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The Difficulties of Liberation

“On that day the remnant came out: Two from a city, one from a village. A woman and her child came out of a bunker under the ruins. A man came out of a sewer. Survivors came out of the forests of the partisans. The rescued came out of Auschwitz. In Europe, the sun was shining and the world was back on its course. They stood among heaps of ashes, a flaming stone in their hearts.” - Abba Kovner, from Scrolls of Fire World War II ended in May 1945 with dancing in the streets, though much of Europe had been reduced to rubble. While most of the world celebrated the end of six years of war, there was no happy ending for the Jews.
For them, the moment of liberation came too late. Entire communities had been wiped out.
“We are free now, but we don’t know how to begin our free but unfortunate lives… We have forgotten how to laugh, we cannot cry anymore. We do not comprehend our freedom.” - Dr. Zalman Grinberg
Just as the period before the Holocaust must be taught, the period after the Holocaust must be taught as well, in order to present the full human story. By the end of the Holocaust, the survivors’ lives had been shattered. Some would never manage to rehabilitate themselves. We will focus here on the majority, those who mustered all their strength and somehow managed to return to life. Many of them were alone in the world and started with nothing, yet somehow, they made their way back from the edge of the abyss.
Their fight and their resilience is an extraordinary story, since it is far from obvious that people who had been through the trauma of the Holocaust would have the strength to return to life. The International School for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem uses a number of study units, both in print and online. They contain pictures, posters, testimonies by survivors, and background materials, some of which we will discuss here.
For those Jews who had survived the Holocaust, the fight to stay alive had tapped all their physical strength. In most cases, the survivors were weak and sick. Some were on the verge of death. Many were human skeletons. They had to be nursed slowly back to health and given desperately-needed medical attention. Of those who’d made it to the moment of liberation, thousands died immediately afterwards.
“But after it sank in, the freedom, I realized that I was hoping the whole time that I will see my father, and maybe, hope beyond hope, my mother, although I knew that this is not a realistic hope.” Most of the survivors had to fight so hard just to stay alive that they didn’t have the capacity, or the ability, to confront the fates of their loved ones. Up until liberation, many had expended all their energy on surviving from minute to minute. Now they realized that their entire families were gone. Their lives would never be the same. While the rest of the world was counting the dead, the Jews were counting the living.
“While I was elated by the freedom, there was tremendous fear. Who will I find? How will we… We survived this, but we have to go back to civilization. How will we react in a normal world again? We are here, two young girls, without anything. We were afraid we will have nobody, and we needed somebody who could spoil us, who could take care of us. We have to make a future for ourselves, and how will we make that future?”
The journey through chaotic postwar Europe was very difficult. The trains weren’t running. Infrastructure had been damaged. Refugees were jamming the roads. Some refugees journeyed hundreds of miles for weeks and weeks, just to get home.
One question we can ask is: What is home? Is it just a location? Why would they want to go home? They searched for what remained of their families and their communities in the familiar places in which they had once lived.
“In Athens I met a neighbor who had been with my brother at Jaworzno camp. 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. 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.” - Shlomo Cohen
They searched for what remained of their families and their communities in the familiar places in which they had once lived. But when they got to those places, their families and their communities were gone. Home was no longer the image they had clung to, during all the years of the war, in order to survive. In some eastern European countries, as many as 90% of the Jews had been murdered. According to one postwar survey, three quarters of the survivors were the only survivor of their families. Survivors who managed to return to the places where they had once lived often had to confront hostile anti-Semitic reactions of the local populations, especially in eastern Europe.
For instance, on July 4th, 1946, in a place called Kielce, forty-two Jews were murdered by their neighbors. As many as 1,500 Jews were murdered in Poland immediately after the war. “I went home. I didn’t have anywhere I could stay… I… had aunts and family. I went to see all their apartments. There were non-Jews living in every one. They wouldn’t let me in. In one place, one of them said, ‘What did you come back for? They took you away
to kill you, so why did you have to come back?’ I decided: I’m not staying here, I’m going.” - Shoshana Stark Once again, many Jews lived in fear.
They began to think: Would it be possible to resuscitate their Jewish communities in these places where they had lived for generations? Many of them began to leave.
The big question was: where would they go?

Before we turn to the first poem dealing with liberation, we will present the short video above, which will help us understand the complexities facing the survivors at the end of the war after liberation.

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Poetry and the Holocaust

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