by Mark Kirchhoff, The Center for Jewish Life
“People didn’t just go from incarceration to liberation. There was an interim difficult period that required a lot of effort, planning, decision-making, community building, and sheer determination. I am amazed at what they were able to accomplish.” These are the words of Liz Feldstern, Executive Director of the Institute for Holocaust Education (IHE) as she spoke about the displaced persons (DP) in post WWII Europe. The life of displaced persons will be the focus of a three- part series Feldstern will present, titled Return to Life: A Look at Displaced Persons Camps 1945 – 1950, on Feb. 7, 14, and 21. The class is part of the Friday Learning Series through the Center for Jewish Life.
Feldstern explained that there were approximately six million DPs in Germany after the war; about 100,000 of them were Jewish. These 100,000 were soon joined by another 100,000 coming out of Eastern Europe. The Americans, British, French, and Russians assisted in finding ways to help these people ease back into society, but no one had the experience or knowledge required to deal with the problems the DPs faced. The lives of millions depended on finding a way to do so. Futures hung in the balance.
“Repatriation was usually not a good option,” Feldstern shared. “By the time these people were ready to return to their former homes, those homes had been given to others by the Nazis during the war or had become occupied by people who moved into the vacant dwellings. People living in those places had made homes for themselves and were not about ready to give them up.”
Of the four countries providing assistance, the Americans and British took on most of the responsibility. In addition to addressing the problems of finding places for people to live, the Americans and British were working with thousands of people suffering from what was much later to be known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). At that time, there was no such diagnostic code, and in the unlikely event that symptoms were recognized, there was no known way to address the problem.
“These displaced persons had certainly been victimized, but they did not behave as helpless victims. Records show that three days after the initial phase of liberation, people began to organize, have meetings, set priorities, and take charge of their future,” related Feldstern. According to Feldstern, they recognized that they had to develop a strong voice. They had to make their needs known. They had to work not only with themselves in their group, but in harmony with all the displaced persons. They were interacting as free people for the first time in years and recognizing the power of being a community.
Feldstern’s classes promise to be enlightening and thought-provoking. She is well-equipped to present the topic. In her undergraduate work, Feldstern focused on the history of the post-WWII DPs. In her graduate work she studied their history from a sociological perspective. “Out of the squalor, leaders arose, challenges were met, and people eventually were able to get on with their lives. There is much to learn and be inspired by in studying how these people did it,” said Feldstern.
Mark your calendar and register to attend Return to Life: A Look at Displaced Persons Camps 1945 – 1950 on Feb. 7, 14, and 21 from 11 a.m.-noon in the Kripke Jewish Federation Library. Class fee is $26, reduced to $21 for those who are contributors to the Annual Campaign of the Jewish Federation of Omaha. To register, call 402.334.6463 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The Friday Learning Series is a program of the Center for Jewish Life, whose mission it is to maximize involvement of Omaha’s Jewish community in imaginative, compelling and meaningful Jewish experiences.