Doubt, Denunciation and Denial: The Jewish Experience In Post-Holocaust Europe

In the years following World War 2, the Jews of Europe faced an uphill battle to gain reparations for, and even recognition of, the ordeal that they had suffered through. Whether it was having governments fail to accommodate their needs and acknowledge the horrors they had endured–as in the Soviet Union and the Netherlands–or being unable to reclaim their lost children–as in Belgium and France–European Jews faced hardship at every corner following the Holocaust. In several countries, such as Poland and the Netherlands, support from foreign aid organizations was all that they could rely on, and in many cases, that wasn’t enough, as thousands left their native Europe for Israel or the United States. Some countries had very distinct reasons for adopting such similar policies to one another, while others–like Germany–had completely unique policies and circumstances of their own. All of these situations and motivations combined to form the multi-layered map that was Post-Holocaust Europe, and understanding why all this denial, denunciation, and in some cases, violence, occurred is crucial to ensuring that such appalling re-victimization never again arises in the aftermath of future genocides.

In the decades after World War 2, authorities in several countries refused to accommodate Holocaust survivors, and acknowledge that the Jews had been treated any differently than other people. This took place in the USSR, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. Each of these nations had very distinct reasons for doing this, beyond simple anti-Semitism. In the USSR, for instance, the Communist government was trying to “normalize” its citizenry–i.e. to eliminate diversity so as to ensure loyalty to only the State. This was a policy that dated back to the 30s, and continued into the 50s, when all the Jewish theaters, writers associations, and schools were either closed or integrated into the Communist framework. To the Soviets, setting up monuments in honor of, or establishing aid organizations for, the Jewish victims of Nazism would be marking the Jews as a separate, special group, and this, supposedly, would lead to them breaking away from the USSR, something that the Communists couldn’t let happen. Belgium, by contrast, had a very different reason for not supporting Holocaust survivors. They wanted to return to their pre-war liberal policy–a policy that didn’t discriminate based on race or religion. The problem with this policy was that it left nationality as the only criteria by which to distinguish and accommodate people, and since nearly all the Jews living in Belgium weren’t citizens, they couldn’t rely on the State for help. Not only this, but as Frank Caestecker points out in The Jews Are Coming Back, the Belgian government, “classified all (former) citizens of enemy states indiscriminately, even if they had been persecuted by the Occupation authorities.” The worst example of this lack of sensitivity towards the Jewish experience came in the form of the Belgian authorities arresting, monitoring, and confiscating the property of German-born Jewish refugees on suspicion of having Nazi sympathies. But if Jews couldn’t expect help from the Belgian government for not being citizens, they likewise couldn’t expect to get it from the Dutch authorities, and for the exact opposite reason. Unlike Belgium, where most of the country’s Jewish residents lacked citizenship, in the Netherlands, 89% of the 140,000 Jews living there were fully integrated citizens. And yet, in one of history’s great tragic ironies, nearly 50 % of Belgium’s Jews, who weren’t naturalized, survived the Holocaust, while in the Netherlands, where they nearly all were, only 35,000 of the original 140,000 were left after the war. This was due to the fact that Holland had the highest level of Nazi collaboration out of any Western European country. After 1945, the Dutch government did its best to sweep this fact under the rug. Because of this, and because nearly all of the Jews who survived were Dutch citizens, they weren’t given any special treatment. They were regarded as victims, but in the way that all people at that time were. Their unique experience of being deported and exterminated was not taken into consideration when the government was deliberating on how best to reconstruct Dutch society. Dienke Hondius, also writing in The Jews Are Coming Back, asserts that this lack of assistance derived from “a patronizing attitude of a government towards a minority in Its society, determining what is good for the minority, and as such controlling the relations between the majority and the minority.” Whereas the Dutch government refused to compensate Jews because of a sense of guilt over what individual citizens had done, the French government’s adoption of a similar policy following the Holocaust was born out of shamed for its own actions. Unlike most other countries occupied by the Nazis, in France there was a direct participation of the state in the Holocaust. Following the country’s invasion in 1940, anti-Semitism became very open in France. French Parliamentarians started debating, not if they should restrict the rights of Jews, but how. In 1942, the Vichy government officially enacted anti-Jewish legislation that, among other things, dismissed them from the civil service and banned them from professions associated with finance. It even overturned the famous law of 1870 that granted French citizenship to Algerian Jews. As a result of all this collaboration, there was a great deal of reluctance to discuss the Holocaust and prosecute its perpetrators following the war. Doing so would essentially involve putting the entire French Army, Police Force, and even Railway System, on trial, something that the government simply wasn’t going to let happen. Thus, the French authorities, along with those in Belgium, the Netherlands, and the USSR, refused to accommodate Jewish Holocaust survivors, and acknowledge that they had been treated differently than other people during the war.

