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Landmark exhibits shed light on life in German displaced person camps after the Holocaust

BERLIN (JTA) — Rachel Salamander was born in an in-between time and place: The time was just after the end of the Holocaust, when no one knew what the future would bring for the remnants of European Jewry.

The in-between place was a displaced persons camp at Deggendorf, Germany. Her parents Samuel and Riva — survivors from Poland — were among the flood of refugees arriving from the east.

The refugees and other local DPs, as they were nicknamed, were “survivors of concentration camps or gulags, or just people who had everything taken away from them, totally at the end of their rope physically and mentally,” says Salamander.

Her family moved from Deggendorf to another DP camp, in Föhrenwald, and eventually settled in the Munich area. “They gave all their love and attention to us children, because we were their future, their hope.”

Life in the DP camps is the subject of a collaborative exhibition between Munich’s Jewish Museum and its City Museum, situated across the square from each other in the city’s center. Called “Munich Displaced: The Surviving Remnant,” and “Munich Displaced: After 1945 and without a Homeland,” the twin exhibits, which run through January 2024, tell the stories of tens of thousands of displaced persons — Jewish and non-Jewish — in post-war German limbo.

The exhibition project is, say its organizers, the first to focus on the lives and fates of all those people who fled, were displaced or deported during World War II and then found themselves in or near Munich after 1945.

After Germany capitulated in May 1945, there were more than eight million so-called displaced persons in Germany, Austria and Italy. For some 250,000 Jews, including about 75,000 in Germany, the DP camps — administered by the Allied authorities and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) — were places where they could regain their strength and perhaps find lost family, or create a new one.

The DP camp “was the beginning of the beginning,” said Ruth Melcer, 88, who was liberated from Auschwitz and later reunited with her parents in their home country, Poland. After the Kielce pogroms, the family fled to Berlin, and eventually were housed in the Föhrenwald DP camp in Munich.

But while they offered DPs a new start, the camps — many of them set up in former Nazi camps — were bleak. In some cases, Jewish DPs found themselves in the same camp with their erstwhile persecutors.

President Harry Truman tasked Earl Harrison, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the American envoy to the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, with producing a report on the conditions — which he found shockingly unsanitary.

“As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them,” Harrison wrote in 1945. “They are in concentration camps in large numbers under our military guard instead of S.S. troops.”

In response to the report, General Dwight Eisenhower, in command of U.S. forces in Europe, helped separate Jewish DPs from non-Jews and improve their overall conditions, sometimes in local housing.

“Jewish people have really a will to survive,” said Melcer’s friend Lydia Barenholz, 85, whose family spent a few months in the same Föhrenwald DP camp. They survived the end of the war in hiding near their home city of Lviv, which was then Poland, now Ukraine.

“We are hanging together with the strength of knowing that everyone could be my family,” said Barenholz, who lives with her husband Jacques in Holland.

Despite the hardships of DP camp life, many were just happy to be free of the Nazis.

“My parents’ life began again” at the Landsberg DP camp about 40 miles west of Munich, said Abraham Peck, who was born there in May 1946. After moving to the United States, they “talked about the life in Landsberg, not about the death that they observed in Lodz and in concentration camps.”

Of her childhood in the DP camp, Salamander recalled having “a clear, religious orientation. We spoke Yiddish and we kept all the Jewish holidays. I never had an identity problem, because there were clear coordinates.”

In Munich, there were approximately 100,000 DPs immediately after the end of the war. Of these, about 5,000 were Jewish.

A British official meets with a family in a displaced persons camp in Berlin in 1945. (Zola/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

After the camps were dissolved, most DPs emigrated by 1950 to the United States and Israel, and only about 20,000 remained in Germany overall. That group, together with a tiny number of German Jews who had survived in hiding, made up Germany’s post-war Jewish community.

“The Jewish DPs were not only survivors or victims,” said Jewish Museum curator Jutta Fleckenstein. “They very quickly developed a Jewish self-awareness. And in this short ‘in-between time,’ after 1945, they could also be seen in the German landscape.”

“It all happened in this brief time,” added Fleckenstein, a historian who has focused on issues of identity and migration. “And then they were forgotten.”

Aiming to wrest this chapter from oblivion, the two museums are offering a program of events and have highlighted some 40 locations throughout the city where refugees once studied or gathered for social or religious events, where Jewish newspapers were printed and where Jewish aid organizations offered assistance. Objects on display came from the museums’ collections or were loaned by former DPs themselves.

