How Foster Care Saved a Civilization

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Here’s a powerful word of wisdom from the Bible:

A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, but a sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous. (Proverbs 13:22 TLV)

Let’s set aside that part about sinners and righteous for the moment and focus on the first part – the part about a good man leaving an inheritance for his grandchildren. What is the primary requirement for that to happen? It should be obvious: there can be no inheritance if there is no man, good or bad, to leave it. Of course, this is just as applicable to good women, especially to the courageous single mothers striving to make ends meet while playing the roles of both parents. For them it is immeasurably more difficult than for families where both parents contribute to the welfare of their children and grandchildren.

Suffice it to say that with no parents, or with only one parent, it’s highly unlikely that much of anything will be passed on to the rising generations, except perhaps the pain of rootlessness. It’s bad enough if we are discussing one family, or even a segment of society. For example, in the United States, about 20 million children – one in four – live in a home without a father.[1] The percentage is much higher among African American, Native American, and Hispanic children, even as high as 65% or more.[2] Yet even as tragic as those figures indicate, there is still hope simply because a large part of the society consists of intact families that, at least in theory, can help those in need.

But what if there are no intact families? What if an entire population of adults ceases to exist, leaving their children without care and guidance? Can you imagine it? That would be an entire generation –

  • of brides who would never be given away in marriage by their fathers.
  • of young men who would never know the approval of their fathers as they enter professions and begin families of their own.
  • of children who would never hear the stories of their grandparents.
  • of young people who would not know their own history – where they came from, who their people were, what special things they created, how they talked and sang and laughed.

Can you imagine such an unspeakable tragedy?

I can. It has happened too often in human history. Ask me about the Pequod nation of Connecticut, or the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, or the mixed African peoples thrown on unfamiliar shores as slaves in the West Indies and North America. But there is a more immediate example.

This is the story of the Jewish people of Europe in the mid-twentieth century. We know the stark numbers: in 1933, 60% of all the Jews in the world lived in Europe, a total of 9.5 million people. By 1945, 6 million – two-thirds of all the Jews from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains – had perished.[3]

Those cold statistics reflect 9.5 million very real, very human stories. Some at the time postulated that the lucky ones might have been those who went to the gas chambers rather the survivors. What did those survivors have to offer them hope? All that they knew was gone. How would they return to Warsaw, or Prague, or Berlin, or Paris, or the little villages where they lived happy, peaceful lives next to, but separate from, their Gentile neighbors? More importantly, how would they reconstruct the societies that had nurtured them? The elders were gone, the books were burned, the synagogues were destroyed, the rabbis were executed, and the mothers and fathers and grandparents had perished with them. It appeared that Hitler’s Final Solution might succeed after all: not by the quick elimination of all Jewish life, but by the slow death of a cut flower, separated from its roots and left to shrivel in the sun.

And yet, Jewish civilization not only survived, but thrives today. The State of Israel arose from the ashes of the Holocaust in fulfillment of prophecy as a beacon of hope for Jews worldwide. The remnant of Europe’s surviving Jews joined those from Asia, Africa, and the Americas to build anew on the ancestral lands promised by the Creator’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Many are the stories of the miraculous events that led to Israel’s establishment and survival. Not the least of those is the miracle of foster care. On both ends of the Holocaust, foster care provided a shelter for Jewish children from the hurricane of Nazi genocide as Christian families, orphanages, and churches opened their doors in compassion.

Consider, for example, the work of Sir Nicholas Winton, an English stockbroker who had planned a skiing holiday in Switzerland in the winter of 1938-39. Instead, at the urging of a friend, he travelled to Prague to learn about the plight of Jewish refugees in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. Winton’s heart went out to the hopeless people – hopeless because Nazi persecution of Jews had escalated, and few countries were willing to take them in. Britain had opened its doors a bit, but only to children who could be placed in homes. That was where Winton saw an opportunity. Enlisting the aid of a few friends and his own mother, he quickly established a network that coordinated placement for children in British homes, as well as transportation from Czechoslovakia to England.

This was no easy feat. In a matter of weeks, Winton and his team moved mountains of bureaucratic obstacles in half a dozen countries and organized the transport of 669 Jewish children on eight trains between March and August 1939. Another 250 more were on the last and largest train, set to depart Prague on September 1. The train never left the station, for on that very day World War II began. Very few of those 250 children survived the next seven years.

And what of those who did escape? The harsh reality of the Holocaust ensured that most could not be reunited with their parents, yet most did go on to live full, productive lives, and to have children and grandchildren of their own. One account of Winton’s children, as they refer to themselves, says:

Among those saved are the British film director Karel Reisz (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Isadora, and Sweet Dreams), Canadian journalist and news correspondent for CBC, Joe Schlesinger (originally from Slovakia), Lord Alfred Dubs (a former Minister in the Blair Cabinet), Lady Milena Grenfell-Baines (a patron of the arts whose father, Rudolf Fleischmann, saved Thomas Mann from the Nazis), Dagmar Símová (a cousin of the former U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright), Tom Schrecker, (a Reader’s Digest manager), Hugo Marom (a famous aviation consultant, and one of the founders of the Israeli Air Force), and Vera Gissing (author of Pearls of Childhood) and coauthor of Nicholas Winton and the Rescued Generation.[4]

That is the legacy of foster care in the case of Sir Nicholas Winton. Others in many nations took up the same cause, and for the same reasons he did. Thanks to their efforts, there was a next generation of European Jews to build anew. But what would they build? Their lives were saved, but what of their identities as Jews? That is where we turn to the next part of the story.

