After the war, the western Allies established DP camps in the Allied-occupied zones of Germany, Austria and Italy.
The first inhabitants of these camps were concentration camp survivors who had been liberated by the Allies on German soil. Conditions in these camps, especially at the beginning, were very difficult. Many of the camps were former concentration camps and German army camps. Survivors found themselves still living behind barbed wire, still subsisting on inadequate amounts of food and still suffering from shortages of clothing, medicine and supplies.
“Everything is seen in too sharp a light and is heard too loudly. Everything is beyond the human scale; and if you have breathed that air, you will understand that here live people who have already experienced their deaths long ago. Camp eyes are still saturated with the visions of suffering, camp lips smile a cynical smile, and the survivors' voices cry, 'We have not yet perished'."
(Testimony of Haim Avni, emissary from Eretz Israel)
In the DP camps, Holocaust survivors sometimes lived alongside antisemites and individuals who had harmed Jews during the war. In the summer of 1945, Earl Harrison, US President Truman’s emissary to the camps, wrote a report on the Jews’ suffering in the DP camps. As a result, the Jewish refugees were transferred to separate camps where they were given a degree of independence, and conditions improved. The Americans enabled US Jewish relief organizations and activists from Eretz Israel to operate in the camps. The living conditions in the British-occupied zone, where Jewish refugees had arrived mostly from Bergen-Belsen, were far less comfortable.
Survivor Eliezer Adler recalls:
They would take a hut and divide it into ten tiny rooms for ten couples. The desire for life overcame everything - in spite of everything I am alive, and even living with intensity.
We took children and turned them into human beings…. The great reckoning with the Holocaust? Who bothered about that... you knew the reality, you knew you had no family, that you were alone, that you had to do something. You were busy doing things. I remember that I used to tell the young people: Forgetfulness is a great thing. A person can forget, because if they couldn't forget they couldn't build a new life. After such a destruction to build a new life, to get married, to bring children into the world? In forgetfulness lay the ability to create a new life...
After the Holocaust, there were tens of thousands of Jewish survivors in Poland, as well as refugees who had returned there from the Soviet Union. On comprehending the enormity of the destruction of Polish Jewry and being confronted with manifestations of antisemitism, which reached their zenith with the Kielce pogrom of July 1946, these Jews decided to move westward to the American-occupied zone, and so they too arrived at the DP camps. In 1947, they were joined by a further wave of Jewish refugees from Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania, and the total number of DP camp inhabitants reached a peak of some 250,000.
Life in the camps in occupied Germany was regarded by most of the Jewish refugees as a temporary arrangement. They sought to leave Germany, and in many cases, Europe as a whole. Yet despite this, and despite the wretched physical conditions, the survivors in the DP camps transformed them into centers of social, cultural and educational activity.
Holocaust survivor and author Aharon Appelfeld relates:
The first entertainment troupes made their appearance: a mixture of old and young people, among them former actors… and all manner of skinny people who found this distraction cathartic. These troupes evolved spontaneously, and went from one camp to another. They sang, recited, told jokes… the subconscious will to exist propelled us back into the circle of life.
The Jews in the DP camps established theaters and orchestras. They held sporting events and published more than 70 newspapers in Yiddish. They were among the first to research the Holocaust and initiate commemoration events. They collected testimonies from survivors, gathered written documentation and held memorial ceremonies for the victims.
The survivors found themselves “liberated but not free”. Their starting point was their unique legacy, but their response was a national one. “In the DP camps, without the framework of a society to absorb them, their rehabilitation was dependent on the formation of a new society, one which struggled for its national existence while fighting for the rehabilitation of its members. The camps were a model for the incremental move from a bruised and battered Europe to a new life - in Israel and America,” wrote researcher Hagit Lavsky.
Different Jewish political parties – secular and religious, Zionist and Socialist – operated in the DP camps, the legacy of the intensive political life led by the Jews of Poland before the Holocaust. With that, the trauma engendered by the Holocaust and the influence of the Zionist activists who came from Eretz Israel meant that the political inclination in the DP camps was predominantly Zionist.
There was a high level of political awareness in the DP camps, and a desire to leave Germany, especially to Eretz Israel. The Jews established Kibbutzei Hachsharah (pioneer training collectives) in which they prepared themselves for Aliyah (immigration) to Eretz Israel.
Due to the establishment in 1948 of the State of Israel and the changes that were made to the US immigration legislation, there were increased opportunities for many of the Jews in the DP camps to emigrate. All the DP camps closed by 1950, except for Föhrenwald, which remained operative until 1957. Most of the displaced persons immigrated to Israel, approximately one third to the US, and several thousand settled in Europe, including in Germany itself, and reestablished communities that had been destroyed in the Holocaust.
