Case Closed: Holocaust Survivors in Postwar America
review written by Robert Seaney | book written by Beth B. Cohen
The Holocaust, the greatest blemish on the face of history, murdered millions and upset many families and communities. For the hundreds of thousands of liberated Jewish immigrants who came to America seeking to rebuild what they had lost in Europe, there was yet another struggle to overcome. This story of Displaced Persons thrown out of the fire pits and into the melting pot, reveals the reality behind the media portrayal of a warm, helpful welcome for needy victims.
In her well-documented research of Holocaust survivors, author Beth B. Cohen draws on archival materials, oral testimonies, and case files, in an attempt to shed some light on the difficult transition that survivors, arriving as refugees under displaced persons legislation, experienced in postwar America. Over 140,000 Jewish refugees relocated to the United States between the end of the Holocaust in 1944 and the end of the immigration surge in 1954, making it one of the largest and most significant immigration bursts in the twentieth century. Throughout her book, several themes emerge, including the priority given to Jewish agency goals working with newcomers regardless of their special needs. Another problem that plagued the refugees was the de-emphasis on health and psychological issues, the feelings of isolation among many who were shunned from integrated society, and the recollections of the horrors of the Holocaust that plagued every survivor.
Between 1944 and 1949, over seventeen million innocent people were killed in the Holocaust, the largest and most horrific genocide in history. Of these victims, nearly six million Jews were executed by firing squad, in gas chambers, of starvation, or by other cruel and inhuman methods. As the Allied Forces drew deeper into Europe and nearer to the death camps, many of them were abandoned, leaving the prisoners to either die or be liberated. Fortunately, hundreds of thousands of death camp victims were rescued by Allied troops, and given a new opportunity to survive and escape the Nazi regime.
At the end of the Second World War, when Jewish refugees began flooding into America, the typical media portrayal of Jewish immigration was of ‘a cheerful…young girl staring wide-eyed into the camera’ (pg 1). Of the over 140,000 Jewish displaced persons who immigrated to the United States from Europe in the years between 1946-1954, few had an experience comparable to the smiling little girl’s. While the media continued to portray overwhelmingly happy accounts of refugees succeeding in new professions, playing on soccer teams, or celebrating holidays in freedom, the somewhat less rosy reality remained untold. The veracity of an entire society displaced by horrific genocide was almost too much for the American people to comprehend or to accept, and the less than perfect welcoming the refugees received conflicted too much with the American feelings of heroism and infallibility at the end of the war. There was a great willingness to start up charities and agencies to provide for the refugee’s welfare, however, postwar society was far too focused on the future to hear about the Holocaust. Ironically, those agencies which were so intimately involved with the survivors’ care and support were the ones that seemed so reluctant to confront the aftereffects of the Holocaust. Despite the deafness the newcomers encountered when they tried to relate the psychological damage of the Holocaust, despite the orders they were given to forget the past and focus on the bright future, the tragic losses the refugees had experienced, which none of whom could easily recover from, was too much to just move on. The integration agencies’ ideology of the refugees’ self-sufficiency sowed the seeds for the mythology of survivors’ victory from the ashes. The actual DP’s (displaced persons) view of their integration is quite different from the one commonly portrayed by contemporary publication or the mass media. Their isolation and loneliness did nothing to help them through the psychological turmoil they experienced after witnessing the most brutal genocide in history.
The war in Europe ended in May of 1954, and with it came the liberation of the remnants of Europe’s Jewish community. The use of the word ‘liberation’, however seems flawed and ironic when one considers the difficulty that awaited survivors. Exhausted in soul, body, and mind, the majority of the weary ex-prisoners were unable to reintegrate into European society. While some in western Europe returned to their old homes and villages, most eastern European Jews left their homeland in search of a new, better life in America. Unable to move to Palestine, thousands of Jews took advantage of the new opportunities offered to them by the liberalized US immigration legislation that permitted survivors to come to America. In anticipation of their arrival, the American Jewish community established a new postwar refugee agency, the United Service for New Americans (USNA) in 1946. This organization was one of dozens that sprouted up designed to cooperate with local Jewish agencies all around the United States to coordinate the resettlement of Jewish DPs. Cohen claims that there were few better people than the Jews to have to fend for their own, for ‘caring for immigrants, of course, was not at all new to the American Jewish community’ (159). Cohen refers to how, in the past, Jews had proven their altruism and philanthropy by providing charity work and supporting immigrants and other needy persons. Despite the enthusiasm displayed by the Jewish community, many, including President Truman himself, were cautious about allowing a flood of immigration, from any origin, to America. The average American was concerned in the face of a potential shift in demographics that could upset job opportunities and the conventional community. While Truman was sympathetic to the plight of the DPs, he was reluctant to change the long-unaltered immigration laws or to allow the entrance of a large number of foreigners. To control the number of immigrants, the United States set limits of the number of DPs allowed to immigrate from each region at a time. When Truman began to see the advantages of lifting some of the immigration restrictions, Congress resisted liberalization of immigration laws that had been in effect since 1924. Eventually, after several flawed immigration reform bills, most of the restrictions were lifted and the Jewish refugees were permitted to come to America.
Having not worked normal jobs in years because of their internment in German concentration camps, financial aid became a problem with many of the new Jewish immigrants. The popular question of the Jewish agencies and many American citizens became ‘What to do with the DPs?’(19). The local Jewish agencies around the nation brought support fro resettlement, and new agencies like the New York Association for New Americans (NYANA) were established in 1946 to assist majority of newcomers. The new Jewish immigrants surprised everyone, including their employers, by proving what hard-workers they were and how willing they were to perform any task that would provide pay for their families. The 140,000 who had survived the mass murder of 6 million in Europe had a tremendous task to resettle in the United States; yet the privileged, unscarred American had a difficult task awaiting them too. To supply necessities to an entire displaced community and to rehabilitate both themselves and Europe, America had to use major resources, which was not well accepted by all citizens. While violence was, thankfully, an extremely rare occurrence, anti-Semitism did spread, especially in areas that were largely affected by a shift in population or exposure to a culture they were not comfortable or not familiar with.
Fortunately, the initial welcome to the refugees was, for the most part, enthusiastic and hospitable. The SS General Black was the first ship bearing refugees to pull into New York on October 31, 1948. On board were 813 Displaced Persons, the first to be admitted under the new DP Act. Banners posted all along the harbor read “Welcome to America” and a military boat brought out hundreds of government officials to greet the newcomers. A Washington Post journalist captured the event’s festive mood in writing: ’These latter-day pilgrims, first of 205,000 coming here in the next two years, crowded the ships rail, shouted, whistled, and waved their handkerchiefs wildly as they passed the Statue of Liberty” (39). New York was a port of entry into the United States for the majority of Jewish refugees; it was where they first arrived and experienced America, and it was where most of them wanted to remain. However, American Jews feared that if the DPs concentrated in major urban centers like New York, they would provoke anti-Semitism. Thus, the USNA preferred to send refugees to other destinations, which diversified from Oakland, California; to Providence, Rhode Island; from Sheboygan, Wisconsin; to Columbia, South Carolina. With the changing demographics, and the lifestyle changes that went along with it, the communities that accepted Jewish refugees needed to be convinced that taking in refugees was beneficial for them personally and for the entire community. . The refugee’s American relatives played a vital role in accepting immigrants and in bringing family members to America. The actual Holocaust survivors themselves had wishes, but seldom any voice in their US destination. The refugees had their destination predetermined before they even left Europe, and were seldom given any part in the decision making process. Some were not even given the opportunity to immigrate to the United States but were instead placed in other locations at the American government’s discretion. In order for them to obtain a visa to enter the United States, every immigrant needed a sponsor who was willing to provide an affidavit for their entrance, which would promise that the newcomer would not become a public charge or become a burden of welfare or the government. After World War II, where the memory of the devastating depression and the skyrocketing unemployment were still fresh, the anti-Semitism of the 1940s still lingered, and it took the assurance of the Jewish community to convince the government that they refugees would honor their commitment to America. In order to receive the coveted affidavit, an immigrant had to do one of the following three things: they could receive an individual affidavit for a named relative; an agency or corporate affidavit, like from USNA for a specific individual; or they could receive an affidavit from an unnamed employer, though this was one of the least common ways with which a Jewish refugee would attempt to secure an affidavit, largely because there was no great urgency for employers to hire any of the new Jewish immigrants.
