Coming back to life
YIVO and the UN join to present exhibit on the DP camps
Limbo is a Catholic theological concept — to oversimplify vastly, it’s the place between heaven and hell where souls that do not yet merit either of those places for eternity wait for some kind of resolution — but in the popular imagination, it’s a place where you wait.
It’s like a waiting room where your phone doesn’t work, there are a few magazines but they’re all at least three years old and you wouldn’t have read them when they were new, the chairs are hard plastic, and it’s full of people, all staring straight ahead, not acknowledging each other, and the doctor is running very, very late.
It’s a place that you don’t talk about once you’re finally sprung from it, because what’s there to say? But without it, you wouldn’t have gotten to see the doctor.
That’s sort of the way the Displaced Persons camps felt to many of the Holocaust survivors and refugees who lived in them. Many people lived there for years, after World War II ended, when they realized they had no home to go back to, and no one to look for them.
The DP camp was a gray, neither-here-nor-there part of their lives.
The analogy breaks down, of course, when you remember that the reason people were in those camps was because of the unimaginable hell they’d survived — and the new lives that many of them managed to create for themselves.
The DP camps, in fact, although largely unstudied, at times functioned not only as way stations but as crucibles for the renewal of Jewish life. They offered the people they sheltered a transition from waking nightmare to a new — albeit not nightmare-free — life.
They weren’t in black and white. They were in full color.
Despite all the death that the people living in the DP camps had seen, they were full of life.
From January 10 to February 23, YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the United Nations are offering an exhibit called “After the End of the World: Displaced Persons and Displaced Persons Camps.”
“Part of the exhibit comes from YIVO’s archives — specifically from our DP camp archive collection — and part comes from the United Nations’ archives,” Jonathan Brent, YIVO’s CEO and executive director, said.
The exhibit is opening now to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which falls on January 27. But the underlying reasons for it are far deeper. w
“The story of the DP camps has been largely overlooked,” Dr. Brent said. “Those who were born in the camps, or who were children when they were brought there, rarely speak about their experiences there.
“There are many reasons why this is the case, and I don’t pretend to know everyone’s individual reasons, but as a generalization it probably has to do with the in-between status they feel they have as survivors.”
People came to the camps from many places. Some had survived concentration camps; some were hidden in ghettos or in the woods or by Righteous Gentiles; others had fled to Uzbekistan or Khazakstan, or had been captured by the Soviets and sent to Siberia. None had remotely easy experiences, but some were even more unimaginable than others.
Beyond that, Dr. Brent said, many of the people in the camps were stateless. “If you don’t belong to a country, you don’t belong anywhere. It’s something you just don’t want to talk about.
“You’re not a citizen of anyplace. You’re in limbo.
“By calling attention to the DP camps, the UN is doing a wonderful thing. It’s helping to make it possible to talk about this experience openly and straightforwardly.”
Many people who were born in DP camps never knew what their parents’ lives had been either before or during the war, Dr. Brent said. Their parents didn’t talk about it. “There were many gaps in their parents’ stories, and each of the gaps was filled with suspicious silence. They were menacing gaps. It wasn’t anything that could be explored.”
The exhibit includes “dolls that were made in the DP camps, posters about religious observance, photographs — there is a lot of material,” Dr. Brent said. “It attests to the almost instantaneous process of rebuilding Jewish cultural and religious life.
“It is unbelievably moving to see it. The way the Passover seder was celebrated — we have a Haggadah from the camps. The fervor of that celebration was so unbelievably important. It celebrated the crossing over from oppression to freedom.” It echoed the survivor’s experiences.
But DP camp life wasn’t only about religious fervor or spiritual rebirth. It also was a reflection of the more earthbound organizational and leadership skills that its residents displayed as they “rebuilt Jewish organizational life,” Dr. Brent said.
“I don’t want to minimize or ignore in any way whatsoever that people there had suffered horribly, unimaginably, in ways that are beyond our ability to imagine, but the impulse to live, to have a future, to be productive — and to do it in a Jewish way — is one of the most remarkable things this exhibit shows us.
“In these camps, full of victims, people who had been horribly oppressed and suppressed, there was a spirit that had not been defeated. And it was not just an explosion of frenetic energy, but work by people who were carefully contemplating how to do it.
“So to me, this is a very positive representation of the Jewish will to live. To survive. To continue to pass on our values to another generation, and to have the organizational skills to be able to do that.”
Deborah Veach of Teaneck, who is on YIVO’s board and will speak at the exhibit’s opening, was born in the German DP camp called Foehrenwald, just south of Munich.
She’s retired from a career as a highly accomplished lawyer — she earned her undergraduate degree at Barnard and her JD at Rutgers, began her career as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, working for Robert Morgenthau, and ended it as Teaneck’s municipal prosecutor.
Her story illustrates many of Dr. Brent’s points.
Deborah Lifschitz was born in 1949; her parents, Rae Zuckerman Lifschitz and Meyer Lifschitz, both were from shtetlach that had been in Poland when they were born but now are in Belarus. “My father was in a Russian work camp in Siberia during the war, and my mother was in a German labor camp, and then she escaped and joined the partisans,” Ms. Veach said. “I know that my parents were in the camp between four and five years, and I know that they met and married there.”
That’s just about all she does know about their early lives.
“I wish I had known enough when I was growing up to ask them questions,” she said. But she didn’t, and they didn’t volunteer any unsought answers.
“My mother’s family was entirely annihilated, except for one sister, my aunt, Rose Zuckerman. They both survived as partisans, they were in the DP camp together, and they both emigrated to Bayonne. My father’s entire family was killed except for an aunt, Techia Lakritz, who left for Palestine before the war.
