Avinoam J. Patt, Michael Berkowitz, eds. "We Are Here": New Approaches to Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010. x + 357 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8143-3350-1.
Reviewed by Dana Herman (The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives)
Published on H-Judaic (November, 2011)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman
Acting for Themselves: Jewish DPs in Postwar Germany
While there has been a steady stream of scholarship over the past thirty years devoted to Jewish Displaced Persons (DPs) in the aftermath of World War II, there is a new wave of interest in chronicling the daily lives of Jewish DPs in their myriad forms. An impressive selection of this scholarship is assembled in Avinoam J. Patt and Michael Berkowitz’s edited volume, “We Are Here.” Mostly by making the DPs themselves the key players in their own history, the contributors offer a fuller sense of who these people were, the often disparate group they comprised, and the agency that they possessed in their quotidian existence. Based on a two-week workshop in 2005 at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the United States Holocaust and Memorial Museum, this volume, in the words of its editors, “respond[s] to a need to coordinate work on the DP experience that utilizes disparate sources and in so doing attempts to reconcile, but not necessarily harmonize, these contradictory impressions and emerge with a complete and nuanced interpretation of the DPs’ experiences” (p. 4). Ultimately, it reveals how little we knew of the social history of the Jewish DP population and how much we still need to learn.
Even nonspecialists would have an easy time making their way through this collection of essays thanks, in large part, to an excellent introduction by the editors that summarizes each of the eleven contributions and provides readers with necessary background information, both historically and historiographically. With such a thorough preface, however, one finds that much of this contextual material gets repeated throughout the volume. Perhaps better editing of the individual essays would have eliminated that duplication. It might also have offered an opportunity for the authors to reference each other’s works, particularly since the overall topic is rather narrow and the timeframe so short. Many of the essays are based on larger works that have already been or are soon-to-be published. With the exception of the first study by Atina Grossman, the contributions are divided under three subheadings that are never really discussed by the editors or the contributors, but are actually useful thematic tools for the reader.
Grossman’s work in the area of the social and gender history of Jewish DPs has done much to move the burgeoning field forward. Her introductory essay in this volume serves as a call to action for further research into the Soviet experience of many Jewish DPs. It covers a topic that is not discussed at all in the rest of the book--Jewish DPs who had found refuge in the Soviet Union during the war and who were repatriated to Poland only to flee again with the rise of Polish antisemitism in the postwar period.
If Grossman’s essay leaves the reader with more questions than answers (which was likely her intention), the opposite can be said of Laura Jockusch’s excellent study of Jewish historical commissions that emerged in Austria, Italy, and Germany in the immediate postwar period. She paints a vivid and detailed picture of this self-selected group of zamlers, collectors and activists who wrote and recorded testimonies and data relating to the Holocaust. In the second essay under the subheading “The Past and Future of the Jewish People,” Boaz Cohen delves into the topic of children’s testimonies as documented in Fun Letsten Hurbn (From the latest destruction), a Munich-based Holocaust research journal published between 1946 and 1948. Unfortunately, the entire essay is interrupted by too many questions that are never adequately answered. Patt pays special attention to Jewish youth and their Zionist activities in Germany and deftly shows that the Zionist project would not have worked had it not offered a pragmatic solution to the needs of the day: “Zionism was highly successful in filling a positive function for DP youths in the aftermath of the Holocaust by providing a secure environment for vocational training, education, and rehabilitation and a surrogate family that could ultimately restore their belief in humanity” (p. 123). In her important piece on American Jews and Holocaust survivors, Beth Cohen argues that “there is close to universal agreement among survivors that no one--neither their relatives, the social workers, not the outside world--wanted to hear about the Holocaust” (p. 157). Her conclusion is in contrast to the one arrived at by Hasia Diner in her 2009 work We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, 1945–1962, and yet, surprisingly, no reference is made to it.
The second section of the book, “Life in a Transitional Present,” contains three essays that all seek to explain how Jews in Germany, both in the American and the British zones, sought to remake their lives under the conditions that existed in DP camps and cities within postwar Germany. As Berkowitz and Suzanne Brown-Fleming show, some did it through black market and criminal activity, while Laura Hilton argues that despite conflicting outside perceptions of DPs, Jews were actively involved in rebuilding their communities and their lives, as in the case of Zeilsheim and Frankfurt. In her essay, Hagit Lavsky returns to the topic of her 2002 book on Jews in the British zone. In arguing for the unique character of DP life in the British zone, she discusses the Zionist sentiments of its Jewish population. It would have been useful had there been stronger connections made to Patt’s research.
The last three contributions in the volume cover the daily religious and cultural life of Jewish DPs. Through their discussions of religious rituals, music, and language, the authors show that while survivors looked to their past for guidance, they adapted that tradition to the particular needs of the present; in effect, reminding the readers that while the postwar period was not a complete break from the prewar past, it did offer new challenges and realities. The last two essays, in particular, by Shirli Gilbert on songs and music among Jewish DPs and Tamar Lewinsky on Yiddish language and culture in the German Diaspora, point to exciting new areas of research that will undoubtedly help to expand an already growing field.
The designation of Jewish DPs as “She’erit Hapletah,” the “surviving remnant,” does not lend itself to thinking of them as people building new lives--having to start over from scratch--but that is essentially what they had to do. “We Are Here” can be considered as much a slogan of the DPs as of the scholars who study them. This is a top-rate, “state of the field” work that makes use of new archival sources--manuscripts, photographs, and ephemera--and focuses on giving voice not only to the “surviving remnant,” but also to the “new lives” that they built for themselves.
: New Approaches to Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany.
The editors contribute their own pieces to the volume; the first, by
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Dana Herman. Review of Patt, Avinoam J.; Berkowitz, Michael, eds., "We Are Here": New Approaches to Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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