In Still Alive, her memoir of surviving the Holocaust, Ruth Klüger remembers the first time she saw an American in uniform. She had escaped Auschwitz with her mother to the Bavarian town of Straubing and there, all of a sudden, they saw a military policeman standing in the middle of the road, directing traffic:
“My mother, determined to try out her English, walked up to the first American uniform in view… and told him in a few words that we had escaped from a concentration camp. Since I knew no English, I couldn’t understand his answer, but his gesture was unmistakable. He put his hands over his ears and turned away. My mother translated. He had had his fill of people who claimed they had been in the camps.”
The complex situation of reentry into a still hostile world is the starting point of a new exhibition in Templehof Museum, which takes as its focus the displaced persons (DP) camps that were established in Germany after the war to house holocaust survivors.
The largest of these camps was the Düppel-Centre in Berlin-Zehlendorf. Here, a Jewish community of over 5,000 people lived, forming self-governing organisations like police, schools, sports and food services. They even established a newspaper Undzer Lebn, after which the exhibition takes its name Our Life.
One of the things that emerges from this exhibition is how resentful many Germans still felt towards the Jews, who themselves wanted least of all to continue living in camps in Germany. A Jewish DP from Poland, Artur Brauner, made a feature film Morituri about the Holocaust. When it was shown in Berlin cinemas, German audiences reacted furiously. Faced with what they had done, they vandalised the theatres.
Anti-semitic slander returned. Jews were accused of involvement in the thriving black-market. And there was even conflict within the Jewish community. When the DP camp at Mariendorf boycotted the concert of an American-Jewish violinist who had given a performance with a Nazi-collaborating conductor, the violinist asked for an explanation. Elijahu Jones, editor of the newspaper Undzer Leben, replied:
We should imagine walking together through the streets of Berlin. When you, the artist, see the ruins, you will say, ‘What a pity that so much beauty was destroyed.’ When we, who lost our families, see the same ruins, we will say, ‘What a pity that so much was left standing.'”
With the Soviet Blockade of 1948, the DP camps were evacuated, but it took years more before everyone was resettled. A photo of a protest in a Displaced Persons camp shows a banner which reads “From lager to lager till when?”
The exhibition at Tempelhof museum aims to put this story in a wider context of migration, highlighting different cities of refuge around the world, reminding us that the story of mass migration is ongoing. A small but fascinating project, Our Life manages to capture the unsettled situation of the immediate post-war years.
Upon seeing that American military policeman turn away with his hands over his ears, Ruth Klüger clearly saw the truth of her situation: “This war,” she realised “hadn’t been fought for our sake.”
Nov 3.11.21 till 20.3.22