Book Review: 'The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and Its Aftermath'

The Jews who spent the postwar years in DP camps lived with sorrow and resignation, but their surroundings were also the setting for a Jewish rebirth – figuratively and literally.

A memorial stone is pictured at the former Bergen-Belsen Nazi death camp (photo credit: REUTERS)
A memorial stone is pictured at the former Bergen-Belsen Nazi death camp
(photo credit: REUTERS)
At the end of World War II, the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration was tasked with providing relief to the millions of displaced persons in Europe, and helping exiles return home.
Among the DPs were about 90,000 Jews (less than a third of the number of prisoners liberated from the Nazi concentration camps), and about 400,000 Eastern European Jews who had fled to the Soviet Union during the war. Since many of these men, women and children did not have a home or country to which they could or wanted to return, Jews made up an increasingly large proportion of the population of the UNRRA DP camps, some of which remained in operation for years.
In The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and Its Aftermath, Dan Stone, a professor of history at the University of London, provides an account of the experiences of these survivors, designed to complicate “the standard narrative of the Holocaust experience” – which ends with expressions of joy when American, British or Russian troops freed concentration camp inmates.
A majority of Jews, Stone argues, greeted liberation with “confusion and mixed emotions.” Because they were not at first distinguished from the other victims of the Nazis, their wishes were often regarded as “noisy, unwelcome special pleading.”
Many of them were not able to rebuild their lives for years, if at all.
The trauma suffered by the Jewish DPs, Stone reminds us, was too deep to be wiped out instantaneously. Emotionally restless, they conducted “an almost mad hunt for family and friends.” Sick or malnourished DPs, he writes, were petrified of being fed intravenously. Jewish residents of DP camps (former barracks, hospitals, hotels and apartment blocks) were at times unwilling to be moved because of what “transport” had meant under Nazi rule.
The Cold War magnified the challenges of repatriating Jews, many of whom did not want to live in Communist-controlled Eastern Europe. And of course, the longer they remained in limbo, the more they felt abandoned – and clashed with authorities.
The story of the survivors, however, is as much or more a story of resilience as it is of sorrow, resentment and resignation.
The camps in which they were forced to live, Stone demonstrates, “became the setting for the revival of Jewish life and culture.” Schools, libraries, newspapers, musical and theatrical performances, and religious and political organizations sprang up. DPs published lists of survivors and photographs of extermination camps.
Religious holidays, especially Purim, which commemorated the deliverance of Jews from Haman’s plot to destroy them, were celebrated. And the DPs altered religious practice in light of the Holocaust, reciting the Yizkor prayer every day and night.
Most importantly, the DP camps had remarkably high marriage and birth rates. Among the 3,419 people in Föhrenwald in 1948, for example, 194 were babies under the age of one, with 397 between one and six; 93 of the 1,132 women in the camp were pregnant.
Weddings and births were often somber affairs, at which “memories of the dead were vivid”; “nevertheless,” they occurred in large numbers.
Although a large minority of Jewish DPs wanted to emigrate to the US and other countries, Stone points out that many DPs were Zionists, their conviction “hardened” by the refusal of British authorities to permit them to immigrate to Israel. The DPs (who by 1945 had established 16 kibbutzim in the camps) and their helpers in the underground movement “did not on their own force the British out of Palestine.” Along with US president Harry S. Truman’s “less-than-entirely altruistic” support for the establishment of a Jewish state (designed “to appease both the Jewish and the anti-immigration vote in the US”), Stone suggests, “they certainly [sped] up the decision to do so.”
The Jewish DPs, moreover, also “provided the link between the Holocaust and Israel.” The presence of survivors, who comprised about one-third of the population of post-1948 Israel, Stone writes, “meant that Israeli institutions were not just imbued with a sense of emotional connection to the world of the Holocaust, but were actually linked to it by the people who ran and staffed them.”
Stone chooses to end his book by emphasizing the grief, guilt, psychological turmoil, and conflict with local populations and civilian and military authorities that followed liberation. DPs, he writes, “knew neither for whom they should mourn nor who was grieving, and many never found out. What they knew is that everything they had grown up to think of as stable and dependable had been destroyed.” Nor could their survival “alter that basic fact.”
True enough. But the story he tells has another outcome as well. As the full extent of the genocidal aims of the Nazis became clear, that outcome rested to some extent on “the basic fact” of the Holocaust – and held out the promise of something better. ■ The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.