Academic journal article Shofar

Jewish Women Survivors in the Displaced Persons Camps of Occupied Germany: Transmitters of the Past, Caretakers of the Present, and Builders of the Future

Academic journal article Shofar

Jewish Women Survivors in the Displaced Persons Camps of Occupied Germany: Transmitters of the Past, Caretakers of the Present, and Builders of the Future

Article excerpt

During the years 1945 to 1950, nearly 300,000 Holocaust survivors passed through the displaced persons camps in Germany. Within the confines of the DP camps, the survivors began to rebuild Jewish communal life and to work toward a future in Palestine. This "surviving remnant" of European Jewry understood itself to be the inheritors of a great tradition as well as the key to the Jewish future. Many Jewish women sought to achieve community goals through their traditional, feminine roles of mothers, teachers, and needleworkers. The often traditional nature of women's activities has tended to obscure their significance, yet the DP camps were a most non-traditional environment. There, women's reproductive and childrearing roles, cultural endeavors, economic and political pursuits were essential to the normalization and revival of Jewish communal life after the Holocaust.

At the conclusion of the Second World War, the Western Allies established displaced persons assembly centers (DP camps) to house the Jewish survivors and other uprooted people who had been liberated in Germany, Austria, and Italy. These camps were to be temporary until the DPs could be repatriated. However, the mostly Eastern European Jews did not want to return permanently to their former homelands and the ruins of their communities. After often futile journeys to locate surviving family members, these concentration camp survivors returned to the DP camps in Germany, hoping for a chance to leave the graveyard of Europe. They were joined by former partisans and others who had spent the war years in hiding. All hoped that the DP camps would be a way station to a better life. After the intensifying pogroms in Eastern Europe in 1946, more survivors fled westward to the DP camps, including Jews who had survived the war in the Soviet Union. Soon the DP camps, especially those in the U.S. zone of occupied Germany and Austria, became transit camps where Jewish survivors congregated as they awaited resettlement to countries outside of Europe. To their frustration, the survivors often waited three to five years in these camps for their resettlement opportunities. A few waited until the last DP camp closed in 1957, twelve years after the war's end.

The prolonged stay in the DP camps chafed the survivors who longed to be truly free after years of slavery. They consciously drew parallels between their experiences and those of the Israelites who, liberated from Egyptian bondage, wandered in the desert for forty years before reaching the Promised Land. For example, the Jewish DPs named a newspaper and a theater "Bamidbar," Hebrew for "in the wilderness." Rabbis teach that the time in the wilderness was necessary for the former slaves to transform themselves into a genuinely free people. Ironically, it was on German soil, within full view of their former oppressors, that the Jews liberated from the Nazis began their journey to life as a free people.

Within the confines of the DP camps, the survivors began to rebuild Jewish communal life and to work toward a future in Palestine. This "surviving remnant" of European Jewry understood itself to be the inheritors of a great tradition as well as the key to the Jewish future. They were determined to reclaim their heritage and to honor their ancestors even as they rejected Europe as their home. Jewish DPs strove to preserve their prewar and wartime pasts as they created a vibrant community and dared to work towards their dream of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In all of these activities, women played significant, if not publicly prominent, roles. Many Jewish women sought to achieve community goals through their traditional, feminine roles of mothers, teachers, and needleworkers. In both private and public ways, women actively participated in the reconstruction of Jewish society within the DP camps and worked toward a future beyond them.

Many historians, because of their interest in political and organizational leadership, have overlooked the contributions of women to the DP community. …

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