In the first months after the war there were barely any children under the age of 5 in the DP camps, and only 3% of the survivors were children and teenagers aged 6-17. Most survivors had lost their entire families, and alongside the feelings of loss and loneliness was the yearning to establish families of their own, resulting in a marriage boom after liberation. In some of the camps there even were group weddings, and it was not uncommon for the newlyweds to hail from different countries. In the years 1946-1948, the birth rate in the DP camps was the highest in the world. Medical care for newborns and their young mothers, provided in cooperation with relief organizations, was one of the foremost challenges.
Educators at the DP camps found themselves confronted with serious hurdles, such as illiteracy among the students, lack of concentration, and the absence of a uniform language of instruction.
In addition, they had to restore the faith and confidence in the adult world that these youngsters had lost during the war. In many cases, it was not only confidence they had lost, but essentially their entire childhood. The horrors of the Holocaust had turned them into adults overnight.
The survivors hailed from the most diverse European countries and while some had lost their skills during the war years others had never had a chance to learn anything.
Moreover, there was a shortage of classrooms, textbooks, notebooks and other equipment. Initially, there were no professionally-trained teachers in most of the DP camps, but competent teachers were soon dispatched from Eretz Israel, the United States and England. As well as core subjects such as reading, writing and mathematics, Hebrew, Jewish history and the geography of Eretz Israel were included in the curriculum. The orthodox community supervised the establishment of yeshivot (Talmudic colleges).
In addition to raising the younger children, youth education was organized in order to prepare the teenagers for their future working lives. This comprised sewing and tailoring classes, Hebrew lessons and agricultural training.
It did not take long for a dynamic cultural life to develop in the DP camps. For many inmates, cultural activities constituted a kind of spiritual rehabilitation, which found its expression in the establishment of orchestras and theater groups. The fact that the revival of Jewish culture occurred in Germany of all places was seen by many as an expression of retribution.
On stage, classical Jewish plays were performed, the experiences of the ghettos and concentration camps were processedand the dream of Eretz Israel was given expression. Of particular importance to the survivors in the DP camps was the publication of Jewish newspapers, especially in Yiddish. After most inmates had been cut off almost entirely from any information during the war, and had been unable express their opinions, intensive writing activity commenced shortly after liberation. This was all the more impressive in light of the fact that paper was severely rationed and typewriters were almost impossible to find. Almost every DP camp had its own newspaper, featuring articles about sporting events, wedding and birth announcements, political reports from the DP camps and news from around the world and Eretz Israel, as well as the survivors’ personal stories and search notices.
The revival of Orthodox Jewry found its expression, among other things, in the establishment of yeshivot (Talmudic colleges). Religious schools were established in several locations including Bergen-Belsen and Föhrenwald. Jewish holidays gave occasion for gatherings and festivities, but more importantly, they constituted the revival of religious customs after the Holocaust.
After liberation many felt the need to preserve their experiences and to keep the memory of their destroyed communities alive. The horrors of the Shoah were documented by survivors and published in the newspapers of the DP camps, and they also wrote the stories of their communities in the form of “Yizkor” (memorial) books. At the same time, there was a need to commemorate the murdered by erecting tombstones near mass graves and memorial stones for the victims who had no grave. Holocaust commemoration ranged from traditional Jewish memorial rites to the development of new and different forms of commemoration.
In addition to political and cultural activities in the DP camps, sports clubs were established and competitions organized. Sporting events were of great significance to the survivors, since they emphasized their independence and will power on the one hand, and signified a return to normality on the other.
Every DP newspaper included a sports section, and sporting events announcements could always be found in the advertising columns.
For most survivors, Jewish identity was an existential issue after the Holocaust. The horrors of the Shoah had made them understand that they could not continue to exist as an unwelcome minority. They saw only one solution to this problem – Zionism. The predominance of Zionism compared to other political schools of thought that had been common before the war, can be explained by the fact that the Zionists were the only ones who had a platform that seemed to make sense after the catastrophe of the Holocaust; furthermore, the Zionists were organized and active. At the first Zionist conference of the DP camps in Bavaria after the war, the demand was made to permanently dissolve the European Diaspora and expedite immigration to Eretz Israel. Additionally, the restrictions imposed by the British on immigration to Eretz Israel were severely criticized.
In preparing for immigration to Eretz Israel, an important role was played by the kibbutzim (farming collectives). In many respects, they carried on the tradition of Zionist kibbutzim and hachsharot (pioneer training schemes) that had been active in the interwar period mainly in Poland. Often the kibbutzim were part of the DP camps, but their members lived in separate units and were very eager to maintain their independence. The goal of the kibbutzim was to prepare their members for Aliyah (immigration) to Eretz Israel. This entailed Hebrew lessons and courses on the history of Eretz Israel as well as agricultural training. The first kibbutz of this kind was Kibbutz Buchenwald, which was founded in the summer of 1945.
Videos from Yad Vashem's YouTube channel.
Archival footage and Holocaust survivor testimonies about life in the DP camps.