Words by Olly DeHerrera, Print Production Editor
“And I – where will I go? Where shall I seek my home? Where shall I find my family and relatives? I have neither” – Abraham Ahubia, 1945.
By the end of May 1945, the news was heard across Europe: Adolf Hitler was dead and the war in Europe was over after six long years. Across the ruined landscape of Europe, there was dancing in the streets, flags were hoisted high as crowds greeted a new era. Yet, scarcely clinging to the edge of the abyss, many European Jews would describe this movement of liberation as “too late”. During the course of the war, more than 2/3 of Europe’s Jewish population had been systematically wiped out by the Nazis and their collaborators in what we now know as the Holocaust.
For many survivors of the Holocaust, the journey to return to life was as challenging as their battle to survive the Holocaust had been. In some eastern European countries, as much as 90% of the Jewish population had been murdered. According to one postwar survey, ¾ of survivors were the only survivors of their families (source: Yad Vashem). Holocaust survivor Eve Braun and her sister were two of the many people desperately searching for family in post-war Europe, she recalled: “While I was elated by the freedom, there was tremendous fear. Who will I find? We survived this, but we have to go back to civilization. How will we react in a normal world again? We were young girls without anything, and we will have nobody”. Confronting loss and the scale of the Holocaust only entailed more tragedy for many survivors. Shlomo Cohen returned to Athens searching for any remanence of his life before the war: “I met a neighbour who had been with my brother at Jaworzno camp.”, Shlomo recalled, “Right away I asked him about my brother, and he made circles in the air with his finger meaning my brother had been taken to the crematorium in Auschwitz [Auschwitz Concentration camp was often referred to by its Polish name Oświęcim]. “I almost passed out, I didn’t know what to do with myself, I had thought that he was the only one who could have remained alive, he was strong. His name was Avraham, and from that day no one came back”.
The antisemitism that had gripped Europe did not disappear after the end of the war either. Many survivors still faced hostility and violence attempting to return to their former homes and communities. On July 4th, 1946, in Kielce, Poland, 42 Jews attempting to return to the town were massacred by their neighbours. In total, about 1500 Jews who had survived the Holocaust were murdered trying to return to Poland.
With strangers in their former homes and no family, many Jewish survivors, along with many other victims targeted by the Nazis, found themselves in displaced person camps. These lesser-known facets of post-war history were intended to house the hundreds of thousands of people displaced and stranded by the Holocaust, until arrangements could be made for their relocation or return. Many displaced person camps were within the same boundaries of former concentration camps, whereas some were specially constructed. In total, it is estimated some 850,000 people spent time in a displaced person camp after the war. Inside the displaced person camps, survivors organised schools, places of worship, hospitals and other services with help of the British Red Cross and United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Appallingly, sometimes, they were forced to live alongside people who had not been prisoners at the camps and had collaborated with the Nazis.
Inside these displaced person camps, life fought back against the dark shadow of the Holocaust. In his book, New Beginnings, Hagit Lavsky records that inside the camps, “Much attention was paid to weddings, and very often they were the main agenda in the social life of the camp. During the first year after liberation there were numerous weddings, not uncommonly six or more in a single day, even fifty in a week.” Stories of unions and new life inside displaced person camps bear witness to a reclamation of humanity among survivors that the Nazis had tried hard to destroy. One anonymous displaced person is said to have proposed with the words: “I am alone. I have no one, I have lost everything. You are alone. You have no one. You have lost everything. Let us be alone together.”
In what had formerly been Bergen Belsen concentration camp, the death place of Anne and Margot Frank, Lily Lax exchanged her cigarette rations for the services of a woman who had been a seamstress before the war. Using British army parachute material, the woman constructed a wedding dress for Lily to wear for her marriage to a young man she met in the displaced person camp. The dress was ultimately lent to at least 30 other women in the camp before Lily managed to relocate to America. She later donated the dress to the United States Shoah Museum.
These stories of new life were also covered in the scars of what these people had been through. Shoshanna Roshkovski, who weighed only 28 kg at liberation, was one of the young women who met her future husband in the Bergen Belsen camp. At her wedding she had a Hungarian bridesmaid and Polish best man, all friends made at the displaced person camp. A few months after her wedding, Soshanna visited the onsite doctor with stomach pains, Shoshanna remembers that painful visit:
“’You’re three months pregnant.’ I jumped off the table like a mad woman, ‘Doctor, I’m pregnant?’ He said, ‘You’re not married?’ I said, ‘I’m married, but I don’t want a baby, I want an abortion, I don’t want a child. I can’t hear a baby crying, I heard babies screaming in Auschwitz, I don’t want it.’ I cried terribly.” What would have been a joyous moment was scarred by the trauma of her experiences in the Holocaust. Shoshanna did not terminate her pregnancy and struggled greatly with bonding with her baby but prayed to G-d to keep him safe from disease and sickness which was rife in the camp. The Roshkoviski family later relocated to Israel.
Two thirds of people in displaced person camps would relocate to Israel after the United Nations voted to formally establish the state by portioning the former British mandatory Palestine territory in 1948. They joined a growing community of Jews who had been located in British Mandatory Palestine before and during the war. The last displaced person camp, in Fohrenwald, closed in February of 1957.
The effects of the Holocaust were not cured by liberation. For many people, barbed wire and poor living conditions continue a part of their lives for a decade after liberation. Yet, within this, survivors sought to rebuild their communities and religious lives against the daunting echoes of the Holocaust. The individual stories within are testimonies of ordinary people’s struggle and triumph against hatred.