Book Review - Sonnert & Holten

Commentary by Dr. Ursula A. Falk


The Fate of Children Who Fled from the Nazis


The book by Gerhard Sonnert and Gerald Holten describes the outcome of the children who escaped from Nazi Germany at the onset of the Holocaust.  It must be remembered that the blind hatred of the German nation and its inhabitants were brutal much before the  “final solution”.

Most of the children became highly successful adults, especially academically and professionally.  They were not welcomed with open arms by their fellow religionists and struggled hard to be a part of the American scene.  They very frequently outshone their American peers and became an asset in the world in which they found themselves.  Their psychological being leaves a great deal to be desired.  Their feelings, their fears, their self-respect and their identity are hardly erasable.  A great number have had much recognition but very little response.  Their post-traumatic personalities remain often untouched by their immediate surroundings.  The rejection by the Nazis in these people's formative years have left their mark and have caused much self-hatred within the individuals described.  It is not unusual for these children, now adults, to be self denigrating in spite of all of their unique and unusual accomplishments.

It must be recalled that as infants and children their parents were so troubled and harassed by their Nazi environment that their anxieties and atrocities perpetrated by the Hitler regime and its henchmen damaged them to a point of not being the calm and nurturing parents that they would have been.  Their lives were destroyed through terrors, separations, Nazi theft, subsequent induced hunger and poverty, and much much more.

As a consequence of all of the above the once children of these refugees, now adults, are almost always insecure and have the need to achieve in order to feel recognized and safe.  They rarely feel secure and fully worthwhile.  The phrase “Du bist ein Jud” (you are a Jew) echoes forever in their tortured brains.  It is like an ugly song that can never be erased from their consciousness.

When the immigrant children arrived in America they suffered from culture shock.  They could not speak the language, had very few clothing, since they generally had one dress or one pair of pants, were rejected and jeered by their American counterparts, and subsequently felt left out, unaccepted and rejected.  In order to feel marginally accepted they had to excel.

I will here describe my own dilemma when I arrived in the United States as a child of 10 in the fifth grade in a small American town.  It did not take me long to understand what the children were saying but I could not speak and make myself understood.  The concept of “either/or” was especially difficult to learn.  If it had not been for a very kind teacher who spent hours teaching me this and other concepts, life would have been much more difficult.  Amazingly enough, by the time I was in this country a year I won a spelling contest for my school and my town in the sixth grade.  When it came to the prize for the state of West Virginia I lost to another student because I spelled the word circuit in German (the “i” in German is pronounced “e” in English). I was sometimes ridiculed because of misuse of the English-language.  (There was a certain degree of anti-semitism involved from certain American cultures, for example:  German Americans and Polish Americans.  A poignant example was a pre-teen peer recited a ditty which was “Oka , Bokka, stona Krokka, Oka Bokka Boo, if your father chews tobacco he’s a dirty Jew”.  Often the anti Semitism was not as blatant but nevertheless it was present in a more covert fashion.)  For example, I once wrote an essay about the “deep, shallow” water not realizing that these two words are opposites of each other.  In addition, my clothing were sparse and I wore the same two dresses day in and day out.  They were clean since my mother washed them daily.  Deodorant was not used by the European culture in the days when we lived in that continent.  There is much that we had to learn and many adaptations to make.  The effort to achieve was enormous and sometimes overwhelming.

On the whole the achievement of young refugees was enormous if we merely look at the Nobel Prize winners we find that the refugee group had a one in 5500 chance of winning this prize; for the American-born comparison group, the chance was roughly 1 in 650,000. 

We must here mention some demographic facts that came out of the Sonnert and Holten study:  The former refugees, both men and women, were older than the American born individuals when they got married for the first time; the former refugee women had fewer children than did the American born women.  The annual income of the adults who had arrived as children between 1935  and 1945 by far exceeded the average income of the corresponding American population. 

The adults, former refugees, have the highest percentage of master's degrees and Ph.D.'s.  As far as occupation is concerned, the former refugee children were almost three times as likely as their American-born counterparts to be in the top category of the census re their status, i.e. “Professionals.”

In summary: Life for the young refugees was difficult because of their history, the terror, discrimination, poverty and humiliation that they and their parents had to suffer during the Nazi era.  They had lost all but their lives, which left an indelible mark on their personalities. They were more than grateful to be in America in spite of the many struggles that were waiting for them.  Their achievements are great, as are their eternal striving to be loved, understood and accepted.


Dr. Ursula A. Falk is a psychotherapist in private practice and the co-author, with Dr. Gerhard Falk, of  Deviant Nurses & Improper Patient Care (2006).

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