In the years directly following World War II, more than 250,000 displaced Jewish people began to rebuild their lives. In the process of moving ahead after the horrors of the Holocaust, they renewed former religious, social, political and cultural interests while waiting in Central European displaced persons (DP) camps for permission to immigrate to other parts of the world.
For decades historiography tended to jump from the end of the Holocaust directly to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. However, in recent years, more attention has been paid to the experience of Jews who resided in the DP camps in Germany, Austria and Italy until 1952.
To date, images of two-thirds of the posters have been uploaded. They announce a wide array of events that took place in the DP camps, including sporting matches, political gatherings, cultural performances, holiday festivities and religious services. Some posters report on subjects like the high birthrates in the DP camps, the breakdown of DP camp populations by country of origin, and the variety of vocational training programs offered.
Critically, some of them reflect the keen awareness of DP camp residents of world events, especially the fight to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine. One handwritten notice from 1947 tells residents of the Feldafing DP camp in Germany that they can send food packages to their relatives aboard the “SS Exodus,” the most famous ship carrying illegal Jewish immigrants to Palestine that was sent back to Europe by the British.
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Another poster, this one professionally designed and printed by the Zionist Poalei Zion organization in Germany, protests the White Paper restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine. It shows images of ships (presumably representing immigration), Haganah fighters and workers building the Land of Israel.
According to senior archivist Fruma Mohrer, the collection by YIVO workers of materials from the DP camps in the immediate post-war years was a continuation of the work the institute, founded in 1925 in Vilna, Poland, had been doing before the war.
“Before the war, YIVO had built up a vast network of collectors around the world to document Jewish life. Even during the war, people were sending things in to keep building the collection. So, as soon as the war was over, the collection of material in the DP camps was a natural continuation of the process,” Mohrer said.
“A call went out for material in the ‘YIVO News,’ issue number 16, in 1946. It was aimed at ordinary camp residents who knew about YIVO, and also to US Army chaplains and soldiers working in the DP camps,” she said.
The institute worked closely in the DP camps with the Central Historical Commission, which was established by survivors to collect original documents and personal testimonies about the atrocities of the Holocaust.
YIVO continued to acquire DP camp material for decades from survivors and their descendants. Although this is the first time that the artifacts will be available for widespread viewing online, the original documents have long been available to scholars and researchers in New York, where YIVO moved in 1940.
“YIVO organized exhibitions in New York of new acquisitions from the DP camps as early as right after the war,” Mohrer said.
While YIVO has the largest collection from the DP camps, others exist elsewhere. Among these are the archives of the Bergen-Belsen DP camp entrusted to Yad Vashem by Sam Bloch and Lilly Czaban, who were members of the camp’s leadership. Their daughter, Jean Bloch Rosensaft used that material as the basis for “Life Reborn,” a traveling exhibition about life in the DP camps. The same material was also used in creating a permanent exhibition at the museum at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp site near Hannover, Germany.
Rosensaft spearheaded the organization of a “Life Reborn” conference at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum some 15 years ago in an attempt to bring the DP camp experience to the fore.
“Back in 2000, the subject of the DP experience was not much on the radar, even of Holocaust museums,” explained Rosensaft, who sits on the USHMM collections and acquisitions committee.
A call went out for DP camp artifacts, many of which had unfortunately been considered ephemeral and disposed of by survivors and their children. Nonetheless, a significant amount of material was turned in and accessioned, ultimately redefining the scope of the USHMM’s collection, extending it to the mid-1950s.
Mohrer and her team at YIVO, including acting chief archivist Lyudmila Sholokhova and special projects coordinator Ettie Goldwasser, hope the online collection will be accessed not only by scholars, but also by educators and members of the general public.
“There is nothing like an original document to provide incontrovertible evidence of history,” Mohrer said.
The survivors may have come out of the death camps, but they were much alive. The posters attest to their resilience and will to create anew a vibrant, active and passionate Jewish cultural and communal life.
“All significant communications in the DP camps were done on paper. These posters parachute us back into the period. They provide a window into the experience,” Rosensaft said.
At the same time, these posters are relevant to life in the contemporary age of electronic communication.
“They are resonant today because we all live in contexts of trauma — terrorism, for example. We can look to these posters and see in each of them a manifestation of resilience, a transcending of evil and an embracing of life,” Rosensaft said.
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