NEW YORK (Jan. 18)
As an orchestra played Yiddish and Hebrew music at this weekend’s displaced persons conference, some of the D.P. camp survivors got up and danced, laughing and singing exuberantly in the aisles of a hotel ballroom.
“The songs bring back wonderful memories,” said one of the dancers, Anne Boxenhorn of Bellmore, N.Y., who was a child in the Bergen-Belsen D.P. camp.
Celebration and an ambience that one speaker described as a “pep rally” are not the norm at Holocaust survivors events, but this weekend’s conference in Washington — attended by survivors of the approximately 90 camps that housed a quarter-million Jewish refugees after World War II as well as their children and grandchildren — was not a typical survivors event.
Many of the more than 800 faces that listened to speakers such as Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and attended the conference sessions on topics ranging from newspaper publishing at the camps to the way survivors coped with the psychological effects of the war were surprisingly young.
At least a third of the conference attendees were 40- and 50-somethings, those born to survivors during the camp years and afterward. There was a sprinkling of even younger faces — the “third generation” — in attendance.
In some cases, “it has been the grandchild bringing the parent or bringing the grandparent,” said Joana Rosensaft, 22, a granddaughter of survivors.
Little has been known about the vitality of life in the D.P. camps but the conference and a concurrent exhibit on the topic at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum — as well as exhibits currently on display at the B’nai B’rith Klutznick Museum and the National Museum of American Jewish Military History – – are addressing this information gap.
In one room down a few long hallways from the lobby, the Holocaust museum was selling books about the D.P. experience. In another room, conference participants searched for D.P. photos on a computer by theme, person and camp; while at another table in that room, museum staffers were busy collecting hundreds of new photos and other artifacts about the D.P. camp experience from conference attendees.
Of course, the event was not without anger and sadness.
A kiosk in the middle of the hotel lobby overflowed with notices and photos of people trying to reconnect with individuals who knew their relatives and could identify youthful faces in photographs. The kiosk was a poignant reminder of the billboards that served as a mainstay of D.P. camp life, as survivors tried desperately to find missing friends and family.
“A tortured person remains tortured,” explained Wiesel in his talk.
Even the tortured appeared to find some solace.
When a psychiatrist in one of the sessions said that many parents called their children Hitler when they got angry, “it made me feel less haunted,” said Marlene Ring, 44, of Brooklyn.
The rebirth of life in the camps set the tone for the four-day conference, organized by the Holocaust museum’s Second Generation Advisory Group and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which played a vital role in organizing the camps that were run by the United Nations and the U.S. and British governments.
A separate dinner organized by a group of Jews who lived together in a camp that was a student house in Turin, Italy, was one of the most festive events.
About 20 of the students, along with their friends and spouses, gathered together in a separate room to discuss the years they spent in a D.P. camp called Casa Dello Studente, a villa that was rented for them with the help of the JDC.
The 50-odd students, most of whom studied medicine, architecture and engineering, lived together in what was for them relative luxury — their meals were even prepared for them.
At the dinner, many of them recounted their professional success — and typical hijinx in the student house, such as placing a bucket of water above the door of one student that splashed him when he opened it.
“We had a code not to talk about the horrors of the past,” said Dr. Jack Brauns, now a surgeon in Los Angeles.
Even for those who never previously knew each other, the weekend allowed them to find a community in shared experiences.
Shouts of “I was there” and “That’s me. No that’s me,” were heard at the Saturday afternoon session where people gathered under signs of specific camps.
Indeed, before this weekend, Mala Bloch and Max Siebert had never met each other.
But after a few minutes of sitting next to each other in front of a computer, they were acting like old friends.
The two scanned through the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s digital photographs together, searching for familiar faces — Bloch was born in the Bergen-Belsen D.P. camp, while Siebert was born after the war to a mother who was a survivor.
“There’s an instant camaraderie, as if we knew each other for years,” Bloch said.