Children of War by Chim

In the aftermath of the last World War, several UN Agencies were established to provide relief response to devastated countries worldwide. UNICEF commissioned in those days an assignment for a photographer who should make a feature about the living conditions of children in Europe. The assignment was proposed in March 1948 to David Seymour who immediately set out for a trip that would bring him in the same year to Poland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Greece and Italy.

Chim, as Seymour liked to be called, was born in the jewish community of Warsaw. But he had left Poland already in the 1930’ies. By 1948 he had become internationally recognized as a pioneering war photographer and a founding member of the legendary photographers cooperative Magnum.

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© Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos (Chim on the left, Capa on the right)

In the immediate aftermath of the war, there were still millions of refugees, undocumented and forcedly displaced people wandering through Europe in search of either their home towns or, if necessary, a new host country.  Many regions were still plagued by brutal lawlesness. Lootings, lynching parties and revenge crimes could erupt anywhere, anytime. There were also not less than 13 million children that were living on the wild side, without any state institutions or even stable social structures providing them sufficient protection.

Chim labeled them as “abandoned”: “There are 1.700.000 orphans in Poland, 100.000 in Warsaw alone. In Czechoslovakia there are 50.000. In 1945, In Hungary we orphans numbered 200.000 and 1.000.000 children were homeless. In Greece one out of every eight children is an orphan. There are 40.000 “sciusia” in Milan, 65.000 in Rome, 75.000 in Naples and there are 3.000.000 homeless Italian children. In France, there are 250.000 orphans …

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© David Seymour/Magnum Photos

The children he started to photograph all “had their first experience of life in atmosphere of death and destruction”. They had “passed their first years in underground shelters, bombed streets, ghettoes set on fire, refugee trains and concentration camps”. They had only known a world of fear, “instilled by men who kill”.

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© David Seymour/Magnum Photos

Chim saw that, even three years after the war, “thousands upon thousands of us are still homeless“. Innumerable schools were still lying destroyed, their teachers had disappeared. “Everywhere the most elementary equipment is lacking.” There were simply not enough shoes to walk in, not enough beds to sleep in.

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© David Seymour/Magnum Photos

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© David Seymour/Magnum Photos

During his trip, Chim focussed on the displaced children who did not have the luck to find their parents, brothers and sisters. Many did not even know their native language. Countless “abondoned” children were living mostly in groups, “many carried on a black market and pilfered in order to live. The girls frequently had no other choice then to sell cigarettes or turn to prostitution. They naturally preferred that for which you, the “grown up”, paid them mostIn the neighbourhood of Rome, thousands of abandoned children were living on plunder. They were organized in bands, each with its armed leader.”

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© David Seymour/Magnum Photos

Chim, whose parents were killed by the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto (probably on the 19th of August 1942), and who had thus become an orphan himself, only received a small fee and a special “laissez paser” that allowed him to cross the boundaries.  But, his book, a monograph  calledChildren of Europe” was ready in 1949. It contained 54 photographs on 60 pages, had a softcover and was printed and distributed by Unesco in Paris as publication N° 403 .

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© David Seymour/Magnum Photos

In 2013 the book was re-edited for the first time by Carole Naggar as “CHIM Children of War“.  Her edition contains a larger selection of the 257 film rolls Chim had shot during his trip and also some very interesting text material: an essay and a “note on the photographs”.

Naggar writes that the pictures published in the original book are often illustrative: “the situations shown are mainly those were UNICEF’s intervention is the most visible.“…. “Images are often symbolic or sentimental, such as a pile of worn shoes…” But Naggar draws our attention also to the photographs where Chim achieves an “epic depiction of childhood after war“, articulating the “generalized plight of the most vulnerable of war’s victims“. Naggar explains that the choice of the published pictures must have been “a compromise between the wishes of Chim and his clients“.

These pictures may be called (depending on the case) “symbolic”, “sentimental” or “epic depictions” indeed but that has never been that what puzzles me when I look at them. Each time when I look at Chim’s Children of Europe, they have this strange effect on me. The strange effect is that I am always wondering what has become of this or that child in the book. Many of them still must be alive.  We know now what became of Terzka but what has become of the one-handed boy that is irresistibly laughing to Chim while learning to unbotton his shirt?

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© David Seymour/Magnum Photos

Finally, there still is the moving letter “to a Grown Up”  that Chim has written as a guide to look at these pictures that contributes to the outstanding qualities of the monograph. In the 8-pages letter (excerpts in italics throughout this blog post), he adopts the voice of his children and he addresses the adults:

Even if you succeed in saving our lives, you will not yet have achieved the main thing. You still have to make men of us, human beings capable of living in society – not the society which we have known, but another and better society, in which children no longer will be killed by men.”

Today, when new child refugees are wandering, sometimes without their parents, through the same countries again, in the same lamentable conditions again, we are able to process the real significance of Chim’s historical pictures. Today, we can ask ourselves: Is the “main thing”, to which Chim referred in his letter, achieved? Where is the relief for today’s refugees coming from us, the “children of Europe”?

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© David Seymour/Magnum Photos

It seems that Chim already had foreseen the risk for the new generation: “We ourselves shall be “grown ups” in a few years and, if we then see that millions of us have been abandoned a second time, we certainly shall lose faith in that ideal for which you fought“.

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© David Seymour/Magnum Photos

Thank you Mr Seymour!