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Children Born in Displaced Persons Camps Gather in Tel Aviv

‘Mourning soon gave way to thousands of marriages, and new families emerged from the ashes’

Menachem Z. Rosensaft
December 21, 2015
Class portrait of school children at Schauenstein DP camp, circa 1946. Wikimedia
Class portrait of school children at Schauenstein DP camp, circa 1946. Wikimedia

Editor’s note: The following is the text of a keynote address delivered by Menachem Z. Rosensaft in Tel Aviv on Monday at the first gathering of children born in Displaced Persons camps. Rosensaft, the son of two Holocaust survivors, was born on May 1, 1948, in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp.


Abi Men zeyt zikh: “Just as long as we see one another.” That was the title of the satirical revue the comedy team of Dzigan and Shumacher performed in Warsaw in 1947 after they had returned to Poland from the Soviet Union where they had spent the war years. These were also the words with which survivors of the Shoah frequently greeted one another, especially when they saw each other for the first time after the darkness in their memories and in their hearts that they did not want to speak about, after horrors that would have taken hours and hours to recount, and to what end?

Why relive anguish and pain at a moment when one saw a relative—or a friend, or a neighbor, or even just a casual acquaintance or a familiar face—for the first time? After the realization that the other, a vestige of what had once been home, was actually here. And why impose that pain and anguish on the other, who had probably experienced a similar hell, or ask him or her to open still raw wounds of the heart and soul?

Instead, they would smile at one another, most probably embrace, and say to each other, “abi men zeyt zikh.“ It is good, oh so good, that you have survived. You are a remnant of my life before, and I treasure you as proof that all has not been totally destroyed, that I am not entirely alone in this world. But this greeting was not limited to encounters with faces and shadows from before the war. Survivors who had last seen one another more recently in a barrack in a death or concentration camp, or on a death march, would say “abi men zeyt zikh” to each other when they met for the first time after liberation. You made it. You survived. I am happy, but have neither the words nor the emotional strength to elaborate.

And in due course, this was how Jews in the Displaced Persons camps, the DP camps, would often greet each other after not having seen one another for a while. Perhaps one of them had left the camp to go back to Poland or Hungary, or to another DP camp for that matter, to look for relatives, and now he or she was back. Or the fellow DP camp resident had returned after going to Frankfurt or Munich or Berlin for whatever reason. Or perhaps he or she had been in the hospital, and now was once again walking through the camp. Any type of separation was a defining moment. The Jews who had survived the Shoah knew from bitter experience that they could not take reunions for granted. They were gifts. Their very existence day by day in each other’s lives was a miracle of sorts, and as such had to be acknowledged. To each other. To oneself.

My friends—those of you whom I have known for decades, and those of you whom I am meeting today for the first time—I am deeply grateful to Billie Laniado and her colleagues for inviting me to take part in this unique gathering. It is truly a privilege for me to speak to you here today. And so allow me begin with these same words: Abi men zeyt zikh.

We were children together. All of us. We shared very special early childhood years. Some of us were born in the same DP camp. My friend Aviva Tal’s parents and mine were friends in Bergen-Belsen when the two of us were born there, and the two of us actually did play together as children. But it does not matter if we were born in Belsen, or in Landsberg, or Feldafing, or Foehrenwald, or Eschwege, or Zeilsheim, or Bindermichl, or in one of the many other DP camps across Germany, Austria, and Italy. We were all born in a particular time and place, the transition between hell and normalcy, a surreal twilight that enabled our parents to catch their breath and rediscover their bearings. And these places of our birth have to a greater or lesser extent shaped our identity.

To understand who we are, we must go back briefly to the spring of 1945. [A]s World War II came to an end, Allied troops liberated one Nazi concentration camp after another, mostly in April and May of 1945. Among them [were] Buchenwald and Dora-Mittelbau (on April 11), Bergen-Belsen (on April 15), Sachsenhausen on (April 22), Dachau and Ravensbrück (on April 29), Mauthausen (on May 6), and Theresienstadt (on May 8). In each of these camps, the newly freed prisoners were confronted with a grim and frightening new reality.

