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Brenner, book cover

Souls under Reconstruction

Book Essay on: Brenner Michael, After the Holocaust: : Rebuilding Jewish lives in postwar Germany
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 196 pages. UCSB: DS135.G33 B7513

by Sina Sadighi
December 4, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1945-present
UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Amazon.com page

About Sina Sadighi

Sina Sadighi is a 4th year Political Science major and History minor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is currently looking into Law Schools as his next step to becoming an Entertainment Lawyer one day. He is of Persian descent; however he was born and raised in Frankfurt Germany, hence his interest in German history. Sina also comes from a family of mixed religious backgrounds as many of his family members are Jewish. These two traits along with his passion to study something original drove him to pursue the topic of Jewish lives in post-war Germany.

Abstract (back to top)

In this book, Michael Brenner looks to describe and explain Jewish lives in post-World War II Germany. After the war ended, millions of displaced persons were transported to Germany as the Allies figured out a solution to the problem. Brenner argues that for the first few years after the war, Jews were not completely free as most of them were forced to live in these camps. Furthermore, he believes the lack of capability for these Jews to immigrate to Palestine to found the new state of Israel also displayed this lack of complete freedom. However, after some time, Brenner begins to describe the rebuilding and growth of Jewish communities in Europe. In my essay, I describe both the ways they returned to Germany, and try to give a description of what life was like in Germany for the Jewish and explain when and why they took charge in this rebuilding process. After the economy began growing rapidly, Jews no longer felt the need to leave for Israel, but rather reintegrated themselves into German society.

Essay (back to top)

The Holocaust during World War II is arguably the worst display of crimes against humanity our world has ever seen. During the war, over six million European Jews were murdered by the Nazi regime of Germany. While the war ended in 1945 and surviving European Jewry was declared ‘free’, the struggle that followed for Jews in Europe was tremendous. In particular, many Jews who once lived in Germany now returned to the fatherland which had tried to eliminate them. This overwhelming experience impacted Jewish people in many different ways as the battle was never an easy one. In his book After the Holocaust, Michael Brenner describes the first five years of being back in Germany for European Jewry. He addresses how and why Jews returned to Germany, how they were greeted and accepted by Germans in these first few years, and what the goals of these Jewish people were in rebuilding their lives and how they went about achieving those goals. Drawing from both historical facts and personal interviews, Brenner argues that European Jewry was mostly forced back into an unwelcoming Germany after the war and their mental and physical weaknesses limited their abilities to prevent a repeat of their experiences during the war. However, their pride and nothing to lose mentality led many Jewish people to reclaim their identity in post war Germany.

Jews existed in Germany in two distinct groups after World War II. The first group, known as German Jews, was made up of Jews that originally came from Germany and either survived concentration camps or hid in Germany during the war, under the protection of friends and or family for those who were married to non-Jews. While these latter individuals could have been discovered at any moment, approximately 15,000 of them survived life in Germany during the war and created communities within a few years after the war (Brenner, 42). These German Jews, upon returning to Germany or coming out of hiding, were greeted by an equal number of East European Jews. These Jews, initially numbering over 50,000 were a part of the eight million Europeans classified as Displaced Persons (DPs). This classification pertained to surviving citizens of Allied Countries who were living outside their homeland.

This return or transport to Germany was not a blessing for these European Jews. The conditions by which they were sent to Germany made it seem more like returning to concentration camps than being liberated. Sanitation was virtually unknown in these camps and many of them were hopelessly overcrowded. (Brenner, 13) Furthermore, many of these people were forbidden to leave the camps for days at a time without written permission, expanding the illusion of being back in the concentration camps. European Jews were forced to temporarily settle in Germany after the war because the Allies needed to resolve many issues of the war before sending people back to their homes. However, unlike most other DPs, Eastern European Jews did not have a home to return to after the war. The situation in Germany was neither pleasing nor promising for Jews and therefore they began their struggle to secure a new permanent homeland in Palestine. Most Jews who were transported to Germany saw this migration as a temporary residence until they would be able to continue on their journey to their new land. Finally, in these DP camps, the mental conditions of the Jews were extremely poor. One correspondent described the general atmosphere of the camps as “one of apathy and despair” (Brenner, 14). The Jewish population of Europe entered Germany in a state of complete spiritual and psychological dejection. This limited their ability to protest the injustices they faced in the DP camps despite being ‘liberated’.