Beth Cohen’s study of the reception of Jewish survivors in America presents a significant and largely unexamined outlook on the lives of Jews after the Holocaust. Cohen’s work is one of the few that does not focus on issues relating to the dreadful memory of the Holocaust or to aspects of its aftermath, but instead gives attention to the reception of its survivors, including the trials they faced on arrival. Filling a gap in historical examination, Case Closed examines the arrival, integration, and assimilation of Jews into American society, with specific focus on their difficulty in feeling comfortable in American society and the psychological damages of witnessing the greatest genocide in history. Written in 2007, her work and research was done at a time of minimal anti-Semitic sentiments, and at a time where the full horrors of the Holocaust had been fully exposed. Well informed on her topic, with a Ph.D. in Holocaust history from Clark University, Cohen’s assumption seem unbiased and objective throughout her account of a time torn by racial segregation and even violence.
Case Closed challenges the prevailing optimistic perception of the lives of Holocaust survivors in postwar America by examining their reception through the eyes of those who lived it. The author’s thesis was developed through meticulous accounts from Jewish social service workers, letters and minutes from agency meetings, oral testimonies, and the notes of psychologists who helped struggling Jews readjust to a new life in a new country. Cohen, without any accusatory tone towards the US government, examines and critiques the governments and the agencies handling of postwar immigration, citing the successes and pointing out the flaws. She explores how the Truman Directive permitted the American Jewish community to handle the financial and legal responsibility for survivors, and shows what assistance the community offered the refugees and what help was not provided for them. Cohen gives extra examination to the particularly difficult topics of the orphaned children and the Jewish orthodoxy, shedding light on their especially difficult situations, whether they be without parents or shunned for their beliefs.
An article from Rutgers University Press praises Cohen’s novel as a ‘well researched volume on a topic that has been debated in both scholarly and popular literature since the end of World War II’. The article cites Cohen’s particular attention to prominent factions of the Jewish community, such as the orphans and the Orthodoxy, who were two of the most visible and influential two groups that affected the lives of Jewish immigrants. Michael Berenbaum, the director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust, writes: ‘Cohen’s research is meticulous, her writing engaging, her findings significant. The cases that had been closed are now reopened and can see far more vividly the impact of the Holocaust on its survivors and the failure of many who were supposed to assist the survivors to grasp who thy were and what they had been through’.
Immigration has changed drastically between now and the era of Jewish immigration. The more restrictive laws passed in the early twentieth-century made passage difficult for Jews, but the liberalized immigration laws of today make entering the United States too easy, in many people’s opinions. The National Origins Act of 1924 established a discriminatory quota system, and limited immigration into America. This legislation was one of the greatest obstacles that early Jewish immigrants encountered in entering the United States. Congress’ reluctance to alter the 1924 immigration bill was overcome by the Truman Doctrine, which, in 1947, made major changes to US foreign policy. At this time, there was such a strong effort from government agencies concerned with Jewish welfare that before and even after the flood of immigrants, the common people were quite accepting of the newcomers. Thus, the Jews were able to avoid most of the racism that other minorities, including Blacks and Irish, suffered through.
In today’s society, we experience many of the same feelings about immigration that we did in the 1950s, including the fear and distrust natural at the prospect of sharing space with an unfamiliar stranger. However, the liberalized immigration laws of today are very different from the laws that restricted Jewish refugees. Where in the 1950s we were concerned about allowing a possible 205,000 Jews into the country legally, we are now quite content to turn our backs to the millions of immigrants entering illegally. The changed perspective on immigration can be partially attributed to America’s changed status in the world and the level to which other countries view America as a nation of freedom and opportunity.
Following the conclusion of the Second World War, the media widely reported lives of freedom and opportunity for all the Jewish refugees that immigrated to America following the Holocaust in Europe. Unfortunately, for the more than 140,000 Jewish Displaced Persons who came to the US between 1946 and 1954, the idealistic, diluted stories of peaceful integration into American Society are inaccurate, to say the least. In her expansive research of the Jewish immigration process, Cohen reveals the hardships that faced DPs in a society that was, for the most part, willing to help – as long as it was convenient.
1. Cohen, Beth B. Case Closed: Holocaust Survivors in Postwar America. Rutgers University Press, New Jersey, 2007.