'Hitler Married Us': The Chaotic Life of Jews in post-WWII German Displaced Persons Camps

An interview with historian Atina Grossmann, whose research explores the definition of who is a Holocaust survivor

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Jews at the Furth displaced persons camp in Germany, April 1946.
Jews at the Furth displaced persons camp in Germany, April 1946. Credit: AP
Michal Shapira
Michal Shapira

The pioneering studies of Atina Grossmann, a professor of history and of gender studies at New York’s Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, deal with the history of Jewish refugees, the Holocaust, gender and family. In an interview with Haaretz, Grossmann delineates the little-known story of the European Jews who escaped to the Soviet Union during the war, before fleeing into occupied post-war Germany, by way of Poland. Eventually, they found their way to displaced persons camps in Germany, before moving on either to Palestine, the United States and other countries.

In the 1990s, when you became a historian, the study of gender was booming. What drew you to this particular field?

“I began to study history in the 1970s at a moment when political activism and intellectual inquiry were closely linked. My early training in history was entirely linked to protests against the Vietnam war. My parents were both Berlin Jews who met, ironically, as refugees in Tehran in the 1930s. Therefore, I was also shaped by a growing sense that I wanted to understand the triumph of National Socialism, which had driven my parents out of Germany, left me with a scattered and truncated family, and eventually led my parents to New York where I grew up in the midst of 1960s ferment. By the time I entered graduate school at Rutgers University – which had a pioneering women’s studies program – in 1973, the women’s movement had emerged from a new left that had both empowered and at times outraged us [with its sexism]. From the very outset, the personal, the political and the academic were tightly linked, in ways that were not always easy to sustain throughout a career, but that I hope remain central to my work as a scholar and teacher.”

Atina Grossmann, professor of history and of gender studies at New York’s Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.Credit: Louisa Reichstetter

In your award-winning book, “Jews, Germans, and Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied Germany,” you followed the fate of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who stayed in DP camps in defeated post-Nazi Germany. Though many of them ended up in Israel, their story is rarely discussed here, perhaps as it is overshadowed by the Holocaust. Who were the people in the DP camps?

“They were, for the most part, not the people I initially expected to find. I too had internalized the standard image of Jewish DPs as survivors of Nazi death or labor camps, or of people who were hiding, passing as 'Aryans,' or in partisan units. Only in the course of my research did I realize that the great majority, at least two-thirds of all Polish Jewish DPs, had survived by a twist of geopolitical fate in the unoccupied Soviet Union and then, after repatriation, fled continued anti-Semitism in the ‘vast graveyard’ of postwar Poland to DP camps in the American zone of Germany. This should not surprise us; a quarter million Jews could not emerge from Treblinka or the forests, but the story remains remarkably unexplored.”

What was happening in the days following Germany’s surrender?

“Surrender was a chaotic and contradictory process, not the singular event of May 8, 1945. What defeated Germans experienced as ‘collapse,’ the former victims of Nazism could only partially grasp as liberation. The biggest immediate challenge was the ‘care and control’ of displaced persons, including former slave laborers, prisoners of war, and camp inmates as well as the flood of ethnic Germans – who were not officially considered DPs – fleeing the Red Army. Military government and the UNRRA [United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration] in the Western zones struggled, quite successfully, to maintain order, prevent disease and starvation, and provide shelter. They were surprised to discover that the millions of refugees on the roads and in towns included Jewish survivors.”

'A quarter-million Jews couldn't have emerged from Treblinka or the forests alone. The story remains remarkably unexplored'

Should we now think differently about the question of who is a Holocaust survivor, considering that so many survivors were in fact refugees who had fled to the Soviet Union, and did not live under Nazi occupation?

“Survivors, their children, and now their grandchildren, have always contended with the vexed question of ‘hierarchy’ among the She’erit Hapleta [‘the surviving remnant’]. For a long time, we distinguished between refugees – such as my parents – who escaped Nazism before the onset of the war, and survivors who endured Nazi occupation, in camps, in hiding, or with the partisans. Now we are finally recognizing that the largest cohort of Eastern European Jewish survivors – and still the least studied – comprised perhaps 200,000 Jews who had been repatriated to Poland from their harsh but life-saving refuge in the Soviet Union and then fled again, as so-called infiltrees, into American-occupied Germany, from the continued anti-Semitism they confronted in postwar Poland. If we are to honestly document the experience of the majority of those we call survivors, we are compelled to rethink both the definition of and geographic scope of ‘survival.’”

What were the relationships between Jews, Germans and the Allies right when the war ended?

“In the liminal period from 1945 to 1949, Germans and Jews lived, as they often claimed, and still do, in different worlds on the same terrain, divided by memory, experience and mutual suspicion and antagonism. But, policed and protected by their mostly American occupiers and international relief organizations, they also continually interacted, in uneasy, sometimes cordial, only occasionally violent, and overwhelmingly pragmatic, ways. They encountered each other in the general nitty-gritty of everyday life: feeding people, caring for children and the sick, the grey and black markets, establishing local businesses, and administering the refugee camps, engaging in sports and education, entertainment and sexual relations, and sometimes marriage. The gender analysis always key to my research revealed that these interactions were both most fraught and most close precisely in the basic and intimate arenas of food, reproduction, and sexuality.”

Polish Jewish refugees are camped out in a smoky room where they also eat and sleep, in the American zone of Berlin, Jan. 31, 1946.Credit: Jim Pringle, AP

You talk about a “Jewish baby boom” in the DP camps. Indeed, many children who ended up in Israel and elsewhere were born or raised in these camps. What were the roles of gender and family life in survival and recovery?

“Jewish DP life in postwar Germany was replete with historical ironies: the very existence of a safe if mostly temporary haven on German, albeit occupied, territory; the role of Stalin’s Soviet Union in having – mostly inadvertently – enabled the survival of the East European Jewish remnant; and the fact that in 1946, occupied Germany, far from being 'judenrein,' counted a Jewish birth rate estimated to be the highest in the postwar world. Shadowed by traumatic loss of home and family, and under the most abnormal of circumstances, survivors began to construct a kind of quotidian ‘normality.’ Rapid marriage and childbirth, leading to the formation of new families, represented both a defiant affirmation of Jewish life, both individual and collective, and a determined claim to the ‘normality’ of family and sexuality – and, it must said – conventional gender roles that had been denied to the mostly young survivors during war and Holocaust. DPs married, sometimes within days, neighbors from the next barrack or distant kin or acquaintances from what had once been home. Many of the newlyweds barely knew one another; they acknowledged that there were ‘so many marriages, sometimes really strange marriages that never would have happened before the war,’ or even that ‘Hitler married us.’”

'The rapid appearance of kids in the DP camps provided a sense of agency and future for stateless Jews'

Do we see any radical changes in gender roles for men and women after the war?

“For the most part, gender roles were restored and reinforced, as the baby boom affirmed women’s roles as mothers and caregivers, while men sought to re-establish masculine identities through sports and labor. At the same time, it should be said that these gender assignments were partially challenged by generation and by the egalitarian – if still gender specific – ethos of Zionist youth groups. Children and families were key for both women and men, as signs of hope and as proof of fertility and potency, but women had few official administrative or leadership positions, either within the DP camps or in the Central Committee of Liberated Jews associations. Gender roles held or were reinstated. Interestingly, however, women’s primary role as mothers was augmented and changed by the reliance on German women as nannies and domestic helpers. For young mothers, exhausted by war, persecution and displacement, bereft of mothers and sisters who would ordinarily have supported them, and often physically and emotionally scarred, the housekeeping and childcare skills of local German women, eager to secure paid employment in the DP camps, would be indispensable to the baby boom, and a key element in the ‘close encounters’ among Jews, Germans and Allies that characterized the DP era.”

On the left: Michal Shapira’s grandparents, Lea and Arie Fenster, and her mother, Zippi Fenster (Shapira), in Germany after the war.Credit: From the family's album

Not all DP babies were born in Germany; by 1946, the world of almost entirely young and single survivors was augmented by the arrival of families with young children from the Soviet Union via Poland. My own mother, Zippi Fenster (Shapira), was born on the road in this very way and she and my grandparents ended up in a DP camp.

“Yes, that is true; as we know, very few young children survived Nazi occupation but the numbers and demographic balance in the DP camps shifted quite dramatically when the Polish Jewish refugees fled to the American zone. And undoubtedly, the rapid appearance of toddlers and kindergartners as well as babies and baby carriages in the DP camps provided a sense of agency and future for stateless Jews and a highly ideologized reminder – to the occupiers, to the Germans, and to the DPs themselves – that ‘mir zaynen do,’ [Yiddish meaning] we are here, we have survived. And those precious children, like your mother, mostly remember the safe space of the DP camps with a certain nostalgia.”

Were people using the word “trauma” at the time?

“Jewish DPs were well aware that their lives and European Jewry as a whole had been shattered. However, they did not use the vocabulary of ‘trauma.’ Some DP leaders and aid organization workers, whether from UNRRA or the Joint [the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee], which played such an important role in providing relief and rehabilitation services, were quick to note aberrant behavior, such as irritability, resistance to authority, hoarding of food, or a ‘tendency to complain,’—for example about unpalatable food or inadequate housing—or even to identify the baby boom as a kind of ill-considered ‘manic’ revenge. But these observations were not couched, as they would be today, in a discourse of ‘post-traumatic stress.’ Despite the attention to memory and commemoration, which began immediately, whether in religious rituals, cultural expressions, the construction of memorials, or the formation of historical commissions, the insistent search for ‘normality,’ and the claiming of agency – both in the construction of families and the turn to Zionism, with its radical unsentimental insistence on looking toward future statehood rather than past victimization – all mitigated against a focus on ‘trauma.’ That discourse would take decades to develop.”

What did the word refugee mean at the time?

