Three Holocaust survivors newly arrived in New York, after being liberated in Wiesbaden, Germany, and traveling via the SS Marine Flasher out of Bremenhaven. Mother and daughter Else and Rita Springut, and Moses Fish, 1946.

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The Rise of the ‘Survivors’

And the increasingly forgotten story of the Shoah’s displaced persons

by
Jenna Weissman Joselit
April 26, 2024
Three Holocaust survivors newly arrived in New York, after being liberated in Wiesbaden, Germany, and traveling via the SS Marine Flasher out of Bremenhaven. Mother and daughter Else and Rita Springut, and Moses Fish, 1946.

Getty Images

In the immediate aftermath of what came to be called the Shoah or, more generally, the Holocaust, the tribe once known variously as Israelites, Hebrews, people of the Mosaic persuasion, and just plain Jews acquired a new battery of names. They were called she’erit ha-peletah (meaning “the surviving remnant”) in Hebrew, or lebn-geblibene (meaning “those who remained alive”) in Yiddish; in English, they were referred to by such varied nomenclature as victims, displaced persons, refugees, persecutees, survivors—and, to atone perhaps for America’s foot-dragging in welcoming them, the sobriquet of “delayed pilgrims,” as if these postwar Jewish immigrants fit right into the national origin story. Despite the presence of so many onomastic possibilities, the term “survivor” ultimately won the day—and the hearts of those who lived to tell the tale.

And in that, there hangs a second, related tale: the emergence and staying power of this particular classification. At once a description, a source of authority, an injunction, a moral claim, and a legal one, the term “survivor” is now taken for granted, universally deployed as the most appropriate way by which to refer to those individuals who experienced the Shoah through one or another of its multiple manifestations. Its elevation took place at the expense of other taxonomies, bundling together a wide range of wartime experiences, crowding all of them into one linguistic tent. As a result, no one thinks twice these days about the use, much less the history, of this term.

That wasn’t always the case. The acceptance and circulation of “survivor” was a long time coming, a consequence of gradual, if profound, changes both on the ground in Europe, Israel, and the United States, and in the ways in which academic discourse, jurisprudence, literature, and popular culture reckoned with the Holocaust. The historians I consulted in the fashioning of this piece date the term’s normalization, its prescriptive popularization, to the 1970s.

The aftereffects, the shock waves, of the 1961 Eichmann trial had much to do with it. As a result of victims bearing witness and giving testimony in that Jerusalem courtroom for the very first time, the survivor community came into its own, and into the limelight. The release of Terrence Des Pres’ book The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps early in 1976, followed a few months later by Dorothy Rabinowitz’s Survivors of the Holocaust Living in America, was also a factor. By letting the “survivors speak for themselves,” these two highly praised volumes put those experiences front and center, bringing “survivor” into wide circulation.

From then on, the designation took off, further anchoring itself in the public imagination when, in Jerusalem in 1981, the “largest assemblage of Holocaust survivors ever held”—the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants—took place on the 36th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps. A “pilgrimage of remembrance,” as The New York Times put it, the conclave also promoted the notion of the survivors’ experiences as a form of moral inheritance to be carefully passed down from one generation to the next.

The role of the survivor in the making of Holocaust museums, particularly in the United States, furthered and even institutionalized that vision. Time and again throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, when it came to the vetting of Holocaust-generated artifacts, to resolving what should and should not be put on display, museum professionals deferred to the survivors, ceding the last word to them.

When seen from that perspective, the collective preference for “survivor” rather than, say, “victim” or “refugee,” falls into place. A reflection of the tension between the situational and the existential, between the temporary and the enduring, it underscores the cultural and demographic process by which this appellation took hold. For the rest of their lives, “survivor” would accompany those who bore the title, serving as a mark of distinction, a badge of honor, a call to witness.

As “survivor” took hold, it eclipsed and, in no time at all, even erased a key component of the immediate postwar Jewish experience from the public square, the classroom, and collective memory: that of displaced persons.

If the undergraduates in my “Postwar Jewish Experience” seminar are any indication, and I believe they are, a startlingly large percentage of young American Jews are taken aback to learn of the liminal space of the displaced persons camp. From what they’ve been taught (or, more to the point, not taught), it’s almost as if what remained of European Jewry made one big and speedy leap from the hellishness of the Shoah to tilling the soil in Israel or adjusting to life in the New World.

This gap, as much a historical as a linguistic phenomenon, shortchanges opportunities to deepen our understanding of the means by which the Jewish polity reconstituted itself in the face of insurmountable odds, highlighting the role of resilience at the grassroots and with it, the extraordinary efforts of the Joint Distribution Committee, ORT, and the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Inc., among other Jewish communal NGOs, as agents of regeneration.

At war’s end, an archipelago of hastily built or repurposed facilities, among them former concentration camps and Nazi youth summer camps, housed an estimated 1 million people left homeless. Though not all displaced persons were Jews, all surviving Jews were displaced persons, consigned by nationality to live among their tormentors. Once this and other untenable conditions came to light, a consequence of the harrowing revelations of the 1945 Harrison Report detailing the abysmal physical environment in which Jewish victims of the war unwittingly found themselves, they were relocated to displaced persons camps populated entirely by their own kind. Between 1946 and 1951, Jewish DPs lived among their own kind, anxiously awaiting their collective fate. Since returning home was no longer an option, and the nations of the world remained inhospitable, to put it mildly, where, oh, where were they to go? What “exit options” were at hand?

While in limbo, Jewish displaced persons actively documented what had happened to them, married, had babies—in 1946, the Jewish DP camps were said to have the highest birth rate in the world—put their faith in Zionism, made themselves heard, and planted themselves in the world.

When the history of the displaced persons camps, then, is fully acknowledged and taken into account, the factors that made for the elevation of the term “survivor” become clearer still. Ultimately, its claim to fame rests on the difference between a name conferred, even thrust upon, a population, and one generated from within; between a form of classification and an expression of identity. Where sheerit ha-peletah, lebn-geblibene, and “survivor” were of the Jews’ own devising, the label “displaced person” was not—at least not until 2001, when Joseph Berger of The New York Times published Displaced Persons: Growing Up American After the Holocaust, his poignant, textured, coming-of-age memoir as the son of Rachel and Marcus. By situating that designation within the context of the New World rather than the Old, he reclaimed it as his own. Until then, “displaced persons” functioned as a stigma, rather than a salute. “DP. We hated that word,” Benjamin Harshav recalled. “We were never anybody’s displaced persons … DP was a label, a category for bureaucrats.”

“Survivor,” on the other hand, was all theirs. It had their name on it.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.

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