On the American experience of postwar Jewish refugees

President Harry S. Truman (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
President Harry S. Truman
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The American experience of Jewish survivors began before they legally reached the refuge of the oppressed either thanks to the Truman directive of December 22, 1945 or to the 1948 Displaced Persons Act, amended in 1950 after bitter debates to remove indirect discriminatory provisions vis-à-vis Jewish DPs. By then, about two-thirds went to Palestine/Israel while a third of them immigrated to the United States – which took the second largest number of survivors. The most common motivations were the desire to renew ties with one or more family members who had emigrated before the war, and the appeal of the American dream, together with the image of tolerance and anonymity, which could be found in such a large country.
Auschwitz survivor and renowned international lawyer Samuel Pisar was 16 years old when he was liberated. He later emphasized in our talks that his love for America initially sprang from his having been liberated by an African-American GI. His mother’s phrase “God Bless America” heard in their Polish home assumed a greater value in this light. In other instances, the dedication of American Jewish chaplains to combat demoralization in DP camps was instrumental in shaping the survivors’ view of America. Another form of expression of American compassion was conveyed by artists who made the efforts to come overseas to visit and comfort Jewish refugees in their assembly centers, often behind barbed wire – for their own protection against the local population. For instance, a star of the American Yiddish theater, Molly Picon, travelled to occupied Germany to boost the morale of Jewish displaced persons and convey what she called “a Yiddish word.” It was her way to let the survivors know that the vanishing and decimated Yiddish world in Europe was still alive in America. Among the artists who performed in the DP camps were violinist Yehudi Menuhin, singer Emma Lazaroff Schaver, and conductor Leonard Bernstein.
Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, recalled that his first American experience had begun aboard the SS Marine Falcon that sailed the Atlantic in August 1947. The starving young adult marveled at the first taste of freedom and abundance: he could eat bananas and oranges on board. Later, as he mused on his past, he confided in the film entitled “The Last Days”:
 “I think back to my life fifty years ago, when I was a hunted animal in the jungle, and now I am dealing with issues of state of a country I love so deeply. It all seems like a dream and it all places an incredible sense of responsibility on me. I didn’t achieve this because of what I am, it happened because of what this country is.”
Bert Lewyn, too, acknowledged the opportunities America offered him. He was 15 at the time of Kristallnacht. He did not recall any problem of integration on American soil, in our interview. The real difficulties occurred before, when he strove to stay alive, as related in his memoirs, “On the Run in Nazi Germany.” He resorted to living in secret, once in the guise of an SS man. At the end of the war, he had to convince Russian soldiers that he was a German Jew and not a Nazi in hiding! After the war, he spent four years in the Displaced Persons camp of Feldafing waiting for a visa. Once resettled in Georgia, he benefitted from the help of his relative Rabbi Tobias Geffen of Atlanta, his wife Sara, and their son, a lawyer. It is then that, in his words, “seven years of misery ended at last.” Guidance continued with his Atlanta born young wife, Esther. As early as 1952, Lewyn started his own company in his mother-in-law’s basement.
 Most of the 140, 000 Holocaust survivors who reached American shores between 1946 and 1952 had shown remarkable determination. They overcame bureaucratic hurdles and the “humiliation that future immigrants had to be subjected to when they went for visas,” as Elie Wiesel noted. The agricultural and Baltic preference of the 1948 Displaced Persons Act indirectly discriminated against Jews.
However, by the end of July 1949, the Jewish newcomers had been resettled in forty-three states. They were aided either by HIAS (Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society), or USNA (United Service for New Americans). The appellation “New Americans” applied to Jews was intended to erase the stigma of refugees. Uprooted from Poland, Maria and Fred Devinki, who eventually made successful lives in Kansas City, confided in an interview I conducted in the 1990s that their decision to begin anew in Missouri was a token of appreciation of Harry S. Truman, a president who was willing to admit Jewish refugees – in spite of the hostility of the partisans of restricted immigration in Congress.
Dr. Françoise S. Ouzan is Senior Research Associate at the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University. Her latest book is entitled ‘How Young Holocaust Survivors Rebuilt Their Lives: France, The United States, and Israel’ (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2018), Studies in Antisemitism