In my first semester of college, I have gained a plethora of invaluable information through both the avenues of life and lectures. I’ve learned quite a bit about myself, including the discovery through my British Literature survey course that I deeply dislike analyzing texts that don’t interest me. (This revelation, in turn, has caused me to question my intended English major). Unlike British literature, one of my classes that I have learned to love is my post-Holocaust refugee seminar. It’s a course that traces the uprootedness of the survivors in the immediate postwar era. Prior to this course, this time period was a vague blur in my mind. I knew that World War II ended because the Allies liberated the camps, and then shortly after the modern State of Israel was established, marking the next big step in Jewish history. What I didn’t know about was the depths of the DP camps and all the life, revitalization, and mayhem that occurred transnationally as everyone tried to figure out what to do in the wake of the war.
For the survivors, liberation and the establishment of the Jewish state were not isolated, individual events. Rather, these events overlapped with so many other occurrences of the time, connected by the uncertain uprootedness of the displaced persons (DPs). There were thousands of transient people in Europe, just trying to return home or locate some remnant of familiarity—whether that were in a friend, family, or their old butcher. On top of their immediate personal struggles, there were opposing forces at play all around the DPs. The Zionists were desperately trying to recruit people to populate Eretz Yisrael and saw opportunity in the rootless DPs. The Bundists, however, strongly opposed the Zionists’ agenda and wanted all Polish DPs to return to Poland, in order to rebuild and strengthen the Polish Jewish community. Then, there were other DPs who just wanted to return home, but couldn’t go home because their home no longer existed in terms of national borders.
If I have learned anything in my post-Holocaust refugee class it is that the postwar era is one of the fullest time periods, brimming with unique narratives and the spirit of hope. However, based on the fact that I never once studied this era during my thirteen years of Jewish education, I think it’s safe to say that the postwar period often gets overlooked and overshadowed by the seemingly more important surrounding events of the Holocaust and Israel. While the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel are vastly significant events in the course of Jewish history, so too is the story of the DPs, trying to find home.
This brings me to my point of writing this piece (aside from reassuring my mother that, yes, I am still writing): because I have learned so much about the profundity of the DPs and the multilayered Jewish postwar narrative, I was rather dismayed in my history class when we arrived at a unit regarding the postwar era and the DPs—or any Jews at all, really—were almost entirely absent in both the in-class lectures and the sources assigned to write a paper.
Most of the time, I love my history class. Ten different professors teach it, and each professor spends a week teaching a topic that relates to food/drink (the subject of the course) and his or her historical field. This particular week was supposed to be about hunger in postwar Germany, and the assignment was to write a paper about how hunger was a political, and not merely humanitarian, problem. I have absolutely no issue with the assignment itself. What I found concern in, though, was that all the sources except for one seemed to have little to do with hunger in postwar Germany.
In the article that possessed the most usable information, the author primarily focuses on the German struggle in the postwar period and how the Germans were starving. While I understand that there is merit in learning specifically about the Germans in this era, I also think that these article depicted an overly limited image of postwar hunger and the postwar experience in general. Because of all that I have recently learned, when discussing postwar Germany, I cannot conceptualize ignoring the struggles of the Jewish DPs, having just been liberated from such traumatizing experiences, inflicted upon them by the Nazis, a group that certainly intersected with the starving Germans. In my opinion, focusing solely on the plight of the Germans minimizes the experience of the DPs. While the German experience is certainly an important side to consider, when regarding the postwar period, the DPs should never be excluded. Though the postwar era is a different time period than the Holocaust, the two are inextricably linked, due to causation and the subsequent outcome. In that sense, one would not teach about World War II without mentioning the Jews, so why should the postwar period be any different?
College has taught me an enormous amount. One of the most valuable lessons I have learned, however, is to never forget about the DPs.