Once they arrived in Germany, Jewish DPs were not always treated with sympathy and respect by the Germans. One would think after the horrors their people inflicted on the Jews, Germans would exhibit sensitivity to the Jewish people and the trauma they recently lived through. However, anti Semitism still existed in Germany during the late 1940s. For the most part, these attacks were directed towards the Eastern European Jews rather than the German Jews, because it was the former who openly criticized the German people and state and refused to integrate into German society. Unlike the German Jews, many of whom were married or were marrying non-Jewish Germans, the Eastern European Jews were mostly still looking for an escape to Palestine. While this lack of dedication to their new homes does not justify the prejudice they faced, it does explain some of it. Black market activities were quite common among the Jewish communities during this time, and German police used this knowledge to raid numerous DP camps for illegal activity. However, the symbolic impact of German uniformed law enforcement raiding Jewish communities this close to the Nazi era was very significant for the relationship between Germans and Jews. In interviews, many Jews made direct comparisons of these attacks to Nazi days, further promoting the idea for them that they were not truly free yet.

Initially, the goal of almost all European Jews who were transported to Germany was an eventual immigration to Palestine. These Jews felt having their own homeland was the only way to prevent another catastrophe like the Holocaust from happening again. In fact, in 1946, the main topic of all conferences involving Jewish DPs was relocation, and 85% of all Jews surveyed responded with Palestine as their preferred site of immigration. (Brenner, 37) However, the British government banned such a move, leaving many Jews bitter and angry at their new apparent dictators. Despite this ban, many Jews still attempted to immigrate to Palestine, illegally. This passion for their cause shows how dedicated these people were to their goal of both leaving Germany and creating their own state. In 1947, a ship carrying 5,000 Jews headed for Palestine was discovered by British naval troops and captured (Brenner, 38). After a short stint in an internment camp, these Jews were ordered back to Germany by the British government. This again symbolized the lack of freedom European Jews experienced after the war. This forced relocation back to the land where they were not equal, discriminated against, and simply did not wish to live mirrored the tragedies they faced during World War II.

Despite efforts by Jewish press in Germany to encourage Jews to leave the land, by the late 1940s, most Jews living in Germany had made the decision to stay put. While 60% of those polled indicated they would remain in Germany, the actual numbers are believed to have been higher as it was considered a disgrace to openly admit a desire to remain in Germany (Brenner, 48). By now, most Jews had settled well into their new lives and many gave up the struggle for a better life elsewhere and focused their attention on improving their lives in Germany. In one example, a Jewish physician in the late 1940s proudly displayed a sign in his office window reading, “Have reopened my practice” (Brenner, 48). This symbolized that the Jewish people in Germany were finally ready to stop soaking in self pity and continue living their lives as well as possible.

Eastern European Jews and German Jews struggled not just to find their own identities in post-war Germany; they also battled each other on various issues and rights. One of the main notions of integration into German society about which the two groups of Jews differed was the issue of mixed marriages. While Eastern European Jews found it inconceivable to marry non-Jewish Germans, most German Jews owed their survival solely to their non-Jewish spouses. This differing philosophy about marriage often sparked violence among the Jews of Germany and further drove these two sides apart. For the most part, German Jews enjoyed superiority over Eastern European Jewry on many levels. Many Jewish communities, led by German Jews, did not grant non-German citizens equal rights. Eastern European Jews did not have the right to vote, a situation justified by German Jews by arguing these “other Jews” were simply going to live there temporarily and were planning to emigrate (Brenner, 47). Eventually, as more and more Jews stayed in Germany, they began demanding a greater degree of equal rights, which the German Jews reluctantly granted.

With the decision to stay in Germany, many European Jews had mentally overcome the hardships they faced during the war and were ready and eager to rebuild their lives. As described previously, many Jewish communities, with their own committees for the advancement of German Jews, sprang up throughout the country. Jewish presses, which disappeared after the first few years of post-war life in Germany, mainly to encourage people to emigrate, were re-launched, and were more outspoken than ever (Brenner, 42). In 1947, pro-Jewish rallies took place for the first time in Germany in over a decade and the sight of Jews marching down the streets of Berlin symbolized that Jews would not submit to inferiority anymore (Brenner, 43). Jews were adjusting to their new lives while simultaneously struggling for the removal of oppression and isolation from the society they now wished to call their own. By establishing their own communities, marrying non-Jewish Germans, practicing their religion proudly, and integrating back into German society as was before the war, Jews living in Germany after World War II were able to achieve their goal of rebuilding their lives.

