The Museum outlined its plans for the Life Reborn Project in an article in its newsletter, "Update," in the May/June edition.
Life Reborn: Jewish Displaced Persons, 1945-1951
What happened to Holocaust survivors in the aftermath of liberation? Their remarkable but little-known story is the subject survivors in the aftermath of LIFE REBORN: JEWISH DISPLACED PERSONS, 1945-1951. This multi-faceted project of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the United States Holocaust Memorial Councilís Second Generation Advisory Group will culminate in a three-day international conference to be held in Washington, DC, January 14-17, 2000.
The cornerstone of the LIFE REBORN Project, the conference will memorialize, document, and present the history of the rebirth of Jewish life in Europe after the Holocaust. In addition to the conference, LIFE REBORN will feature exhibitions, a website, educational materials, public programs, a documentary film series, and related activities.
Unusual in its dimension, the conference will convene both participants in and scholars of this important historical period. It will bring to life the European Jewish experience in the displaced persons (DP) camps, organized by the Allied forces in Allied-occupied Germany, Austria, and Italy as assembly points for the repatriation of concentration camp survivors, forced laborers, former prisoners of war, and deportees. Most of the Jewish displaced persons lived in the American occupation zone in southern Germany and in the British zone in the north. Some DP camps were set up in former concentration camp sites. One of the largest was the Bergen-Belsen DP camp in the British zone.
Although the DP camps were initially established to provide a short-term solution for displaced persons, many of the camps became long-term settlements for European Jews who refused to return to their native lands because of rampant antisemitism and were unable to emigrate to Palestine or North America because of stringent immigration restrictions.
From 1945 to 1947, a flood of survivors from Eastern Europe swelled the Jewish displaced persons population to more than 200,000. These numbers put great pressure on Great Britain to open the gates of Palestine. After the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 and the easing of immigration restrictions to the United States under the Truman Administration, the Jewish refugeesí plight was finally resolved and the DP camps gradually shut down. By 1951, most of the DP camps were closed, although the last remained open until 1957.
The LIFE REBORN conference will illuminate and commemorate the experiences of Jewish displaced persons. Their children, many of whom were born in DP camps and who have planned and organized the conference, celebrate this story as a model of human resilience after a tragedy of unimaginable dimensions.
The model is, indeed, astounding. Soon after the camps were organized, Jewish survivors established schools, published newspapers, started Zionist organizations, organized sporting events, produced plays, and married and had children, thousands of children. At one time, the DP camps boasted the highest birth rate in the world.
"The story of the DP camps is the chapter of Holocaust history that will at last bear witness to the wondrous rebirth and renewal of life among the survivors in the immediate postwar years," says Rositta Ehrlich Kenigsberg, who was born in the Bindermichel DP camp in Austria and chairs the Second Generation Advisory Group.
"This is also a story that must be documented and memorialized because it captures the remarkable resurgence and resilience of our parentsí human spirit and their yearning to create a new life and a new beginning," she adds. Kenigsberg is the executive vice president of the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center at the North Miami campus of Florida International University and chairs the Florida Task Force on Holocaust Education.
"In the immediate aftermath of liberation, the Jewish communities in the DP camps focused on living, on rebuilding families, on rebuilding a continuation of Jewish cultural, social, political, and religious life as best they could," explains Menachem Rosensaft, a Manhattan attorney who was born in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp and has worked on the planning of the conference since its inception. He is also founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. "It is this episode in history that shows the survivorsí incredible moral strengths and personal determination that I hope the conference will put on the map, so that those who study the Holocaust will expand their scope beyond 1945."
Rosensaftís parents, Josef and Hadassah, were among the thousands who met, married, and had children in the DP camps and whose lives attest to this fortitude and determination. His father headed the Bergen-Belsen DP campís Jewish Committee that organized social, cultural, and political activities in the camp, and he was elected chair of the Central Jewish Committee in the British Zone. "In effect," Rosensaft says, "from 1945 to 1950 my father was the mayor of a largely autonomous Jewish community with its own schools, hospitals, and police force." His mother, a dentist who had studied medicine in France, became head administrator of the DP campís hospital.