“I kept all my high school certificates, pictures and books, so they installed a special corner for me” in the exhibition, said Barenholz, who had attended a Hebrew high school in Munich with her friend Melcer. Barenholz’s homework book is opened to a page that shows “I wrote a very nice Hebrew,” she said. “There were also some with corrections, but they didn’t open the book to that page.”

Lydia Barenholz and Ruth Melcer, who attended Munich’s post-war Hebrew high school together, are shown with some of the objects they contributed to the new exhibit, “Munich Displaced. The Surviving Remnant.” (Daniel Schvarcz)

“My hope is that visitors will learn what happened so that it will never happen again,” said Melcer, who contributed photos from her school days. “But the times are very bad for these hopes.”

Melcer, who married her husband Jossie in 1959, has stayed in touch with numerous former classmates around the world. She frequently speaks with pupils in German schools about her family’s story. In 2015, Melcer co-authored a cookbook-memoir, “Ruths Kochbuch,” with Ellen Presser.

Salamander, who founded a chain of Jewish bookstores in Germany, has loaned artifacts to an exhibit at the Reichenbachstrasse Synagogue, which was built in 1931 and reopened in 1947. For many decades, it was the main synagogue for Munich’s post-war Jewish community. Ten years ago, Salamander and Ron Jakubowicz started a foundation to press for the building’s reconstruction, which is under way.

“This idea of the spirit of Judaism, of welcoming the stranger, all the liberal things that define a good part of American Jewish life, were defined in the DP camps,” said Peck, professor of history at the University of Southern Maine and former administrative director of the American Jewish Archives at HUC in Cincinnati.

It seems to be a story whose time has come: Germany’s public broadcasting company Deutsche Welle has also produced a film about the DPs in post-war Landsberg.

Peck recently organized a week-long program marking 75 years since Leonard Bernstein conducted an orchestra of Holocaust survivors in Landsberg. Peck also co-organized with the Landsberg City Museum the first in a dialogue series, this one focusing on the history of the DP camp. It featured a discussion between Peck and Katrin Himmler, grandniece of Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS.

The idea behind the dialogue “was to talk with people who had ancestors who were in the concentration camps in Landsberg or in the DP camp, and to ask questions that are important nowadays about racism and antisemitism,” said museum director Sonia Schaetz. The museum will include the DP camp history in its new permanent exhibit, due to open in late 2025.

Also in Landsberg, local grassroots historians Manfred and Helga Deiler are planning an exhibition and visitor center at the site where traces of a World War II slave labor camp can still be seen. Some of its survivors became residents of the local Jewish DP camp, they said.

Growing up in Landsberg, the Deilers never heard about the DP camp. Today, they occasionally bring visitors to the site, part of which today houses refugees from Afghanistan and Syria.

It was typical for post-war Germans to forget about the DP camps, says Fleckenstein of the Jewish Museum in Munich. As German-born American philosopher Hannah Arendt noted in her 1950 report from Germany, Germans in general were feeling sorry for themselves and reacted, if at all, with apathy “to the fate of the refugees in their midst.”

For survivors, too, this chapter fell into a kind of “twilight zone,” said Fleckenstein. “In many biographies this time doesn’t even come up at all. This time of waiting, this transitional time, often was not discussed.”

“The people with whom we lived in the DP camp were special,” recalls Salamander. “They all had a piece of destruction in them, they all had come directly from mass murder, they were all completely traumatized people who cried a lot, a lot.”

“And the whole time, they said the names of people whom they had lost. They were people really who had nothing, who had never been in Germany and did not want to be here. But the war had swept them here. They were uprooted, they had no political power. And they were always waiting for things to get better.”

The post Landmark exhibits shed light on life in German displaced person camps after the Holocaust appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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New Faculty Campaign Aims to Show Solidarity With Jewish Students

Anti-Israel students protest at Columbia University in New York City. Photo: Reuters/Jeenah Moon

Over 1,000 university professors will participate in a new campaign to show solidarity with Jewish students experiencing levels of antisemitism that are without precedent in the history of the United States, the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), which promotes academic freedom, announced on Tuesday.

Titled “KeeptheLightOn,” the initiative comes amid a reckoning of congressional investigations, lawsuits, and civil rights inquiries prompted by an explosion of antisemitic discrimination at some of America’s most prestigious universities. It will see the formation of a new group, the Faculty Against Antisemitism Movement (FAAM), comprising professors from across the US who will pressure senior administrators at their schools to address anti-Jewish hatred as robustly as other forms of racism.

“We have written books, op-eds, and articles, but they are not penetrating the echo chamber of anti-Zionist antisemitism,” Southwestern University English professor Michael Saenger said in a press release. “As with previous protest movements, visual displays are sometimes necessary to get people to stop demonizing marginalized groups. We need to respond to bullying and hate, directed against ourselves and Jewish students, more directly and more personally: by visibly advocating for a university that treats Jews as people, and that treats Israel as a nation.”

As part of the campaign, FAAM professors will leave their office lights on after hours to “publicly demonstrate their commitment to fighting antisemitism.” AEN added on Tuesday that the lights will “also symbolize the faculty’s commitment to ‘light a fire’ under administrators to ensure a better academic year ahead.”

“Keep the Light On” was inspired by University of California, Berkeley professor Richard Hassner, who last month held what was widely believed to be the first teacher “sleep-in” protest of antisemitism, AEN said. For two weeks, Hassner lived in his office until administrators agreed to stop an anti-Zionist group’s blockade of a campus foot-bridge which made it impossible for Jewish students to cross without being verbally abused.

Numerous Jewish faculty members at other campuses have also begun stepping up and demanding a change. Some have organized faculty trips to Israel. Others have cobbled their peers together to form groups — such as Yale’s Forum for Jewish Faculty & Friends and Indiana University’s Faculty and Staff for Israel — which have since grown exponentially and will serve as a well of support for FAAM.

“The FAAM initiative is both a distressing sign of the times and a hopeful symbol for the future not only for Jews but also for the academy,” Smith College professor and AEN advisory board member Donna Robinson Divine said. “An academy that has become the core location for an activism promoting social justice cannot sustain its credibility by tolerating hostile attacks against its Jewish student and faculty. Nor can education leaders preserve the legitimacy of the universities over which they preside by ignoring the recycling of this old and dangerous hatred. Rooting out antisemitism in classrooms, lecture halls, and social gatherings is thus as important for Jewish students and faculty as it is for the academy and the nation.”

As The Algemeiner has previously reported, Jewish college students have never faced such extreme levels of hatred. Since Oct. 7 — when Hamas-led Palestinian terrorists invaded Israel, massacred 1,200 people, and kidnapped 253 others as hostages — they have endured death threats, physical assaults, and volleys of racist verbal attacks unlike anything seen in the US since the 1950s.

Many college officials at first responded to the problem sluggishly, according to critics, who noted universities offered a host of reasons for why antisemitic speech should be protected even as they censored students and professors who uttered statements perceived as being conservative. At the same time, progressive thought leaders came under fire for hesitating to acknowledge a swelling of antisemitic attitudes in institutions and organizations reputed to be champions of civil rights and persecuted minority groups. One recent study found that US universities have demonstrated an “anti-Jewish double standard” by responding to Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel and the ensuing surge in campus antisemitism much less forcefully than they did to crimes perpetrated against African Americans and Asians.

The situation changed after three presidents of elite universities were hauled before the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce to account for their handling of antisemitism and said on the record that there are cases in which they would decline to punish students who called for a genocide of the Jewish people. The stunning admissions prompted the resignations of Elizabeth M. Magill as president of University of Pennsylvania and eventually of Claudine Gay, Harvard University’s former president, who would not leave until a series of reporters exposed her as a serial plagiarist.

The US Congress is currently investigating whether several colleges intentionally ignored discrimination when its victims were Jewish. On Wednesday, its focus will shift to Columbia University, where Jewish students have been beaten up and harassed because they support Israel. The school’s president, Minouche Shafik, is scheduled to testify, and the event promises to be a much scrutinized affair.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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Adath Israel and Beth David: a pair of Conservative synagogues in Toronto narrowly decided against becoming one

It was close, but Toronto synagogues Adath Israel and Beth David will remain separate entities after Beth David’s vote on amalgamation fell short of the required two-thirds threshold. Adath Israel, the larger of the two Conservative synagogues by membership and facility size, voted overwhelmingly on April 14 to amalgamate, with 91 percent in favour. But […]

The post Adath Israel and Beth David: a pair of Conservative synagogues in Toronto narrowly decided against becoming one appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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Amid Dimming Hopes That This Year Will Be in Jerusalem, Jews in Ethiopia Prepare for World’s Largest Seder

Jewish women in Ethiopia sort through grain to be used in baking matzot. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

The Jewish community in the embattled region of Gondar, Ethiopia is preparing for the world’s largest Passover Seder this year, with nearly 4,000 Ethiopian Jews residing in camps and awaiting immigration to Israel expected to attend.

Over 80,000 matzot have been baked by members of the community over the past several weeks in preparation for the holiday, Jeremy Feit, the president of the Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ) aid group, told The Algemeiner. A smaller Seder, with almost 1,000 attendees, will take place in the capital of Addis Ababa.

The Jewish holiday of Passover, which celebrates the Biblical story of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt, will begin next Monday evening and end the following Tuesday.

A portion of the 80,000 matzot for use during Passover in Ethiopia. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

Past Passover Seders in Ethiopia have provided attendees a rare opportunity to partake in the traditional feast, offering some their first ever taste of meat — a luxury they could not otherwise afford. But according to Feit, food price hikes of 50 percent to 100 percent have meant that this year’s feast will largely consist of potatoes and eggs.

“With the extreme price increases and the resulting hunger, the community will feel the intensity as they pray to celebrate the Seder next year with their families in Jerusalem,” Feit said.

The Seder comes on the heels of an airlift of medical supplies for the beleaguered community, facilitated by SSEJ. Ten pallets of aid were delivered to a medical clinic established by the group a year ago in Gondar, serving 3,300 children and 700 elderly. The aid was dedicated in memory of former US Sen. Joe Lieberman, who served as SSEJ’s honorary chairman and who passed away during the weeks-long airlift operation.

SSEJ, which is based in the US  and entirely volunteer-run, is the only provider of humanitarian aid to Jews in Ethiopia. The group aims to mitigate some of the hunger ravaging the community by providing more than 2.5 million meals per year, prioritizing very young children, pregnant and nursing women, and students at a local yeshiva, who Feit said were often “so hungry they would faint in class.”

SSEJ and its leaders have assisted around 60,000 Ethiopians immigrate to Israel, more than the total number brought to the Jewish state during its storied military operations in 1984 and 1991.

Jewish men in Ethiopia need the dough that will be baked into matzot. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

According to Feit, some 13,000 Jews still remain in Ethiopia. Recent years have seen several hundred Ethiopian Jews immigrate to Israel at a time, especially during periods of violent civil strife, but even that trickle has dried up following the brutal Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on southern Israel.

“The average person in Gondar and Addis Ababa has been waiting to make aliyah for 20 years,” Feit said, using the Hebrew term for immigration. “They left their villages with the thought that Israel was going to bring them in. And they’ve been left since as internally displaced refugees.”

Feit said the decades-long wait is especially painful for those with first-degree relatives in Israel, and is further compounded for those with relatives serving in the Israeli military.

“Jews in Ethiopia are extremely concerned about their [family members’] welfare as the IDF [Israel Defense Fores] battles Hamas terrorists” in Gaza, he explained. “They are especially concerned given the vastly disproportionate number of Ethiopian Jewish soldiers killed in Israel during the current conflict.” Jews in Ethiopia, he averred, comprise “one of the most Zionist communities in the world.”

Since Oct. 7, there has been no indication as to how many Ethiopian Jews will be brought to Israel and when. Those with relatives in Israel were struck with another blow when Israel’s economy took a hit following the Hamas onslaught, and many of those who rely on remittance from their loved ones in Israel stopped receiving money.

“This has left the Jews in Ethiopia in a dire situation, with food and medical care hard to come by. Living in squalor, without access to clean water, electricity, or even bathrooms, the malnourished Jews in Ethiopia suffer untold horrors,” Feit said.

Despite the grim depiction, Feit struck a more positive note about the upcoming holiday.

Ethiopian Jews eating matzot in synagogue last year. Photo: Struggle to Save Ethiopian Jewry (SSEJ)

“Given that most of the year they’re feeling despair at their lack of redemption, at least Passover is a time to celebrate the possibility of redemption and reunification,” he said. “Being able to celebrate with thousands of their friends and family members in a joyous celebration of Passover is a welcome relief.”

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