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What Today’s Refugees Can Learn from Holocaust Survivors About the Human Spirit

What Today’s Refugees Can Learn from Holocaust Survivors About the Human Spirit

Children in a kindergarten class in a DP camp

Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated on January 27, 1945, the date that is now commemorated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Following World War II, Europe was flooded with millions of displaced persons (DPs), including 250,000 Jewish survivors who were unable and unwilling to return to their nations of origin. Many Jews were confined to DP camps in Allied-occupied Germany, Austria, and Italy for as long as a decade.

Among them were my parents and parents-in-law, who were leaders of the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp in the British Zone of Germany. “For the greatest part of liberated Jews, there was no ecstasy, no joy at our liberation,” recalled my mother-in-law, Dr. Hadassah Rosensaft, a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. “We had lost our families, our homes. We had been liberated from death and the fear of death, but not from the fear of life.” 

The ways in which the stateless Jewish DPs transitioned from persecuted refugees to productive citizens in their new countries may be instructive today, as we witness what Human Rights Watch has called “the largest global displacement crisis since World War II.”

The European Union’s objective – “to strengthen the resilience and self-reliance of both the displaced and their host communities…by helping them to access education, housing, land, livelihoods, and services” – is framed, in part, on the historical achievements of Jewish survivors, who managed to turn DP camps into vibrant centers for rehabilitation. With the material assistance of international organizations, Jewish DPs organized their own physical, emotional, and spiritual rehabilitation.

As part of the healing process, survivors made it one of their first priorities to establish symbolic memorials for parents, spouses, children, and siblings who were murdered in the ghettos, forests, camps, and other places across Europe. The survivors also served as principal witnesses for the prosecution at war crimes trials, including the Belsen Trial, at which my mother-in-law testified about the gas chambers at Auschwitz.

Survivor rabbis and American and British military chaplains tended to their religious needs. In addition to conducting services, establishing religious schools, and mikvaot (ritual baths), these rabbis addressed such complex issues as the plight of agunoth and agunim (survivors who had married before or during the war, whose spouses had disappeared and who required a designation of widowhood in order to remarry), and the determination of Jewish identity of those in the camps who had been deemed “half” and “quarter” Jews under the Nazis’ Nuremberg Laws. 

Liberated children poured into the DP camps from the concentration camps, ghettos, and hiding places in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union – some with their families, many alone. The reunification of families was facilitated by mimeographed lists of survivors displayed at the DP camps, but most survivors suffered from the heartbreaking knowledge that they were truly alone in the world. 

The survivors who were educators came forward to teach and restore the children’s capacity for fun. As the children spoke different languages, Hebrew was designated as the common language for instruction. 

Vocational training provided a crucial outlet for the energies of thousands of young adults in the DP camps, preparing them for their future livelihood. Some, like my mother who studied medicine at the University of Bonn, pursued higher degrees. Sports activities became a popular outlet for recreation, socialization, and enhanced physical well-being.

Soon after liberation, the survivors began to marry, seeking to create an atmosphere of living for the future and not in the past. The largest recorded birth rate in post-war Europe took place among the Jewish DPs; my husband was among the 2000 Jewish children born in the Bergen-Belsen DP Camp. 

Politically, the DP’s greatest effort was the struggle to re-establish their historic homeland in Eretz Yisrael. David Ben Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency, visited the DP camps during November 1945 and later wrote, “The faith I found among the survivors strengthened the spirit of our fighters in the Homeland.”

With the establishment of the state in 1948, legal immigration became a reality, and many of the survivors were finally able to immigrate to Israel, where they were among the builders, fighters, and defenders of the Jewish state. Liberalized immigration quotas eventually allowed the remaining survivors to settle in the United States, Canada, and other countries.

In the DP camps, healing engendered hope. Many survivors stopped seeing themselves as victims and found the courage and fortitude to rebuild their lives.

Their determination and resilience testify to the indestructible human spirit and will, hopefully, be a source of strength and inspiration for refugees in our own day.

Saturday, January 27, marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the date the United Nations General Assembly has designated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Jean Bloch Rosensaft is assistant vice president for communications and public affairs at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and curator of the traveling exhibition “Rebirth After the Holocaust: The Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp, 1945-1950” available through the HUC-JIR Museum.

Jean Bloch Rosensaft
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