“She had one son, who was killed at 16 in Israel’s war for independence, in the battle for Jerusalem. His name was Yitzchak.”
Meanwhile, Deborah and her parents left Foehrenwald for the United States in 1950, when she was about nine months old. Her sister, Jeanette Heistein, is five years younger. “She’s a real American,” Ms. Veach said. “She was born here.” Today, both sisters and their husbands, Jim Veach and Martin Heistein, live in Teaneck.
Being born stateless is an abstraction that seems stingless to those of us lucky enough to be born in the place we know as home, but it wasn’t to her. “Nobody really thinks about it,” she said. “But when you realize that your birth certificate says ‘stateless,’ that you were a displaced person, that you were a refugee — that you were unwanted by all the countries in the world….
“Nobody wanted to let you in. You have no extended family, and no place to call home. You have no idea what the country where your parents and their families lived for centuries looks like, or what it smells like. You are born in a completely other place.
“My son can just drive to Englewood to see where he was born, but when you’re stateless, born in a DP camp, you have no image of where you’re from. No family photos to see who you look like.
“You are completely untethered.”
“We were supposed to go to Texas,” she continued. “We have a crate that was handmade in the DP camp with my father’s name on it, and an address in Texas. I often kid my husband that if we’d gone there, I would have been a tall blonde.”
But instead, she grew up in Bayonne. “My uncle by marriage was distantly related to the Rosenthals, the wealthy family that owned Maidenform,” Ms. Veach said. “The Maidenform factory was in Bayonne. They provided jobs for my uncle and aunt. My uncle and aunt went to Bayonne first, and then they sponsored my parents.
“I learned this from my research,” she continued. “My parents didn’t tell us anything.”
She doesn’t even know how old they were. “They didn’t know their birthdates, so they made them up. I think they were in their late 30s when they got here.”
The city had many Holocaust survivors then, and “there was a thriving Jewish community,” Ms. Veach said. “There were Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox shuls, and a JCC.
“There were two Orthodox synagogues facing each other, and another one that backed on one of them. The rabbi was from my uncle’s shul. The sermons were in Yiddish, and the appeals also were in Yiddish.”
The family spoke Yiddish at home, “which eventually turned into English from me and my sister, and Yiddish from my parents.” The girls played out on the street, with other kids their age. They had, despite the odds, a normal childhood.
When the Lifschitzes got to Bayonne, “my parents took English classes, and found an apartment. My father went to work in the Maidenform factory; I don’t know how he learned to do this, but he fixed sewing machines. My aunt was a sewing-machine operator, and my uncle was a tool-and-die worker.
“My mother was a stay-at-home mom until I was about 16,” Ms. Veach said. “She was pretty smart. She got a high-school equivalency diploma, she took college classes, she took the federal civil service test in the city” — that’s New York, not Bayonne — “and she worked for the U.S. Labor Department.
“When I was at Barnard, I would visit her at work, at the World Trade Center.” She retired before the September 11 attacks; she died in December of 2001, “probably in her 80s,” Ms. Veach said.
Because she was so curious about the DP camp where she had spent her infancy, in 2018 she, her husband, and two friends went to Foehrenwald. “A local woman, who is not Jewish, had started a committee to preserve one of the buildings there,” Ms. Veach said. “A bathhouse. It took her six years — there was a lot of local opposition.
“So Jim and I went with our friends — one had been born in the camp, and another one had lived there.” They went for the three-day weekend that included the museum’s official opening.
When they got to town, they found that “basically the whole history of Foehrenwald was missing,” she said. “They had renamed the town. It’s now Waldrum. All the streets were renamed. The fact that there had been a DP camp there was erased.”
The town is a beautiful suburb of Munich, picturesquely nestled in a Bavarian pine forest. “We went to the big opening ceremony for the museum, called the Badenhaus” — the bathhouse — “in their big church,” she said. “It was very German. There was a children’s choir. The children stood in front of a big cross” — actually, as photos show, it was a crucifix —“and the men were wearing lederhosen.
“It had an air of otherness. It didn’t feel like a place where I would have been born. It was bizarre.”
As odd as it was, “everyone was very welcoming,” she continued. “There were Jews there. A lot of people came from Israel, some had stayed in Germany, and some came from the States.”
After the speeches, “it was lunchtime.” Their hosts were very proud to have provided kosher food for their Jewish guests, but they didn’t think through the logistics very carefully.
“We were told that the Jews should line up and go down the ramp to the right,” Ms. Veach said. “They just didn’t get it. We were all supposed to eat downstairs, by ourselves. Just line up and go down the ramp.”
In a photo gallery, she saw “a picture of my father and two other men, coming out of the shul. I didn’t expect it.
“It was like a parallel world. It was strange.
“We went to the municipal building, because I wanted to see a record of my birth. I wanted to actually see it in print. And so did one of my friends.
“So my friend and I go in, and there is a guy in lederhosen there, and with the hat, with a little feather, sort of like Pinocchio’s. My friend and I both find our birth records. Mine is accurate, but he finds out that he is a year older than he thought he was.
“He didn’t take it well.”
Deborah and Jim Veach are grandparents now; their son, Zachary, his wife, Dr. Jenna Koonin, and the baby daughter, Nia Rachel Veach, live nearby, in Nyack. Ms. Veach has overcome her stateless beginnings; she’s lived in New Jersey most of her life, and the farthest away she’s lived has been Brooklyn. She’s been lucky.
But she’s always aware of having been born in a DP camp, and how it’s affected her life.
Who: YIVO and the United Nations
What: Join to present an exhibit
When: From January 10 to February 23, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Where: At the visitors’ center at UN headquarters, 405 East 42nd Street, in Manhattan.
How much: It’s free
To learn more: Go to yivo.org/Displaced-Persons