Another serious difficulty European Jews faced after the Holocaust was getting back lost children. In many countries–most notably France, Belgium and the Netherlands–Jewish parents hid their children in Christian Orphanages, or with Gentile families, to ensure their safety. After 1945, however, the question arose; who would these children stay with? In several cases, the biological parents of the children weren’t even alive, and the children themselves could only remember their foster families. But, to many Jews, these youngsters were necessary to the survival of the Jewish people, and therefore needed to be raised in a Jewish environment. As a result, several custody lawsuits ensued. Some of them lasted for years. Though each case was specific, certain patterns in how the judges ruled did emerge. In Belgium, for instance, the authorities, in keeping with their liberal worldview, rejected the Jewish demands that these children be brought up in their “native” environment, as this would entail the introduction of the category “Jew” in Belgian public law. Nevertheless, as Frank Caestecker points out in The Jews Are Coming Back “the courts […] ruled frequently in favor of the return to the child’s traditional (Jewish) environment.” Even so, many foster families and Orphanage heads fought the biological parents or their representatives to the bitter end, arguing that the children had a right to choose where, and with whom, they lived. The situation in France was, for the most part, quite similar. Though initially glad to see the Jews be stripped of their citizenship and positions, believing that they were “undesirable elements” who had “little by little invaded public institutions and the liberal professions in France,” as Renie Poznanski puts it in The Jews Are Coming Back, French Gentiles drastically changed their opinions once the Nazis started taking children. They now felt it their moral obligation to help. So, they started taking Jewish children into their homes. They started hiding them in Catholic institutions. This, in turn, lead to a great deal of conflict following the war over where they belonged. Unlike Belgium, however, where courts frequently ruled in favor of returning Jewish children to their biological families and traditional communities, in France, Jews had little success in reclaiming children who had been “adopted” by Gentiles. Many Christian parents had baptized Jewish children entrusted to their care during the occupation, and when efforts were made by Jewish relatives to regain custody of the orphans, many such parents argued that it would be unfair to tear the child from an environment in which he or she felt comfortable. Christian leaders generally echoed this sentiment, and, in some cases, so did Jewish leaders, who believed that returning the children would be a slap in the face of the families who had risked their lives to save them. The case in Holland was much the same as in France, with the War Orphans Commission oftentimes ruling that the children in non-Jewish homes should remain where they were. So, even if biological relatives were still alive, Jews faced considerable difficulty recovering children from Gentile families and Christian institutions that had sheltered them, adding just another hardship to the long list of ones Jewish survivors had to bear in the years following the Holocaust.

In many countries after the war, such as Poland and the Netherlands, foreign support from aid organizations like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, or JDC, was all that Jews could rely on, and oftentimes wasn’t enough to keep them there, since immigration to Israel and the United States from these places was extremely common. In each case, the reason for these organizations provision of support was slightly different. As aforementioned, in the years following the expulsion of the Nazis from their country, the Dutch government refused to acknowledge the unique experience of the Jews during the war, and likewise failed to provide specific compensation for them. Because of this, the JDC was one of the few organizations that Dutch Jews could rely on for support. Alas, this wasn’t enough to keep most of them in the Netherlands. With only 35,000 of them left in 1945, and the government reluctant to help them, many Dutch Jews felt that there wasn’t any point in staying. The Zionists, barely a force in pre-war Holland, became the new leadership of the Jewish Community there, and organized massive waves of immigration to Israel and elsewhere, leaving behind a mere 14,000 people in 1947, a number which failed to grow by 1960 due to continuous movement from the country. The story in Poland was quite similar. There too, foreign aid organizations like the JDC and ORT, Organization For Rehabilitation Through Training, played a huge part in reconstructing the Jewish community. Initially, they were more concerned with providing locals with skills and trades. During the war, they operated within ghettos, training prisoners to be tailors and shoe makers. This helped save thousands of lives, since the Nazis needed people with such skills. Then, after 1945, They helped create Communal structures. This was necessary because most of the people who survived were younger and had no education. So, the JDC and ORT helped set up Co-Ops to give these people skills. Equipment was brought to Poland from the US and Canada. They also set up a number of Department stores. Roughly 6000 people were employed within this system. These individuals, while a minority, helped to re-build the Jewish community in Poland. They sent their children to Jewish schools, they read Yiddish newspapers, etc. And all of this happened due to American aid. But, alas, as with Belgium, this support wasn’t enough to keep most Jews in Europe. Disillusioned by the events of the Holocaust , and fearful for their lives following the pogroms in Kielce and Krakow, the Jews of Poland viewed the country more as a stepping stone to either Israel or America, rather than as a place of permanent residency. Up to 70,000 people left in the immediate aftermath of these acts of violence alone. Now, to be fair, certain pieces of research, such as David Engel’s “The Reconstruction of Jewish Communal Institutions in Postwar Poland” indicate that there had been a Zionist movement with some support in the country prior to the war. Still, this movement’s existence doesn’t change the fact that, in Poland, the aid of groups like the JDC and ORT wasn’t enough to keep them there. Thus, even in countries where foreign aid was the only help available to the Jews, it oftentimes wasn’t enough to keep them in Europe.

