What My Mother Would Say about Children Separated from their Parents: Notes from Another Time of War and Trauma

evelynemontessorieuropeToday, June 19th, would have been my mother’s 98th birthday and I know if she were alive to see it, she’d be horrified by what her adopted country is doing to Mexican, Central American and other immigrant families. As a mother of six children and a long-time Montessori pre-school teacher, she would take issue with the particularly cruel and inhumane impact that Trump’s policies are inflicting on children who are separated from their parents. During World War II, my mother was a young woman of nearly twenty living in the then-recently occupied part of France. She had completed high school and had just returned from a year abroad in England where she had been trying to improve her English. The Nazis had just invaded and my mother, struggling for a sense of the world, her adulthood, and way to grapple with the rapidly-changing country occupied by fascist Germany, was a bit rudderless. Both of her brothers enlisted in the army–her older brother Robert, who would later be captured and forced to live in a prisoner of war camp until he escaped, and her younger brother Jacques would die in a fatal tank accident within the first weeks of his assignment in Morocco. My mother, like many other French women would stay behind and help the country function, and would try in whatever way they could to sustain some semblance of normalcy. She later told me that she and her parents who had fled their native Dijon for their summer home near Macon outside the control of the Vichy government, had little news of her brothers, and it took months to receive the news of her younger brother’s death in Morocco.

My mother never talked much about the war, she didn’t want to–it was painful for her to remember and she’d often say, shrugging her shoulders, “I don’t remember.” But what she did tell me was something I remember today as I mark her birthday. She, like so many others who are either refusing to help the US government and ICE and border police, or those who are trying to find a way to comfort these children, felt compelled to do something to help traumatized children survive one of the worst imaginable events in their lives. My mother, without a full awareness of what was taking place in her country, found a job with a Protestant French relief agency that was helpingJewish children who were separated from their parents being sent to concentration camps. My mother’s job was to help these children get smuggled into “safe houses” and to families where they could find safety as their parents were taken from them to face their certain death. My mother described this in the least heroic way I could imagine. She told me that though these children were afraid, terrified, really, and that they cried, they were resilient and brave too. Many of them understood that they had to struggle to survive and even had the blessing of their parents to go live with another family. My mother’s most vivid description of this experience was of the faces of these children. To her this was not unforgettable. Later in her life when I understood the gravity of the situation she lived through, and perhaps, her reluctance to recount those memories, I asked her, “what you did, that was true humanity, what made you do it?” She was humble then as she was her whole life, and said only, “it was a job, I did it and only later understood the danger to them and to me.” My mother worked for several years placing these young children aged from 4-15 in homes where French families agreed to house and host these now-orphans in their transition away from their parents who were shipped off to be killed. No one knew exactly what to tell these children; what their fates held. She told me of the terror of their faces and the impossible questions they asked when the did speak. About a year or two before she died, I pressed her for more details and got very little. When I said, “what you did was heroic,” she simply answered, “this wasn’t heroism, it’s just what I did. This is what anybody would do.”

My mother would later come to this country, seeking refuge and a chance to work with the Chicago Montessori Lab (she had also received her Montessori credential from Maria Montessori directly in France in the later years of the war), and woud become an “accidental immigrant”. She left France, in part, I believe because the war had devastating effects on her and her family, and she thought the US might be a place to begin again. She did not fully grasp what she had been through, I believe, because she experienced the trauma of war in many ways–not the least of which was visited upon her by the work she did with those young children who lost their parents. She would be horrified, I know, to see what her adopted country was doing today to families seeking those same opportunities in this country, looking to find a similar refuge from violence and devastation, and, to “begin again.” I believe she’d be deeply disappointed in this country and this administration and the willfully inhuman and mean-spirited policies we are promoting all over the globe and at home. Tonight, I light a candle for her and for her work trying to help children survive the trauma of being separated from their parents. I think of her, and I think of those other mothers, who felt and feel helpless to protect their children from states and governments that behave in ways that are counter to everything my two immigrant parents (ironically both having survived war and occupation in their respective France and Iran) believed in when they became citizens of the United States.

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