“The hand of Adonai came upon me,” declared the prophet Ezekiel. “He took me out by the spirit of Adonai and set me down in the valley. It was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many of them spread over the valley, and they were very dry.”

In a lecture describing conditions at Bergen-Belsen when that camp was liberated, Lieutenant Colonel M.W. Gonin, the British officer who commanded the 11th Light Field Ambulance during the camp’s liberation, sai[d]: There were “at least 20,000 sick suffering from the most virulent diseases known to man, all of whom required urgent hospital treatment, and 30,000 men and women who might die if they were not treated, but who certainly would die if they were not fed and removed from the horror camp. What we had not got was nurses, doctors, beds, bedding, clothes, drugs, dressings, thermometers, bedpans or any of the essentials of medical treatment, and worst of all, no common language.”

Several days after the liberation, Brigadier H. L. Glyn-Hughes, the Deputy Director of Medical Services of the British Army of the Rhine, appointed my mother, a not yet 33-year-old Jewish dentist from Sosnowiec, Poland, who had studied medicine in France, to organize and head a group of doctors and nurses among the survivors to help care for the camp’s thousands of critically ill inmates. For weeks on end, my mother and her team of 28 doctors and 620 other female and male volunteers, only a few of whom were trained nurses, worked round the clock with the British military medical personnel to try to save as many of the survivors as possible. Despite their desperate efforts—it was not until May 11, 1945, that the daily death rate fell below 100—the Holocaust claimed 13,944 additional victims at Bergen-Belsen during the two months after the liberation.

Ezekiel continued, “And He said to me, ‘O son of man, these bones are the whole House of Israel.’ They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is gone, we are doomed.’ Prophesy, therefore, and say to them: ‘Thus said the Lord Adonai: I am going to open your graves and lift you out of the graves, O My people, and bring you to the Land of Israel…I will put breath into you and you shall live again…’”

In due course, Ezekiel’s prophecy would come to pass, but it would take time, considerable time. The end of the war found the survivors alone, mostly abandoned. “For the greater part of the liberated Jews of Bergen-Belsen,” my mother recalled many years later, “there was no ecstasy, no joy at our liberation. We had lost our families, our homes. We had no place to go, nobody to hug, nobody who was waiting for us, anywhere. We had been liberated from death and from the fear of death, but we were not free from the fear of life.”

And yet, the survivors, who could easily have given up on humankind, chose to return to life. In DP camps across Germany, Austria and Italy, they returned to life—spiritually, physically, culturally and socially. Instead of allowing themselves to remain the prisoners of a horrific past, they looked toward the future, started new families, gave birth to us, and proved, if only to themselves, that they had not only remained alive but that they had, in fact, prevailed.

Within days of the British arrival at Belsen, its Jewish survivors wrested control of their lives, of their destiny, from any and all outsiders. They were grateful to the British for ending their captivity, but unwilling to obey their or anyone else’s orders blindly. As soon as the yoke of persecution was lifted from them, they elected a political leadership of their own, headed by my father, Josef (Yossl) Rosensaft. They had had a national Jewish consciousness before the war; now they insisted on transforming that consciousness into—and having it recognized as—a national identity.

Following the liberation, Jews from Western Europe left Belsen and returned to their homes as soon as they could, leaving behind primarily those from Poland and Hungary. Within a few weeks, the camp’s Jewish population stabilized at around 12,000. Most had lost entire families. On their own, they were now forced to come to terms with their shattered universe.

The years the survivors spent in the DP camps were a period of critical transition and resuscitation. As Allied soldiers began to return home in 1945, they, their families—and, we have to remind ourselves, most Jews in countries like the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and even here in Eretz Israel—wanted only to get on with their lives, with their own agendas. They did not want to have to think about anything that would distract them from their immediate personal concerns. Jewish military chaplains, the soldiers of the Jewish Brigade, and a handful of Jewish organizations, principally the American Joint Distribution Committee, known popularly as the “Joint,” the World Jewish Congress, the Jewish Relief Unit from Great Britain, and ORT, came to the assistance and took up the cause of the Jewish DPs. Otherwise, the human condition of homeless European Jews was a matter of relative indifference for most of the so-called Western world, including the vast majority of the international Jewish community. Thus, the Jewish survivors of the Shoah—the Sh’erit HaPletah, the Surviving Remnant, as they called themselves—were left to cope as best they could.

