Jews, Germans, And Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied Germany by Atina Grossmann, Princeton University Press.
Germany, occupied by the Allies after World War II, was home to some 250,000 Jews by 1946. The vast majority were displaced eastern European Jews who had managed to scrape through the Holocaust. The remainder, German Jews, had either gone into hiding or had been protected by Christian spouses.
Many of the Jewish displaced persons, like my parents, lived in large camps near Frankfurt and Munich. These camps were, in fact, makeshift, self-contained communities with institutions, schools, hospitals and political parties.
Although they lived in a bubble, the Jewish survivors, from such countries as Poland, Romania and Hungary, could not escape casual or more formal contacts with Germans.
Like the Jews in their midst, the Germans regarded themselves collectively as victims, first of a murderous Nazi regime that had pulled Germany into a disastrous war, and then of Allied bombings, Soviet expulsions and mass rapes and a de-Nazification process.
Both Jews and Germans competed for Allied favour, benefits and victim status in a scramble that often caused mutual friction.
Atina Grossmann, in Jews, Germans, And Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied Germany, examines these dynamics in a fine social history that focuses on the period from 1945 to 1947.
Ninety thousand Jews in German concentration camps were liberated by Allied armies. Tens of thousands died within weeks of attaining their freedom, leaving 60,000 to 70,000 survivors.
This remnant was augmented by predominantly Polish Jews who poured into the American zone. They had survived death camps and labour camps. They had been partisans. They had passed as Aryans. They had been hidden. The largest segment, however, had found a wartime haven in the Soviet Union.
Grossmann, a professor of history at Cooper Union, describes their lives and the relationships they formed against the backdrop of the Allied occupation.
She sets the stage by painting a graphic picture of Germany in the immediate aftermath of the Nazi defeat. Berlin, the focus of her investigation, was like an “archeological excavation,” having been bombed into a smouldering ruin.
For Germans, the mass rapes perpetrated by Red Army soldiers signalled the end of the war. According to a conservative estimate, 110,000 German women were raped. But others have suggested that the real number may have been 1.5 million. Whatever the case, the sexual violence was a blot on the Allied victory.
German Jewish women who lived through the Nazi interregnum may have been rape victims as well. Six to seven thousand Jews in Berlin survived underground as “illegals” and “submarines.”
Still other German Jews, categorized as mixed race Mischlinge or partners in “privileged” mixed marriages, were exempted from deportations.
Such Jews comprised the bulk of Berlin’s postwar Jewish community. Of 8,000 registered members, 5,600 had Christian spouses. Vying for better rations and material conditions, Jews who had left the community altogether after the Nazi rise to power reapplied for membership, Grossmann notes.
In general, German Jews who had survived the Holocaust in Germany were far more hopeful than non-German Jews about the possibilities of reconciliation and co-operation in building a new, democratic Germany.
The latter, harbouring animosity against Germany and unwilling to return to their respective hometowns, were usually intent on settling elsewhere, particularly Israel and the United States.
Citing the Landsberg camp as an example, Grossmann says that 62 per cent wanted to make aliyah, while 17 per cent looked to the United States as a preferred destination.
To many survivors, Zionism worked as a kind of “therapeutic ideology,” offering a sense of a collective identity, hope and future.
Interestingly enough, the Jewish DP birth rate was astronomical, higher than any other population in the world. In 1946, it was 29 per 1,000 versus 7.35 per 1,000 for Germans.
Survivors were so anxious to marry and procreate that many of the newlyweds hardly knew each other. Marriages that would have never occurred before the war took place.
Having dipped into DP camp medical records, Grossmann says that virtually all young Jewish mothers, bereft of a support system traditionally provided by mothers or sisters, were assigned a German baby nurse or maid.
In an intriguing sub-chapter, Grossman discusses romantic liaisons between Jewish men and German women.
Young, inexperienced male survivors gravitated to German women, and by 1950, they had married 1,000 such women. Often, the women were refugees, lonely and eager for a little bit of fun.
On the flip side, embittered survivors picked fights with Germans and sought vengeance by trying to assassinate former SS men.
Abba Kovner, the Vilna partisan and poet, was implicated in an aborted plot to poison the bread supply of SS and Gestapo prisoners, she adds.
Believing that the Allies were favourably disposed toward Jews, Germans sunk into sullen resentment and displayed occasional outbursts of rage, Grossmann writes.
And in certain areas, like Bavaria, Hesse and Wurttemberg, where Jewish DPs were concentrated, Germans complained about their presence, fearing they would be swamped by Jews.
Although their encounters were often mutually useful and relatively harmonious, both groups grated on each other’s nerves.
The Jews were infuriated by German self-pity and unwillingness to acknowledge responsibility for Nazi crimes. The Germans increasingly saw Jews not as victims but as privileged foreigners either unwilling to blend in or leave.
Ultimately, the DPs left, and in droves.
By 1952, 400,000 to 450,000 DPs, of whom about 100,000 were Jews, had immigrated to the United States.
Of 250,000 Jewish DPs, 100,000 to 120,000 settled in Israel. Sixteen thousand to 20,000 went to Canada; 8,000 to Belgium; 2,000 to France; and 5,000 to a variety of destinations from Australia to South Africa.
As a result, the DP camps, including Feldafing and Landsberg, had all but been emptied by 1951. Fohrenwald, the last DP camp, closed in 1957, as the final batch of German prisoners of war returned from the Soviet Union.
The Jewish “DP era,” as Grossmann succinctly says it, faded into history.