As many commonalities as the countries in Post-Holocaust Europe had with one another, many more of these places–most notably Germany and France–had circumstances and policies completely unique to themselves. In addition to being one of the few places with Displaced Persons Camps–temporary facilities that housed thousands of homeless Holocaust survivors, many of them Polish–Germany was also one of the only places where there was a substantial effort made by the Jewish community to not have Jews settle there. To them, it was the “Land Of The Perpetrators,” and those who chose to stay, or return there, or take German spouses, were seen as somehow perverse. This, of course, didn’t stop several DP’s from taking German wives, or prevent the German government from trying to make amends by offering jobs, social benefits and homes to Jews who had either survived the Holocaust, or left the country before the war. As Michael Brenner points out in his article, “We Are The Unhappy Few,” some people–such as the actor, Fritz Kortner, and the writer, Wolfgang Hildesheimer–did answer the call and return to dear old Deutschland, but they were branded as pariahs by their peers, and never truly felt welcome there. It was not until the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 80s, which sent a massive wave of Russian immigrants into the country, that Germany’s Jewish population started to grow again.. France’s story Post-Holocaust, by contrast, is almost the polar opposite of this. Unlike Germany, which did just about everything it could to cut down on anti-Semitism and re-integrate Jews into society after the war, levels of anti-Jewish sentiment remained high in France following 1945. The reasons for this were threefold. First, many French Gentiles were convinced that, if Germany, a modern, democratic nation, had done such horrible things to the Jews, then there had to be something wrong with them. Second, there was a great deal of competition between returning Jews and French Gentiles for high-paying positions. And thirdly, many of the Jews who arrived in France after the war were from Eastern Europe, and were thus fleeing Communism, and so, very often, French Christians associated them with the doctrine. And yet, despite all the animosity that Jews faced there–which, to a great extent, still exists to this day–they kept immigrating on mass to France, first from Eastern Europe, and then from France’s North African colonies in the 50s. Why, though? Why would Jews continue to go to a country (France) where they were openly discriminated against, when there was another country (Germany) where the government would welcome them with open arms? The answer is probably stigma. France had the reputation of being the first European country to “emancipate” the Jews back in the 1790s, and Germany, alas, had the reputation of discriminating and exterminating them. It didn’t matter that France was now the bigoted country, and Germany the tolerant one. History was a powerful factor in guiding where people chose to settle. Thus, fact was overlooked in these nations after the War, and this helped make their stories Post-Holocaust completely unique.

After World War 2, the Jews of Europe faced considerable hardship gaining reparations and rebuilding their communities. In several countries, the governments didn’t legally compensate them, and in others, they had great difficulty recovering lost children from Gentile families and Christian Institutions that had sheltered them. Oftentimes, support from foreign aid organizations was all these survivors could rely on, and, just as many times, this wasn’t enough to keep them from immigrating elsewhere. In some countries, this lack of commitment to helping the Jews was done out of guilt for collaborating with the Nazis, while in others, it was done for very specific political reasons–i.e. to eliminate Nationalist sentiment. Understanding these various motivations is crucial to preventing such suffering in the aftermath of future genocides from ever occurring again. No one should have to wait 50 years to get an apology, or some financial compensation from the government, as the Jews did. So, let us learn from their experience. Let us ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

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