However, these arguments all have respective counterarguments regarding the way and means by which Jews came to and lived in Germany after the war. While the DP camps were not the best of living conditions for these displaced persons, they were certainly not as bad as concentration camps. The latter were death camps where conditions were deliberately forced upon the Jews. In the DP camps, overcrowding was aimed to be temporary as the Allies worked around the clock to establish a plan for these millions of people. Any harsh treatment experienced was done for the refugees’ own protection, rather than for extermination purposes. Furthermore, many Allied officials who were accused of treating DPs disrespectfully were punished, as Allied governments vowed to improve the living conditions of the DPs (Brenner, 11). In addition, while there was anti Semitism in post-war Germany, it was limited to a few disgruntled groups of Germans, while German authorities repudiated cases of anti Semitism and most of the German population seemed both sympathetic and tolerant of the displaced Jews, especially the German Jews (Brenner, 54). Finally, some argue that while Jews made consistent efforts to reintegrate into German society, the emotional and psychological trauma caused by their experiences of World War II at the hands of the Nazis were simply too much to overcome in such a short period of time, and integration was fundamentally impossible now.

Michael Brenner’s book is a great read for both Jews and non-Jews who wish to understand the process and struggle these displaced persons endured after the war ended. Many people believe in 1945, the Jews were freed and their lives went back to normal; however, Brenner shows readers that the struggle had just begun.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 12/x/08)

Book Reviews

  • Princeton University Press, http://press.princeton.edu/titles/6184.html
    This review touches on the subject and style of the book talking about the historical facts first, then bringing in the interviews and first hand accounts. Princeton calls this a “comprehensive account of Jewish lives in post War Germany”
  • The American Historical Review, Eva Kolinsky, Keele University. October 1999. Vol. 104, No. 4 (AHR link) (Review by Eva Kolinsky)
    Kolinsky is more critical of the words Brenner writes, why still claiming the book is a very easy read. She does not agree with Brenner’s assumption that Jews having been living Judaism defiantly, rather arguing that they were simply being themselves and not trying to cause any problems.
  • The Boston Book Review (Review by Noah J. Efron)
    Efron describes the book as very readable and engaging. He says the audience can easily sympathize with the Jews living in Germany, while at the same time understand the events that led to their situation.

Web Links

  • The Miami Student: Princeton Prof. speaks on post-WWII hostility toward Jews (2007)
    This article describes the lecture given by Princeton professor Jan Gross, who talks about the discrimination Jews faced after the war was over. Gross says it was the discrimination in Poland that drove many Jews to going to Germany, but that anti-Semitism grew in Germany quickly because of the number of people coming into town. Professor Gross goes on to talk about how anti-Semitism is still prevalent in the world today and encourages the audience to dismiss such ways of thought.
  • USA Today: Papers reveal U.K. post-WWII PR disaster: (May 2008):
    This article brings to surface the injustices the British government placed on Jews living in Germany after World War II who attempted to leave for Palestine. It talks about the British government’s failure to realize that sending these Jews back to Germany would only cause more problems.
  • Wikipedia: History of the Jews in Germany
    This article gives a brief overview of the history of the Jewish people in Germany. Focusing on the period between 1945-1950, we find that many Jews were in hiding in Germany during the war and many other immigrated over after the end of the war.

Books/Journal Articles

  • Königseder, Angelika. Waiting for hope: Jewish displaced persons in post- World War II Germany Northwestern University Press,  Evanston Ill. 2001. 299 pages. Call Number: Main Library DS135.G332 K65513 2001
    This book by Angelika Königseder describes Jews living in Germany initially after World War II. These people have lost everything, some even their entire families, yet they wait and hold out for any and all hope possible in rebuilding and reclaiming their lives.
  • Bessel, Richard. Life after death: approaches to a cultural and social history during the 1940s and 1950s. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003. 363 pages. Call Number: D842.5 .L48 2003
    This book talks about the violence and gradual adjustment to normality for people of Europe after World War II. Specifically, in a few sections, Bessel talks about Jews living in Germany and how they have to overcome prejudice, discrimination, and violence to continue living their lives.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 12/13/08; last updated:
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