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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.”

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More than 120 Jewish activists call on advertisers and app stores to drop Twitter/X




(JTA) — More than 100 Jewish activists have signed a letter appealing to major advertisers to end their relationship with X, the platform previously known as Twitter that is owned by Elon Musk, calling it “a breeding ground for antisemitism” that “represents one of the largest dangers to Jews in years.”

The signatories are also calling on Apple and Google to remove the platform from their app stores, which would effectively make X’s app inaccessible to the vast majority of mobile users.

The call, issued Tuesday, comes after weeks during which Musk has interacted with white supremacists and written a stream of posts attacking the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish civil rights organization that has criticized his removal of hate speech guardrails on the site. The ADL also called on advertisers to pause their spending on the platform last year, and Musk has threatened to sue the group for, in his view, tanking X’s ad revenue.

“We have watched in horror as a new stage in antisemitic discourse has spread like wildfire on one of America’s largest social media networks,” said the letter, spearheaded by Elad Nehorai, a progressive Jewish activist. “All of this has been facilitated and enabled by its owner: Elon Musk.”

Many of the more than 120 signatories are progressives, among them cartoonist Eli Valley and Ruth Messinger, the former Manhattan borough president and onetime Democratic nominee for New York City mayor who later led the American Jewish World Service, a global aid group.

But a number of prominent Jewish thinkers and activists from across the political spectrum have signed on as well, including David Hazony, a conservative editor who just published “Jewish Priorities,” a collection of essays; Archie Gottesman, who sits on the board of the Democratic Majority for Israel and co-founded JewBelong, a group that aims to combat antisemitism and reinforce Jewish identity; and Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a longtime leading Orthodox Jewish scholar. The letter was also signed by Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, the executive vice president of the Jewish Funders Network, and Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, a scholar and public affairs adviser at the Jewish Federations of North America, though neither listed their organizational affiliations.

“We are alarmed by his targeting of the ADL: not because of our views of the organization (we represent a wide range of views, including some who fundamentally oppose the ADL as well as staunch supporters), but because of the way he has used the organization as a very clear stand in for an antisemitic representation of Jewish power,” the open letter said.

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A Jewish-owned hot dog empire began on this Coney Island street corner




(New York Jewish Week) — For many generations of New Yorkers, eating a Nathan’s Famous hot dog from their Coney Island flagship location is a staple of summer. The iconic hot dog stand just celebrated its 107th season at the city’s iconic beachside destination. 

Nathan’s Famous — which started as a nickel hot dog stand and grew to a franchised business that today has over 350 locations in 12 countries — may be most famous today for its annual Fourth of July hot dog eating contest. It is named for its founder, Nathan Handwerker, a Polish Jewish immigrant who, along with his wife, Ida, opened Nathan’s Famous in 1916, when he was 19.

“It was his life,” Handwerker’s grandson, Lloyd Handwerker, who made a 2014 documentary and wrote an accompanying book about his family history, both titled “Famous Nathan,” told the New York Jewish Week

“He had brilliant instincts about running a business — basic ideas which seem simple, but they work well,” Lloyd said. “Which is keeping the price low, having the quality be great, being a stickler, paying people well and caring about the customer.”

On Sept. 24, 2016, the 100th anniversary of the founding of Nathan’s Famous, New York City co-named the corner of the Surf and Stillwell Avenues Nathan and Ida Handwerker Way. 

“Nathan and Ida Handwerker worked together for over 50 years and were part of the few generations who formed the rich Coney Island culture that is now renowned throughout the nation and all over the world,” Lloyd Handwerker’s cousin, William, said at the unveiling event. “It is an honor to celebrate their legacy by memorializing their names on the street corner that houses the original Nathan’s.”

(Lloyd was supposed to give a speech alongside his family, but his father, Sol, died just days before the ceremony.) 

Also present that day was Eric Adams, who at the time was Brooklyn Borough President, and Mark Treyger, the Jewish city council member for District 47, which includes Coney Island. “The corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues in Coney Island is now known as Nathan and Ida Handwerker Way, after the husband and wife team who grew a hot dog food cart into a brand that is known worldwide,” Treyger said at the ceremony. 

“The inspiring story of these two immigrants, who came to this country facing an uncertain future, working hard to create a product that means so much to so many, is what the American Dream is all about,” he added.

Handwerker arrived in the United States from Poland in 1912 and took a job as a delivery boy during the week. On the weekends, he sliced rolls at Feltman’s German Gardens, a restaurant in Coney Island — where he met a waitress who would become his wife. 

By 1916, the couple had saved $300, enough to open their own, competing hot dog restaurant. They used Ida’s secret spice recipe to make their hot dogs, for which they charged 5 cents — half the price of a dog at Feltman’s. 

Considering the low price of the product, customers were skeptical at first, so Handwerker allegedly hired men to wear white coats while eating his hot dogs. The image would lend his business credibility, as customers figured that if doctors were eating the hot dogs, they could, too. 

The business grew steadily over the next half century, with Handwerker working 18-20 hours a day cooking food, selling it and running the business. When the company went public in 1968, Handwerker was elected chairman of the board.

“As a grandfather, he was a very sweet, soft guy. I had no idea what kind of boss he was,” said Lloyd. “It’s different for different people, but I found out he was pretty tough. He was a stickler, and he was clearly a perfectionist about everything — about the quality, about the workers.”

As for Ida Handwerker, in addition to creating the recipe for the hot dogs, she was often in the back kitchen, peeling and chopping onions, garlic and potatoes, Lloyd said. “My grandmother, too, my dad said, was also pretty tough in her own way,” he said. “She worked in the business for many, many years alongside [Nathan], especially in the early days. She was a great grandmother, warm and wonderful. But I guess they both came up hard and tough.”

By the time Nathan Handwerker died in 1974 at 81, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs was a household name. Over the years, the hot dog stand became a favorite for celebrities like Barbra Streisand and Regis Philbin. In 1936, the hot dogs were served at a lawn party hosted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in honor of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. 

The Coney Island location was also an essential stop for politicians from City Council members to the president of the United States. “No one can hope to be elected to public office in New York without having his picture taken eating a hot dog at Nathan’s,” former New York Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller once told Handwerker during a campaign visit to Coney Island, according to the New York Times. 

Handwerker retired to Florida in 1972, with his son Murray taking over and expanding the business. Nathan’s first hot dog eating contest was that same year.

Lloyd Handwerker, grandson of Nathan Handwerker, founder of ‘Nathan’s’, standing in front of ‘Nathan’s’ restaurant in Coney Island, New York, NY, June 29, 2016. (Johannes Schmitt-Tegge/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Lloyd Handwerker, who was 17 when his grandfather died, began working on his film in the 1980s, and over the course of 30 years he interviewed some 75 friends, family members and associates of Nathan’s Famous. “My grandfather was always telling stories around the dining room table at the holidays and dinners,” he said. “By the time I took a video class and had access to a camera, my grandfather and my grandmother had passed away, but I still thought ‘we should be preserving this history.’”

Though he never worked at Nathan’s Famous, Lloyd, who grew up in a Reform Jewish household in Long Island, said that he has fond memories of visiting his grandparents’ office in Coney Island, as well as celebrating Jewish holidays at their house in Florida. “My grandmother cooked amazingly, so I have a lot of great memories of Passover in particular,” he recalled. Lloyd said that though his grandfather grew up traditionally religious in Poland, he didn’t keep many traditional customs by the time he came to the United States. 

And yet, some tenets of Judaism were deeply ingrained in the entrepreneur: Though he didn’t hire a rabbi to certify the kitchen, Handwerker coined the term “kosher-style” for his restaurant, because his hot dogs were made with 100% beef and therefore could be kosher. 

Plus, “the one day that the restaurant was closed out of the whole year was Yom Kippur, so it still obviously meant something to him,” Lloyd said of his grandfather. 

Nathan’s Famous is now owned by Smithfield, a subsidiary of the Chinese meat and food processing company WH Group. However, the family still owns the original Coney Island building and is the landlord for Nathan’s Famous there.  

“As far as his legacy, he was obviously very proud of what he created,” Lloyd said of Nathan. “He was a pretty humble guy, but look at what he did: He came from starvation in Poland, without an education. He didn’t know how to read or write, he was basically illiterate and he built this institution that  everyone has a story about. It’s amazing.”

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​​Biden’s new book ban czar is a longtime progressive Jewish leader




(JTA) – The Biden Administration’s new point person for combating book bans at school districts and public libraries across the country is a gay, Jewish progressive activist who has served as a government liaison to the Jewish and LGBTQ communities.

The appointment of Matt Nosanchuk comes as the thousands of book challenges nationwide have focused on books with LGBTQ as well as Jewish themes, in addition to works about race. Nosanchuk was named a deputy assistant secretary in the Department of Education’s civil rights office earlier this month. In that role, he will lead training sessions for schools and libraries on how to deal with book bans — and warn districts that the department believes book bans can violate civil rights laws.

An Education Department official recently told the 74, an education news site, that the bans “are a threat to students’ rights and freedoms.”

“I am excited to return to public service to work on behalf of the American people,” Nosanchuk posted to LinkedIn earlier this month. “There is a lot of important work to do!”

The Education Department declined to make Nosanchuk available for an interview. He has already taken heat from conservative outlets, which have pushed the narrative that the books being removed from schools and libraries are too sexually explicit for children. Kayleigh McEnany, the Fox News host who served as Donald Trump’s press secretary, called him a “porn enforcer” on-air.

But his appointment has been celebrated by librarians and book access activists. “This is a step forward for the Biden Administration, who has heard the concerns of parents and taken action, but it is just the beginning,” the National Parents Union, a progressive parental education activist group, said in a statement.

Nosanchuk’s career has largely focused on working with the LGBTQ and Jewish communities. In 2009, after serving in a number of roles in Washington, D.C., Nosanchuk was appointed as the Department of Justice’s liaison to the LGBTQ community — a position he held while Obama was still publicly opposed to same-sex marriage. He later worked on the Obama administration’s opposition to a law barring same-sex couples from receiving federal benefits.

He subsequently served as the White House liaison to the Jewish community during Obama’s second term, and in 2020 was the Democratic National Committee’s political organizer for Jewish outreach and LGBTQ engagement. That same year, he cofounded the New York Jewish Agenda, a progressive policy group that he led until earlier this year.

Nosanchuk’s first webinar in his new role was held Tuesday in partnership with the American Library Association, an organization with which a number of Republican-led states have recently cut ties. He begins his work after a year that has seen several school districts take aim at books focused on Jewish experiences or the Holocaust.

Two weeks ago, a Texas school district fired a middle school teacher reportedly for reading a passage from an illustrated adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary to eighth-grade students. Other schools’ removals of “The Fixer,” a Jodi Picoult novel about the Holocaust and other texts have been likened to Nazi and Stalinist book burnings —  comparisons that proponents of the book restrictions reject.

Democratic politicians, including House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, have accused Republicans of wanting “to ban books on the Holocaust.” A recent Senate hearing on book bans included testimony from Cameron Samuels, a Jewish advocate for access to books, along with numerous references to “Maus,” a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman about the Holocaust that was pulled from a Tennessee middle school curriculum last year.

PEN America, a literary free-speech advocacy group, welcomed Nosanchuk’s appointment.

“Book removals and restrictions continue apace across the country, as the tactics to silence certain voices and identities are sharpened,” the group said in a statement. “Empowering the coordinator to address this ongoing movement is critical.”

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