisation, the Canadian government, and various European and North American Jewish relief organisations) competed and struggled to decide who should be considered as a child and therefore worthy of protection, and how the young refugees themselves were affected by and navigated these struggles.

At that time, identity documents and proofs of age were often lost or unavailable, bodies and behaviours had been marked by years of malnourishment and persecution, people had learned to misrepresent their age for the sake of survival, and administrations routinely doubted age claims. The war had profoundly disrupted the system for knowing age that had become central to Western European regimes of recognition and rights.

I was particularly interested in documenting how the young people themselves navigated this disruption and the age categories that were imposed on them. One example that I discussed in the article is a good illustration of how age shaped experiences of persecution and forced displacement. Chaim W. was thirteen when, after the liquidation of a nearby ghetto, he was sent to the Starachowice slave-labour camp in Poland. In several interviews in the 1990s, he remembered how he told the camp representative responsible for the selection of workers that he was sixteen. He was allowed to join his older brother and father among the workers. That same day, his mother, sister, and younger brother were sent to a killing centre. After the war, Chaim resettled in Toronto as part of the Canadian resettlement project. Comparison between his visa application file and the testimonies he gave in the 1990s shows that he pretended to be a year younger in order to qualify to the Canadian programme. His case confirms the importance of chronological age in what Didier Fassin calls the ‘negotiation games’ between individuals and power structures. Young people tried to take advantage of being in the grey zone of adolescence to navigate between the legal categories of childhood and adulthood to either avoid the control or benefit from the protection of power structures.

Such misrepresentations were frequent and often shaped lives much beyond survival and refugee journeys. During an American Historical Association workshop on age organised by Corinne T. Field and Nicholas Syrett in January 2021, Bianca Primo, who acted as discussant, shared this story: in the mid-1980s, her family in Toronto was planning a big surprise birthday party for her father-in-law, Aron, who was about to turn sixty. Among the excitement of family and friends, her sister, a Holocaust survivor herself, had an unexpected reaction. She objected to throwing such a party fearing that it would expose her brother’s true age. Aron was a Holocaust survivor who had been liberated from the Mauthausen concentration camp and spent time in displaced persons (DP) camps in Italy before going to Canada in 1947. He had misrepresented his age by four years, saying he was sixteen when he was over twenty. He died in 2007 with three birthdays: the official age he had proclaimed to be to enter Canada and that was now the core of his ‘paper identity’, his ‘real’ age that was the one he remembered from Poland, as well as his birthdate in the Hebrew calendar.

These stories are fascinating and insightful on many levels. They remind historians and social scientists of the necessity to understand age as unstable and often contested. They also illustrate how power structures used age, as a supposedly objective measurement of worthiness and vulnerability, to grant some lives more legitimacy than others. Within the specific context of migration control, they highlight the importance of age in the long history of the medicalisation of borders. Finally, they help us better understand individual experiences of displacement: first, how age and age categories shaped not only the immediate trajectories of these young refugees but also, like in the case of Chaim and Aron, the rest of their lives (which takes us back to the difficult question, to paraphrase Gadi BenEzer and Roger Zetter: when does the refugee journey actually end?); second, how young refugees were not passive and sometimes managed to adapt themselves to the expectations of the administrations they interacted with.

These stories also raise complex ethical questions for historians. Close reading of case files unravels the strategies, age misrepresentations among others, that the young refugees developed during their post-war refugee journeys. By doing so, there are risks of reproducing the harmful scrutiny and ‘culture of disbelief’ that were prevalent at the time and still is today. As Peter Gatrell powerfully notes in his article in the same HWJ issue, researchers must reflect on their privileged access not only to the intimacy of refugees but also to the archive itself. It is crucial to remember that historians are neither judge nor immigration agent.


Antoine Burgard warmly thanks Marybeth Hamilton, Luke Kelly, Bianca Primo, and Janice Rosen for their help with this piece.

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