Surviving Jewish elders in Europe and elsewhere went about picking up the pieces of their scattered and broken nation, a task that included finding the children whose parents had sent them away to safety. That was the task of Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi Herzog, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, and at that time the Chief Askenazi Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine. In 1946, Rabbi Herzog embarked on a six-month journey to Europe to find Jewish children and return them to their own families. As he said in a message to Pope Pius XII, “Each child is like one thousand children, following this great tragedy.”

If the Jewish people were to rebuild their nation, they needed every single surviving child. That is why Rabbi Herzog visited France, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Ireland during his journey. Retracing the steps of Nicholas Winton and many others, he and his team identified the locations of hundreds of children, and then enlisted the aid of Jewish organizations to assume legal guardianship. When the journey was complete, over 500 Jewish children returned with Rabbi Herzog to Mandatory Palestine in October 1946, where they would become citizens of the State of Israel at its establishment less than two years later.

There is a story of Rabbi Herzog’s labors that illustrates the importance not only of foster care, but of the critical nature of family ties in preserving human civilization. One account relates the story this way:

One day in 1946, Rabbi Herzog arrived at a large monastery which was known to have taken in Jewish children sent away by their parents to protect them from the Nazi terror which had ravaged Europe. Now, the time had come for the children to return home.

The Rabbi turned to the Reverend Mother, thanking her for saving the lives of the children and requesting to receive them back to the Jewish People, now that the war was over. The nun was happy to agree, but asked the Rabbi – “How can you know which of the hundreds of children here at the monastery are Jewish?” After all, it had been many months since their parents had sent them there, and many had been mere infants at the time.

Rabbi Herzog assured the Reverend Mother that he would know. He asked to gather all of the children in a large hall, ascended the stage, and cried in a loud voice:

Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad! (Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One)

Immediately, dozens of children rushed to the stage, shouting “mama!” and “papa!” as tears filled their eyes. Many were sobbing uncontrollably. Though few of the children remembered much of their early lives, the sound of the Shema, the most famous prayer in the Jewish faith, instantly brought back memories of reciting these Hebrew words with their parents before bedtime.[5]

Though their parents were lost, these little ones still remembered the identity imparted to them from infancy – an identity as the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Unthinkable horrors had separated them from their homes, but the brief time they had with their parents instilled in them seeds of connection with their ancient people that enabled them to return to their people, bringing hope out of the ashes of despair.

That is the how foster care saved the Jewish civilization in the dark years of World War II. We take heart in the story, but can we also learn a lesson? Thousands of families across Europe stepped up to embrace young strangers in the darkest hours of the twentieth century. Great need moved them with compassion to do what had been unthinkable even a few months before. Many, but not all, of those families were faithful Christians, but all saw the need to do something and make a difference for good.

Why did it take a war and the reality of state-sponsored genocide to move them to such compassion? Surely there were homeless and fatherless children in their midst in 1938, suffering from the same cycles of abuse, addiction, and neglect that plagues the children in our midst even now. For some in America today, a different kind of ordeal threatens to obliterate what community still remains to their broken families. It is not state-sponsored genocide, but it is a plague that robs little children of safe spaces, even in the sanctity of their own minds. Let us not wait until this creeping plague tears down all the safe spaces and removes all hope for our own people. Let us intervene now so that everyone’s child may know joy, and our global community may know peace.


[1] These are the numbers as of 2017, according to the Census Bureau as referenced by the National Fatherhood Initiative (https://www.fatherhood.org/father-absence-statistic).

[2] According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center, the percentages of children in single-parent homes in 2018 was 65% for African Americans, 53% for American Indians, 41% for Hispanic or Latino, 40% for mixed race children, 24% for non-Hispanic White, and 155 for Asian and Pacific Islander. The national average in 2018 was 35%, or 23,980,000 of all the children in the United States (https://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/107-children-in-single-parent-families-by-race#detailed/1/any/false/37,871,870,573,869,36,868,867,133,38/10,11,9,12,1,185,13/432,431).

[3] Jewish Virtual Library (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jewish-population-of-europe-before-the-holocaust-map)

[4] The Power of Good (http://www.powerofgood.net/story.php). See also “WW2: How did one Englishman save 669 children from the Holocaust?” at BBC Teach (https://www.bbc.co.uk/teach/how-did-one-englishman-save-669-children-from-the-holocaust/zd436v4), and “Sir Nicholas Winton,” Holocaust Memorial Trust (https://www.hmd.org.uk/resource/sir-nicholas-winton/).

[5] Shai Ben-Ari, “How 500 Children Were Returned to the Jewish People After the Holocaust,” The Librarians, August 27, 2019 (https://blog.nli.org.il/en/rabbi_herzog/)

Cover Photo: Memorial of Sir Nicholas Winton savior of 669 Jewish children from former Czechoslovakia. This memorial, dedicated in 2009, is located in Prague Main railway station. (Luděk Kovář – ludek@kovar.biz, sculptor Flor Kent / CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons.

Wintons Prague memorial by Flor Kent - 1

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