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Finding Home and Homeland: Jewish Youth and Zionism in the Aftermath of the Holocaust, by Avinoam J. Patt. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009. 373 pp. $54.95.
This book is a valuable addition to the rich collection of scholarly works on the Holocaust survivors, usually referred to as “She’erit Hapletah” (the Remnant Survivors). In the center of this historical chapter were the Displaced Persons (DPs) who following liberation strived to leave their blood-soaked homelands, were gathered in camps and assembly centers provided by the Allies in occupied Germany and Austria, and remained stuck there until immigration became possible in 1948–1950—mostly to the newly founded State of Israel or to the United States of America. As DPs they became part and parcel of the Zionist struggle against the British Mandate to open the gates of Palestine, which eventually led to the establishment of the sovereign Jewish state. The history of the She’erit Hapletah thus represents a crucial transition “from Holocaust to Redemption,” which has been extensively dealt with by scholars over the last two decades. At first, scholars were mainly interested in the DP issue as an object, rather than in the DPs themselves, and focused on external conditions and policies, exploring the role of the survivors' issue in the international arena in general, and on the Zionist agenda, in particular. They were followed by scholars who started to penetrate into the survivors’ lives and actions as subjects from within, using the wealth of source materials created by the survivors themselves, focusing each on a specific group, issue, or process.
“Finding Home and Homeland” belongs definitely to this latter scholarly trend and deals with an issue hitherto quite overlooked—the youth of She’erit Hapletah. It concentrates on the children, youngsters and young adults who comprised the majority of the survivors’ population, and follows their whereabouts after liberation. His main question is how and why these young people were attracted to Zionist youth movements and to kibbutzim, went through hachshara (agricultural training) and prepared themselves for Aliyah and settlement. To answer these questions he implements an innovative method which uses new source materials, namely, at the center of his study he puts two kibbutzim founded in Poland, and follows intensively their evolvement in Poland, their route to the DP camps and hachshara farms in the American zone of Germany, and their eventual immigration to Palestine. He has been able to do this by discovering and using the kibbutz diaries and archives kept by these groups, which open a unique vista revealed through the eyes of individuals, who wrote intensively about their experiences along their journey “between holocaust and redemption.” The story of these kibbutzim is elegantly woven into the complex history of the survivors in Poland and in Germany, the political context, the organizational development in the DP camps, and the struggle of the youth movements against a myriad of political, economic, cultural, and social obstacles posed by the prolonged transitional situation that threatened to destroy the morale of the survivors.
One of the main issues in contest among scholars and in the wider public is the question why and how was it that the DPs demonstrated such a Zionist enthusiasm and devotion as they did, and joined hands with the Zionist leadership in its struggle for a Jewish state. This question is particularly important from two perspectives. One, from a purely historical perspective: Zionist devotion was not a continuing or ex ante expected phenomenon. One should realize that Zionism was far from being a consensus or the favorite ideology among Jewish Diaspora before the war. Besides assimilation, the Jewish public arena was dominated until the war by two rival ideologies that opposed Zionism—the socialist Bund and the orthodox Agudath Israel, whose main strongholds were in Poland. The second perspective is the public debate, issued by the so-called “post-Zionists,” who argue that the whole picture of Zionist devotion is a fake. Zionist politicians never cared too much for the victims. They were “Palestinocentrists,” their main concern was the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine, and they directed every effort toward Palestine, manipulating the survivors for the Zionist sake against their own will and well being.
Finding Home and Homeland explains convincingly—through diverse personal illustrations—why and how young survivors opted for Zionism, and what Zionism meant for them. The attraction of kibbutzim for the lonely confused youngsters, who looked for belonging and guidance, preceded their option for the Zionist goal. Belonging to the Zionist movement filled for them a vital function in giving hope and direction. It enabled the young survivors to rehabilitate, to create a healthy social atmosphere in a disturbed environment, and to build their future within a supportive framework.
Focusing on the youth provides an explanation for the She’erit Hapletah’s Zionism or as the author puts it in his conclusion, “The overwhelming youth of the DP population directly correlated to the Palestine passion that could be witnessed among the She’erit Hapletah” (p. 260). The young organized survivors became the nucleus and exponents of the Zionist enthusiasm in the DP camps. While the book focuses on the youth, it nevertheless expands the view of the complex of issues that the youth had to face along their long road from liberation in either Germany or Poland towards their Aliyah. In consequence it strengthens and broadens the intuitive conclusion arrived at in other recent studies, that the Zionist inclination of the survivors was genuine and not manipulated, on the one hand, and on the other hand that it developed not as an ideology constructed by the Holocaust lesson, but rather as a spontaneous response to the challenges the survivors had to face within the context of the post-Holocaust era.
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem