The forgotten ‘wolf children’ of World War II
Following the end of the devastating conflict, children of East Prussia went to great lengths in order to survive.
For Gisela Unterspann, the trauma of war still lingers. She feels her painful experiences as a child who had to grow up without her parents were ignored.
In the aftermath of World War II, children were often left without parents to help them bear the fallout of conflict. This was true for children of East Prussia who were separated from their families during the final stages of war. Likened to wandering hungry wolves, many of the children, isolated from humanity, were left to roam through unforgiving forests in order to survive. They became known as the “wolf children.”
Dr. Michelle Mouton, a professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, when describing geopolitical decision making at the end of the World War referenced a 1944 statement made by the British Labor Party. In the statement, the party expressed its anticipation of an impending “depth of hatred against Germans in occupied countries in the early Post-war periods” and a belief that Germans may have to face the choice between “migration and massacre.” Mouton says that, at least officially, “the Allies didn’t want massacre so they agreed with migration.”
The chaos created by both legislated and unofficial expulsions of Germans made it difficult for families to reunite and had a heavy impact on the fates of children of East Prussia. Some were sent to Soviet children’s homes, others fled to Lithuania and some to a new and divided Germany. In countless cases, the remainder of childhood and adolescence would be marked by pressures to assimilate to unfamiliar and often times unaccepting environments.
Many of the German wolf children who went to Lithuania share similar life stories in which language, family, and home—some of strongest shapers of identity, were stripped away at ages in which they were most impressionable. What they received instead was a life working under harsh conditions, often with minimal education, and in hiding. Any assistance they would get from Lithuanian neighbors could end abruptly at any moment; they were living in a USSR-occupied Lithuania that subscribed to Soviet policies of removing Nazi influence in politics and society and of reprisal for shared German guilt after all. Ultimately, they became children who were greatly affected by the collapse of a system that was designed to favor them.
Though photographer Lukas Kreibig cannot recall exactly where he first read about the experiences of the wolf children, their shrouded stories stayed with him. As a student at the Danish School of Media and Journalism he sought to better understand what happened to the children of East Prussia through work on a photography project he began in 2017. In his research, he came across the work of Claudia Heinermann who published a book on wolf children. They would work with the same woman, Luise, herself a former wolf child, who introduced them to those they photographed for their separate projects. When speaking on the two projects, Kreibig says “it is good that [the stories of wolf children] come out in many ways” so that their lives and histories are more visible.
Motivated by the importance of documenting some of the last eyewitnesses to a brutal war, Kreibig sought to create intimate portraits that illuminate the aging faces of those who were left in the shadows of history. (How children fleeing in the European migration crisis face lasting psychological trauma.)
In an idyllic remote southern Lithuanian town, Kreibig first met Gisela who at fourteen escaped a Soviet death march after witnessing her grandmother succumb to starvation in 1945. After a brief return to Königsberg, Gisela journeyed to Lithuania following the promise of greater opportunity. She would learn Lithuanian and end up on a Soviet kolkhoz, or collective farm, where she met her husband and had a daughter and a son. Working and living on the land, she recounted, was very difficult. She explained in Lithuanian how she wants to forget that time, but she can’t forget because "it stays with you like a scar.”
There were brighter periods, of course, such as when Gisela was notified by the German Red Cross that her mother and brother were still alive nearly twenty years since she had last seen them. In a letter sent in 1961, her mother wrote to her in German, “Gislechen, I am so happy that I know you are still alive and that I have your address to write you. We haven’t heard from each other in a long time. Your brother Dieter and I are healthy.”
Kreibig also provides glimpses into the lives of Erna, Reinhard, and Elfriede, other children of the former East Prussia, through images of archival and contemporary family photos and documents that trace stages of their lives showing who they were and who they are today. Most of those he met with felt they couldn’t fully separate their German and Lithuanian identities as neither place ever completely recognized their presence in society until relatively recently. Lithuania now provides a small pension for wolf children and Germany, though the country makes it much more difficult to acquire, provides some government assistance and political representation.
The tendency when writing history to disregard the testimonies of children can elucidate why those like Gisela and numerous more were not included in the historical record for so long. An examination of the changing politics of memory in Germany and its influence on former USSR territories can further explain why the children were neglected from post-war discourse and how they eventually came to be more embedded in the historical narrative of modern Europe.
Immediately after the war, some in Germany worked to absolve themselves of responsibility for war atrocities and construct the notion of German victimhood or the power of the Soviet state in defeating fascism. Memory and remembrance at this time were incredibly selective. It’s difficult to imagine a time in which the harrowing memories of World War II, like those of the Holocaust, were seldom, if at all, discussed.
Dr. Jenny Wüstenberg, DAAD Visiting Professor at York University, notes that in Soviet occupied East Germany “you wouldn’t really talk about the atrocities of the Soviet forces because they were depicted as liberators.” In West Germany, in contrast, general discussions of German suffering, she says, were “a very central part of how war was remembered.”
But the rise of student activism and easing state control over memory later enabled more people to more outwardly promote new paradigms of remembrance across Europe. Particularly in West Germany, it was previously widely understood that to speak in detail of what happened to Germans after the war would be to minimize the actions of the Nazi regime and establish false equivalences of suffering. Discussions of wolf children, thus, were mainly relegated to far right-wing revisionist domains where children were used as pawns to justify Nazism and support the notion that Germans, too, suffered greatly during the Second World War.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent breakdown of the Soviet Union, as Wüstenberg notes, allowed communities to more openly and more effusively reckon with their pasts as there was even more freedom of communication. Kreibig, substantiating this history, says that in his native Germany, the stories of the children of East Prussia are more known now.
The trauma of war lies deep within societies and transcends generations but as with all painful legacies, the passage of time allows for a confrontation with historical erasure. Lukas Kreibig found it important to remember “the stories and death and pain this war caused.” His project on the war children of East Prussia offers an opportunity to reflect on the significant lessons of the effects of war on children and the complex and extensive processes from which identity and history are constructed. The project is yet another testament to the power of imagery to add to the historical record, to generate and alter opinions, and to push us to reflect more critically on collective pasts.