Unlikely neighbors: Jews and Germans in DP camps

Unlikely neighbors: Jews and Germans in DP camps

While the resettlement of Jewish refugees after the Holocaust has been well documented, there has been little study of the Jews in displaced persons camps in Germany’s American zone, said Atina Grossmann, a professor at Cooper Union in New York City.

On Tuesday, Grossman, author of "Jews, Germans, and Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied Germany," will speak at Ramapo College’s Holocaust Resource Center in Mahwah, sharing her insights on the relationship between German women and Jewish refugees immediately after the war.

Exploring encounters between the refugees — who were living side by side with their former oppressors — and the Germans, Grossman will discuss how the interaction helped the Jews build new lives in the DP camps.

Atina Grossmann will speak at Ramapo College on Tuesday about the relations between Jews and Germans in displaced persons camps after World War II.

Between 500,000 and 600,000 Jews lived in Germany in 1933. By 1947, just a few years after Germany was declared "Judenrein," Jews numbered just above ‘50,000, of which only about 15,000 were German Jewish survivors.

"This is a mind-boggling figure," Grossman said in a phone interview earlier this week. "They are on occupied and defeated territory and they are classified, most of them, as displaced persons, under the supervision of the military government."

The camps experienced what Grossmann classified as "a baby boom" among Jews looking to quickly rebuild their lives. As she searched through YIVO archives for records of a DP camp in Bavaria, she came across dozens of pictures of survivors with newborns, but she also discovered something she had not expected. When these babies were born, she said, many Jewish families were assigned German women to help take care of the babies and the household, limited as it was. Grossmann found letters in the archives from Jewish families requesting a German helper.

"This is something I really had to struggle to understand," she said. "I found these lists of all the German workers going in and out of the camps every day as plumbers, cleaning people, teachers…. There’s actually this traffic back and forth, so that even within the DP camp, which was a Jewish enclave, there were Germans coming in to do menial labor."

The reason this situation worked is that there was "a suspension of time," Grossmann said. Both sides saw the situation as temporary, and the Jews believed the most important thing was for their new babies to get good care.

"There’s also a certain measure of justice and maybe even a certain kind of satisfaction of being able to say, ‘We are here,’" Grossmann said.

Grossman’s book also focuses on makeup of the Jewish DP population.

"We all have a certain image in our minds of a survivor," she said. "Only a minority of these people were survivors of Nazi death and labor camps. Some of those people were Polish Jews who survived in hiding or had been with partisans and had come into the American-occupied zone of Germany after they resurfaced in Poland."

The largest group of DPs were Eastern European Jews who had survived in the Soviet Union, she said, a population that has not been thoroughly studied. These Jews had either fled early on or they had been in territories occupied by the Soviets in 1939. After the war, they traveled to the American-occupied parts of Germany.

The Soviet Union repatriated approximately ‘00,000 Polish Jews after the war, but when they tried to return to Poland, they encountered virulent anti-Semitism. As a result, they ended up fleeing to the American zone in Germany.

"We have this story, which is so ironic on two levels: the place that becomes a ‘haven’ for Jewish survivors after the Shoah is Germany, though it is defeated and occupied, where they live in close proximity … to Germans."

The stories of this group of refugees are not included in museum exhibits or in published memoirs, she said. "We don’t hear those stories and we need to hear those stories."

For more information on Grossmann’s talk, call Ramapo College’s Holocaust Resource Center, (’01) 684-7409.

read more: