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 DP camps, but a look at the conditions Holocaust survivors faced and one Jewish camp in the American zone. For more information about DP camps, please visit my sources at the bottom of this post.
Life after the Holocaust isn’t a topic that comes to light very often. What did survivors do? Where did they go? Almost everyone has some knowledge of the horrors of the Third Reich but far fewer people possess knowledge of the life that waited for their victims once liberation came. It was impossible for life to go back to normal…there was no normal anymore.
When the war in Europe ended in May 1945, millions of Europeans were left displaced. We don’t know the exact number. Figures vary greatly, even among historians, but the task of putting the lives of the Jewish, Romani, homosexual, and political prisoners that survived concentration camps as well as the lives of Europeans displaced by war wasn’t easy.
One option that survivors had were the displaced persons camps (DP camps) set up in the occupation zones (American, Soviet, British, and French). The camps were often established in either the remains of the concentration camp or in German army barracks. They were set up by the Allies to give survivors a safe place to stay while they regained their strength, tracked down surviving family members, gathered the paperwork needed to immigrate, and/or become acclimated to life outside of a concentration camp. They were small communities with schools, synagogues/churches, hospitals, and recreation areas. This post will discuss DP camps, particularly the Landsberg DP camp near Munich, Germany in the American-occupied zone. Much of the information in this post comes from the letters of US Army Major Irving Heymont, head of the Landsberg camp from September-December 1945.
To understand what a survivor of the Holocaust faced after liberation, it’s important to understand the atmosphere in Europe, particularly Germany and Poland. Anti-Semitism was prevalent in pre-war Europe and obviously, the effects of years of Nazi propaganda were strong and didn’t immediately disappear (in some ways, it survives to this day.) Jewish survivors often faced physical and verbal attacks, known as pogroms. Primo Levi, a Jewish-Italian survivor of Auschwitz, wrote, “We felt we had something to say, enormous things to say, to every single German, and we felt that every German should have something to say to us…”
Survivors who returned to their hometown to try to reclaim their pre-war property were met with “violent opposition” from the current owners of their homes. According to one of the men who witnessed such an attack, the Polish police often did nothing to stop the attackers. The events that transpired under the Third Reich paired with the residual hate left most survivors with the desire to get out of Europe as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, it took time for that to even be a possibility. In the meantime, those that stayed in DP camps found that they weren’t always the refuges they were intended to be. Major Irving Heymont, himself Jewish-American, of the US Army told the Landsberg camp committee that “the army came to Europe to fight the Nazis, not stand guard over their victims.” Heymont didn’t want to be in charge of the camp and statements like the aforementioned show his true feelings. Regardless, this attitude wasn’t exclusive to Landsberg. Julius Spokojny spent time in the Wildflecken DP camp, also in the American zone. Spokojny wrote, “…after the concentration camp, there was still a concentration camp, only without annihilation, without gas chambers, but the same closed camp. With armed guards.”
Protests took place at the White House when Americans found out about the treatment of survivors by US troops. President Truman decided to investigate the situation and sent Earl G. Harrison, then a member of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, to inspect a few camps in the American zone. Harrison’s report aligns with Spokojny’s comments about Wildflecken. In his report, Harrison wrote,
As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them. They are in concentration camps in large numbers under our military guard instead of SS troops. One is led to wonder whether the German people, seeing this, are not supposing that we are following or at least condoning Nazi policy.
Truman immediately took action, writing a letter to General Eisenhower in August 1945 stating that the Americans had a responsibility to show the German people that “we abhor the Nazi policies of hatred and persecution” and that the best way to demonstrate this was to treat the survivors with dignity. This letter led to improved treatment of the DPs as well as the improvement of the camps becoming a priority in the American zone. With new men being put in charge of the camps and the turbulent atmosphere, this policy took time to sink in. In September 1945, Major Heymont, then only 27 years old, became the head of the Landsberg DP camp in Germany.
The Landsberg DP camp was set up after the liberation of nearby Landsberg concentration camp, a subcamp of Dachau. This camp was part of “Kaufering IV.” If this name sounds familiar or the photo below looks familiar, it’s probably because this is the same camp that was liberated in episode 9 of Band of Brothers, “Why We Fight.”
Heymont’s letters to his wife give us clear view of what life in Landsberg was like. According to Heymont, the unit that was in charge before he got there had done nothing more than ensure the rations were distributed. He wrote that the residents, 6,000 total with 5,000 being Jewish survivors of Dachau and its sub camps, “appear demoralized beyond hope of rehabilitation. They appear to be beaten both spiritually and physically, with no hopes or incentives for the future.”
He went on to reveal his biggest struggle with the camp: the sanitation, or lack thereof. He described the camp as being, “filthy beyond description. Sanitation is virtually unknown. Words fail me when I try to think of an accurate description.” Due to the lack of sanitation in concentration camps, disease spread rapidly. Many survivors were liberated with typhus and lice. Cleaning the DP camp would stop the spread of disease among survivors as well as US soldiers and civilians in the surrounding areas. It’s also true that cleanliness can help you feel human.
There were two reasons for the condition of the camp: supply shortages left them with few cleaning supplies and the camp residents, having been dehumanized, malnourished, and used as slave labor for years, were not in any condition to clean. This left him extremely frustrated. Heymont wrote his wife an entire letter, several pages long, on the condition of various parts of the camp. The pots, pans, and stoves of the non-kosher kitchen were “encrusted” with grease and food debris and appeared not to have been cleaned in weeks. Meat was laying on the floor of the walk-in freezer as all of the meat hooks were rusty. The kosher kitchen was somehow worse than its non-kosher counterpart and there was human excrement on the floor of the kitchen’s storeroom. Of the bathrooms he wrote that they “beg description” and “the washrooms and toilets had an intense acrid odor that almost caused me to vomit.” The hospital was described as a “bright spot” with only small infractions and the schools were also surprisingly clean.
With all of that in mind, it’s important to realize that not all DP camps were in the condition Landsberg was in at this point in time. On September 28, 1945, Major Heymont and General Onslow Rolfe, the Assistant Division Commander, took a trip to the Fohrenwald DP camp near Wolfratshausen. This camp was “beautiful,” set up well, and run well. This visit inspired him. It’s also around this time, and probably not coincidental, that he seems to become more sympathetic towards the residents. In the same letter he mentions the Fohrenwald visit, he mentions a speech he gave to the camp in which he said,
Because I know what you have suffered, I want to assure you that I do not intend to see Landsberg another prison camp. We did not conquer the Nazis so we could have the hollow honor of standing armed guard over the victims of Hitler.
This is a far cry from his previous statement saying that the Army wasn’t responsible for standing guard over the victims of the Third Reich. In the same speech, Heymont stressed that he understood that under the Nazis, work meant death and that the US Army didn’t intend to work them to death. As the Army began to understand the survivors’ point of view, camp rules began to change. Residents no longer needed a written pass to leave the camp and the guards at the gate were withdrawn as they were reminiscent of guards outside of concentration camps. Only one soldier remained at the main gate to help camp police and keep unauthorized Germans from entering. The most symbolic change came when the barbed wire surrounding the area, left from the concentration camp, was finally torn down.
At first, DPs in camps, in all occupation zones, were organized by nationality. It seems that Jewish survivors were mostly unhappy with this system. They wanted to be seen simply as Jewish, not Polish Jews, German Jews, or Hungarian Jews. Once the US Army realized this, populations were moved around and many camps became Jewish or non-Jewish. Landsberg became a Jewish DP camp in October 1945.
Since post-war Europe was divided into four occupation zones, it’s interesting to look at the differences between DP camps in the different zones. It was mentioned that Jewish residents in Landsberg, and most camps, wanted to be seen as Jewish and nothing else. In Starye Dorogi, a transit camp for Italians in the Soviet Union, things were different. Primo Levi, who spent time in the camp, said that the Soviets were impartial toward the residents and saw them simply as Italians, disregarding whether they were Jewish or not. This seemed to suit Levi, as he said the rest was ‘vsyo ravno’ or “all the same.” Another stark contrast comes with the physical treatment of the residents. Residents of American camps were certainly not treated the same as the soldiers themselves. In Star Dorogi, it seems that they were.
One constant in all of the camps was the desire for privacy. This is a completely understandable desire as survivors hadn’t experienced privacy in years. Ghettos didn’t allow for much solitude and privacy in a concentration camp was impossible. Unfortunately, almost every camp was overpopulated and privacy was still in short supply. Heymont was struck by the residents’ “intense desire” for it, to not be part of a mass as they had been for so many years. Residents strung blankets up and rearranged wooden lockers to create partitions. In From Ashes to Life, Lucille Eichengreen wrote about her time in a British DP camp where she shared a room with six or seven other women and, like Landsberg, the bathroom was dormitory style. Since most DP camps were established in the remains of concentration camps or army barracks, arrangements similar to Lucille’s and those in Landsberg were extremely common.
Major Heymont, later to become Colonel Heymont, was commander of the Landsberg DP camp for only three and a half months. According to Abraham Peck, who was born in the camp and went on to become director of the Academic Council for Post-Holocaust Christian, Jewish and Islamic Studies at the University of Southern Maine, Heymont’s work shouldn’t go understated. He called the Landsberg DP camp a “turning point” in Jewish history and explained that “Heymont allowed these people their own sense of humanity.” Holocaust survivors needed humanity.
Landsberg went on to become the center of Jewish cultural life in the American zone. In 1947, the camp population stood at 4,500 residents. They had a school system that spanned all ages, from pre-K to college and included a Talmud Torah (field of study dealing with Jewish law) and a Yeshiva (institution dealing with religious texts such as the Talmud and Torah). DPs in the camp ran newspapers, including the ‘Yidishe Tsaytung’ (literally, Jewish Newspaper), a radio station, and a theatre group. As we’ll see in the next post in this series, Jewish DPs were eager to reclaim their culture and went about it with impressive speed and efficiency.
Most DP camps remained in operation until the early 1950s when occupation forces withdrew. The Landsberg DP camp closed in October 1950.
For more information about displaced persons camps, please check out the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and my sources below.
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