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Focus on Issues: from the Displaced Persons Files; a Parachute Forms a Wedding Dress

January 11, 2000
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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 fiance, a cook at the Celle camp in Germany, 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, and with extra material, made a shirt for the groom as well.

With the help of a suit borrowed from a British major, the couple’s outfits were complete. On 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 some 250,000 Jews between 1945 and 1951, when all but one of the camps closed.

“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 permanent exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, says, talking about an exhibit about D.P. camps, “Life Reborn: Jewish Displaced Persons, 1945-1951,” currently on display at the Washington museum.

Part of the reason for this, says Menachem Rosensaft, who was born in the Bergen-Belsen D.P. camp in 1948, is that the Jewish experience in the camps – – in which individuals barely removed from their horrific wartime experiences demonstrated a remarkable vibrancy — don’t fit victimization stereotypes.

People have two images of survivors — wearing concentration camp uniforms staring off into the distance on liberation day and as grey-haired people lighting candles at Holocaust commemorations — says Rosensaft, who is one of the organizers of a conference on the camps scheduled to be held in Washington beginning Friday, Jan. 14.

A desire to erase this ignorance motivated the museum’s Second Generation Advisory Project to push for the exhibit and conference.

Exhibits on the topic are also being shown 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.

Friedman wasn’t the only bride in the camps.

By 1947, the 90 camps that housed Jews in Germany, Austria and Italy had one of the highest birth rates in the world.

“You needed to form these bonds because you had nobody,” says Regina Speigel, who married her husband, Sam, in the Fohrenwald camp in Germany. “People can’t live by themselves.”

The surviving remnant of European Jewry, or she’erit hapletah, as it is called, quickly began to rebuild a semblance of normalcy.

The United Nations, the American and British governments, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee ran the camps.

But “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, cobbling together an impressive array of religious institutions and schools, political organizations and sports clubs, and 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 says, was “bringing a little culture to people who never had any.”

With the help of training sessions organized by the JDC and ORT, the 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,” says Dr. Edmond Goldenberg, who eventually immigrated to the United States.

Still, in the end, 142,000 of the camp residents moved to prestate Palestine or Israel, according to Rosensaft, a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

At least 75,000 moved to the United States after legislation in 1948 opened up slots to displaced persons, and about 16,000 went to Canada, he says.

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.

This changed after August 1945, when the United States issued a report indicting the conditions in the camps. The so-called 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, because “this was done for so long by the Nazis that a group has been created that has special needs.”

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

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

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

But 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 says, but “I didn’t form any friendships with them.”

The camps were difficult for people because even though Jews were no longer subject to the Nazi atrocities, they were still 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,” says Spiegel.

For Lily 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.”

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