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Section: Survival and legacy

How did survivors rebuild their lives?

Red Cross workers at the newly liberated Bergen-Belsen camp
Red Cross workers at the newly liberated Bergen-Belsen camp © 2011 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

For many of the survivors within mainland Europe, the defeat of Germany did not bring instant freedom. Nor did it bring happiness.

The Red Cross and other relief organisations did all they could to help return victims home. However, the situation for Jews was far more difficult. Many of them did not have homes, families or communities to go back to.

How did survivors rebuild their broken lives? How could they find any remaining family members? Where could they find a place they could call home?

This section will seek to tell the human stories about how survivors coped with the post-war difficulties and how they sought to rebuild their lives.

Finding family

A young survivor writes, “where are our parents?’ on the side of a train from Buchenwald to France
A young survivor writes, “where are our parents?’ on the side of a train from Buchenwald to France © 2011 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“We were not really interested in each other or in the fact that the war was over. Everyone had two preoccupations – staying alive and being reunited with any surviving relatives. After a few weeks, my aunt Miriam, who was in a nearby camp at Braunschweig, came to Belsen to look up the register of survivors, and found my name on it. I was so grateful that someone from my family had found me, and she took me back with her to Braunschweig.

After a few months, we made our way back to Lodz in Poland and I realised that I had lost my home, my possessions, my entire family, my health and my education.”

Renee Salt © Aegis Institute Survival: Holocaust Survivors Tell Their Story (Quill/Aegis, 2003) Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre

For most survivors, after the basic needs of finding food, clothing and shelter were dealt with, searching for relatives was the most important objective.

There were many routes to try. Some returned home where they often met hostility from the non-Jewish population; others searched through the camp network, others contacted the Red Cross or made contact with family members who had found refuge in the USA, Canada and UK.

This process could take years, and for many survivors still continues today.

Returning home?

Survivors returning to Budapest, Hungary
Survivors returning to Budapest, Hungary © 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

“Because I did not return to Hungary, I lost my nationality. I became stateless. An outcast. No papers, no residence permit, no work permit. I often worked illegally, was cold and hungry, travelled with a false passport. It took me 12 more years to obtain a nationality and become a recognised civil being again.”

Trude Levi; © Aegis Institute Survival: Holocaust Survivors Tell Their Story, Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre.

In 1935, the Nazis had taken away the citizenship of Jews living in Germany. As they invaded and occupied lands, the Nazis also took away the nationality from millions of Jews across Europe.

Consequently, when the war ended Jewish survivors had no papers and no passport. They were in essence people of no nationality, with no official name, no home and no country to return to.

Those survivors who did begin to return home to search for relatives were often treated with hostility from the non-Jewish population. Many of the locals feared that the Jews would demand that their property and belongings be returned.

It often took many years before survivors gained the dignity and safety of a land they could call home. Only then were they able to begin to build a new life.

A new life in Britain

After the war, because some survivors found conditions so hostile in their native countries, many gathered in the parts of Germany then controlled by the USA and Britain. They were stateless with no home. Some tried to enter Britain as refugees.

The British government refused to allow mass immigration of Jewish refugees. The large majority of those that did manage to enter came under a scheme set up for relatives of Jews already living in the Britain. These refugees were subject to the condition that they would be cared for and supported by their families; this meant they would not be a burden on the British state.

In the main, the survivors were not encouraged to talk about the past.

Kity Hart-Moxon remembers:

“My uncle was at the quayside in Dover to meet us. His greeting was chilly, ‘Welcome to England. Understand that in my house I don’t want you to speak about anything that happened to you. I don’t want to know and I don’t want my girls upset.’…

In September 1946 Britain was an uncaring society, unwilling to listen to survivors. The government too was unhelpful and even imposed restrictions on the type of employment survivors were allowed to take up. There were no government grants, no welfare payments and no counselling was offered to help survivors come to terms with their traumatic past. We were simply left to cope on our own.”

© Aegis Institute Testimony from Survival: Holocaust Survivors Tell Their Story (Quill/Aegis, 2003)

A new life in Israel

Despite the British efforts the majority of homeless Jewish refugees still saw Palestine as their best chance of a successful future. Here we see Jewish youths, who arrived in Britain as orphan after the war, protesting in London during 1946 against British policy in Palestine.
Despite the British efforts the majority of homeless Jewish refugees still saw Palestine as their best chance of a successful future. Here we see Jewish youths, who arrived in Britain as orphan after the war, protesting in London during 1946 against British policy in Palestine. © 2011 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

After the war, many survivors decided to go to Palestine. However, the British government, which held the League of Nations mandate to govern Palestine, severely limited immigration.

During the war a group of Palestinian Jews had fought with the British army. It was known as the Jewish Brigade. At the end of the war, these soldiers worked with former Jewish partisans to help survivors reach Palestine.

Between 1945 and 1948, around 70,000 attempted this. They left on overcrowded boats from European ports. The British, because of their immigration quota, stopped most of the ships. They sent the survivors to detention camps on Cyprus. Cyprus at that time was controlled by Britain.

The most famous ship of all was the ‘Exodus’. On 11 July 1947 the ‘Exodus’ left Marseilles in France with 4,500 survivors on board. The British captured the ship. Instead of sending the survivors back to Cyprus the authorities returned them to Germany.

Despite the British efforts the majority of homeless Jewish refugees still saw Palestine as their best chance of a future. As Britain continued its policy of detention of refugees, world opinion turned against these policies.

In January 1946 US president Harry Truman put pressure onto the British government to admit 100,000 Jewish refugees into Palestine.

The situation in Palestine was becoming very difficult. The British government finally referred the issue to the United Nations, which voted, in November 1947, to partition Palestine into two new states, one Jewish and the other Arab.

The British mandate on Palestine terminated on 14 May 1948. David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, announced the formation of the state of Israel. He declared;

“The Nazi Holocaust, which engulfed millions of Jews in Europe, proved anew the urgency of the re-establishment of the Jewish State, which would solve the problem of Jewish homelessness by opening the gates to all Jews and lifting the Jewish people to equality in the family of nations.”

The announcement of the state Israel opened the door for Holocaust survivors from DP camps in Europe and from detention camps on Cyprus to enter the country.

Ruth learns of her parents' survival

Ruth was born in 1935 in Berlin, Germany to a Jewish father and a Christian mother. The Nazis classed Ruth as Jewish.

After Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938 the situation for Jewish families became increasingly dangerous. Ruth’s family decided that she and her brother, Martin, should be sent to Britain on the kindertransport. Throughout the war in England Ruth stayed with three different foster families.

In 1949, four years after the war and ten years after arriving in England, Ruth was told that her parents had survived the war. Her father had spent the war years in Shanghai, China, whilst her mother had survived in Germany.

How did this 14 year old young woman deal with the news? Watch this video and learn how Ruth coped with news of her parents and a potential move back to Germany.

Please note that the lead in may take a few moments to allow the video to begin.

Ruth: Germany and Britain

In 1949, four years after the war and ten years after arriving in Britain, Ruth was told that her parents had survived the war. She initially went back to Germany to be with them.

After living such a long time in a new home and with a new family Ruth was unable to cope in Germany. How did her parents react? How did Ruth react? What happened next?

Watch this short clip to learn about the heartfelt decisions that were made and how Ruth was able to get the emotional comfort she needed.

Please note that the lead in may take a few moments to allow the video to begin.

Freddie learns of his parents' fate

After the war Freddie knew that his parents were lost. However, it took many long years before he knew exactly what had happened to them.

Long after the war Freddie was visiting Auschwitz with a film crew. On this visit he was given the news of his parents’ fate.

In this video Freddie talks about the day he learned what had happened to his parents.

Please note that the lead in may take a few moments to allow the video to begin.

 

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Ruth learns of her parents' survival

Ruth learns of her parents' survival

What happened in May