An identity card could be the first step into a new life for the millions of people who lost everything during the war, but it wasn’t always easy to get one.
The exhibition Unser Mut. Juden in Europa 1945-1948 (Our Courage. Jews in Europe 1945-1948) at the Documentation Centre for Displacement, Expulsion and Reconciliation depicts what life was like for many Jews in the immediate years after World War II, a long overlooked element of post-war history.
After the guns stopped firing and dust began to settle, many of the surviving Jews found themselves moved from concentration camps to other camps: the Displaced Persons, or DP, camp, run by the US Military administration.
Last year the Museum Tempelhof offered an introduction to the subject with its exhibition “Unser Leben” [“Our Life”] portraying life in DP camps in Berlin. Now, the Documentation Centre in Stresemannstraße presents the bigger picture. It looks at DP camps and what happened to the remnants of the Jewish community across Europe. From Białystok in Poland, through Frankfurt to Amsterdam in the West; as well as lesser-known places such as Bari in Italy and Dzierżoniów, which was part of Silesia and is now Polish. Berlin and Budapest are also included.
As you enter the Documentation Centre, a darkened entry leads to a vast space where wooden constructions hold the displays askew. You get the immediate feeling of a world out of joint. Everything is provisional. A key feature of the period was trying to find out if friends and family members had survived. What shaped the individuals’ lives very much depended on the people they encountered and their location.
The seven cities mentioned are captured through little hubs that invite you to sit at a table and “meet” two people through photos and memorabilia. Their biographies are often checkered, such that as of Julius Meyer in East Berlin. Born in West Prussia in 1909, he survived various concentration camps and settled in East Berlin intending to build a better future under communism. Reality turned out differently. He escaped to West Berlin, but his past communist entanglements made life difficult prompting him eventually to emigrate to Brazil.
History is often different from what we’d expect. From these hubs, we learn that the Jewish community in Budapest suffered not only Nazi crimes, but the communist regime then pursued an anti-semitic agenda which forced Jews to gather their belongings and seek safety elsewhere. Bari, a port town in southern Italy, was regarded as a stopover on the way to Palestine. But there’s more to it. The Allied Forces had freed southern Italy already in September 1943 and set up the first refugee camp there. In Amsterdam you might expect a smooth revival of the Jewish community, but it wasn’t so. The community here suffered from more losses through Nazi persecution than any other western European country. When trying to re-establish the community many conflicts with the Dutch authorities arose.
Dotted around those ‘city-hubs’ are numerous displays illustrating different aspects of life at the time, including in a DP camp. Some inmates staged theatre productions to cope with the traumas they faced or made drawings capturing painful scenes in concentration camps. Often, they consciously used the Yiddish language as a way of creating a sense of home and belonging. One item which stands out is the chuppah, a wedding canopy. It was provided by the Jewish-American aid organisation “Joint Distribution Committee” (JDC) and was frequently used as many survivors had lost their partners in the holocaust and were keen to start new families.
The arrangement of the displays allows you to roam around and explore, following your own preferences. At the same time, it manages to conjure up the feeling many Jews must have experienced during these years: a life in between things, in limbo, chasing and waiting for documents. The most sought after documents were the claims for compensation and those that enabled the document holder to move on, out of the camps. They rarely returned to their childhood homes in Eastern Europe, which was still a hostile environment, and they preferred to set up a new home elsewhere, in America or Palestine, which was under British Mandate.
The story of the exhibition ends in 1948, a turning point in history: Europe now becomes the stage on which the Cold War will unfold, and the State of Israel is founded.
Our Courage is the first special exhibition at the Documentation Centre for Displacement, Expulsion and Reconciliation, which only opened its doors last summer. The title Unser Mut, by the way, is drawn from a Yiddish Partisan song from 1943 as well as a paper within a DP Camp in Frankfurt.
- Our Courage – Jews in Europe 1945-48 Dokumentationszentrum Flucht, Vertreibung, Versöhnung. Through 30.9.2022