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Geller, book cover

Transitioning from Concentration Camps to Freedom: Jewish Life in Post-War Germany

Book Essay on: Jay Howard Geller, Jews in Post Holocaust Germany, 1945-1953:
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 330 pages.
UCSB: DS135. G332 G39 2005

by Jenna Leonard
December 7, 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 Jenna Leonard

I am a junior history major at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and greatly enjoy studying German history. Whether my German heritage or the both fascinating and horrific history of the country have contributed to my fascination, I am not sure, but I am interested in reading every published textbook, memoir, or novel written on the subject.

Abstract (back to top)

Jay Howard Geller's Jews in Post-Holocaust Germany, 1945-1953, is a thorough narrative of the experiences, both triumphant and tumultuous, felt by the surviving Jews in post-Holocaust Germany. The story tells of the East European Jewish immigrants and German natives living in West Germany, and the conditions they endured. It also addresses the experiences and treatment received by Jews in East Germany. Geller's narrative is an adept look at how the Jews in divided Germany were able to get their lives back on track. I agree with his argument that the prosperity of the Jews after the war was due to their close involvement and consistent contact with German and/or Allied officials in assisting them with their recovery process.

Essay (back to top)

After the horrific reign of Adolf Hitler and Nazi occupation throughout Europe , including countries as far north as Norway and south to North Africa , most of Europe was left in absolute shambles . Buildings and roads were decimated , many citizens lost their homes and all of their belongings, and worst of all were the inhumane legacies of genocide in Eastern Europe . Gas chambers , piles of human hair, rotting corpses , and emaciated ninety pound Holocaust survivors remained in the numerous concentration camps developed during the Third Reich. Over six million Jews and minorities were killed, either from starvation , exhaustion , torture , or the most common cause of death, the gas chamber . The history of the Holocaust is known internationally , but what is not as widely known is the fate of the Holocaust survivors and the remaining Jews in Eastern Europe. In Jay Howard Geller's book, Jews in Post-Holocaust Germany, 1945-1953, the author explores the immediate years after the war and the permanent and temporary settlement of Jews in Germany by addressing such questions as: How did communities of Jews form after the Holocaust?How did the different Jewish groups relate to one another? How did the states and leaders deal with the Jewish communities? And how were their issues regarded by the political classes in both East and West Germany? By drawing from many different sources (evident in half-page footnotes), Geller establishes his argument and explains adeptly to the reader that the reason the Jewish populations were able to survive or even thrive in West and East Germany was because of the political ties made between either the Allied forces, local government, and/or political individuals present in Germany, even in the face of opposition and oppression.

West German Experience

In West Germany , the Jewish population was heterogeneous, consisting mostly of non-Germans wanting to escape to the closest place of refuge, before migrating to the United States or Palestine . More than a hundred thousand of these refugees , or Ostjuden , came to the Allied occupation zones , newly freed from the concentration camps they inhabited in Eastern Europe . The highest percentage of this population included Hungarians and Poles. However, instead of finding a better environment, the foreign Jews were sent right back into dirty, barren former camps . In many cases these survivors had to “decide between retaining their striped prisoners ' uniforms or wearing discarded Nazi uniforms” (Geller 24) . These Displaced Persons were allotted a home in the treachery they had just escaped from, and although they were liberated they were not free . A U.S. official selected to report back to the United States on the conditions of the camps was Earl G. Harrison . On his tour of the former concentration camps of Germany, he witnessed the poor living situations of the DPs . Harrison found:

…that the U.S. Army did not drastically improve the quality of life for those remaining in camps; chronic shortages of adequate housing and clothing persisted; the diet provide for the refugees was nutritious but monotonous and often tasteless; and sanitary conditions remained abysmal. (Geller 23)

The treatment of the individuals by the Allied soldiers in the U.S. Occupation zone was also not up to par . The young army men had a difficult time relating to the Displaced Persons, and their poor physical state . It was known that many of these soldiers treated them harshly in the camps .

Despite facing cruel treatment, the non-German Jews quickly became a powerful group, turning to Allied forces for assistance in building a political voice in West Germany . As historian Hagit Lavsky states , “…the Zionist politicization of life in the camps drew survivors into public life, fostered a new sense of belonging, and created an organic society that could be transferred to Palestine” (Geller 30). Along with the Displaced foreign Jews living in West Germany, native Jewish Germans, known as Yekkes, also made up a small population of the Jewish community living in the Federal Republic. However , instead of relying on the assistance of the Allied forces in U.S. and British occupation zones , the Yekkes instead lived in towns and cities . The Yekkes “formed a minority of the fragmented Jewish community in occupied Germany who had survived the war living underground in Germany or in so-called privileged marriages (i .e . with a non-Jewish spouse) and few were religious” (Geller 17) . This community looked to local German authorities for assistance rather than to the Allied forces .

With the creation of the Luxembourg Treaty in and the state of Israel in 1948 , the majority of the Displaced Persons traveled to Palestine . This exodus from West Germany stabilized the Jewish population and soon things thrived for the community under the creation of the Central Committee of Jews in Germany after 1950 . The most effective lobbyists for the West German cause included, Karl Marx , Hendrik George Van Dam , Heinz Galinski, and Siegmund Weltlinger . Another politician who assisted the West German cause , believing in the victimization of the Jewish population, was President Theodor Heuss , who strongly supported the West German Jewish population .

East German Experience

In East Germany , the small population of Jews who lived in the Communist society had previously lived there before the Second World War or moved there for their own “ideological” reasons. The Jewish population was not very significant in the East but nonetheless the community needed assistance and sought help from the government . The Communist party was opposed to Judaism because they did not understand it , therefore , “…the Communists' fundamental ignorance did not aid the Jews in their quest for support ” (Geller 161) . The Jews confronted a very difficult time in the German Democratic Republic because not only did they face antisemitism in the state , but also the lack of being recognized as victims during the Nazi period , since communists considered themselves victims . The Jews lived in poor conditions, needing repairs for their synagogues , schools, hospitals , and homes , but not receiving any assistance . The State Association of Jewish Communities , headed by Julius Meyer who was a well- connected Holocaust survivor , had to turn to the government . The help the Eastern Germans received came from the Social Democrats who wanted to assist them , since both groups “…shared the legacy of persecution under the Nazis and wishing to make a complete break with the past , did , however , support reparations and other issues of vital interest to the Jewish community ” (Geller 291) . Another source of support came after 1949 in East Germany , when the State Association could seek support from non-Communist officials . A huge help to the Jewish community , deputy prime minister Otto Nuschke “was a Christian Democrat who also headed the Main Division for Ties to the Churches and his staff aided the Jewish community in reconstructing or restoring destroyed Jewish communal property ” (Geller 292) . Although East German Jews may have received financial help , it could not prevent the antisemitic opposition felt by Communists throughout East Germany . Therefore , in 1953 when the opposition was too intense , leaders of the Jewish community fled to the West . After this the Eastern community lived a quiet existence .

During the period of 1945 to 1953 the European Jewish population experienced a rocky situation , trying to reestablish themselves in the world . While many chose to flee to the United States or Palestine for a sense of security, others chose to stay or migrate to either West or East Germany . In Jay Howard Geller's study of these Jewish communities he not only explains where the different groups situated themselves but also their path to reemerging as a strong community by winning support from Allied forces , local government , and/or individual leaders . Without assistance in the East and West , the remaining populations of Jewish groups would not have been able to survive as communities during the first decade after World War II . From concentration camps to running communities , the Jewish people endured many hardships during the first half of the twentieth century , but with the support of other communities and the strength of their faith they were able to rise above their poor fortune and create a home for themselves in the country where the terror originally started .

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

Book Reviews

  • Gerstenfeld, Manfred. The Reconstitution of Postwar German Jewry. Jewish Political Studies Review 18:1-2. Spring 2006. (jcpa link)
    Gerstenfeld's review celebrates the anniversary of the liberation from concentration camps, and offers readers a short article on how Geller's book deals with restitution issues for the Jews in Germany after World War II.
  • Levy, Richard. Europe: Early Modern and Modern. The American Historical Review. Volume III, No. 1. February 2006. 2 pages. (ebsco link)
    This review of Geller's historical narrative explains the conditions and experiences of the Jews living both West and East Germany, and the triumph of making it in the war-torn country after World War II.
  • Rapaport, Lynn. German Politics & Society, Summer2005, Vol. 23 Issue 2, p110-113, 4p; review of Jews in Post- Holocaust Germany , 1945-1953, by Jay Howard Geller. (ebsco link)
    Rapaport relates Geller's narrative, but thinks the book is a dry read. However she does give him credit for all his research and refers the book as an efficient source of information on the topic.

Web Sites

  • Wikipedia- October 2001-Stab In the Back Legend http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolchsto%C3%9Flegende
    This article explains the idea of the Jews \"stabbing in the back\" their government and it being the cause of the problems that led to both World Wars. It is an efficient passage to read to understand why the Jewish people in Germany were treated the way they were, and the courage it must have taken them to be able to live in Germany after World War II.
  • Expatica-April 23, 2008 - Communist East German No Safe Haven for Jews After the War – http://www.expatica.com
    This publication relates how difficult life was for Jews in East Germany after World War II. It tells of 10 survivors who had lived in the East and their experiences with the repressive government and how unwelcoming the government was in the East to Jews after World War II.
  • UCSB Hist 133c review by Raquel Abrahamian (2008)

Books and Articles

  • Ruth Gay, Safe Among the Germans: Liberated Jews After World War II, New Haven: Yale University Press. (Powells.com) Geller's narrative of the Jewish experience after the war, Ruth Gay focuses on the differences of experiences in East and in West Germany and how the Jews dealt with the living situations, and also the large Jewish immigrant population that lived in the West.
  • Lynn Rapaport, Jews in Germany After the Holocaust: Memory, Identity, and German-Jewish Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. (amazon.co.uk) This book relates the story, like Geller, of Jewish experience in Post World War II Germany. Unlike Geller\'s story, however, it focuses on the experience of those who were Jewish and born in Germany after the war and their views on national and religious identity.

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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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