Workshop report „In search of the migrant child: ‘Extra’-Ordinary Sources of Child Migrants’ Past Lives” (18–19 May 2021)

Author: Thomas Michaelis

The study of migration, and in particular of children’s migration, represents not only a historically relevant research field but is of key relevance to understanding our contemporary world. The topic of child migration occupies a critical role in contemporary debates about global mobilities, forced migration and the intensification of ethno-nationalist xenophobia. Aspiring to bring about an academic dialogue and to help building a transnational academic network on child migration in the past, SWEN STEINBERG (University of Toronto & German Historical Institute, Washington/Berkeley), FRIEDERIKE KIND-KOVÁCS (Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies, Dresden) and SHEER GANOR (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities) organize in the coming two years a series of workshops and a conference under the designation In search of the migrant child: Global Histories of Youth and Migration between Knowledge, Experience, and Everyday Life. The first event took place between 18 – 19 May 2021 and explored in a digital workshop, ‘Extra’-Ordinary Sources of Child Migrants’ Past Lives. The conveners invited a dozen historians to present in four thematic blocs unusual sources which they encountered during their research, covering a large variety of topics and approaches related to child migration.

Workshop Program

Tuesday, 18 May 2021


Simone Lässig (German Historical Institute, Washington/Berkeley)

Thomas Lindenberger (Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies, Dresden)

Opening Remarks:

Swen Steinberg (University of Toronto & German Historical Institute, Washington/Berkeley),

Friederike Kind-Kovács (Hannah Arendt Institute for Totalitarianism Studies, Dresden),

Sheer Ganor (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities)

Panel 1: Administration & Management

Moderation: Swen Steinberg (University of Toronto & German Historical Institute, Washington/Berkeley)

Laura Hobson Faure (Panthéon-Sorbonne University-Paris 1):
40 Boys from Berlin, or, Is it Possible to Write a History without Archives?

Kelly Condit-Shrestha (University of Minnesota):
Internationally Adopted Youth: Intersecting Transatlantic and Transpacific Histories of Postwar Child Migrants

Anca Cretu (Masaryk Institute, Prague/ERC Vienna):
The Lives of Children in Austria-Hungary‘s Refugee Camps during the First World War: A Few Preliminary Reflections

Olga Gnydiuk (CEU, Vienna):
Children, Youth and the IRO Welfare Workers: Arranging Emigration after WWII

Panel 2: Knowledge & Education

Moderation: Bettina Hitzer (HAIT, Dresden)

Chelsea Shields (University of California, Irvine):
Absence and Abstractions: Postcolonial Migration and the Re-Invention of Youth Delinquency in the Netherlands

Swen Steinberg (University of Toronto & German Historical Institute, Washington/Berkeley):
New York, Knowledge, and Young Refugees in 1943

Sheer Ganor (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities):
Educational Agenda for the Jewish Emigration Training Farm (Feb 1936)

Wednesday, 19 May 2020

Panel 3: Globalization & Visualization

Moderation: Sheer Ganor (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities)

Kimberly Cheng (NYU, New York):
Future and the Shanghai Jewish Youth Community Center

Friederike Kind-Kovács (HAIT, Dresden):
Transnational Child Evacuations in Post-WWI Central Europe

Rosemarie Peña (Black German Heritage and Research Association, Camden):
Unsere Welt

Panel 4: Experience & Emotion

Moderation: Friederike Kind-Kovács (HAIT, Dresden)

Emma Wyse (Queen’s University, Kingston):
’Dirty Little Wretches:’ The British Evacuee Child Critique of Canadian Morality

Bettina Hitzer (HAIT, Dresden):
Transnational Child Adoption in West Germany and the Voice of the Child

Simone Laqua-O’Donnell (University of Birmingham):
‘This Place of Mourning:’ Remembering Child Migration as an Adult

