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Section: Survival and legacy

Survivors and the Displaced Persons era

Two women photographed with a baby inside the DP camp at Bergen-Belsen in 1947, which was formally the SS officers’ barracks.
Marianne Heitlerova, a nurse working for the Jewish Relief Unit (JRU) in the Displaced Persons (DP) camps, explains the difficult situation facing DPs in a letter to her employers at the Jewish Committee for Relief Abroad (JCRA) dated 11 April 1947.
To receive aid, all Displaced Persons were registered by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRAA), the international organisation in charge of administering relief and aid. This card was issued to Magda Aarts, a 33-year-old Jew from Holland on 12 February 1948.
The cover of the 1946 issue 9 of Unzer Szlyme (Our Voice), the Zionist camp newspaper produced in Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp. The paper was extremely popular and became the main newspaper read by Jewish DPs in the British zone of occupied Germany.

Although liberation, brought freedom to those persecuted and imprisoned by the Nazis, it was also a time of confusion and difficulty. Those who had survived the Holocaust had to come to terms with the loss of their family, home, friends, businesses and belongings. For many, there was nowhere and no one to return to. On top of this, camp survivors in particular also suffered from poor health due to years of malnutrition and poor sanitation. In Bergen-Belsen alone, 13,000 people died following liberation as a result of the conditions in the camp. Liberation marked the beginning of a complex and difficult journey for survivors to reconstruct their lives.

Many survivors wished to emigrate and start a new life abroad. For the majority, this new life was either in Palestine or the United States of America. However, in the immediate post-war period, both of these options were, for the most part, closed to survivors.

Palestine was still under British control until November 1947 (at which time the United Nations voted to split Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state). It was not until 14 May 1948 that the Jewish Agency declared Israel an independent state and mass immigration was permitted. The United States of America continued to operate a restrictive immigration policy in the initial post-war years, which made mass emigration to the country impossible. Between 1945-1948 survivors’ options, then, were limited.

To care for survivors and the many other people uprooted by the war, the Allies created Displaced Persons (DP) camps as temporary accommodation. In addition to those housed in DP camps, some survivors lived in external accommodation in towns or cities across post-war Germany. All survivors were supported by gemeinden (Jewish communities).

Displaced Persons camps

By the spring of 1945, approximately eight million people had been displaced from their homes by the war. By autumn 1945, the Allies had repatriated six to seven million of these people. The one million or so people who remained (approximately 250,000 of which were Jewish) became a somewhat more permanent problem in postwar Europe (primarily in Germany). To care and provide a temporary residence for these people, Displaced Persons’ (DP) camps were created.

Many of the DP camps were set up on the sites of former concentration camps or military barracks. Conditions inside were often unsanitary due to severe overcrowding and a lack of supplies in the post-war period. Initially, all displaced persons (which included military personnel, concentration camp survivors, prisoners of war and slave labourers) were grouped together in the camps according to nationality. This meant that some Jewish survivors found themselves in camps alongside their former oppressors, simply because they both happened to be from the same country.

US President Truman sent Earl G. Harrison, former US Commissioner for Immigration and Representative of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, to investigate. Harrison conducted  a tour of the DP camps in July 1945, paying special attention to the situation of Jewish DPs. Harrison recommended the creation of separate camps for Jewish DPs to cater for their specific needs. In December 1945, the British zone of Germany also created separate camps for Jewish DPs, recognising their special needs as a result of their traumatic experiences.

Challenges

The DP camps were plagued by various difficulties throughout their existence including: a lack of professionally trained staff, shortages in medical supplies, food, and clothing in relation to the number of camp inhabitants, the difficulty of dealing with the psychological effects of persecution on survivors, rising antisemitism on local and international fronts, the number of orphans and new children born within the camps.

These issues were extremely frustrating for the survivors, who had experienced significant trauma throughout the war years and were desperate to restart their lives.

Culture

Cultural activities in the DP camps thrived. With the support of relief organisations, DPs opened schools, celebrated religious holidays, founded camp newspapers and publications, created new literature, music, and theatre and formed sports teams. Zionism also enjoyed particular popularity in this period and setting, and as such there were various Zionist-orientated groups, publications, performances, protests and rallies.

Weddings and births were also commonplace in the DP camps.

