Migrant Knowledge

Some Challenges for Knowledge Transfer in Jewish Displaced Persons Camps after World War II

One of the things that the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York does is to document the experiences of Jewish survivors of the Shoah, mostly those from East-Central and Eastern Europe who found themselves in displaced persons (DP) camps in the Western Allied occupation zones of Germany, Austria, and Italy in the immediate postwar period.1 YIVO’s records enable us to take a closer look at education and culture in Jewish DP camps and reveal what kind of knowledge educators sought to pass on to children and even adults. The records quickly make apparent that two kinds of migration shaped this knowledge: the DPs’ flight and expulsion during the Shoah and the postwar prospect of leaving the DP camps for destinations overseas.

Photo of Jewish children from Displaced Persons camps in the American Zone arriving in Frankfurt am Main on April 10, 1946. They were joining their counterparts in the British Zone for the trip to Marseilles (presumably by train) and then to Palestine (by ship). Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, photograph no. 04235.

In order to understand how the selection and dissemination of knowledge took place in Jewish DP camps, it is necessary to understand the camps as knowledge spaces largely closed to outside influences. The intellectual and cultural separation of Jewish DPs from their largely non-Jewish surroundings originated not only from the DPs themselves but also from a large part of the local majority population. A U.S. survey in 1946, for instance, revealed that “radical anti-Semites” comprised 18 percent of the German population and “anti-Semites” another 21 percent. Taking these two groups into account as well as “racists” (presumably anti-Black) and virulent nationalists, the survey identified only 20 percent of the population as largely free of these sentiments.2 The resulting mutual separation consolidated the position of the DP camps as self-contained but not entirely isolated knowledge spaces within a selective international exchange of knowledge.

The camps also experienced a rise in Jewish nationalism. Even though the Zionist movement had already gained great popularity in Eastern Europe before the war, its absolute politico-ideological dominance in the Jewish DP camps resulted directly from the brutal persecution experienced by the inhabitants. From their perspective, there had been a complete suspension of coexistence under the Nazis, so most viewed the political doctrine of Zionism as a logical consequence.3

Connected to this mindset was the goal of building a sovereign Jewish nation-state in Palestine. In the immediate postwar period, Mandate Palestine, situated in the ancestral Jewish homeland, already closely resembled the State of Israel, which was subsequently founded in 1948. It represented the concrete promise of a Jewish nation-state, and it actively reached out to Jewish survivors in Europe. The much celebrated visit of David Ben-Gurion to the DP camps, not to mention the Haganah’s secret recruitment of Jewish soldiers directly from those camps, greatly increased the tangibility of a Jewish nation-state for those in the camps.4

Those that influenced the knowledge to be disseminated in Jewish DP camps knew that the Jewish DP society was temporary. Camp culture was a culture of transit, with people constantly arriving and moving on.5 Education efforts therefore had to disseminate specific knowledge that would serve the process of migration and the construction of a Jewish state far away.

The dissemination of such knowledge required mediators and media. Media generally had to be imported or reproduced; schools had to be established; and auxiliary teachers had to be trained.6 Jewish international aid organizations played a decisive role in identifying and supplying knowledge resources to the precariously organized camps. However, the requisite resources were not tailored to the needs of the DPs, nor was it possible to design or distribute textbooks that took the living conditions and social realities of the camps into account. The next logical step, therefore, was to obtain textbooks from the country to which most expected to migrate. This mean importing textbooks from Palestine and also reprinting them.7 In 1947, the Jewish Agency for Palestine, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC), and the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the U.S. Zone merged to form a joint Board for Education and Culture, which developed curricula for Jewish DP schools, organized training for (auxiliary) teachers, and oversaw the printing program and schools.8

As the media used for schooling in the Jewish DP camps were originally designed for a completely different context, a certain amount of adaption was necessary. The imported textbooks were designed for people already living in Mandatory Palestine and were written entirely in Hebrew. Knowledge of Hebrew was, however, not widespread in DP society. The native tongue of Jewish DP children was in most cases Yiddish, Polish, or both. Nevertheless, the Jewish DP organizations declared the goal of establishing Hebrew as the new principal language, leading to a large number of Hebrew lessons in Jewish DP schools.9 At the same time, Yiddish and Polish were still extensively used as auxiliary instructional languages.10