Tuesday, 18 May, 2021

Panel 1

The workshop began with welcome remarks by SIMONE LÄSSIG (German Historical Institute, Washington/Berkeley) and THOMAS LINDENBERGER (HAIT, Dresden), which were followed by opening remarks from the organizers stressing the importance and embeddedness of the workshop in the ongoing research on child migration. LAURA HOBSON FAURE (Panthéon Sorbonne University Paris 1) then started off Panel 1, the Administration and Management of child migration, with her research dealing with the experiences and emotions of Jewish refugee children that emigrated from France to America in 1939 by bringing forth a letter from an archive in Geneva. Questions, such as who negotiated the children to be brought into France and how they extraordinarily were allowed by the Jewish community to be taken care of in a non-Jewish organization, remained relevant throughout her presentation. She then delved into the question of whether it is possible to write history without archives since those relevant to her research suffered during the Nazi occupation of France through German archive looting, the preventive destruction of material by the French beforehand, and later Russian looting of stolen materials that had been moved to Germany.

In the next presentation, KELLY CONDIT-SHRESTHA (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities) addressed the role of the American International Social Service (ISS) in the global, transnational nexus of child migration. With broad numbers of US soldiers being stationed abroad in WWII, international adoptions by American military families increased in number. The systems, power structures, discourses, and knowledge in countries such as West Germany, Japan and Korea lead to different adoption practices, which then led to different trajectories as a whole. Her source brought these seemingly disconnected practices back together, giving clear reference to the social issues arising from the practice of international adoptions.

Condit-Shrestha’s presentation was then followed up by ANCA CRETU (Masaryk Institute, Prague/ERC Vienna), who conducted archival work in St. Pölten near Vienna, Austria. In her discussion, she explored the importance and variations of children’s agency and what she labelled as “enabled agency”, which describes children’s agency being molded by other actors to act in a manner they desire, e. g. when a state is intervening in children’s lives to make them an asset to its economy through vocational training, preparing them for work in demanding sectors of its economy. Through these explorations, the interesting follow-up question arose, whether it is even possible to talk about agency when it is being shaped by other (state) actors. Cretu’s source served as an example of such an enabled agency, being a picture of young females learning how to make clothes in a refugee camp in Nikolsburg in 1914/1915.

The concluding presentation was offered by OLGA GNYDIUK (CEU, Vienna), who introduced the case of a single child: the Ukrainian boy Andrey Fesch. She presented a letter by psychiatrist Dr. Renate Sprengel in 1950, who evaluated Fesch’s mental health, written on request by the social workers who were preparing his interview with the emigration authorities. Fesch’s case served Gnydiuk to examine specific aspects of children’s migration, such as their preparation for departure, their departure itself, and their arrival and integration into the receiving country. This source exemplified how children’s agency is often hidden behind the words of adults. Dealing with such instances proved itself as an interesting aspect to be further explored in her research.

Following Gnydiuk’s presentation, Swen Steinberg pointed to the management of the children, the motivation behind it and the kind of representation, including the children’s voice in institutions of migration management, as key aspects. It is those institutions of migration management that saw continuity in state intervention regarding child welfare. Rather than innovating, they professionalized, changing from “stop-movement” to “create productive labor workers” institutions. Children always learned a handcraft, an example of enabled agency as described above.

When it comes to analyzing such institutions, sticking to a micro-historical perspective is fruitful, with its superior readability and displaying of “the exceptional normal”, allowing for the connection of tiny groups of children to the larger scale of transnational child migration. Only when taking this perspective, it becomes possible to discover children finding agency, as the outstanding example brought forth by Laura Hobson Faure, a Jewish immigrant child writing seventy pages about himself in English, a language he had just learned, shows.