Yet, even with the growing scholarly research on and public interest in the Holocaust, little is known about the DP era or the remarkable stories of these survivors in the immediate post-Holocaust years.
Romana Strochlitz Primus, a Connecticut physician, chairs the LIFE REBORN Project. She was born in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp and visited the site with her family in 1995 for the ceremonies commemorating the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Many children of survivors attended the commemoration. Primus says she was "struck by the number of children of survivors who knew little about their parentsí lives during the DP period. They knew about the pre-war years, about the Holocaust, about their parentsí lives after immigration, but there was a big hole between liberation and immigration. This is a story that needs to be told, particularly in an era when we treat victims as permanently disabled," she explains. "This doesnít mean it was easy for survivors. They had lost their families, their communities, their health, and their property. We cannot even imagine how they were feeling. But somehow they understood that they had to keep going, and they did."
The idea for a conference on the DP camp experience "was one of those ideas that percolated in a lot of heads," says conference program chair Samuel Norich, who was born in the Feldafing DP camp and lived in the Foehrenwald DP camp until 1956. Norich is currently general manager of the Forward Association in New York. "We (the Second Generation Advisory Group) got together about one-and-a-half years ago with the idea of initiating a program with the help of the Museum," he explains. "At first we thought of a general gathering of the second generation. That idea evolved into a conference that would focus on the years 1945 to 1951, when our parents took the first steps as individuals, as reconstituted families, as conscious political actors, to rebuild their lives."
"We would like to the registration fees affordable in order to make the conference accessible to as many families as possible," adds Kenigsberg. "That is why the Second Generation Advisory Group has undertaken to raise the costs associated with the conference in addition to expanding and enhancing the Museum's DP-related collections."
In addition to survivors and their children and families, conference organizers hope to attract educators and students of the Holocaust. Speakers will include eyewitnesses to DP camp life: former members of the Allied Armed Forces, United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, Jewish Agency for Palestine, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Organization for Rehabilitation Through Vocational Training, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
The conference will provide opportunities for participants to learn about all aspects of the Jewish DP camp experience from each other Ė from survivors, relief workers, army personnel, chaplains and other eyewitnesses, as well as historians of the period. Each will bring his or her particular perspective of what happened during those years to the conference in Washington.
"It is very important to have as many personal eyewitness accounts as possible and that survivors who were in the DP camps participate in the sessions," says Rosensaft. "This will not be a situation of historians telling survivors what their experiences were, but of the survivors and other participants in the events of the DP period talking about their experiences. This is one of the last opportunities we will have to get the confluence of these viewpoints and personalities together."
To this end, conference planners are building time into the schedule for informal discussions and meetings over the three-day period. Survivors and their children will have opportunities to meet with those who lived or were born in the same DP camps, and survivors will have a chance to introduce their children and grandchildren to people they may not have seen in 50 or 60 years.
"We want the conference to be as rich in its offerings as we can make it," explains Norich. "We want it to give the textured impression of what life was like, how people spent their time, of the kinds of traumas and ideologies that affected them from day to day, of the commitments that animated their recapture of normal existence." Large plenary sessions and approximately 20 breakout sessions will cover topics such as faith and observance; self-determination; family, work and culture; the impact of the DPs and DP life; the DP period in history, and American policy toward the DPs.
Special evening programs will feature a chorale and song-leading, with copies of songs from the DP era; continuous screenings of DP films; and a special performance by renowned guest artists with music, songs and poetry from the DP era.
"The program will include opportunities to visit the Museum, enabling survivors and their families to experience the exhibitions together. To encourage families to bring their school-age children, we scheduled the conference over the three-day Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend in January," says Felicia Figlarz Anchor, chair of the arrangements committee.
Anchor was born in the Bergen-Belsen DO camp, where her parents had met and married; the family came to the United States in 1949. Anchor is now national vice president of the National Council of Jewish Women and chairs the Tennessee Holocaust Commission.
