Reclaiming Life: The Post-WWII experience of Displaced Jews
Thesis and Outline
A lesser known part of WWII is the displacement camps of post-war Europe, but these
camps played a significant role in Jewish history. This significance stems from the revival of lost
Jewish culture that emerged, as well as the Jewish migration to Palestine that gained support and
movement within the camps.
I. Background information on displacement camps in Europe
A. Inside the displacement camps
B. Purpose of displacement camps
II. Revival of Jewish culture in the camps
A. Family life
B. Popular Culture
2. Jewish Activities
3. Vocational Training
III. Jewish support and migration to Palestine
A. Zionism movement
B. Education in DP camps
There is a sigh of relief across the globe. On September 2, 1945 the Japanese surrendered
to the Allies, which marked the official closing of World War II. The ending credits rolled. But
what did “the war is over” really mean? The suffering and persecution that was present in the
war-torn countries was just as prevalent on September 3rd. And September 4th. And the 5th. The
official end of World War II was a day of celebration, but those who were most intimately
involved were faced with a new war: a war of reconstruction. One way this war of reconstruction
was shown is through the European displacement camps, where desperate victims of the war
found refuge until they could be relocated. The displacement camps became home to a large
portion of the Jewish Holocaust victims. These camps are a lesser-known part of WWII, but they
played a significant role in Jewish history. This significance stems from the revival of lost Jewish
culture that emerged, as well as the Jewish migration to Palestine that gained support and
movement within the camps.
Those who have studied World War II know all about the suffering of Jews in the Nazi-
ruled concentration camps, but the Jews continued to suffer long after the camps were evacuated and the survivors were liberated. A year after the war ended, there were about 250,000 Jewish people in Europe who were classified as displaced people (Greenfeld 76). A quarter of a million
Jews, as well as millions of other individuals who were affected by the war, needed somewhere
to go. This need was addressed by the creation of displacement camps (DP camps) across
Europe. These displacement camps were set up in Germany, Austria, and Italy by the United
Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (“Displaced”).
War results in destruction. Destruction of homes, families, and lives. That being said, the
reason for displacement camps went beyond the physical destruction of houses and communities.
Many Jewish people refused to return to their pre-war homes because of the antisemitism that
still existed there (“Aftermath”). While the Jews were no longer contained in barbed wire fences,
many of them still lived in fear after the war. This fear was justified; in Kielce, Poland in 1946
there was an anti-Jewish riot that resulted in the murder of 42 Jews (“Aftermath”). 42 Jews were
killed as the rest of the world celebrated the end of a grueling war. Jewish hatred wasn’t bred and
killed off in the concentration camps as researcher Howard Greenfeld pointed out: “[The Jews’]
former neighbors all too frequently blamed them for the outbreak of the war and lamented the
fact that the Germans had not done a thorough job of eliminating them” (56). These examples,
among others, show the harsh truth that antisemitism was still alive in Europe after the war.
That’s why Hitler’s “Final Solution” stayed alive for so long. It wasn’t simply Hitler who hated
Jews– there was a discrimination against Jewish people deeply embedded throughout Europe
(“Jewish”). Because of the fear and violence that the Jews faced after the war, it was crucial that
they had a place to take sanctuary.
Revival of Lost Jewish Culture
The atrocious events of the Holocaust left Jewish people with nothing. They lost their
belongings, they lost their lives, and they lost their identities. The displacement camps were all
about taking back power. The camps were the first time in a long time where the Jews were able
to openly celebrate and revive their culture. One way this was shown was through the vast
number of weddings that took place in the camps. In the German DP camps in 1946 there were
weddings on a daily basis (Feinstein 72). Hagit Lavsky, an expert on Jewish history, stated this
about marriage in the DP camps: “Most couples decided to be married in a Jewish wedding
ceremony. It was not just a question of being religious. Even for the secular, it meant forming a
new link with the past, overcoming the disaster and continuing the family chain, being Jewish and keeping and manifesting the Jewish tradition” (“Camp”). Weddings were not only a symbol of love and unity between two people, but in the displacement camps they became a symbol that
Jewish tradition was still alive.
Another impactful aspect of the DP camps was the increased birth rate. The DP camps
were incredibly important to Jewish history because they produced an important increase in
Jewish population, as the Holocaust resulted in the death of an estimated 6 million Jews. The
birth rates in the camps were some of the highest rates in the world during the time (“Return”).
This heightened birth rate became more than a number within the camps: “The Nazis had
murdered Jewish children, so procreation became a symbol of liberation from Nazi tyranny”
(Feinstein 72). The displacement camps became a place to engage in marriage and begin a new
generation of Jews. Both of these rights were taken away, or made incredibly difficult, during the
war. The displacement camps gave the Jews a chance to start the process of taking their lives
back, one marriage–and one child–at a time.
