January 27th is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Felicia and I visited an exhibit on displaced persons camps after World War II sponsored by the United Nations and the YIVO Institute. It will be in the lobby of UN Headquarters in Manhattan until February 23. The exhibit focused on the daily lives of the 250,000 Jewish refugees in the DP camps who survived the European Holocaust that took the lives of 6 million Jews. The exhibit also displayed Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum contributed a Book of Names listing 4.8 million names of Jews who were murdered by Nazi Germany. I tried to find my father’s grandfather, aunt and cousins in the online version of the Book of names but without luck because I am not certain of their first names. There are thousands of Singers and Zingers from Poland listed.
The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration was created in 1943 while the war in Europe was still waging. After the war there were hundreds of displaced persons camps in the American controlled zones of Germany and Austria. At first Jews were treated by the military as enemy citizens and kept in camps with displaced Germans and Austrians, many of whom were Nazi collaborators. This situation quickly ended and Jews were moved into their own camps where they were able to gradually acclimate to normal lives. There were soccer teams, schools, marriages, and babies being born. It is estimated that 1.5 million Jewish children were exterminated by the Nazis and fewer than 40,000 survived.
About 250,000 Jews survived the Holocaust and were assigned to the camps while the victorious allies debated their future. No one really wanted them. The United States refused to lift immigration quotas in the 1930s to allow refugees fleeing Eastern Europe to enter the country. It continued to severely restrict entry at the end of the war and it wasn’t until 1948 that Congress passed legislation to allow 50,000 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and their children to become American.
I know on our floor at 1400 Jesup Avenue in the Bronx there was a woman with a number tattooed on her arm who had survived the camps. She rarely came out of the apartment. It was furnished all in white and she was constantly cleaning. She had a son who was the age of my younger brother who was never permitted to go outside and play with the other kids.
One of the best part of the exhibit was the comparison between the post-war refugees and refugees today. There are tens of thousands of refugees on the U.S. southern border fleeing criminal gangs, abusive militaries, and the impact of climate change and the United States again is refusing to let desperate people enter.
The exhibit also included photographs and artifacts from the camps like children’s dolls and Shabbot candlesticks. The anti-Semitic posters were from the collection of Arthur Langerman. His parents fled from Eastern Europe to Belgium where he was born. When he was about a year-and-a-half old, the Gestapo arrested his parents and they were sent to concentration camps. Under an agreement between Belgium and German officials, young children like him remained in Belgium in orphanages. Langerman’s father died in the camps. His mother survived Birkenau and they were later reunited in Belgium.