"Participants will also be able to view the Museumís new exhibition on life in the DP camps, highlighting cultural, social, political and religious life; the search for family, and the creation of new families," Anchor adds. Scheduled to open in November 1999 and run through March 2000, this exhibition will showcase new additions to the Museum collection of artifacts and documents from the DP period. Systematic collection of DP-related items was launched by a mailing last fall requesting artifacts and photos from the DP era.
"We were amazed at the extraordinary outpouring of donations," says Project exhibitions chair Jean Bloch Rosensaft, whose parents, like her husband Menachemís, met and married at the Bergen-Belsen DP camp. A trained art historian, Rosensaft is the national director of public affairs for Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and exhibitions director of its New York School. Her father, Sam Bloch, was a member of the Bergen-Belsen Jewish committee and will be a plenary speaker at the conference.
"When we embarked on the LIFE REBORN Project, the Museumís collections contained minimal holdings of DP materials," she says. "Thanks to these donations from all over the U.S. and overseas, the Museum now has one of the largest DP collection in the world."
Among the newly acquired artifacts are two donated by the Rosensafts: the first issue of Unzer Shtimme, the newspaper published in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp, and a volume of the Talmud published by the U.S. Army in 1948 for the liberated Jews. Some unusual items that have come forward include a pair of boxing gloves on loan from Abraham Malnick and a poster advertising a performance troupe, donated by singer Rena Berliner. According to Susan Snyder, associate curator of art and artifacts at the Museum, many of these materials have been gathered "on the road," as Museum staff and second generation members meet with potential donors throughout the U.S.
In addition to the DP exhibition at the Museum, Jean Bloch Rosensaft is organizing special photography displays for the conference site along with photomurals reflecting the return to life in the DP camps which will be mounted in the Museum's Ross Administrative Center.
She is also working with other Washington-area cultural institutions to feature DP-related exhibitions and programs in cooperation with the Museumís LIFE REBORN Project. These institutions include the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Newseum, Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery of the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center, Bínai Bírith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, and the Small Jewish Museum-Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.
"These exhibitions and public programs are a very important part of the Project," says Jean Rosensaft. "They will reach out to tourists, schoolchildren, and the general public, who will have a chance to see the DP camp experience in a variety of settings. It also means that these institutions are focusing in on this period for the first time and looking closely at their own collections."
The Second Generation Advisory Group hopes that the conference, along with its concurrent exhibitions, programs, website, and other activities, will be a rich experience for the participants and encourage ongoing involvement in and support of the Museumís activities. They also hope it will generate more interest in the DP period among scholars, the media, and the general public. "We want this story to go out to the general public," says Romana Strochlitz Primus. "Weíre very excited that several Washington-area museums will mount DP exhibitions at the same time the Museum is showing one."
As important to the Second Generation Advisory Group planners is their own involvement in the Project. "I think this is the first time that a second generation group has undertaken such a large, multi-faceted project for any institution," says Primus. "Itís very gratifying, not only for those of us actively involved, but also for the survivors who see the amount of work and effort their children are putting into the perpetuation of memory."
Rositta Ehrlich Kenigsberg concurs. "It is important that this is a second generation project, that weíre bringing the legacy one step forward. After all, we are the guardians of that legacy."
Second Generation Advisory Group
Rositta Ehrlich Kenigsberg
Chair, Second Generation Advisory Group
Member, United States Holocaust Memorial Council
Romana Strochlitz Primus
Chair, LIFE REBORN Project
Member, United States Holocaust Memorial Council
Chair, Arrangements Committee
Chair, Products Committee
Chair, Academic Publications Committee
Jean Bloch Rosensaft
Chair, Exhibitions Committee
Member, Conference Planning Subcommittee
Member, United States Holocaust Memorial Council
Additional members, Second Generation Advisory Committee:
Rella Feldman, David Halpern, Sam Knobler, Howard Konar, Abraham Krieger, Linda Laulicht, Ann Weiss, Henry Welt, Cheryl Zoller, Wayne Zuckerman