Atina Grossmann: Regarding Eric Lichtblau’s News Analysis, “Surviving the Nazis, Only to be Jailed by America”

Chris Fojtik's picture

Eric Lichtblau’s News Analysis, “Surviving the Nazis, Only to be Jailed by America”  (Sunday Review, Feb. 7, 2015) provides, unfortunately, a distorted, confusing, and only very partial account of an important story that remains – despite numerous comprehensive historical studies – too little known and understood: the postwar experience of Jewish Displaced Persons in Allied occupied Europe between 1945 and 1949. Earl Harrison’s August 1945 Report to President Truman did indeed contain the oft-cited hyperbolic, deliberately sensational statement about American victors “treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except [sic] that we do not exterminate them.” More importantly, however, it insisted, in dramatic contrast to general Allied policy, that since Jews had experienced a “more barbaric persecution” than other initially more numerous non-Jewish DPs they had become “ as they themselves argued,  "a separate group with greater needs.” Harrison thereby set the groundwork for the rapid establishment of separate all-Jewish DP camps where the quite remarkable efforts of U.S. Military Government (without Patton who had been removed from his command by Eisenhower and was killed in an automobile accident already in December 1945), the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), Jewish relief organizations (especially the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), and not least, the DPs themselves, supported a vibrant social, cultural, and political life, marked by Zionist activism and the formation of new families.

These c. 250,000 Jewish DPs did not, alas, comprise “hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors discovered barely alive in the Nazi camps” but rather a diverse “surviving remnant” of East European Jewry: only some 60,000 Jews who had survived liberation on German soil as well as former partisans, hidden Jews, and – the largest and least recognized group – Polish Jews who had managed to survive in the Soviet Union, were repatriated to Poland, and then fled again to the American zone of Germany, where US policy, initiated by Harrison and supported by Truman assured them a temporary safe if frustrating transitional haven in which to begin new lives. This is a complicated story, not easily captured in a brief dramatic news piece but survivors, their families, and all Americans concerned with the treatment of refugees deserve fuller more accurate reporting than this ill-informed article.

Atina Grossmann
Professor of History, Cooper Union; currently Fellow, Davis Center for Historical Studies, Princeton University. Author of Jews, Germans, and Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied Germany (Princeton University Press, 2007)

I would also add to Harold Marcuse’s post that this NYT article -- with its inevitable photo of the striped pajama Buchenwald survivors -- demonstrates once again that there are at least two major historical confusions that are continually rehearsed and need clarification:

1). There is a huge difference between US immigration policy, which was indeed restrictive and in effect discriminated against Jews, and US policy toward Jewish DPs in Germany, which was actually, after the very first chaotic months, remarkably supportive, especially in its willingness to accept "infiltrees" from Eastern Europe, enable semi-autonomous internal self-government, and cooperate with Zionist activists. The latter of course fit all too well with the other piece, namely the restrictive immigration policy, because support for emigration to Palestine obviously took the pressure off demands for opening the doors to the United States.

2) The incredibly misinformed reference in the article to "hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors" who were liberated "barely alive" by the Americans and the link to the photo once again demonstrates the continuing confusion about who the "survivors" actually were (a confusion that remains inscribed in virtually all public memory and commemoration of “survivors”): that only a very small minority (as I try to point out quickly in the letter) of the Jewish DPs were "direct" survivors while by 1946/47 as the numbers did approach "hundreds of thousands," most were Polish Jews who had been repatriated to Poland from their harsh but life-saving exile in the Soviet Union and then, confronted with the "vast graveyard" of post-Holocaust Poland, Sovietization, and violent antisemitism, fled again, to the American zone of occupied Germany where they became the "DPs" referenced in the article.

It is indeed a shame that Eric Lichtblau so badly interpreted the post-liberation lives of Holocaust survivors in the American Zone of Germany. As both Harold Marcuse and Atina Grossmann point out in their respective posts, Lichtblau, on the basis of either poor scholarship or an effort to immediately sensationalize the remainder of his book, provides misinformation and a series of half-truths regarding both the situation of survivors in the various Displaced Persons camps and the attitude and actions of the American military toward those Jews under its authority.

For those interested in a much different view of the American military's relationship to survivors in one Jewish DP camp, I suggest looking at the letters written by Major Irving Heymont, who was in charge of the Landsberg Jewish Center, the largest of the Jewish DP camps in the American Zone ( Jacob Rader Marcus and Abraham J. Peck, Among the Survivors of the Holocaust. The Landsberg DP Camp Letters of Major Irving Heymont, United States Army (1982).

Heymont was at Landsberg for only four months (September to December 1945) but in that short period of time provided the survivors with a rationale for recapturing both their Jewishness and their humanity, aspects of their identity that had been systematically taken away by the Nazis. Landsberg became a kind of "model" for camps such as Feldafing and Foehrenwald among others in the American zone.

Additionally, various studies, both in Hebrew, German and English, have highlighted the extraordinary lengths to which the survivors went to create education, culture, religious life, and"new lives" in terms of birth rates in the years before their emigration to various lands. I have published an article exploring the efforts to create a survivor ideology that sought to give meaning to Holocaust survival (" 'Our Eyes Have Seen Eternity' ": Memory and Self-Identity among the Sheʿerith Hapletah in Modern Judaism,Vol. 17, No. 1, Feb., 1997).

Abraham J. Peck
Research Professor of History
University of Southern Maine

As the director of the International Tracing Service or ITS in Bad Arolsen, Germany, the institution with the most records of the DPs themselves as well as of the agencies (UNRRA and IRO) in charge of what was then called the "care and maintenance" of Displaced Persons, I would like to support the concerns expressed by Atina Grossmann and Herbert Marcuse and further addressed by Abraham Peck about the misrepresentation of the Jewish DP experience by the journalist Eric Lichtblau. As pointed out by these historians, there was chaos and disarray in the midst of ill thought-out repatriation policies in the early months following the collapse of the Nazi regime and poor judgement about sites for housing DPs and the allocation of persons to camps. Yet there was also a major shortage of housing, which the Allies requisitioned in the midst of not particularly receptive Central European non-Jewish and often anti-Semitic populations. Thanks to pressure like that from the Harrison Report and various public health and welfare agencies, including the AJDC, the situation in the DP camps improved quickly. It is also important to note that DPs were not universally compelled to live in camps and sometimes chose to live outside of camps, especially if they had positive contacts with the local population. This was less often the case with Jewish DPs as compared to non-Jewish forced laborers. But the DP experience was not in any way similar to the years Jews spent under annihilationist Nazi persecution and torture or even comparable to the exile of Polish Jews within the Soviet Unton. The fact that this could be so represented in the New York Times shows the need for much more research into the actual archival record, including oral histories, and to the extent still possible, for more interviews.

The ITS archive has been officially open for research since the end of 2007 with digital copies of the archives available already for several years at USHMM, Yad Vashem and various other archives in the countries of the International Commission that governs the ITS. To provide a sense of the holdings of the ITS, I cite the Displaced Person section of the ITS general inventory on the ITS website (https://www.its-arolsen.org):

"At the end of the war, there were eight to nine million displaced persons and refugees in West Germany, Berlin and Austria. Roughly 2,500 displaced persons camps provided shelter. The various relief organisations were able to repatriate between six and seven million people and helped about 1.5 million people to emigrate to other countries, such as Australia, Israel, Canada and the USA.
"The Post-War Documents section in the ITS archives holds records relating to displaced persons who were attended to by international refugee organizations on the territory of the Federal Republic of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and England after the war. The records from the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration), the IRO (International Refugee Organization) and various other aid agencies, dating from the end of the Second World War and thereafter document the repatriation of displaced persons and include records of emigration resulting from the Second World War.
"UNRRA and IRO registrations are made up of lists, medical records and books, files and questionnaires. Some of the information contained in the records was given personally by the DPs. The following documents are available:
1 Original catalogue cards (DP-1, DP-2)
2 Medical records and books
3 Care and maintenance (C/M1) files
4 ICEM records (Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration)
5 Displaced persons questionnaires
6 UNHCR files
7 Hong Kong files
8 Miscellaneous lists
"The care and maintenance (C/M1) files and displaced persons questionnaires refer to approximately 250,000 families, providing information relating to roughly 850,000 individuals. Displaced persons were required to enter details of their whereabouts in the previous 12 years in the questionnaires.
The International Tracing Service is also in possession of IRO and ICEM (Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration) records dating from 1948 to 1970. The records list all former displaced persons who emigrated from West Germany, France and Italy to other countries by sea or air.
The archives also contain documents relating to immigration to Palestine and Israel facilitated by the AJDC (American Joint Distribution Committee), as well as the arrival and transfer records of approximately 2,500 displaced persons camps."

I invite anyone interested in exploring in detail the experience of Displaced Persons to visit the ITS archives in Bad Arolsen, Germany or one of the digital copy holders, such as USHMM in Washington, D.C., Also check out the English- and German-language articles in the 2014 ITS Yearbook, which focus on Displaced Persons (Freilegungen: Displaced Persons. Leben im Transit: Überlebende zwischen Repatriierung, Rehabilitation und Neuanfang. Jahrbuch des International Tracing Service, Vol. 3 (Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag, 2014).

Rebecca Boehling
Director, International Tracing Service
Professor of History, UMBC (Baltimore, Maryland)