Before the Wounds Had Healed

"Life Between Memory and Hope: The Survivors of the Holocaust in Occupied Germany" by Zeev W. Mankowitz, Cambridge University Press, 335 pages

At the beginning of June 1945, barely two months after they were liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp, 16 young Jews and a few older survivors founded the first pioneer training camp on German soil after the Holocaust. Within less than a month, Kibbutz Buchenwald, as it was called, was forced to move from the Weimar region, which had come under Russian control, to a training camp near Fulda, in the heart of the American zone. The move only strengthened the group, which operated in Germany for three years. During that time, hundreds of survivor-pioneers were sent to Palestine, some of them legally and others brought in through the back door by the Mossad Le'Aliyah Bet immigration organization.

The reputation of the kibbutz spread far and wide, and attracted large numbers of young people searching for a new lifestyle and a ticket to Palestine. The kibbutz was unique in two respects: It offered an alternative to the idleness in the displaced persons (DP) camps, and served as the prototype for a new Zionist movement established by the survivors - NOHAM (Noar Halutzi Meuhad or United Pioneering Youth) - which brought together pioneers from all sectors, religious and secular.

Kibbutz Buchenwald proved such a success that similar endeavors were founded in its wake, helping to give the young survivors hope for the future. Many of those who joined kibbutzim in the Diaspora abandoned the collective life after reaching Palestine, but some settled on existing kibbutzim or built their own. Pioneers of Kibbutz Buchenwald, for instance, established Kibbutz Netzer Sireni in 1948.

Watershed event

The story of Kibbutz Buchenwald is only one of Zeev Mankowitz's marvelous examples of how walking skeletons freed from German concentration camps managed to take themselves in hand and return to life. "Life Between Memory and Hope" is an important and comprehensive study long awaited by Holocaust researchers and survivors: Mankowitz completed his dissertation in the late 1980s. But it is more than a revised Ph.D. written on a subject which has meanwhile been dealt with by others. When Mankowitz, a historian who gave up academic research for several years in favor of teaching, made up his mind to publish his manuscript, he sat down and wrote an excellent historical-geographical introduction that not only addresses the survivors, but also the direction taken by research over the past 20 years.

The first chapter surveys the period between November 1944 and July 1945, which Mankowitz sees as the formative period of what was later called "she'erit hapleta," the surviving remnant. In November 1944, the survivors of the ghettos in Lithuania were transferred to Germany, where they took their first steps - while the war was going on - to establish a unified organization of survivors that would promote the interests of Jews liberated from the labor and concentration camps.

This period ended in July 1945, when a special envoy of the U.S. president, Earl G. Harrison, was sent to the region to report on the living conditions in the DP camps where survivors without citizenship or those unable to return to their countries of origin were interned. In the wake of this visit, which was considered a watershed event in the organizational efforts of the so-called surviving remnant in Germany, the American army changed its attitude toward the Jewish survivors, recognizing them as a separate group with special needs. At that point, refugee relief organizations such as UNRWA and Jewish bodies, among them the Joint Distribution Committee, began to administer assistance, followed by delegations from the United States, Britain and Palestine.

Other chapters, solidly documented and written in a lucid, flowing style, address the growing Zionist sentiment among the survivors and the attitude of this group toward the British, who were then in power in Palestine. Mankowitz's conclusions contradict those of the post-Zionist historians, who have tried to show that the Zionism of this group was a fiction and a product of the manipulation of the Zionist establishment, which made cynical use of these people. Mankowitz traces the development of Zionist fervor among the surviving remnant on the basis of internal memos circulated by different groups of survivors in the DP camps. These documents clearly testify to their warm support for the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) and Zionism before a single emissary from Palestine appeared on their doorstep.

Mankowitz does not ignore the ideological and pragmatic disputes that erupted between rival groups in the DP camps, such as the conflict between the Zionists and the Bundists, but he examines them in a broad historical context, from the perspective of the survivors themselves, citing the written opinions of people with differing and sometimes conflicting views.

The second half of the book explores how the survivors organized among themselves, with special emphasis on the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in Bavaria, headed by Dr. Zalman Greenberg. Another chapter analyzes the politics behind the establishment of educational and vocational-training frameworks in the DP camps, attended by the few children who survived as well as young adults who had not completed their schooling before the Holocaust.