They coped by creating life in every meaning of the term. In the aftermath of destruction, the process of both national and individual rebirth took on an almost mystical quality. Left to their own devices, the Jewish DPs tried to replicate the life they had known before the Holocaust. My father used to describe Belsen as the last shtetl in Europe. Most importantly, they supported one another physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And so faith and love were able to blossom anew in the shadow of mass graves. Mourning soon gave way to thousands of marriages, and new families emerged from the ashes.

My friend Romana Strochlitz Primus tells a wonderful story about her parents during the months after their liberation. Shortly after they had found each other in the Belsen DP camp, Romana’s father borrowed a motorcycle and took her mother for a ride. “Once they were on the road, however,” Romana recounts, “he realized that he didn’t know how to stop. So they rode the motorcycle until it ran out of gas. But it didn’t matter. They rode for the pure pleasure of it, simply because they could. There was no destination. It was purely for joy.”

As early as June of 1945, the first school was opened in Belsen for the children who had been liberated there, with separate classes in Polish, Romanian and Hungarian. Other Jewish children from different parts of Eastern Europe soon joined them. In due course, Belsen had a kindergarten, an elementary school, a high school and a vocational training school, as well as a full complement of Jewish religious educational institutions. In addition, the camp had a rabbinate, its own Jewish police force, a library, two theater companies, an orchestra and a host of youth and sports clubs.

Yiddish was the official language of the Belsen DP camp. Zionist politics became the order of the day. The first issue of the Belsen newspaper, Undzer Shtimme (Our Voice), handwritten and mimeographed, appeared on July 12, 1945. The first book published in Belsen on September 7, 1945 was a listing, in English and German, of the camp’s Jewish survivors to facilitate the reunification of family members and friends. Some 60 other publications followed, including a religious tract relating to the status of Jewish survivors whose spouses were presumed, but not known, to be dead.

Similar scenarios took place in the other DP camps, resulting in the ultimate irony that the very land that Hitler had wanted to make Judenrein became for the years immediately following World War II one of the most vibrant, flourishing centers of Jewish life of all times, with one of the highest birthrates. Of course, there were tremendous hardships which must not be overlooked or underestimated, but the Jewish DPs overcame them, primarily on their own and thanks to their tremendous collective inner strength.

It was precisely this atmospheric that made the DP camps special. In a very real sense, the Jews there provided one another with a safety net, a sense of psychological security in that they did not have to explain who they were or what they had gone through to anyone. They all understood. And from this understanding grew virtually unbreakable bonds of friendship, of comradery, that embraced us in a very real sense as well. We often know and understand each other instinctively, intuitively, in much the same way our parents knew and understood each other. Like them, we do not require lengthy introductions when we meet one another for the first time.

Earlier this year, in April, when I spoke beside the cemetery inside what had been the Belsen DP camp, I quoted the beginning of a poem by Yosef Papiernikov—a song, incidentally, that my father used to love to sing, even in Belsen shortly after the liberation, perhaps especially there and then. It is a sentiment that captures for me the spirit and optimism of the Jews who found themselves in the DP camps for weeks, or months, or years. It reflects a mindset that, I believe, many if not most of us—their sons and daughters—have absorbed as well. It is also a mindset that may well be our spiritual legacy to our own children and grandchildren. And so it is with these words that I would like to conclude my remarks here today:

Zol zayn az ikh boy in der luft mayne shlesser…

It may be that I build my castles in the air,
It may be that my God does not exist at all,
In my dreams it is brighter, in my dreams I feel better,
In my dreams the sky is even bluer than blue.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell universities and is general counsel emeritus of the World Jewish Congress. He is the author of Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen.