This post is part one of a series of posts adapted from a research paper that I wrote during my sophomore year of undergrad. This is not meant to be an exhaustive look at postwar Europe but it’s meant to provide insight into the conditions Jewish Holocaust survivors faced and their actions following liberation. For part one, about DP camps, please click here.
Postwar destruction, southern Germany. Image via my family archives.
Survivors in DP camps worked to locate surviving family members, pouring over lists of survivors posted at the camps and published in camp newspapers. Jewish Organizations were instrumental with this method, compiling lists of survivors on carbon paper so several copies could be made at once. When someone left the town or camp, they took copies and distributed them on their journey. UNRRA (United Nations Relief & Rehabilitation Administration) also helped reunite families as they kept records survivors could search. In addition, a word of mouth telegraph system had been developed to carry messages across international borders since mail and phone usage was reserved for military use only.
A handwritten chart listing children by nationality at Landsberg DP camp. Image via USHMM.
Many survivors spent the first months and years after liberation trying to obtain the paperwork and permissions needed to immigrate and by 1952, over 80,000 Jewish DPs had immigrated to the United States. While the US was popular with survivors, it was the second choice. In an April 1945 poll of 138,320 DPs in all three occupation zones, 118,570 (almost 85%) said the country they’d most like to immigrate to was Palestine. It was viewed as the promised land where a Jewish state could be developed but the British government (who controlled Palestine at this time) banned Jewish immigration to Palestine, a policy that was met with much resentment.
A group of displaced persons in Landsberg DP camp protesting Britain’s immigration policy to Palestine. Image via USHMM.
Lucille Eichengreen’s first choice was Palestine but after finding out the only way she could get there was by marrying her cousin, she decided to immigrate to the US. Lucille, who spent time living and working in a British DP camp, was lucky enough to have British troops escort her from Germany to Brussels, Belgium and then put her on a train to Paris. Once she arrived in Paris, she immediately went to
Lucille in 2006. Image via Der Spiegel.
the American embassy to begin the immigration process. She had friends in New York who sent an affidavit for her but that wasn’t nearly enough. Lucille also needed a health certificate, a current passport, a second affidavit, and $600 for passage to New York City. This seems like standard travel procedure and, except for the affidavits, it is. But being a Holocaust survivor, Lucille had no identification. Upon arrival at any concentration camp, victims were stripped of their belongings, paperwork included. Because of this, virtually no survivors had identification. She was nervous about obtaining a health certificate as she, like many others, had contracted TB during her time in concentration camps. She was of Polish descent but was born and raised in Germany, therefore, the Polish embassy refused her request multiple times. Lucille stood in line at the American and Polish embassies every day to see what progress had been made on her requests. After over eight weeks, Lucille finally had the paperwork necessary to immigrate to the US. The second affidavit came from her uncle in San Francisco and the $600 from another uncle in Palestine. She finally made it to California in 1949. Today she is 92 years old.
Even traveling from country to country within Europe wasn’t a feat. If a survivor chose to leave a DP camp to immigrate, they faced rigorous laws no matter what occupation zone they happened to be in or where they wanted to go. Primo Levi wrote about Starye Dorogi’s “open camp” status, saying, “Although the camp was neither guarded nor fenced, the distant frontiers were, and strongly so.” Many left the camp, and many returned because borders could not be crossed. It was almost out of the question without passports, birth certificates, or being escorted by Allied troops.
While the majority of survivors wanted to leave Europe as quickly as possible, a small number of survivors chose to stay in Germany. This was a decision that most Jews and Jewish organizations looked down upon, to say the least. How could anyone stay in the country that killed over six million Jews, nearly wiping them out of Europe completely? The answers to that question are varied. Some chose to stay with family members who were too sick to immigrate, some were too sick themselves, some married German spouses, some managed to rebuild their life in Germany, and, most noble of all, some wanted to rebuild Jewish culture in Germany. After all, if all Jews left, the Nazi dream of a judenrein (“cleansed of Jews”) Germany would have come to fruition.
Rebuilding Jewish communities was, as you might guess, difficult. After liberation, some towns had a Jewish population of 50 or less. It is difficult to rebuild Jewish life with no Jews. Furthermore, synagogues were not turned over to Jewish organizations and rabbis couldn’t be convinced to come to Germany. In fact, the Jewish community in Berlin didn’t have a rabbi until 1947, two years after liberation. Smaller communities had an even harder time finding and keeping a rabbi for more than a few weeks or months. As previously mentioned, those that stayed in Germany were met with hostility from fellow Jews. “Let them wait in their beloved Fatherland until their throats are slit too,” sounds like a quote from a member of the Third Reich but in fact, it’s from a “well-known German Zionist.” It was thought that if a person stayed in Germany, it must have been for material reasons. Why was it so difficult to believe that some stayed to rebuild their culture? It’s understandable that Jews did not want to stay in the country that brought them so much heartache the isolation Jews in Germany faced after the war did little to help those that chose to stay.
A young Buchenwald survivor with a British soldier. Image via USHMM.
Postwar Europe was difficult for adults to navigate but children had a much harder time. Not many children survived the Holocaust since anyone deemed unable to work (usually children, the elderly, and the sick) were among the first to be killed upon arrival to a camp. In July 1945, the Institute of Jewish Affairs took a census of survivors in Germany and Austria. The census included 25,000 Jewish survivors, almost 90% of whom were between 16 and 45. Only 3.6% were under 16.
A group of young Buchenwald survivors, dressed in clothes made from German uniforms. Image via USHMM.
For the most part, children had the option to stay in a DP camp or go to an orphanage or hostel. Judith Hemmendinger studied a group of 90 child survivors of Buchenwald during their time in a Paris hostel. The children, all boys, were from Poland, Hungary, and Rumania. They took great pleasure in things we don’t even think about. Hemmendinger wrote that the boys took a train into town every week to have their pictures taken and loved to look at photos of themselves. They hadn’t seen a photo of themselves or even looked in a mirror in years so you can see how this would be very special for them. The boys also hid food in their bedrooms. Many survivors developed the habit of hoarding food as they still felt like it could be taken away at any minute. This prompted the director of the hostel to leave the kitchen open for the boys. They could have whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted.
Children in the Bindermichl DP camp in Austria, 1947. Image via USHMM.
Like all survivors, the boys frequently checked survivor lists, hoping to see familiar names. Some refused to say the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, because they were so hopeful that someone from their family survived. Others were sure no one survived and said the prayer. When the hostel closed in 1947, Hemmendinger said they had “regained their former identity, their physical strength, sensitiveness, and interest in life.” A small number of the boys went to Israel and a much larger number located relatives in the US and immigrated to be with them. The younger ones who had attended school in Paris for the first time stayed in Paris.
Thomas Buergenthal, a child survivor of Auschwitz, has a unique story. After liberation, Thomas, who was 11 at the time, spent time as the “mascot” for a division of the Polish army. His time with the army was short lived as a Polish soldier recognized that Thomas was Jewish (and that the army was no place for a child) and took him to an orphanage in Otwock, Poland.
Thomas, approximately six months after liberation, with the soldier who took him to the orphanage. Image via USHMM.
Buergenthal wrote that he was treated “very well” in the orphanage and when a doctor diagnosed him as underweight, he enjoyed hearty meals and treats like ice cream. He wasn’t sure if he was actually an orphan, though. He watched his father die in Auschwitz but didn’t know his mother’s fate. Other children did have one or both of their parents. Those children were temporarily in the orphanage while their parent(s) rebuilt their life or were still in another country. Those that were unsure if they had surviving family members were often offered to be adopted by Jewish camp survivors. According to Buergenthal, everyone declined.
Being so young and growing up in ghettos and concentration camps, he couldn’t read or write. While still in the orphanage, he, along with the other children, attended a nearby school where he began his education. During his time in the orphanage, arrangements were made for children that were orphans to be illegally moved to Palestine. Shortly before he was to leave, his mother found and wrote him. Due to the strict border controls and unreliable mail service, it took over four months for Thomas and his mother to be reunited. The two of them went on to live in Germany until 1951 when they immigrated to the US. He went on to law school, focusing on human rights law. In 2000, he was elected the American judge at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. He served on several committees dedicated to human rights and retired as emeriti faculty from the George Washington University School of Law.
When I wrote the paper that I adapted these posts from way back in 2012, I was met with lots of, “huh…I never thought about what happened after liberation.” I hope that these posts can shed a little light on the situation. As I stated at the beginning of both of these posts, this isn’t an exhaustive look at this topic by any stretch of the imagination. For more information, please check out my sources below and explore the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s resources online.
Sources (contains affiliate links)
After the Holocaust: Rebuilding Jewish Lives in Postwar Germany by Michael Brenner
The Reawakening by Primo Levi
Among the Survivors of the Holocaust by Irving Heymont
From Ashes to Life by Lucille Eichengreen
Before – During – After by Siegfried Halbreich
A Lucky Child by Thomas Buergenthal
“The Children of Buchenwald: After Liberation and Now” by Judith Hemmendinger