For many Holocaust survivors from Poland and other parts of central and eastern Europe, the route to freedom passed through the one country they probably didn’t want to set foot in.
It’s the immediate aftermath of the war, the first months after allied troops liberated Europe. Tens of thousands of Jews emerged from their hiding places (not many survived the Nazi camps). The joy at having survived was short-lived. They faced a new wave of anti-semitism in their homelands, and were forced to endure it or leave. The Jewish secret organization Bricha did its best to gather Jewish refugees and smuggle them to safety in a place a survivor would least expect it — Germany.
Not that it had anything to do with the defeated Germans. There was no great change of heart about Jews in the immediate postwar years. The refugees wanted to reach the American Zone. For that, they had to stop over in displaced persons camps in the US sector of Berlin. These camps were meant to be transitory, a short breather on their way to the US Zone. And eventually — they hoped — Palestine.
The wonderful blog by Rabbi Meyer Abramowitz describes his years as chaplain for the Jewish displaced persons (DP) camps in the US sector of Berlin. During his time there, the refugees turned into political pawns in the emerging Cold War.
To better understand that change I remind you that the Cold War was waged primarily in Berlin, with the Russians insisting that the American troops leave Berlin — an enclave within the Russian Zone of Occupation. The U.S. responded that it intended to remain there as stipulated by previous treaties. To demonstrate its determination to stay in Berlin, the United States declared that the DP’s would remain in Berlin’s Camps under the protection of American troops.
This decision brought an abrupt end to any further transports out of Berlin. The camps had now become holding centers for all displaced persons, Jews and non-Jews, pending their legal resettlement.
By the end of 1946, Jews were still entering Berlin’s displaced persons camps. But there was no way out. Camp Düppel, also called the Schlachtensee camp, grew to 5,000 people living in limbo. The camp expanded to include schools, recreational facilities and a synagogue. No one knew how long they would have to stay, largely cut off from the rest of Berlin. DP camps had a bad reputation among the Germans, who considered them hotbeds of crime committed by “foreign elements.”
Until 1948, the camps were both haven and trap for Jewish refugees. The Berlin Airlift and the founding of Israel finally ended the stalemate. After the Soviets cut off supply routes to Berlin, the Americans flew refugees out of the city. Numbers in the camps dwindled.
The people who lived in the DP camps endured helplessness and frustration. But they also enjoyed an unusual sense of community. They were the Surviving Remnant of a people decimated by Nazi Germany and its helpers. A recent documentary “From Hell to Hope” interviewed people who lived in the camps. It gives an unusual look at what happened in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust.
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