Closure

The creation of Israel, in combination with the United States Displaced Persons Act of June 1948 (which allowed the admission of 200,000 European refugees into the United States of America), allowed mass emigration out of Europe and dramatically altered situation for DPs in Germany. By 1951, 177,109 Jews had left Europe for Palestine (through legal or illegal methods) – leaving just 20,000 Jews in Germany [Margarete Myers Feinstein, Holocaust Survivors in Postwar Germany, 1945-1957 (United States of America: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 294]. The DP camps in Germany closed one after the other, until, by 1952, only one DP camp, Föhrenwald, remained (it eventually shut in 1957).

DID YOU KNOW...

Föhrenwald

Föhrenwald was a large DP camp converted from slave labourer’s accommodation. It was opened in June 1945 and was situated south-west of Munich in the American zone of occupied Germany. It held approximately 4000 residents. Following the Harrison Report it became a Jewish-only DP camp on 3 October 1945.

After the mass closures of the DP camps between 1948-1950, the last group of DPs who were unable to emigrate – either because they were too ill or elderly – were transferred to Föhrenwald. This group became known as the ‘hard core’.

With the most desperate DPs concentrated there, Föhrenwald continued to exist until the last DPs were rehoused in newly built apartments on 28 February 1957. With Föhrenwald’s closure, the post-Second World War DP era was, officially at least, closed.

Föhrenwald

The laundrette at Föhrenwald Displaced Persons Camp in 1946. Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

German-Jewish communities outside of camps

Not all Jewish Displaced Persons (DPs) lived in camps, some chose to live outside of the DP camp framework with the help of Gemeinden (Jewish Communities).

The Gemeinden were supported in their activities by large relief agencies, such as the Jewish Relief Unit (JRU) and American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

The Gemeinden helped Jewish DPs with issues such as housing, food, medical care, proof of wartime persecution, and property claims. As well as this, the Gemeinden also often served as a community centre, organising cultural, educational and social events. The Gemeinden also defended Jewish DPs interests when they were threatened, such as in the case of the rising vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and rising antisemitism from 1947.

Many DPs also worked for their local gemeinden, helping with administration, translation or educational activities.

Landsberg Displaced Persons Camp

The Landsberg Displaced Persons (DP) Camp was established in the summer of 1945. It was situated west of Munich in the American zone of occupation and was adapted from a former Wehrmacht barracks. Around five thousand DPs lived there, making it the second largest camp in that zone.

Cultural life in the camp flourished, with democratic internal elections, a weekly newspaper (which was extremely popular across the whole of the American zone), several schools, a hospital, a radio, a theatre and a choir. The camp also had several schemes to help DPs prepare for life beyond the camp, such as the trade school, ran by the relief organisation ORT (Association for the Promotion of Skilled Trades).

Religious life was quickly re-established and there were celebrations of religious holidays, celebrations, weddings, study groups and schools. As with most DP camps, Zionism thrived and enjoyed popular support.

Following the establishment of Israel in 1948, and the United States Displaced Persons Act, the camps’ population quickly reduced. It closed on 15 October 1950, and shortly afterwards all remaining inhabitants were relocated.

Jewish Relief Unit

The Jewish Relief Unit (JRU) was the operational arm of the Jewish Committee for Relief Abroad (JCRA), a British charity formed in 1943 that focussed on relief work abroad, and in particular on providing assistance to Jews in Europe.

JRU field workers worked in the Displaced Persons (DP) camps and communities across Germany from August 1945 – September 1950. Although the JRU was a small relief organisation with a short life, it had an extraordinary impact. The JRU helped DPs in the acquisition of identity documents and tracing missing family members, in the provision of child welfare clinics, and with medical, educational, and cultural services.

The JRU officially stopped its activities in Germany, Austria and Italy in the summer of 1950. In their termination letter, J. Donald Kingsley, the Director-General of the International Refugee Organisation, noted the exceptional contribution that the JRU had made to the DPs, stating ‘this record has been so consistent in the tributes paid to your work by all of our field offices that I cannot fail to mention it’ [J. Donald Kingsley to Leonard Cohen, 13 September 1950, Lady Rose Henriques Archive, 52/53, HA19/1-3/6, The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections].

The JCRA held its last meeting on 11 October 1950, whereby it was formally disbanded.

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