One psychosocial factor that played a decisive role in the dissemination of knowledge and knowledge transfer should not be underestimated: the will to know.11 I use this Foucauldian concept to describe the striking ability and drive of these children to strive for knowledge and willingly acquire education within the framework of ordered structures.12 Members of aid organizations were astounded that children among the Shoah survivors tried to read even the smallest scrap of newspaper they could find. These children yearned for books and, despite their trauma, listened with great discipline and attention to the often poorly trained teachers. Their hunger for education seemed to meet an inner need. This particularly pronounced will to know also became substantially involved in the circulation of knowledge, which would otherwise have been less dynamic.

Despite the general openness of the children to any kind of knowledge, the adult DPs and the Board for Education and Culture carefully selected what the children should be taught in preparation for life in Palestine. The textbooks, at least in secular Jewish schools in the DP camps, soon came primarily from the Yishuv. Among them was the textbook Chaveri (My Friend), a Hebrew textbook for children by Aharon Ashman (1896–1981) and Yitzhak Feller (1889–1967). This book was introduced early on, and thousands of copies were reproduced in the camps. It was probably the Hebrew textbook with the greatest broad impact among DPs. Chaveri was written entirely in Hebrew and offered a liberal narrative, also reflected in the illustrations. It portrayed everyday life, especially in Palestine, and showed a joyful family life that most young readers among the DPs had not experienced since the start of the Shoah, especially as so many had been orphaned. It is not surprising that the book, in addition to its linguistic content, also included a Zionist narrative that took up not only religious but also Jewish national motifs, such as allusions to an armed conflict, Tel Hai, and a fable-like story of the founding of Zionism by Theodor Herzl. The last page of the book, the “happy end” so to speak, textually and pictorially represents the aliyah, that is, emigration to Palestine.

The absence of connections to the everyday lives of those in the DP camps, including seemingly contradictory references such as the “intact family world” in Chaveri, can be seen in other examples too, demonstrating the general lack of educational materials suitable to the task at hand. For example, the YIVO DP camps collection contains material from the Bet Bialik school in Stuttgart.13 These knowledge resources include work sheets and vocabulary lists from another institution, the Morrison School, which were used by the young students of Bet Bialik in their English lessons.14 Unfortunately, these sheets had been designed for a completely different target group, namely the German-speaking, adult majority population of the occupation zones. Accordingly, the vocabulary they offered was hardly oriented towards young Jewish DPs or even adult DPs. In addition, the explanations and instructions on the sheets were in German, a language understood by only a small number of Jewish DP children, if any. Another knowledge resource Bet Bialik used was a Weimar-era, German-language biology textbook by Otto Schmeil (1860–1943) titled Naturkunde für Mittelschulen. Apparently this was the only biology text that the teacher had access to.15 Whether he or she possessed sufficient German was another matter.

In emergency situations and times of shortage such as existed in the DP camps, the selection criteria for knowledge resources were particularly acute. The use of media from a non-Jewish environment understood as hostile made clear what kind of knowledge was deemed acceptable under the circumstances. It seems that mainly technical and natural science media from the “hostile” environment were used in the Jewish DP camps. It is unlikely that German history books would have been used to a larger extend, as it was particularly important to maintain a Zionist narrative, even though doing so necessitated the importation of media from a distant location with corresponding logistical and financial challenges. Such efforts demonstrated the lengths taken to obtain the “right” knowledge resources. The interaction of structural, financial, logistical, political, and ideological factors with the children’s will to know explains the particularities of the circulation of knowledge and the organization of education in the transit camps for Jewish survivors of the Shoah.

Only by analyzing these factors is it possible to comprehend how knowledge transfer took place in DP camps and how the dominant migration movements from these camps influenced the constitution and circulation of knowledge in Israel. One fascinating aspect of this process was that cultural traditions emerged in Jewish DP camps that had only really been seen in East-Central and Eastern Europe before the Shoah. The combination of these traditions with mass preparations to leave Europe created a unique cultural and historical phenomenon. At the same time, this example from Jewish DP camps, despite its peculiarities, reveals the outline of an analytical combination of knowledge and migration that could be transferred to other examples.