Throughout the book, Mankowitz allows the survivors to speak for themselves. A whole chapter is devoted to "two voices" from the DP camp in Landsberg: Rudolf Valsonok and Dr. Samuel Gringauz, survivors of the Kovno ghetto and Dachau, who edited the Landsberg Lager Zeitung. In this newspaper, they published their opinions on various subjects, on which they often disagreed - evidence, says Mankowitz, of the freedom of expression that reigned among the survivors. Other chapters are devoted to the survivors' attitude toward Germany and what their lives looked like in 1947, prior to the establishment of the state.

Memorial days

Two topics dealt with in the book, each of them exploring a different facet of the survivors' "return to life," are particularly interesting. One was the rush to marry and have children. These people, all alone in the world, were anxious to establish family units and, above all, to produce offspring, whose very existence was their real revenge on the Nazis. Like me, many of my friends are members of the "second generation," i.e., the children of Holocaust survivors, born in 1946-1947 to satisfy this urge. "Every third woman was either pregnant or pushing a baby carriage," wrote a young American social worker sent to the DP camps in 1946 by the Joint Distribution Committee.

With an eye for the picturesque and a great deal of empathy, Mankowitz describes these encounters between men and women who had escaped from the clutches of the Nazis just a few weeks earlier. Finding someone from the same town or someone who spoke Yiddish with the same accent was deemed sufficient grounds for tying the knot and starting a family. Some of these unions were between couples who might never have met if not for Hitler: religious and secular, rich boys and poor girls. Some of the couples eventually separated due to basic incompatibility. Others lived alongside one another, staying together mainly for the sake of the children. But there were also many who enjoyed solid marriages and raised wonderful families together.

The second intriguing topic is how the survivors of the Holocaust chose to commemorate the catastrophe they had just escaped. Mankowitz devotes considerable space to the survivors' first attempts to establish a memorial day back in 1946. Among the issues was choosing a suitable date and investing this day with content. Some of the survivors proposed that each camp mark its own date of liberation. Following this model, Ohrdruf, the first concentration camp to be liberated in Germany, would celebrate one day, the survivors of Buchenwald would celebrate the next day, the survivors of Dachau sometime later, and so on. Other possibilities involved setting aside one particular day, such as Tisha B'Av, which was already a day of mourning, or Passover, the festival of freedom.

Interestingly, the coordinates by which the surviving remnant in Germany were guided in this matter were related to Jewish tradition or the individual-collective liberation experience - things which they knew and could relate to personally. No one suggested a date having anything to do with the Warsaw ghetto uprising, for example, because the Jews involved in this uprising were not part of the surviving remnant in Germany at that time: They were in Eastern Europe, preparing to immigrate to Palestine or already on their way. The date finally set for a collective memorial day was the 14th of Iyar, according to the Jewish calendar (which fell that year on May 15).

The character of this day was also a source of debate: Should it be a day of mourning, devoted to remembering the dead, or a day of thanksgiving, celebrating the miracle of survival? The assemblies planned for that day clearly expressed the dichotomy. Apart from Torah study and sermons in memory of the deceased, the day was marked by festive events featuring choirs and orchestras. The central message of the day was the survivors' dual commitment to themselves and those who perished. It was the survivors' duty to go on living, but also to remember the victims for eternity.

Although the intention was to establish a permanent memorial day, other days were set aside for this purpose in the coming years. In 1949, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel declared a "collective anniversary" - the 10th of Tevet - for victims of the Holocaust whose date of death was unknown. In 1951, the Knesset established the 27th of Nissan as a day commemorating the Holocaust and ghetto uprisings, officially renamed "Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Day" in 1959. Of the 14th of Iyar as a memorial day, no trace has remained.

The "living, breathing remnant," as an emissary from Palestine working in the DP camps in 1946 called she'erit hapleta, also ceased to exist as an independent body. By the early 1950s, its members had resettled in dozens of countries, mainly Israel and the United States, where they integrated in the local community and built a new life for themselves.

Mankowitz's book takes us back to those days before the survivors reached their final destination, before the wounds healed, when Jews of all social classes, religious streams and ideological movements knew that only a miracle had saved them from marching together to their doom.

Prof. Judith Baumel-Tydor is the head of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Contemporary Jewish Studies at Bar-Ilan University and a researcher of gender and heroism in Israel.