CRUEL WORLD

The Children of Europe in the Nazi Web

By Lynn H. Nicholas

Knopf. 632 pp. $35

Lynn H. Nicholas is probably best known for her exhaustive study The Rape of Europa, which chronicled the theft and dislocation of works of art by the Nazis; she has now tackled the rape of childhood in Nazi Europe -- the slaughter, abuse, starvation, dislocation and indoctrination of the continent's children in what the author terms the cruel world of the Nazi web. The result is a thoroughly researched and incisively written account of horrendous crime, suffering, folly and indifference, as well as of heroism, sacrifice and the will to survive (with the latter, unfortunately, on a much smaller scale).

Cruel World's originality and impact lie in its broad sweep, in training the reader's eye on the children of Sudeten Germans whose parents were anti-Nazi, on Spanish and Basque children made homeless by the Spanish Civil War, on both German and English children caught in bombing raids and on underage girls who were raped by vengeful Soviet soldiers or who committed suicide at the approach of the Red Army. It includes the children of besieged Leningrad, who died of starvation, and underage German boys drafted at the end of the war. Nicholas recounts the irrational education German youngsters received in the Hitler Youth, as well as Nazi attempts to teach racism in the schools of the "racially pure" conquered countries, notably Norway and the Netherlands.

So this is not merely another book about the Holocaust, although the Holocaust is the most glaring event in these pages. Cruel World is more shocking and upsetting than any book that deals with "only" one persecution. By broadening her scope to include every affected nationality and then narrowing it to the stories of the youngest and therefore most helpless victims of the Nazis, Nicholas makes us aware how children across Europe were caught up in the Nazis' cruelty and became victims -- though the results were far more lethal, of course, for the members of "subhuman" races, notably Slavs and Jews.

In his film "Schindler's List," Steven Spielberg showcased an old Jewish adage: "Whoever saves one life saves the whole world." Implicitly and sadly, this book tells us that in the real world of war and disaster, one saved life does not outweigh a thousand murders. Numbers do matter. We clutch at every successful rescue effort we read about, but then we are warned: "All the efforts of the Dutch students, the Polish nuns, and rescuers of every variety in every occupied country to protect Jewish children could, in the end, save only a tiny percentage of the estimated 1.5 million who were being swept away."

Cruel World begins by surveying the eugenics theories of the early 20th century, some of which originated in Anglo-American pseudo-science and led to legalized involuntary sterilization on racial and even social grounds in some American states. The criteria for genetic fitness and superiority -- and the perversion of what little knowledge there was about hereditary laws -- were often more viciously naive than any primitive beliefs in magic at which these same "scientists" would have scoffed. Nicholas writes that U.S. segregation laws and colonial powers' abusive policies provided "lessons" for the Nazis, though the Nazis carried them out on an unheard-of scale, even adding a special section for children in their infamous "euthanasia" program for murdering mental patients.

The Third Reich's racial madness led to new, unexpected realms of suffering. In successive chapters titled "Good Blood" and "Bad Blood," the author deals with different aspects of the Nazis' obsession with race. "Good Blood" covers Hitler's effort to bring ethnic Germans who lived in other countries back to Germany or what he intended to make German territory; there was even a quixotic attempt to persuade Americans of German stock to remigrate. We learn in vivid detail about German displacement policies in the Baltic states, Poland and Czechoslovakia, designed to resettle people of "good blood," no matter what the children suffered through the uprooting. "Bad Blood" takes up the fate of Slavic children sent as forced laborers to Germany.

In addition to scouring readily available documents, Nicholas makes use of obscure material, including contemporary reports from eyewitnesses and journalists and more recent interviews with survivors. She gives due credit and unstinting praise to individuals who helped, often risking their lives to hide and protect children, but she also casts a cold eye on bureaucratic snarls that left quotas unfilled and needlessly hindered rescue operations. She casts a wide net, including Western European countries and the Soviet Union as well as the Americas. She is fair but merciless when it comes to missed opportunities before "the floodgates closed" (the title of one of her chapters), when Jews were desperately trying to emigrate to virtually any country.

As for the United States, Nicholas weighs the economic disasters of the Depression years and the resultant fear that an influx of refugees would be too much of a burden on the economy, but she also points to racism, American nativism and, incredibly, a fear of disturbing international equilibrium (or what could pass for such) to help explain why so many children perished and why so many more barely survived into adulthood. The British took in an unrestricted number of Jewish children, albeit without their parents; but the Americans refused on spurious grounds -- including an argument against the separation of families -- with a hidden anti-Semitic component.

Cruel World ends with an account of the misery that followed the end of the war, when even huge repatriation efforts could not accommodate those whose parents were dead and who had nowhere to go to. Anyone who assumes that powerful adults are bound to come to the aid of helpless children will be sorely disabused by this book. *

Ruth Kluger is the author of the memoir "Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered."