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Displaced Persons’ (DP’s) Camps and their Role in Rebuilding a life

Many of the Jewish refugees saw Europe as the graveyard of the Jewish people. Wherever they went, they were reminded of the life that had been there before. Some remained in the concentration camps. Others fled. Some tried to get to mandatory Palestine, but the doors were closed by British restrictions. The United States, as well, had difficult immigration policies. Thousands, in the end, managed to get to South Africa, Australia, and South America. However, because of the excessive red tape, the increasing anti-Semitism, the difficult voyages, there was no other option for many of these people but to congregate in camps that were set up by the allies after the war. These camps were called displaced persons camps [DP camps].
Conditions in the DP camps, especially at the beginning, were very difficult. Some of the camps were located in former concentration camps. Some of them were even located in former German army barracks, so that many of the survivors were walking around behind barbed wire, still in their concentration camp uniforms. Food and medicine were very scarce, the death rate remained high for weeks, and still, these refugees streamed into the DP camps. For many, it would be the place where they would take their first steps forward. In teaching about these first steps, we need
to ask: What are the things we take for granted that represented freedom to the survivors of the Holocaust? A book; a pen; a piece of fruit; a hot shower with soap. These were all basic things that had been taken away from those who had survived. So basic, that it’s hard for us today to grasp this.
“It was important and urgent to give them back their identity. Therefore, we learned their names and when we managed to say ‘Good morning, Menashe,’ ‘How are you, Mordechai?’ they were so surprised; they looked at us and could not believe that someone was calling them by name.” - Dr. Yehudit Hemendinger, worked with child survivors in the DP camps It was not only the physical, material things that needed to be restored; the survivors’ faith in humanity, especially that of the children, also had to be restored. Children who had been abused, who had been hidden, who had seen death, had become very, very cynical of the adult world. Their confidence needed to be rebuilt.
For instance, we can ask students to look at the poster that they see here, and to try and find a deeper meaning beyond the simple act they see. What is the adult doing besides trying to help the child put on her shoe? What does the child’s body language say? Does she feel free to lean on the adult? Once children’s faith in humanity was restored - once anyone’s faith in humanity was restored - then these people could go ahead and start to try to rehabilitate their lives.
“Their thirst for knowledge is amazing.
One fact is worthy of mention: not a single pupil is late for class.
They come without breakfast, because the canteens open at 8:30,
while school begins at 8:00. Anyone who is aware of the sensitivity to hunger of the former ‘katzetniks’ [concentration camp prisoners] will appreciate their devotion to studies.” - From the Unser Stimme, a journal published in the DP camps For many survivors, culture and education were very important. We can ask why they were so important, when for many of these people food was still scarce, they were still in mourning, and the future was still very uncertain? For many of them, culture was what represented the bridge between their former lives - it connected them to their previous traditions. It was also a way to escape their reality. Education was the key to their futures.
For instance, survivors in the DP camps published more than 70 newspapers. They had film screenings, they established sports clubs, there were theatres, there was art, there was culture. They also established schools, to give the children, whose lives had been interrupted, vocational and educational training. In addition, they began commemoration projects. The camps were full of posters everywhere to make people aware of all these activities. The atmosphere was the opposite of the desperation and the awful uncertainty that the survivors of the Holocaust had been living with. As a matter of fact, the atmosphere was one of a frenzy of activity, as though these people were trying to make up for all the time they had lost.
Survivors who were alone tried to make new human connections. They reached out for other survivors who instinctively understood the trauma and the loss they had experienced, without having to discuss it too much.
“People got married; they would take a hut and divide it into ten tiny rooms for ten couples. The desire for life overcame everything. […] After such destruction, to build a new life, to get married, to bring children into the world? In the ability to forget lay the ability to create a new life…” - Eliezer Adler There was an astonishing number of marriages in the DP camps, sometimes as many as six every day, and after the marriages came children. In fact, the survivors’ birth rate was higher than anywhere else in the world. In the Bergen-Belsen camp alone 555 babies were born in 1946, and by 1948 the camp was celebrating the birth of the 1000th baby.
All these things were manifestations of the survivors’ drive to live, and not only to live, but also to create new life. They were building a future.
After spending needed time in the DP camps where the survivors could recuperate, re-establish their connections and regain their footing, they moved on to places where they could put down roots and settle permanently.
Survivors immigrated to all parts of the world, with the majority reaching and settling in the United States and in Israel. Wherever they went, they contributed to the societies in which they settled. For Jewish survivors, the end of the war was merely the beginning of a difficult journey. They needed to adapt to living with the scars of loss and the memories that they would continue to carry with them. Though some survivors never recovered from the trauma of the Holocaust, most of them managed to build a new life.

In the previous step we were exposed to the difficulties of liberation for surviving Jews. Let’s now turn to another short video that will describe the complex functions of the Displaced Person’s Camps had in the attempt to rebuild the shattered lives of survivors.

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Poetry and the Holocaust

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