Survivors’ fate: From Nazi camps to Allied camps

DP camps

Angelika Königseder, Juliana Wetzel: Lebensmut im Wartesaal. Die jüdischen DPs (Displaced Persons) im Nachkriegsdeutschland. ISBN 978-3-596-16835-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Reading about this book put my under shock. I was appalled by its subject: After the Nazi concentration camps had been liberated, the freed Jews were put by the Allied forces in camps again, along with other displaced persons, German refugees, prisoners of war, people deported by the Nazis for work etc. Imagine, you have just escaped death, starvation, the utmost humiliation, and your liberators put you back into a camp, with armed guards and barbed wire. For some the camps would become a new home for more than a decade.

I had never given a thought to what happened to Jews right after they were set free. My understanding was that they reintegrated their original communities or emigrated to the US or to what was to become Israel: Palestine. I should have known better actually. Many had nowhere to go, many had nobody to go to. Many survivors did not know if anyone else from the family had survived or where they were. Germany had not become overnight much friendlier to the Jews, nor had the Poles, the Russians or the Austrians. There was no place to welcome them. Hence the idea of a state of their own: Palestine.

Those willing to settle down in Palestine, still under British mandate, grew more numerous by the time as Zionism spread under the displaced Jews streaming into the French, British and US occupation zone. But the British tightly controlled immigration into Palestine as they did not want to upset the Arabs. Alternatives were scarce: Few of the European countries ravaged by war were keen to resettle Jewish refugees on their territory. Other refugees wanted to stay in Germany or Austria, where they had been born and lived all their life, but were afraid about facing a hostile population. Others were too old or too weak to move to another country, not to speak about a state that had to be fought for first: Israel.

To segregate or not?

Between 1945 and 1957, Jews living on German territory shared the fate of hundred of thousands of other displaced persons: They lived in camps without having any clear vision of their future. The Allied authorities quickly realized that Jewish DPs, more traumatized and vulnerable than others, had to be placed in camps reserved for the Jews – a decision that put them into a moral dilemma as they did not wish to replicate the Nazi discriminatory policies. However the Jews, having suffered most under the Nazis, deserved a tailor-made policy.

This strategic decision helped a great deal as it allowed Jewish communities quickly to rebuild themselves – in camps, yes, but it was important for the Jews to overcome the individual isolation and feeling of helplessness. They had their own schools, hospitals, community centers, police, law courts, workshops and sports facilities, managed and financed with the help of international Jewish relief organisations. What didn’t help was the hostile attitude of many Germans towards the survivors of the Holocaust.

Few Germans realized that their own misery during and after the war had its origin in political decisions the Germans themselves had taken, in 1933 and even much earlier, and that there was no reason at all to envy the Jews. Prejudices like “They are being better treated than we are!” or “They control the black market and grow rich!” were rampant, authoritarian behaviour of newly formed German police units was a recurrent problem. It is frustrating to see that some of the racist stereotypes about the Jews voiced in the aftermath of the war are the same that are now applied to Muslim refugees from Irak and Syria. Obviously, the lessons of World War II have been lost on some.

A detailed study

Angelika Königseder and Juliana Wetzel, two German researchers specialized on research about anti-Semitism, have written a valuable book about the Jewish DPs in Germany after World War II with very detailed description of the DPs’ lives, a comprehensive study of the divergent policies applied by the US and the British army and a well researched study of the priorities of the different Jewish relief organisations and their clandestine efforts to exfiltrate as many as possible to Palestine.

One of the bright sides of the life in DP camps was the fact that the Jews were strongly determined to rebuild their lives. Cultural entertainment played an important part. Theatre plays were performed in many camps and the camp of Föhrenwald (Bavaria) had its own string orchestra. A piece of music that comes to my mind in that respect is a string trio written in 1947 by the Jewish composer Darius Milhaud:

Parallel tonalities in a time of infighting and disarray