Because of the loss of rights that Jews experienced during WWII, the activism that rose
in the DP camps stood as another confirmation of cultural rejuvenation. Just as marriage and
childbirth stood as a symbol of Jewish liberation, the DP camps became a place where the Jews
could fight for what they believed in. A young Jewish Holocaust survivor named Alan
remembered that he, along with other displaced people, would complain about the food rations
within the camp. He revealed that he didn’t think the complaining stemmed from the fact that
there wasn’t enough food to keep them well fed, but more so from the fact that they had any food
restrictions whatsoever (Greenfeld 78). Without the threat of being killed in the DP camps,
which was very present in the concentration camps, the Jewish people were able to speak up for what they saw as basic human rights. The Jewish voice could once again be heard. They were fighting back.
This voice transformed into action within some of the camps. In the Bergen-Belsen DP
camp there was a hunger strike among the Jews until the camp provided kosher food, which is a
requirement of Jewish law (Feinstein 78). The participating Jews of Bergen-Belsen would not
budge, despite the efforts of others. Researcher Maragarete Feinstein explains, “They refused to
eat the food even after one of the rabbis attempted to persuade them that the food was
permissible under Jewish law for health reasons” (78). There is power in the fact that these
Jewish activists chose to do a hunger strike, as opposed to other forms of protest they could have
effectively done. One forceful tactic in the Holocaust concentration camps was extreme food
limitations on the Jewish prisoners. The survivors in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp chose to utilize
what was once used against them to their own advantage. They took control of their food intake–
something that was taken away from them in a heinous way during their imprisonment.
Another important cultural aspect that emerged in the DP camps was the return of leisure
activities and Jewish productions. It was in the camps that Jewish kids could learn skills like
riding a bike and swimming (Greenfeld 88). In the Landsberg camp there was a theater, a radio
station, and a camp newspaper (88). These activities gave Jews the opportunity to express
themselves as people with their own language, thoughts, and stories. It gave Jewish teenagers a
chance to experience childhood activities– living a childhood that was stolen from them during
the years of war. In Blankenese, a German DP camp, the children could take music lessons and
engage in community singing (91). These activities gave the Jews a chance to bond and create a
camp community. Jewish communities were destroyed both physically and culturally during the
Holocaust, and it was in the DP camps that feelings of unification could return.
While leisure activities were popular in the camps, a large portion of time and energy was
spent on education. In the Fohrenwald DP camp, older students would spend half of their day on
vocational training (Greenfeld 99). Skills like sewing and knitting were taught (Feinstein 83),
and there were many training courses available to prepare students for different occupations such
as carpentry, nursing, and mechanics (Greenfeld 86). Learning these skills was important for
Jews because they were able to catch up on educational opportunities they didn’t have during the
duration of the war, and it prepared many Jewish people to get back on their own two feet.
Beyond the practical purpose of vocational training, it also aided individuals in other ways: “The
skill itself appears to have been less important than the awakening sense of self-worth that
vocational training provided” (Feinstein 83). Learning different skills in the camps promoted
Jewish cultural values of confidence and independence. Feeling as though they were part of a
community, and had something to add to that community, was a strengthening aspect of the
Jewish experience in DP camps.
Jewish Migration to Palestine
The DP camps throughout Europe differed in many ways, but one thing that was constant
in all the camps was a strong Jewish support of Zionism (Schein). Zionism was a “movement to
return to the Jewish homeland in what was then British controlled Palestine” (“Displaced”). One
eyewitness in the DP camps stated that Palestine was the first choice for immigration among the
majority of displaced Jews (Harrison). This growing support of Zionism within the DP camps came as a result of many different factors, including the fact that Jews were separated from non- Jews in the camps, and educated in a way that produced Jewish nationalism.
While the displacement camps started out as a jumbled mix of different nationalities,
many camps ended up finding a way to separate the Jews from everyone else. This was for two main reasons–antisemitism and public outcry. For example, the Fohrenwald camp was originally a camp for Poles, Hungarians, and a mix of many other people and nationalities. It eventually
became an exclusively Jewish camp after the Jews were faced with aggression from non-Jews
(Greenfeld 99). The second factor that led to the separation of Jews in DP camps took hold when
Earl G. Harrison, an American government worker, went to Europe to assess how the Jews were
doing in the camps. His report was appalling: “Many of the Jewish displaced persons, late in
July, had no clothes other than their concentration camp garb– a rather hideous striped pajama
effect, while others, to their chagrin, were obliged to wear German SS uniforms” (Harrison 5).
The Harrison report became a testament that the treatment of Jews in the DP camps had to
change. The Holocaust put Jews in a unique position, and the horrific oppression that they
endured justified their right to be separated from their persecutors. Jews were placed in former
concentration camps that had been transformed into DP camps, and some were even forced to
live side-by-side their former enemies (Greenfeld 71). Harrison publicly condemned this
treatment of Jews in the camps and declared that being Jewish needed to be seen as a separate
status in the camps: “Refusal to recognize the Jews as such has the effect, in this situation, of
closing one’s eyes to their former and more barbaric persecution, which has already made them a
separate group with greater needs.” Harrison’s convincing letter to the US President affected
American policies and involvement in the DP camps, and the world began to follow Harrison’s
guidance and recognize Jews as a national category (Brenner). This recognition set the stage for
the encouragement and acceptance of a Jewish state within Palestine.
