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Home arrow History arrow A Global History of Child Death: Mortality, Burial, and Parental Attitudes


Modern Conflict and War

As noted in Chapter 1, children born into or living during wartime are at high risk for death. During World War I, relatively few civilians (between five and nineteen percent of those killed) were killed by warfare. But since WWII that number has steadily risen about eighty percent. 7,736 children died during the blitz years in the United Kingdom. From 1980 to 1990 nearly 1.5 million children have been killed by wars, both declared and undeclared. The use of child soldiers has risen in the Middle East, in particular. During the Iran-Iraq war, 95,000 ten and eleven-year-old boy soldiers died.34 Even in “peaceful” countries, such as the United States, children are at risk of violence at the hands of their parents or community. In 2011, 1,570 children died of abuse and neglect, and seventy percent of those children are under the age of four.35 Children with a step-parent are more likely to die than those who live with one or both of their biological parents.

The most egregious example of conflict related mortality is the Holocaust in which of the six million Jews murdered at the hands of the Nazis 1.2 million were children. Many, many more children were brutalized, both physically and psychologically. Even as the Nazis were aware of their impending defeat in 1944 and were already retreating, “the Nazi machinery of death” in Hungary was inundated by the huge number of deportees waiting to be gassed in Poland. In order to expedite the process, Nazis threw living children onto burning fires. Children were the first targets of Hitler’s “final solution”, and as such their extermination has had a long lasting effect on the generations of Jews around the world.36

The book I Never Saw another Butterfly is a collection of poems and drawings by Jewish children who lived in the Terezin or Theresienstadt concentration camp. Terezin was actually presented as a model ghetto, with grass and flowers, in order to cover up the Nazi genocide. It was inhabited by scholars, writers, musicians and artists who were encouraged to be creative. The book is named for one of the poems written by a young inmate, Pavel Friedman, who wrote in 1942 “I never saw another butterfly.. .Butterflies don’t live in here, in the ghetto.”37 Butterflies are a symbol of eternal life.

As more children began to survive childhood, and as child death became rare and unexpected, grieving became an affliction that mental health professionals could help parents work through. Although more children have survived in the modern age, the circumstances that describe the deaths of modern children have become more complex and shocking. While genocide has been committed since the beginning of time, never has it occurred to the extent of the Nazi Holocaust. Further, the nature of gun culture and the weakness of mental health care have facilitated the advent of school shootings that have traumatized the world. It is not to say that the death of a child in the modern world is more distressing than it was in years past, but it is certainly less expected.

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