Panel 2

Moving on to the next panel, dealing with the topic of ‘Knowledge and education’, CHELSEA SHIELDS (University of California, Irvine) argued that the assumption of the sameness of black families across time and space could not only be found in America but also made its way into the post-WWII Netherlands, where the state ordered a wide array of studies arguing against an Antillean migration stream. Through its choice of stigmatizing the Antillean migrants, rather than fighting the social issues prevailing in the migrant milieu, the Netherlands chose a faulty culturalist instead of a coherent structuralist approach in dealing with the migration stream, Shields argued. Among these studies were the works of criminologist Marion van San, who explored “youth delinquency” among young Curaçaon boys, arguing that their mothers were at least partially responsible for and probably even profiting from their sons’ delinquent behaviour. Shields uncovered fascinating connections between the social sciences and social policy, in so far as categories such as race, class, gender and sexuality were used to determine who was considered a migrant and who was not.

Shield’s presentation was followed by SWEN STEINBERG (University of Toronto & German Historical Institute, Washington/Berkeley), who dealt in his short talk with the knowledge of young refugees in 1943 New York, which for this instance was deeply connected to the pedagogue and rescuer of Jewish children, Ernst Papanek. Papanek issued questionnaires to 214 refugee children in America, uncovering his interest in capturing the agency of the refugee children. Steinberg addressed the deep connection between Papanek and “his” children, who influenced his study, and which became visible in the personal exchanges between Papanek and the concerned children.

SHEER GANOR (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities) concluded Panel II by delving into the educational agenda for the “Jewish emigration training farm” in Gross-Breesen, 1936, Germany. The idea of the farm was to serve as an agricultural training center, meant to enable children to migrate afterwards and establish a farm, most likely in the US. The ideas of educator and mentor Kurt Bonde went even further as he was driven by the utopia of an agricultural community of young, educated migrants bonded in spirit rather than just establishing a “pipeline” for Jewish migration. In the end, the project failed due to the increasing persecution of Jews in Germany, 160 of the 266 farm members fled from Nazi Germany. Ganor’s presentation discussed the intriguing link between youth migration and social reform, but it also investigated the relationships between the children and their parents on an individual level and the diaspora level as a whole.

BETTINA HITZER (HAIT, Dresden) opened the following discussion by noting that all presented sources touched on the topic of knowledge that migrant youths have, express and get inscribed into their souls. This knowledge is in constant transition, from bodily to scientific knowledge, between different research fields and different countries. As Swen Steinberg added, their migration experience allows migrant children to see racial and gender inequalities in their destination societies through another, sharper lens compared to regular citizens by using knowledge only they were able to obtain. Sheer Ganor also brought up the interesting perspective previously touched upon by Chelsea Shields, on what classifies a human being as a child. This perspective is historically contingent, can depend on class and race and essentially is the cause of social classification. It was also discussed how children can be intentionally misunderstood, referring to Shield’s Curaçaon boys, or mistaught, with some children in the same programs viewing their responsible persons as mentors, while others viewed them as tormentors. Lastly, the formation of the children was debated, as previously oppressed children may end up in privileged positions in the society of their destinations, moving up the racial hierarchy in both an interesting but also debatable manner. Furthermore, the specific training some children received predestined them for an intended spot in the social hierarchy of their destination, adding another interesting aspect to the debate.

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Day 2 of the workshop started with an open reflection of the outcomes of day 1. The participants concluded that the way children are discussed matters since, as individuals, they are parts of communities and networks that get ripped apart through migration. In some cases, however, migration movements were initiated by the children themselves, which leads to a conception of migration as a self-directed movement involving agency. By taking child agency into account, the necessity of looking beyond mere push and pull factors on the macro level becomes evident. Further examining the role of the migrant child before it arrives, age, gender and psychology should also be considered.

Moving on to the post-arrival stage of migration, language translations and cultural translations should be regarded, as the inability of child migrants to speak their mother tongue hinders them from connecting to their countries of origin. When looking at such issues ranging between the domestic and global scale, like language barriers, the need to connect the split literature between these become evident, to which the discussion responded that the migrant child itself might be the very factor that links these two together.

Panel 3

Following these short reflections, KIMBERLY CHENG (NYU, New York) opened Panel 3, which centered on the ‘Globalization and visualization’ of child migration, with her presentation on Central European Jewish Refugee Children in WWII Shanghai. Approximately 18.000 Jewish refugees were around at the time due to the lax immigration regime in Shanghai. In interviews during their adulthood, these former refugee children described their encounters with Chinese neighbours. Language skills superior to those of their parents became evident in these, with lower age correlating with higher Chinese language skills. In this manner, the role of young migrants as translators of knowledge, especially language knowledge, became evident. Cheng’s source then showed the cover of a volume of “Future”, a magazine by the Shanghai Jewish Youth Community Center, meant to cover its ongoing activism. While apparently not important enough to be covered within the magazine, a child’s drawing made it onto the cover and strikingly showed aspects of language learning in migration.

Offering the second short presentation in Panel 3, FRIEDERIKE KIND-KOVÁCS (HAIT, Dresden) discussed transnational child evacuations in post-WWI central Europe. Her source was a child’s painting which was entered into a children’s drawing contest, with the task of visualizing the articles of the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child of 1924. Delving deeper into the children’s contributions for the contest, Kind-Kovács discussed the ways in which children understood their own rights, which did, in fact, differ from the idealized declarations of Geneva. Kind-Kovács’ source, which showed a “children’s train” from Vienna to Budapest after WWI, showed how the child painter incorporated the ambiguity of children’s new rights into the painting.

ROSEMARIE PEÑA (BGHRA, Camden) concluded Panel III, showing a child’s painting in a children’s home in Mannheim named “our word” (Unsere Welt) that used racial stereotypes. Peña articulated how the picture represented and still does represent the German notion of who belongs and who does not belong to the nation. During her presentation, she delved into the case of Black Germans, who were the only type of migrant children deported in the post-WWII period solely due to their skin color. Unlike other child migrants, they were stripped of their identities and transformed into legally and socially empty bodies in an attempt to essentially make them non-human. It is for this reason that St. Josef Kinderheim in Mannheim plays a key role for black Germans in their remembrance, with some ties never having been lost. Sadly, until this day, the discrimination of Black Germans continues when it comes to accessing their own past, reinforcing Peñas conclusion of the continuity in the German notion of belonging.

In the following discussion, the topic of gender came up, with Kind-Kovács explaining how the migrant children were in some cases chosen in a catalogue-style, according to criteria like gender, religion and age. Their age furthermore influenced how the children experienced the sometimes 6-month long trips to their destinations, as one could imagine a 6-year-old relating differently to such a long trip compared to a 12-year-old. She also described the post-WWI welfare state of Hungary, which she characterized as professional, with proper infrastructure in place, but physically lacking material.

The public discourse regarding black Germans in 1952 was also addressed, with the West German public apparently demanding for the integration of black Germans and publicly blaming the USA for their segregation policies. Peña went on to describe how integration levels were, in fact, not high and how West Germany aimed for the migration of black children once they reached puberty, so they could not populate further. Regarding migration, it was later also considered who linked black German children to African American families in the USA, a process in which the American “black press”, though divided on the issue, played a key role, according to Peña.

The role of children’s paintings was also discussed, as the issue of privileged access to painting materials was brought up, which led to the subject of the subjectivity of such sources. Kind-Kovács explained the role propaganda played in raising funds for the children’s migration and how the children were led to draw the paintings. The presenters also discussed the role of pictures as a source in general, as there is a difference between what is written and what is drawn about. Pictures can speak in a way texts cannot.

Panel 4

Panel 4, dealing with the ‘Experiences and Emotions’ in child migration, was then opened by EMMA WYSE (Queen’s University, Kingston), who dealt with the critique of British evacuee children on Canadian morality, immigration policy and adults, by looking at an excerpt from the book “Thank You Twice or How We Like America.” In the book, the child authors and siblings Caroline (12) and Eddie (10) compare concepts of race and religion to their new protestant environment and describe the experience of their own migration. The book serves as an outstanding example on how children analyzed their adult environment just as much as it observed them.

The next contribution was offered by BETTINA HITZER (HAIT, Dresden), who dealt with transnational child adoption in West Germany and the voice of the child. Focusing on South Korean migration through her book source, she delved into the topic, explaining how no more than 200 children per year were adopted by West Germany until the late 1980s, with no significant transnational adoptions in its counterpart, the German Democratic Republic. Hitzer raised questions about the definition of identity and belonging by the adoptees, how this changed through time and how the nature of this shift itself also changed. Her source, the book “Seidentochter” by South Korean adoptee Anneli Schinkel, offered a remarkable case since her father also wrote about his experiences regarding his daughters’ adoption, allowing for two perspectives to be reviewed.

The last short presentation was given by SIMONE LAQUA-O’DONNELL (University of Birmingham), who offered a case study of the child migration among Russian Mennonites. When confronted with challenges to their core values, Laqua-O’Donnell explained, the Mennonites often chose to flee, turning them into migration people. The source Laqua-O’Donnell discussed exemplified the story of a 16-year-old Mennonite who left his Russian home towards Canada after attractive promises were made by the country. The language he used was interesting, as it defined what was remembered and what images were used to remember childhood migration as an adult. Laqua-O’Donnell argued that the short time span of the boy’s migration in the boy’s retrospective recollection can be considered common, with implications for further research in the field, regarding the remembrance of such events.

Friederike Kind-Kovács then initiated the subsequent discussion by addressing the memories and emotions of the children leaving their parents. Due to their young age, children’s memory is emotionally charged and tied to objects and spaces, characteristic for the time “before memory”, compared to adult remembrance. With children’s recollections being tied in this manner, the challenge of bridging the gap between them and their actual past experiences becomes apparent. The child authors and siblings Caroline (12) and Eddie (10) prove a rare example in this context since they offer two narratives that can be disputed and put together in a co-narrative. When working with such sources, their quality should, however, also be evaluated. The general distrust in oral history is antiquated, but researchers should nonetheless be wary of “overinterrogating” such sources, also taking into account that they may have been intended for a specific or no public audience at all.


In her concluding remarks, Kind-Kovács marked out the management and administration of child migration as key aspects, as questions and categories change over time. She noted how the children’s bodies, emotions and their own interpretation of their migration needed to be addressed in the future. What unites the unique experiences of child migration, what collective patterns can be observed? She stated that there exists an idealized imagery of childhood life that influences the way children were treated. Anca Cretu also addressed the need to analyze global regimes of childhood, bringing in the perspective of linking the experiences of childhood migration. Following the discussions, it became clear that the role of children as historical subjects and agents in their own rights and the purposes for which children used their agency would serve as a thematic agenda for the next digital workshop in the fall of 2021. Shifting the focus to children’s diverse forms of agency as well as children’s interior worlds, including their daily experiences and their emotional responses to their distinct experiences of migration, ranging from adoption trauma and segregation to resilience and integration, will allow new insight into children’s very own place in migration.

This first entry into a series of upcoming workshops leaves listeners yearning for the next entry, with the format working wonderfully by yielding short but insightful presentations, followed by warm and passionate discussions by historians who, despite different analytical approaches, all share their interest in the topic of child migration in the past. Whether it was in sharing sources, insights or ideas, probably all invited speakers not only brought something into the workshop but also took something home for themselves to contemplate or work with. One can be optimistic that the academic dialogue that has been sparked will continue and yield further fruitful results for everyone involved.

Bild 1: ©William H. Johnson, Refugee Child, woodcut on paper, ca. 1935-1939

Bild 2: ©Friederike Kind-Kovács, Participants of the Workshop

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haitblog (2021, 14. Juli). Workshop report „In search of the migrant child: ‘Extra’-Ordinary Sources of Child Migrants’ Past Lives” (18–19 May 2021). Denken ohne Geländer. Abgerufen am 13. Juni 2024, von

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