“It is another irony of Jewish DP life that for survivors, a stateless existence as a ‘displaced person,’ identified and regulated by the Allies and the UNRRA, and supported by the Joint, was much preferable to repatriation into a citizenship that had not protected Jews from the Germans nor secured their safety or property after the war. ‘Refugee’ was a vague general term that could encompass ethnic Germans fleeing the Red Army to the relative protection of the Western zones, as well as Jews, such as those Hannah Arendt had identified in her famous 1943 essay “We Refugees,” who had managed to reach safety outside of Europe.”

'Zionism worked as a therapeutic ideology that offered a sense of collective identity, hope and future to those who had lost both family and home'

“For Jewish survivors in postwar occupied Europe, the technical term ‘displaced person’ accorded them certain limited, but critical, benefits such as housing, rations, medical care and protection by Allied forces, which could be counted on to prevent any Nazi revival or widespread outbreaks of anti-Semitism – the failures of de-Nazification and local anti-Semitic incidents notwithstanding – among the defeated Germans. DP status was widely reviled by those who demanded quick entry to Palestine or the United States, and the end to a life of waiting, in camps and behind gates. I argue, however, that the DP interregnum offered an important time and space to recover physically, mourn the dead and – against all odds – begin anew before moving on again to the demands of constructing truly new, independent lives. Moreover, it is useful to recall, especially in our current political moment, that Jews fleeing Poland into occupied Germany after the immediate 1945 emergency had to fight for DP status; they were seen as suspect ‘infiltrees’ illegally crossing borders, or as economic migrants not deserving of recognition as victims of National Socialism.”

What was the role of Zionism in the camps?

“Zionism unquestionably became the dominant political ideology – and dream – of the DPs, especially, but not only, for the youth. The frustrations of stateless refugee existence and the ‘waiting life’ in transit promoted a Zionist consciousness that served to give Jews a sense of hope for the future regardless of their eventual destination. Jews were committed to Zionism and Jewish identity, even if they were not religious and did not go to Palestine/Israel, or left after having gone. For many, Palestine surely was, as one U.S. reporter astutely observed, “a kind of magic word... which means not so much ‘Palestine’ as some never-never Utopia of which they dream. It might be anywhere they could live freely,” the illusory but urgent dream of a home where they would be peaceful, safe and above all amongst themselves.”

This group of Jewish orphans are seen in their room in the Duppel Center on Aug. 19, 1946, a displaced persons camp in suburban Berlin, Germany. Credit: AP

“Zionism, we might say, worked as a kind of therapeutic ideology that offered a sense of collective identity, hope and future to those who had lost both family and home. If virtually all respondents to a 1946 UNRRA census reported to the Anglo-American Commission – which, unsuccessfully, recommended the immediate issuance of 100,000 entry permits for Palestine – listed Palestine as their preferred destination, this did not mean that everyone actually wanted to go there. Indeed, other factors, such as family ties or the continuing dream of a “goldene medine” in the United States, could dictate entirely different destination choices. It did however demonstrate a near-universal belief that in a postwar world in which human rights would be guaranteed within the context of nation states and in which the nations of origin had proven unable and unwilling to protect Jews, a national homeland was a necessity, even if one had no intention of settling there.”

It is important to also look at what happened to the Jews before they got to the DP camps, some of whom fled all the way to Iran, India or Central Asia. My grandparents, Lea and Arie Fenster, for example, fled all the way to Kazakhstan.

“Definitely. Despite several decades of intensive scholarly and public attention to the history and memory of the Shoah, this transnational Holocaust story has remained essentially untold. Indeed, in my new project, I am looking backwards, at what happened to the Jews who found themselves in the Soviet Union. Some Jews fled from western Poland, others were already living in that part of Poland that became Soviet after August 1939. The ‘lucky’ ones were deported to the interior and then ‘amnestied’ after the German invasion, when most of them fled further into Central Asia. It is fascinating to explore how Iran became a central site for Jewish relief efforts as well as a crucial transit stop for the Polish Army in Exile and the ‘Teheran Children’ on their way to Palestine; Jewish refugees, both allied and ‘enemy alien,’ were also a significant presence in British India – in internment camps orphanages and the Jewish Relief Association of Bombay.”

“So I seek to integrate these largely unexamined experiences and lost memories into our understanding of the Shoah. Gender, generation and family played a key role again in determining the possibilities of survival behind the lines, on the margins of the European war and genocide. With this ‘remapping,’ I try to examine how this ‘Asiatic’ experience shaped definitions, and self-definitions, of ‘survivors,’ in the immediate postwar context of repatriation and further displacement, and up to the present globalization of Holocaust and post-colonial memories in a new and evolving context of forced migration and refugee crises. Investigating the history of World War II refugee camps, and in particular the experience of Jewish refugees in non-Western societies, especially in the Middle East, highlights the fact that regions we now associate with repression and barbarism, from which people are fleeing, and others fear that those fleeing are transporting ‘barbarism’ with them into a ‘civilized’ West, once offered refuge to those fleeing a barbarism that emanated from Europe.

Michal Shapira is a senior lecturer in history and gender at Tel Aviv University. Her research deals with World War II, gender and the history of psychology in the 20th century.

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