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Canadian historian Rebecca Clifford. Clifford, who wrote the book Survivors: Children’s Lives After the Holocaust, was named as one of three finalists for this year's Cundill History Prize.Elisabeth Hudson/Handout

Among the European Jews who somehow survived the Second World War were about 150,000 children. They hid in basements and attics, in pits in the ground. They hid in plain sight, with new names and identities, pretending to be Christian – often not even knowing that they weren’t. Or that they weren’t actually related to the families they lived with. They were smuggled out of ghettos, often while drugged, so they would stay asleep and silent. They were transported to Allied or neutral countries, where it was safer. Sometimes, children even survived the concentration camps – Theresienstadt, Buchenwald, Auschwitz.

Yet this group has been historically neglected by scholars, according to Canadian historian Rebecca Clifford. Her book Survivors: Children’s Lives After the Holocaust – now a finalist for a prestigious international prize – has become an important addition to the scholarship around this issue.

Survivors was written based on the stories of 100 child survivors, born between 1935 and 1944. On Tuesday, it was named one of three finalists for the prestigious Cundill History Prize. It’s the first time since 2017 that a Canadian historian has been a finalist for the award.

Clifford, who was born and raised in Kingston, Ont., became interested in this topic through two routes. One was academic: after she finished her PhD at Oxford, she was hired for an oral history project about social activism. Interviewing Italians who had taken part in the 1968 protests, Clifford noticed that the way her subjects told the story of their lives had a pattern and a rhythm. They would start by talking about their parents, or the town where they were born – something about their origin point.

“And I started to think: what happens if you don’t know what that is? How do you tell the story of your life? Like literally, how do you conceptualize who you are if you don’t know who your parents are or were, or you don’t know the town you’re from,” said Clifford, 47, during a recent Zoom interview from her home in the U.K., where she is Professor of History at Durham University.

The other path to this subject matter was personal: Clifford’s mother was an infant survivor of the Holocaust. Born in Budapest in 1944, she came to Canada after the Hungarian Revolution as a refugee with her mother, older brother and stepfather. She never met her father, who was in hiding when she was born and did not survive the Holocaust.

“She’s always just said her whole life: if only he’d known that he had a daughter,” says Clifford about her mother Julia Kalotay, who still lives in Kingston. (The interview took place when Clifford was on the eight-person shortlist for the Cundill, but before she was named as one of three finalists.)

Survivors, which was also on the shortlist for the U.K.’s Wolfson History Prize, tells many stories, each heartbreaking in its specific details. Hidden children who grew up not knowing they were adopted, or Jewish – or had even become anti-Semitic. Children who were forced after the war to cut off ties with the Christian families who raised them during the war, families they thought were theirs. Reunions with parents that they couldn’t remember, didn’t recognize – or didn’t like. Some were too young to be aware of their true origins – or forgot entirely and were never able to recover them.

“They had to become historians of themselves,” says Clifford. “They had to literally research their own past.”

A Canadian Jewish Congress program to bring child survivors to Canada only allowed orphans. In desperation, some families identified the children as orphans when they were not. The kids themselves would participate in the ruse.

The book also examines how these children were discounted, even belittled. For the longest time, they were not even thought of as survivors. They were considered “the lucky ones.” One woman talks about feeling out of place at a conference for Holocaust survivors. “I used to want to have a number [tattooed on my arm] so I could show people the pain,” she told Clifford. “They used to say ‘You were a child, what do you know? You don’t remember.’”

Clifford began working on her book in 2014, with research that included an extended, six-month stay in Washington, where she combed through information at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

It was fascinating but often gruelling research that at times took an emotional toll.

“I looked at an awful lot of photos, hundreds and hundreds if not thousands of photos, of child survivors,” says Clifford, who has two children. “The number of times I saw my son’s face. He’s a really skinny, Jewish-looking boy. He could have been one of these kids. And I would sometimes look at the pictures and literally see him. Like, ‘oh my God, it’s Max.’”

The experience also led to a real personal discovery. Early on, when Clifford was learning how to search a database, the woman teaching her suggested she plug in the name of an actual person to see what they could find.

Clifford typed in her grandfather’s name – the one her mother had never met.

“Literally my family didn’t really know what happened to him. And lo and behold, there were hundreds of documents on him in there. All just sitting there all along.”

They showed that he was arrested in Budapest and put on a transport to Buchenwald. He was there for less than two weeks, then transported to a satellite camp where forced labourers made munitions. That’s where the trail ended.

There was another revelation in those documents. Kalotay had always said she knew how much her father had wanted a daughter, and it pained her that he never got to know that he had one.

But what Clifford found out from these documents was that he did know. On one form, he listed his family members. “Number of children: two. … One boy, one girl. So he knew. I don’t know how he knew,” says Clifford, who recalls sitting under the glaring lights of the library, in shock. She couldn’t wait to call her mother. “You know what? He knew about you,” Clifford told her. “I think he came back to find you.”

The Cundill Prize, administered by McGill University and named for philanthropist and McGill alumnus F. Peter Cundill, recognizes history writing in English. The winner receives $75,000 U.S. and the two runners-up $10,000 each. This year’s jury chair is Michael Ignatieff. The other two finalists, announced Tuesday, are The Horde: How Mongols Changed the World by French historian Marie Favereau and Blood on the River: a Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast by Marjoleine Kars, who was born in The Netherlands and now teaches at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. The winner will be announced Dec 2.

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