THE STRUGGLE OF A NEW START No Home, no Family, no Name Anymore: But the Future Waited

The concerns of Holocaust survivors identified as ‘displaced persons’ after World War II stays at the center of “Our Courage. Jews in Europe 1945-1948” at the Jewish Museum Frankfurt. For many of them, the recovery of the home, the family, and even the identity meant a fight against unsurmountable challenges: a “rebirth” into a world that was not always welcoming.

Image: The cast of the theater company Katset-Teater at the camp of displaced persons Bergen-Belsen in front of a set with the title “Eine Laus – dein Tod!” (“A Louse – Your Death!”), 1947/48, Private Collection, Frankfurt am Main.

As much as having survived the fiercefully pursued, inconceivable destruction of existence was the common ground of Jewish immediate post-war experience, the chances for survival and recovery for Jewish people were as diverse as the places where the retracing of their lost identities, lives, and the possibilities for new beginnings took place. From Eastern to Western Europe, from Białystok, Dzierżoniów, East Berlin to Frankfurt, Zeilsheim, Amsterdam, or Bari, the quest for survival took different paths, encountering obstacles often impossible to overcome and unexpected outcomes. Europe, home of Jewish life over the centuries, became an inhospitable place for the Holocaust survivors who were now ‘displaced’ in their own places of birth, in the cities, towns, and villages were their families lived for generations and where their ancestors actively shaped the daily life of their Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Decimated, schocked with their own survival and with the burden to make the society believe that they were still there in spite of everything, the European Jews started anew. The exhibition “Our Courage. Jews in Europe 1945-1948” at the Jewish Museum Frankfurt tells us of the first years of this struggle across seven European places in East and West.

In Amsterdam, for instance, the realization of being refugees in the own home, without a family, a place to live, often without the mere birth name, and with an identity that had to be rebuilt out of scratch, added to the uncanny experience of trying to recognize a city that was robbed from her identity herself, disfigured, brutally amputated from a large part of the citizens that molded her distinctive everyday life. Making sense of this sinister feeling of irrevocable loss, Hans Krieg is quoted in the exhibition asking himself in 1947:

Where are the people? Am I ever going to see them again? Where are the fruit traders and the florists? Where is the ragman that always came by? Where are the ten thousands that have to remain nameless? Where are the Jews of Amsterdam?”

Abandoned quarters, a neighborhood “without a soul,” in the likewise quoted words of Gerrit Osnowicz from1945, mirror the loss of identity and nationality that survivors tried to overcome to be able to start with their lives again. The experience of the German Helga Frühauf is one of the cases in the exhibit that did not succeed in this struggle: after fleeing from Germany in 1943, she returned to Frankfurt in 1950 without being able to get the restitution of her withdrawn nationality ever again. Helga remained the victim of the expatriation and denaturalization laws of National Socialism for the rest of her life.

As the display clearly shows us, individual and collective stories of victimization continued after World War II either through the impossible obstructions of bureaucracy in Western Europe — caricatured 1951 in Germany as a hopeless board game that ended up in a jungle of paragraphs by the weekly paper Allgemeine Jüdische Illustrierte — or, in the most extreme form, through new Eastern European pogroms that generated further waves of Jewish mass emigration. In the Kielce-Pogrom in Poland on July 4th 1946, for instance, 42 Jewish people were killed and many others were injured.

In face of this situation in Western and Eastern Europe, the exhibition illustrates how Holocaust survivors pursued their way to Palestina through Italy, an endeavor initially impeded by Britain and that provoked protests in symbolically charged places like at the Roman Arch of Titus, whose inner surface displays the triumphal procession after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the start of the Jewish exile in 70 a.d. Other survivors hopefully looked for a new start in America, only to be confronted with the strict quotas limiting the immigration of European Jews set by the United States.

In addition to the historically rich documentary material, photographies and video footage, private and official letters and documents, interviews with witnesses and personal stories through audio recordings, the temporary exhibition “Our Courage. Jews in Europe 1945-1948” at the Jewish Museum Frankfurt awaits its visitors with artistic representations of the memory of the Holocaust produced directly after the war as a way not only to come to terms with the traumatic experience, but also to reconstruct and bring back to life yiddish cultural traditions. Images of the displaced theater and graphic works as testimony of the Shoah by artists like Rudi Stern and Leo Haas are some of the cultural manifestations documented by the exhibit.

Bearing witness to a story of unimaginable loss that started with extreme suffering and desperation and continued with rejection and uncertainty, “Our Courage. Jews in Europe 1945-1948” also tells the story of an unbreakable will to reinvent oneself, individually and collectively, rising from the ashes no matter what.

The exhibition “Our Courage. Jews in Europe 1945-1948” is on display every day except Mondays from 10 am to 6 pm until January 18th 2022 at the Jewish Museum Frankfurt. You can as well get your copy of the museum’s catalogue on the exhibition here:

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