Shedding light on life in the D.P. camps

Lily Friedman wanted to wear a white gown at her wedding in 1946, but there was one problem. There weren't any gowns available at her Displaced Persons camp.

Her fiancé, a cook in the Celle camp in Germany where they both lived, solved the problem. He traded two pounds of coffee to a German pilot for a large, off-white parachute.

A seamstress who was one of Friedman's friends made a dress out of the parachute. With extra material, she made a shirt for the groom.

With the help of a suit borrowed from a British major, the couple's outfits were complete. Jan. 27, 1946, they were married in a makeshift synagogue near the camp in front of more than 400 guests, most of them survivors.

"That was the first occasion where people danced and were happy," remembers Friedman, who now lives in Brooklyn.

Despite all the information available about the Holocaust, relatively little is known about the roughly 90 Displaced Persons camps that housed about 250,000 Jews between 1945 and 1951.

An exhibit and conference are designed to shed light on the camps.

The conference starts today, and "Life Reborn: Jewish Displaced Persons, 1945-1951" is currently on display at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.

"I can't tell you how many people have come by and said, 'I didn't know anything about this history,'" Steven Luckert, curator of the museum's permanent exhibition, said of the Displaced Persons exhibit.

Menachem Rosensaft, who was born in the Bergen-Belsen D.P. camp in 1948, said today's lack of knowledge is partly due to the fact the Jewish experience in the D.P. camps doesn't fit victimization stereotypes. Individuals barely removed from their horrific wartime experiences demonstrated a remarkable vibrancy, he said.

People have two images of survivors — wearing concentration camp uniforms on liberation day and as gray-haired people lighting candles at Holocaust commemorations, said Rosensaft, one of the conference organizers.

A desire to erase that ignorance motivated the museum's Second Generation Advisory Project to push for both the exhibit and conference.

Exhibits on the topic are also open at other museums and institutions in the Washington area, including the B'nai B'rith Klutznick Museum and the National Museum of American Jewish Military History.

The exhibits show that simchas such as Friedman's wedding weren't unusual in the camps.

By 1947, the 90 camps that housed Jews in Germany, Austria and Italy had among the highest birthrates in the world.

"You needed to form these bonds because you had nobody," said Regina Spiegel, who married her husband, Sam, in the Fohrenwald camp in Germany. "People can't live by themselves."

The United Nations, the American and British governments, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee ran the camps. The surviving remnant of European Jewry, or she'erit hapletah, as it is called, quickly began to rebuild a semblance of normalcy.

"Just days or weeks after the liberation, Jews began to organize," Luckert says.

In other words, the survivors did more than just survive.

Teetering, as one of them said, "between hope and depression," they coped with their situation by recreating the life and communal structure they had known before the Holocaust. They cobbled together an impressive array of religious institutions, schools, political organizations, sports clubs, theater troupes and newspapers.

Rena Berliner, who survived the war in Poland, became part of a singing troupe that toured camps, performing such operas as "Aida" or "Carmen" translated into Yiddish. The purpose, she said, was "bringing a little culture to people who never had any."

Still, the camps were difficult for many Jews because they were highly regimented.

"You can do this, you can't do that. You depend on them to give you ration cards to get food. You resent it," Spiegel said.

With the help of training sessions organized by the JDC and ORT, a vocational and educational organization, camp residents learned job skills such as sewing.

An overwhelming number of people initially wanted to immigrate to Palestine. But the British restrictions on immigration there, coupled with reports about the tough life in the Middle East, dampened enthusiasm.

"I had a cousin who immigrated to Palestine, and he made no secret that if you wanted to be a doctor, forget coming to Palestine," said Dr. Edmond Goldenberg, who eventually immigrated to the United States.

In the end, 142,000 of the camp residents moved to pre-state Palestine or Israel, according to Rosensaft, a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council member.

Another 75,000 moved to the United States after legislation in 1948 opened up slots to Displaced Persons. About 16,000 went to Canada.

Jews weren't the only ones housed as Displaced Persons after the war. Britain and the United States also set up camps for other war refugees.

In initially organizing the camps, the U.S. and British governments — hesitant to use the same racial classifications as the Nazis — housed all Displaced Persons, including Jews, by their country of origin.

As a result, Jews occasionally lived in the same camps as refugees who had collaborated with the Nazis.

That changed after August 1945, when the United States issued a report indicting the conditions in the camps. The Harrison Report referred to the camps as "concentration camps" in which some wore striped pajamas similar to the Nazi camp uniforms and lived mostly on bread and coffee.

The report made two recommendations adopted by President Truman, the most important of which was that Jews should be segregated in their own camps. "This was done for so long by the Nazis that a group has been created that has special needs," the report stated.

But even after Jews were spared the indignity of living alongside their former tormentors, some still retained an understandable fear of the Christian world, in particular the Germans.

"Initially, we hated everyone that spoke German," said Goldenberg, who used his prewar medical training by working in a clinic in the Ebensee camp in Austria.

Even after the initial feelings subsided, he said, some patients refused to see German specialists in nearby towns.

Not everyone shared this antipathy.

Less than two years after she was liberated in 1944, Berliner began studying voice for free at a conservatory near Munich, where most of the students were German.

They were "friendly and outgoing," Berliner said, but "I didn't form any friendships with them."

For Friedman, the camps provided an opportunity for something that, more than 50 years later, she describes as "magical."

After her wedding, she loaned her gown to her sister and other would-be brides — and it eventually took part in more than 17 marriage ceremonies.

"It was a miracle that we wanted to go on with life."