This separation of Jews from non-Jews in the displacement camps changed the entire DP
experience for Jews. Because some of the camps were all-Jewish, it gave Jewish culture a better
chance to survive and thrive. The mass murdering of Jews during the Holocaust put Jewish population and culture at an extreme risk, and it wasn’t until the DP camps that the damage began to heal, and a Jewish community could rise. One important aspect of this was the pride
and Jewish nationalism that emerged. During WWII anything surrounding Jews was seen as
undesirable, this negativity coming from the antisemitism entrenched in Europe. The Holocaust
blatantly stated that to be a Jew meant death. In the all-Jewish DP camps, this definition could
change. The Jewish people could finally be proud of their culture and religion because they were
put in a space that allowed them to be with others who came from a similar background. Many
cultural aspects of the DP camps inspired this Jewish pride and nationalism, including theater.
Summarizing the effects of Jewish theatrical plays: “the experiences of the ghettos and
concentration camps were processed and the dream of Eretz Israel [a Jewish state] was given
expression” (“Return”). As stated, the DP camps became a place where Jewish culture could
thrive, but it also became a place where the dream of a separate Jewish state was alive and hoped
for. Naturally, the Jews in the displacement camps would want to preserve the community and
sense of security that they had finally grasped.
The education that Jewish people received in the camps also promoted this Jewish pride.
One formerly displaced person named George lived in the Blankenese DP camp and recalled this
about his education: “They taught us Hebrew (classes were taught in this language), they taught
us the history of Jewry, and they taught us, they trained us for illegal immigration […] to
Palestine” (Greenfeld 92). In DP schools, Jews were taught their own history and openly
practiced their own culture– a luxury that had been unavailable during the war. A Zionist
Women’s group in Landsberg received a similar education where the “major emphasis was on
cultural and ideological activities” (Shein). These activities, almost identical to George’s
experience, focused on Hebrew, Zionist history, and Jewish history (Shein). The Jews in DP camps were educated towards a common goal: reviving their people. Not all Jews saw this goal as a possibility in the blood-soaked countries of the Holocaust, and so the migration period out of
the DP camps began.
The ambition to leave Europe was present, but the restrictive and complex immigration
laws left many displaced people at the start of a seemingly endless process. Earl G. Harrison
played a noteworthy part in adapting the immigration laws surrounding displaced Jews. He
heavily supported the Jewish migration to Palestine and made this compelling statement in his
report: “The main solution, in many ways the only real solution, of the problem lies in the quick
evacuation of all non-repatriable Jews in Germany and Austria, who wish it, to Palestine […].
The civilized world owes it to this handful of survivors to provide them with a home where they
can settle down and begin to live as human beings” (Harrison). U.S. President Harry Truman
responded to this report in two significant ways. First, he worked to change the U.S. immigration
laws. While he wasn’t able to allow the amount of Jewish DP’s into America that he originally
desired, he made major strides in getting rid of quotas that favored individuals from specific
European countries that didn’t have large populations of displaced Jews (Reicher 21). President
Truman also wrote to the current Prime Minister of Great Britain and encouraged him to issue
100,000 immigrant certificates to Palestine (17). While the Prime Minister denied Truman’s
recommendation, the pressure from the U.S. may have affected the impending decision that
Britain made to authorize the United Nations to handle the issue, and the UN ultimately decided
to create a Jewish state within Palestine (19). The conditions of the DP camps ended up having
far-reaching effects, as Harrison’s publicized report led to changes in the immigration laws that
affected where the displaced Jews were relocated, as well as effectively putting pressure on
Great Britain to allow the Jews to come into Palestine.
Despite President Truman’s efforts, immigration to Palestine (before the partition) was
still limited and difficult for displaced Jews. Illegal immigration became common and was
organized and executed through the displacement camps. Because the DP camps had large
groups of Jews who supported Zionism, it made the organization of groups easier. This
movement of Jewish refugees into Palestine is called Aliyah Bet. Aliyah Bet worked out of the
DP camps through a network called Brihah, and Jewish DPs were organized into groups and
attempted to flee to Palestine on ships. While the majority of the Brihah ships were stopped by
the British navy, the efforts of Aliyah Bet transferred a number of desperate Jews into Palestine
(“Aliyah”). Between 1947 and 1950, around 120,000 displaced Jews had made their way to
Palestine (Brenner). The Jewish nationalism and spread of Zionism that developed in the DP
camps contributed to this massive wave of Jews entering Palestine, as well as the official
creation of a Jewish state, Israel, in 1948.
As the Jews migrated out of the camps and started to continue rebuilding their lives, the
once-displaced people slowly began to create places of their own. Not only did they find
individual homes across the world, but the recognition of Israel gave rise to a long-awaited
Jewish home. The last DP camp closed in 1959. This closed a chapter of Jewish history and the
restored culture and community that it encompassed. The displacement camps marked the end of
WWII, and the start of the war of reconstruction. The displacement camps revealed the
continuation of Jewish suffering in Europe, but they also gave Jews a chance to take back their
rights. A chance to take back their voice. A chance to take back their lives.
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