Prof. Dina Porat
The partisan Abba Kovner used to tell the story of a Jewish woman survivor he met in Vilna, when he arrived at the site of the destroyed ghetto with the Soviet liberating soldiers. For almost a year, the woman and her young daughter had hidden in a small nook, and had come out from their hiding place for the first time after liberation. As her mother broke down in tears, relating their experiences for the first time, the child asked her, surprised: "Mame, men tor shoyn weinen? – Mommy, is it okay to cry now?"
On 8 May 1945, when the defeated Germans finally capitulated to the Allied Forces, great joy spread throughout the world. The most horrific of wars had come to an end – a war that had wreaked destruction on a scale unprecedented in history: roughly 60 million dead; millions of refugees of every nationality spread throughout Europe; economies and infrastructures shattered. Soldiers from the US and the Soviet Union banded together on the smoldering ruins of Berlin, and throughout the European continent, barely freed from the clutches of the Nazi regime, military parades and celebrations followed one another in close succession. Yet one nation did not take part in the general euphoria – the Jews of Europe. For them, victory had come too late.
The day of liberation, the one for which every Jew had longed throughout the years of the Holocaust, was for most a day of crisis and emptiness, a feeling of overwhelming loneliness as they grasped the sheer scale of the destruction on both the personal and communal level. At the war's end, in the early spring of 1945, it became apparent that some six million Jews had been murdered – about one-third of world Jewry. Those who had survived were scattered throughout Europe: tens of thousands of survivors of the camps and death marches, liberated by the Allied armies on German soil and in other countries, were in a severely deteriorated physical condition and in a state of emotional shock. Others emerged for the first time from various places of hiding and shed the false identities they had assumed, or surfaced from partisan units with whom they had cast their lot and in whose ranks they had fought for the liberation of Europe. In the wake of international agreements signed at the end of the war, some 200,000 additional Jews began to make their way back West from the Soviet Union, where they had fled and managed to survive the war years.
With the advent of liberation, piercing questions arose in the minds of the survivors: How would they be able to go back to living a normal life, to build homes and families? And having survived, what obligation did they bear towards those who had not – was it their duty to preserve and commemorate their legacy? Were the survivors to avenge them, as they demanded before their death? The overwhelming majority of survivors took no revenge on the Germans, but set out on a path of rehabilitation, rebuilding and creativity, while commemorating the world that was no more.
During the Holocaust, many Jews lived with the feeling that they were the last Jews to survive. Nevertheless, after liberation, survivors went far and wide in search of family members, friends and loved ones who might also have stayed alive, against all odds. Many decided to go back to their prewar homes, but they encountered utter destruction. In some places, especially in Eastern Europe, Jews met with severe outbreaks of antisemitism – some 1,000 Jews were murdered in the initial postwar years by the locals. The most appalling episode was the Kielce pogrom – a violent attack in July 1946 by Polish residents against their Jewish neighbors – in which 42 Jews were murdered, some of them the sole survivors of entire families, and many others were injured.
The Kielce pogrom became a turning point in the history of the She'erit Hapleita, the surviving remnant as Holocaust survivors began to be known, in Poland. In the eyes of many, it was the final proof that no hope remained for rebuilding Jewish life in those lands. During the months following the pogrom, the flow of migrants from Eastern Europe increased manifold: In any way they could, Jews tried to make their way west and southward. Young surviving Jews, together with delegates and soldiers from the Land of Israel, aided and directed this exodus, the mass migration that came to be known as Habricha, "The Escape" – a grand-scale attempt to transfer as many Jews as possible to territories controlled by British and US troops in Germany, as a step before leaving Europe. Upon arrival in these regions, refugees joined the tens of thousands of Jewish survivors liberated in Central Europe, and together they amassed in the DP camps across Germany, Austria and Italy. Oftentimes, these camps were established at the sites of former Nazi concentration camps, among them Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald.
The activities of the She'erit Hapleita in the DP camps were a powerful expression of the survivors' efforts to return to life after the war. As early as the first days and weeks after liberation, survivors began to recover and organize themselves, despite the grief, physical weakness and extensive hardships. They formed new families and an independent leadership, set up educational and foster-care facilities for children and youth, published dozens of newspapers and magazines, collected testimonies on the fate of Jews during the Holocaust, and became a significant factor in the Zionist movement's international aspirations towards the establishment of a Jewish state.
At the same time, many survivors sought to leave Europe and move to places where they could safely rebuild their lives and their homes. About two-thirds of the survivors who chose not to remain in Europe after the war set their sights on Eretz Israel. Yet going to Israel was a formidable struggle, in view of the policies imposed by the British Mandate that barred them from entering into the Land. As part of the effort to break through the borders and prohibitions, the illegal immigration movement – the Ha'apala – was organized, whereby survivors boarded old vessels in various Mediterranean ports and sailed for Eretz Israel. The remaining third immigrated to the US, Latin America, South Africa, Canada and Australia.
The Ha'apala, as well as immigration to other countries, was a pivotal stage in the survivors' postwar recovery process. Holocaust survivors contributed, each in their own way, to building a better world for themselves, for their children and for future generations that would never know the horrors of the Holocaust. As survivor Riva Chirurg, who lost dozens of family members in the Lodz ghetto and at Auschwitz, said: "If more than 20 people, second and third generation, gather around my Pesach Seder table, I know I have done my share."
The author is Chief Historian of Yad Vashem.