Matthias Springborn recently completed a dissertation entitled “Jüdische Kinder- und Jugendbildung in Deutschland nach 1945” (University of Potsdam, 2020). This study of the history of Jewish youth education in Germany after 1945 will be published by Be.Bra Wissenschaft Verlag. Currently, he is a research assistant for the German-Israeli Textbook Commission, coordinated on the German side by the Georg Eckert Institute for International Textbook Research. His Twitter handle is @MSpringborn.
  1. Juliane Wetzel, “Jüdische Displaced Persons im Nachkriegsdeutschland 1945–1957,” Publizistik in jüdischen Displaced-Persons-Camps im Nachkriegsdeutschland. Charakteristika, Medientypen und bibliothekarische Überlieferung, ed. Anne-Katrin Henkel and Thomas Rahe (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann-Verlag, 2014), 22. ↩︎
  2. Werner Bergmann, “Antisemitismus (nach 1945),” Historisches Lexikon Bayerns, ed. Matthias Bader et al. (13 May 2019), https://www.historisches-lexikon-bayerns.de/Lexikon/Antisemitismus_(nach_1945), accessed 18 May 2020. ↩︎
  3. Atina Grossmann and Tamar Lewinsky, “Erster Teil: 1945-1949. Zwischenstation,” Geschichte der Juden in Deutschland von 1945 bis zur Gegenwart. Politik, Kultur und Gesellschaft, ed. Michael Brenner (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2012), 109. ↩︎
  4. Ben-Gurion’s visit: ibid. Military recruitment: Jim G. Tobias, “Sie sind Bürger Israels”: Die geheime Rekrutierung jüdischer Soldaten außerhalb von Palästina-Israel (Nuremberg: Antogo-Verlag, 2007); Jim G. Tobias, Zeilsheim: Eine jüdische Stadt in Frankfurt, (Nuremberg: Antogo-Verlag, 2011), 96–102. ↩︎
  5. Grossmann and Lewinsky, “Zwischenstation” (note 3), 109. ↩︎
  6. Ibid. ↩︎
  7. Tobias, Zeilsheim, 37; Jim G. Tobias, “‘Wegen Lehrbüchern haben wir uns schon einige Male nach Amerika, Erez Israel und England gewendet…’. Über den Mangel an hebräisch- und jiddischsprachigem Unterrichtsmaterial in den jüdischen Displaced-Persons-Camps der US-Besatzungszone,” Publizistik in jüdischen Displaced-Persons-Camps im Nachkriegsdeutschland. Charakteristika, Medientypen und bibliothekarische Überlieferung, ed. Anne-Katrin Henkel and Thomas Rahe (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann-Verlag, 2014), 122–24. ↩︎
  8. YIVO, Leo W. Schwarz papers (RG 294.1), no. 407, “The Founding of the Board for Education and Culture,” ca. July–November 1948, 1. ↩︎
  9. Jacqueline Giere, Wir sind unterwegs, aber nicht in der Wüste: Erziehung und Kultur in den jüdischen Displaced Persons-Lagern der amerikanischen Zone im Nachkriegsdeutschland 1945-1949 (dissertation, University of Frankfurt/Main, 1993), 353. ↩︎
  10. YIVO, DP Camps in Germany (RG 294.2), no. 1003, “berikht fun der arbeit fun der bet-bialik-shul far 1946/47,” Stuttgart, ca. 1947/48, 1. ↩︎
  11. Michel Foucault, Lectures on the Will to Know, ed. A. Davidson (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). ↩︎
  12. Tobias, “Wegen Lehrbüchern . . . ,” 119. ↩︎
  13. YIVO, DP Camps in Germany (RG 294.2), series V “Camps & Centers, F–Z”, subseries 28. ↩︎
  14. Ibid., no. 1003, “Morrison-School . . . ,” ca. 1947, 1–2. ↩︎
  15. Ibid., “reshima fun di shul-bicher . . . in der shtutgarter bet-bialik-shul in dem jar 1946/47,” Stuttgart, ca. 1947/48, 2. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Matthias Springborn, "Some Challenges for Knowledge Transfer in Jewish Displaced Persons Camps after World War II," Migrant Knowledge, April 15, 2021, https://migrantknowledge.org/2021/04/15/knowledge-transfer-jewish-dp-camps/.