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“We Are Here”: New Approaches to Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany, edited by Avinoam J. Patt and Michael Berkowitz. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010. 356 pp. $29.95.
The history of Jewish displaced persons in postwar Germany—the so-called “Surviving Remnant” composed of concentration camp survivors, former partisans and Polish Jews who had narrowly escaped the Final Solution in exile in the USSR—has been the focus of recent books and dissertations. In this volume, Avinoam J. Patt and Michael Berkowitz present a rich selection of scholarship reflective of this historiographical trend. The transient experience of Jews in occupied Germany, they demonstrate, did not simply symbolize the last chapter of the Holocaust or, alternatively, the first chapter of Israeli history: it also enabled a complex cultural, political, religious, and educational drive towards regeneration, normalization, and commemoration. The essays under review seek to challenge prior assumptions about Jewish DPs: their supposed unified background and political cohesiveness, their alleged reluctance to make sense of the catastrophe that befell them, their purposeful avoidance of contacts with German society, and the prevalence of staunch ideological Zionism among Holocaust survivors. As stated by its editors, the volume’s welcome goal is to produce “a more complete and nuanced interpretation of the DPs’ experiences” (p. 4).
To that end, Atina Grossmann’s opening essay, written before the publication of her prize-winning book on this topic, shifts the focus from the well-known diplomatic and political history of DPs to their collective experiences. In particular, Grossmann documents the counterintuitive yet numerous interactions between Jews and Germans after the war, allowing for a dramatic reversal of power relations. These encounters with the “people of Amalek” revolved around food, black market, commercial dealings, or the administration of camps. The not uncommon case of German midwives, nurses, nannies, and domestic servants employed by Jewish refugees in and outside refugee camps added a gendered dimension to this symbolic (and non-violent) revenge. In keeping with the overarching theme of the volume, Grossmann shies away from easy characterizations: Jewish DPs were not merely the passive, traumatized, or black-marketeering refugees depicted in the reports of relief agencies or, alternatively, the heroic and resilient survivors admired by postwar Jewish American writers. The book indeed unveils the diversity of the Jewish DP society in transit and the wide array of activities embraced by its members. An important aspect of Jewish refugee life in Germany was the struggle for historical preservation. At a time when “Holocaust consciousness” was not yet on the horizon, the DP camps of Germany, Austria and Italy served as crucial sites of documentation and memorialization. The “historical commissions” formed by activists in the DP camps and studied by Laura Jockusch produced sources and documentary material later used by YIVO in the United States and Yad Vashem in Israel. Children testimonies were also collected. In his essay, Boaz Cohen shows how the voice of children was recorded and analyzed in Fun Letsten Hurbn, the first ever Holocaust-research journal published in Munich in 1946. Alongside songs and musical performances (analyzed by Shiri Gilbert), the preservation of Yiddish literature was another facet of this remembrance effort. As Tamar Lewinski argues, a new Yiddish literary scene, adjusted to post-Holocaust realities, emerged out of the DP experience. Religion also functioned as a memorialization device. Margaret Myers Feinstein’s study of religious practices among Jewish DPs demonstrates that rituals reaffirmed Jewish identity and, contrary to common belief, played a central role in the survivors’ lives.
Other essays in the volume tackle the issue of “DP agency.” Did Jewish refugees act autonomously or did they remain tools and subjects of outside powers? The examination of Zionist sympathies among Holocaust survivors is a good case in point. According to Hagit Lavsky, who studied the political organization of Jewish DPs in Bergen-Belsen, the Zionist leanings of the Surviving Remnant were “neither a manipulative effort by external forces nor a constructed ideology” (p. 246). A spontaneous creation born in the context of displacement and mourning, DP Zionism was above all functional and therapeutic. For the youthful segment of the Jewish DP population, aptly investigated by Avinoam J. Patt, Zionist youth movements and prototype kibbutzim in the German countryside provided warmth, brotherhood, and a sense of home. These feelings were nonetheless rapidly converted into nascent Israeli patriotism, as Patt’s concluding lines indicate: “The Zionist movement, the Yishuv, and indeed the Fatherland was calling, and in the DP camps the youth were expected to answer this call” (p.124).
Not all Jewish DPs ended their journey in Israel, however. When the U.S. Congress passed the DP Act in June 1948, and even more so when it liberalized its initial provisions in 1950, Holocaust survivors arrived on American shores (140,000 Jewish DPs had settled in the United States by 1954). Yet as Beth B. Cohen shows, these officially labeled “New Americans” faced an American Jewish community not always attuned to their past sufferings, in deep contrast with the central place occupied by the Holocaust in contemporary Jewish-American identity. “We are Here” addresses many other issues, such as the deeply-rooted stereotypes of Jews as criminals and deviants in post-war German society (Michael Berkowitz and Suzanne Brown-Fleming) or the process of identity formation in the DP camps (Laura J. Hilton). Overall, the volume introduces, in a succinct yet sophisticated way, the most recent scholarship on Jewish displaced persons in postwar Germany. It will remain an invaluable tool for courses in Holocaust and post-1945 European history.
G. Daniel Cohen
Department of History