About a month after Buchenwald was liberated, a group of survivors gathered to erect a monument to the camp’s 61,000 victims. Russians, Poles, French, Belgians, Italians and Spaniards were mentioned, but the Jews were missing. A young survivor named Shalom Tepper could not bear this insult. He found some red paint and added the word “Juden” at the top. When the red paint dripped onto the names of other nations, Shalom was beaten mercilessly by the non-Jewish former prisoners.
Although the Nazi beast had been crushed, the scars of war were slow to heal. Facing hatred and hunger, segregation and disease, Jewish survivors faced a long road to recovery. At Bergen-Belsen alone, more than 13,000 former inmates died in the first 90 days after liberation, and in Dachau, the death rate was 250 a day. Allied troops’ efforts to help sometimes resulted in disaster; soldiers inadvertently overwhelmed starving survivors with food that was too rich for their systems. Tragically, their first meal after liberation was often their last.
Even for those who were healthier, the options were extremely limited. Returning to their countries of origin was seldom an option; families and communities had been wiped out, their homes and businesses taken over by hostile locals. The lands of their birth were no longer home, a fact reinforced by the 42 Jews killed in Poland during the Kielce pogrom of July 4, 1946. The survivors faced the reality that Europe was now one vast graveyard for the Jewish people and that the time had come to leave.
Leave? To go where? British policy restricted immigration to Mandate Palestine, and quotas remained in place in the United States and in Canada.
In the smoldering ruins of the war, the Allies now focused their efforts on aiding the millions of people who were displaced. But when the liberating armies first encountered the skeletons of the Holocaust, both living and dead, they did not realize that this was no simple recovery effort. Across Europe, the Allies sheltered displaced persons of many nationalities in various camps with the sole focus of repatriation to their countries of origin. However, they were ill-equipped to deal with the Jewish situation, and too many survivors did not get the help they so desperately needed.
Letters from soldiers, such as those mentioned in last week’s column, brought home the reality of the war’s aftermath; in one the writer commented, “The treatment these people receive is almost as bad as when they were in the concentration camp.”
As public awareness of the mistreatment increased, President Harry Truman asked Earl Harrison, the US representative on the Intergovernmental Commission on Refugees, to inspect the DP camps in Europe personally. Harrison headed a small delegation that toured more than two dozen camps in the American Occupied Zone and produced a scathing report on the treatment and condition of the refugees. Harrison wrote, “We appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them… One is led to wonder whether the German people, seeing this, are not supposing that we are following, or at least condoning, Nazi policy.”
More importantly, the report recognized that the Jews should not be lumped together with other nationalities, and that the best chance for their recovery would be to allow them to live in their own DP camps and rebuild their community structure.
Truman forwarded the report to General Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the U.S. forces in Europe, who took immediate action. He located housing for Jews even if it meant displacing German locals, increased their food rations, and found them employment opportunities.
Dr. Henri Lustiger Thaler, a historian at the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center, has researched and published extensively on the DP camps in occupied Germany. He notes that although the Harrison Report made no mention of religious Jews or their specific needs, the report proved invaluable in reestablishing religious life in the post-war period. Twelve separate camps were established for Jews in the American Zone, breathing new life into Yiddishkeit as Jews came together to rebuild what was left of their lives.
The British refused to follow suit in their occupied zone. Put on the spot by the measures America had taken, however, they did create a Jewish section in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp. But their refusal to allow exclusively Jewish camps and their continued blockade against immigration to Palestine created tremendous tension between the Jewish survivors and their British liberators.
The revival of Jewish observance in the DP camps was a remarkable achievement. The more we learn, the more we understand that the recovery of a nation decimated by years of mass slaughter was a slow and daunting process. With that in mind, we can look at the growth of Jewish communities and Torah institutions around the world today with renewed appreciation. The phenomenal rebirth of world Jewry sprouted from the seeds of hope sown by survivors in the shadow of the Holocaust, and blossomed with Hashem’s grace.