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Like mushrooms after the rain: The flourishing of Yiddish culture in the D.P. camps

Read this article in Yiddish

Words Reaching for Life: Yiddish Culture in Displaced Persons Camps (Hebrew)
Ella Florsheim
Published by the Zalman Shazar Center and Yad Vashem Publications, 2020, 344 pp.

My father was among the 250,000 refugees who lived in Jewish displaced persons camps throughout Germany and Austria after World War II. But unlike other 15-year olds, he had arrived in the camp alone, having left his parents in Poland. Suddenly he was free as a bird, with no parental supervision. Although he was technically a detainee in the British and American refugee camps, his stories of those days were filled with a spirit of freedom and joy. He managed to learn a little Hebrew and even a trade; he became a carpenter. He joined the religious Zionist youth movement, Bnei Akiv, played soccer and apparently sowed some wild oats. I’ll probably never hear the juicy details of his escapades because, let’s face it, how can a father talk to his son about that?

Today I understand that my father’s stories are the memories, essentially, of a child – what historians call micro-histories. In order to get a broader perspective we need to turn to archives, books and written documents by the Jews who created that history, and who are, unfortunately, no longer with us.

This is what Dr. Ella Florsheim has accomplished with her book, “Words Reaching for Life: Yiddish Culture in Displaced Persons Camps.” Despite the historic events of that period – the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel – the chapter on the Holocaust survivors’ experiences in the DP camps has been woefully neglected. “The voice of Holocaust survivors is silent today, and their ideology is as if it had never been,” she writes. The activists in the DP camps understood well how important it was to create a new kind of Jewish cultural life for the survivors, and worked hard to do so, resulting in the publishing of about 450 newspapers, brochures, textbooks, holy books and fiction, mostly in Yiddish, but some in Hebrew, Polish, Hungarian and German. But over time this was forgotten, so Ella Florsheim’s book is truly a light in the darkness.

Florsheim writes specifically about the Yiddish culture that thrived in the camps, encompassing the press, literature and theatre. Of the three, the press was the most prevalent. Only five months after liberation, there were two newspapers circulating in the American-controlled camps: the Landsberger lager tsaytung (Landsberg Camp Journal) and Undzer veg (Our Path). Both, as well as a third paper launched later in the British sector, Undzer shtime (Our Voice) were among the most popular newspapers.

There were other newspapers, too, with telling names like “The Free Word,” “In the Desert” (an obvious reference to the exodus from Egypt); “Our Courage” and “In Freedom” (Stuttgart). It was clear that the DP camps were experiencing not only a baby boom, but a literary boom as well. A cartoon published in January 1947 in the paper, “Our Hope,” depicted scores of mushrooms labeled with the names of Yiddish newspapers, and the caption: “they’re growing like mushrooms after the rain.”

Publishing a newspaper in the midst of such chaos was like building a castle in the air – to say nothing of the financial difficulties. Merely finding lead type for the Yiddish letters was nearly impossible, and Florsheim describes the efforts of one editor who found some old, crooked Hebrew letters in a half-ruined printing house in Frankfurt but luckily, a group of Jewish typesetters managed to repair them.

Curiously, some periodicals, like the “Landsberg Camp Journal” were originally printed with Latin rather than Yiddish letters, though the editors apologized for this decision, admitting that “Yiddish should only wear a Jewish wardrobe.” Younger readers, though, actually preferred the Latin letters since the war years had distanced them from the Yiddish alphabet. After the “Landsberg Camp Journal” reverted to printing with Hebrew letters, one young reader lamented that she had a hard time reading the articles.

Yiddish was not just the lingua franca of the Jews in the camps; writing and publishing in Yiddish also meant defeating the Nazis, who had tried not only to exterminate the Jews but also their culture. As one person wrote in “Our Path,” “Jews, don’t flirt with foreign languages! They don’t flirt with you.” Nonetheless, the slogan “Speak Yiddish but learn Hebrew” was also heard frequently, and the editor of “Our Path” declared: “We teach them and we sing with them in Yiddish but we are also their vessel to Israel. There is no safer place for the refugees from Nazi hell and the Jewish children born here than the land of Israel. And the language of Israel is Hebrew”.

As my father told me, the fact that he and other children learned Hebrew so avidly sparked heated arguments among the activists in the DP camps. In an article in the Forward in March 1947, noted Yiddish poet and educator Jacob Pat criticized this turn away from Yiddish: “Because of Jewish ignoramuses and big-wigs…the language of Jewish martyrdom is being driven out of the DP camps.” Florsheim describes these language debates but insists that the Jews had accepted their dual identity: one Yiddish and one Hebrew – a phenomenon that hadn’t existed before the war.

This raises the question, in fact, of whether the Yiddish culture in the DP camps was a continuation or a departure from what preceded it. As one person wrote in the Landsberg Camp Journal: “The tragic past and the uncertain future obligate us to forget our bitter reality and return to the world of our past and…the life of our people.” According to this writer, the goal needed to be to read and study the rich Yiddish literature that developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries up till the Holocaust, rather than write about the horrors of the Holocaust itself, which was simply too demoralizing.

On the other hand, the newspapers did publish poetry and memoirs written by their readers, particularly about the Holocaust. “We had nothing,” Zamye Feder wrote from Bergen-Belsen in 1946, “other than the good intention to create something in Yiddish.” Many enthusiastically took part in theatrical productions in the camps, staging both old and new material. As one memoirist put it: “They act in plays exactly like they write: with blood and tears, with devotion and love”.

Ella Florsheim also writes about the survivors’ efforts to commemorate the dead; the various ways they grappled with their past, and the relationship between refugees and the Jewish activists and writers that came to visit them. The book reveals a short-lived but rich culture, which disappeared together with the DP camps themselves. By 1949, all the inhabitants had departed: some to the east, some to the west, and the rest down south – to Israel.

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