During our seminar at Yad Vashem, we were fortunate to listen to a lecture from Dr. Ella Florsheim. Her lecture was titled: Yiddish Culture in Displaced Persons Camps in Germany: Newspaper, Theatre and Literature. Dr. Florsheim is a specialist in Jewish culture of the surviving remnant in post-conflict Germany.
Germany had 150 displaced person camps throughout the country. The largest was Bergen-Belsen, where, on average, the population of the camp was five to seven thousand, but the British hosted twelve thousand people at its peak of population. There were very few camps in other countries, including France, Austria and Italy, but these were mostly transit camps for larger, more prominent destinations in Germany. Germany was perceived as an exit point to America, Israel, and Great Britain – anywhere outside of former Third Reich. It should be noted that Jews and other displaced people tried to return to their homes, but, for an overwhelming majority of them, people had moved into their homes and refused to leave.
During the years 1945 to 1948, there were still strict immigration laws in place. Jews and other displaced people didn’t have anywhere to go. Displaced persons lived in former Nazi concentration camps and military barracks. They were crowded and the living conditions were dismal, but their spirits did not break. They shared unique community and culture with one another, which is exactly what Dr. Ella Florsheim studies.
After the Holocaust, there were “signs of life” as Dr. Florsheim put it, a “strong vitality to recreate community.” But the communities still suffered from the aftermath of the Holocaust – the end of the war did not mean the end of dying. 30,000 people died in the first weeks after Bergen-Belsen was liberated. But this time period also proved to give birth to new life: in two and half years, one thousand babies were born in these camps. Most of these new mothers lost their own mothers to the gas chambers. German doctors were brought in to care for these new mothers and to help with labor.
It was significant for survivors to start new life on German soil, as many of them had considered Germany their home before the Holocaust. The rise of Jewish leadership was marked after liberation, specifically after Munich was liberated. They formed democratically elected governments of sorts, and they started hospitals and orphanages in the DP camps. They also formed cultural organizations such as theatres and newspapers, among others.
Only three weeks after the liberation in Buchenwald, surviving Jews started a newsletter called, in Yiddish, “Undzer Sztime” or “Our Voice.” The first publication was sent out on July 12, 1945. David Rosenthal was one of the founders, and he said that doing something for the Jews meant doing it in Yiddish. The translation of Yiddish in Yiddish is Jewish, and the two concepts were inseparable for him. They found old typing machines with Hebrew letters, which amazingly survived the onslaught of Jewish culture in the Third Reich. They put a lot of effort into finding and even making, by hand, rubber stamp letters, so they could print their newsletters in Yiddish. They sent this newsletter throughout the system of displaced person camps in the former Third Reich, and they shared a bond through the culture they shared, which was viciously attacked for the last 12 years.
Another newspaper called the “Lansberger Lager ceitung” in Yiddish, or “Landsberg Camp Newspaper,” was published in Latin letters between 1945 and 1948, as well as another called the “Jidisze Cajtung” or the “Jewish Times.” The different newspapers held different competitions collecting poems and short stories, which were the first testaments to their memories of the Holocaust. Winners of these competitions were promised speedy movement with visa paperwork.
Schools in the DP camps weren’t teaching Yiddish, though, they were teaching Hebrew for the two thirds of the population which would eventually end up in Palestine. A saying in the camp went something like this: “Speak Yiddish, study Hebrew.” Their identity was Yiddish but their future was Hebrew.
The Katzet Theatre began in Bergen-Belsen, and Sholem Aleichem worked as director and playwright. He wasn’t afraid to discuss their experiences of the Holocaust on stage. He argued it was therapeutic and cathartic. Another theatre group started in Munich called “The Enchanted Tailor.” They travelled between other DP camps for the three years they were an institution in the former Third Reich. They always met an excited and abundant audience, and were in high demand. There was a singular relationship between laughing and crying in their plays, and the theatre accepted it and worked from that place. The genre they created was a sort of therapy drama. It put the audience in control of their surroundings, which was new and different for them, and it allowed them to process their experiences differently.
Meanwhile in Palestine, it was illegal to perform a play in Yiddish and they had an emphasis on a new Israeli culture. Yiddish in America was also being lost. A survivor was quoted saying “I wasn’t in Treblinka, but my word went to flame there.” The culture found in the DP camps of the former Third Reich was the last blinking life of European Jewry, and Ella Dr. Florsheim’s research underlines the importance of the culture that was destroyed under the Nazi regime.
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