Ron Cardy/Rex USA, Courtesy Everett Collection
Two months after VE Day, Meyer Levin visits Europe and is astonished to find that the Continent’s Jewish community has been annihilated. Even the few survivors can’t believe it.
Before the war there were sixteen million Jews in the world. Little more than half are left. Nobody really believes in the annihilation of the Jews of Europe. There are certain facts so massive that the human mind for a long time rejects them, and this has happened with the story of European Jewry. The survivors themselves, after living these years within the massacre, don’t believe their own knowledge of its completeness.
In a village near Weimar I met a man who had escaped from one of the last columns marched out of Buchenwald. For three hours, sitting on his pallet on a factory floor, he told me about the two years he had worked on the Auschwitz train platform, where Jews had arrived for extermination. He estimated that he had seen four million arrive; he knew that only one in ten was selected for slavery, the rest went to the gas chambers. He knew that the chosen slaves had about one chance in a thousand of living more than a year. Two years ago he had seen his own sister arrive on a death train. And yet, after speaking to me only of death—death in Auschwitz, death on the icy trains, death on the road marches, death in the work camps—this man seized my arm and said, “You go to all the concentration camps, you see all who remain alive—write down the name of my sister, Perhaps you will find her. Perhaps she has survived.”
Of all the survivors I talked to, none was without a story of sisters, brothers, mother, father gone, and yet none ever said these loved ones were dead unless he had actually seen them killed. “They were taken to Drancy, and from there deported”; “I heard of him last in Warsaw, but from there he may have been deported.” Always they spoke as though myriads of Jews might somewhere yet be found alive as we went farther into Germany.
Finally we had been through all Germany, and found only the remnants in the concentration camps, and the few dozens in each city, and the scattered survivors of the last trains that started from Buchenwald and Auschwitz toward the Alps and halted wherever they ran out of fuel, while the guards shot a few last Jews and seized automobiles and fled from the approaching Americans.
It has been estimated that there are a million and a quarter Jews alive in Europe outside of Russia. This estimate may not stand, for the Poles in renewed pogroms are killing off the few hundred thousand who escaped the Nazis, out of Poland’s four million Jews. Moreover, twelve thousand of those found alive in Bergen Belsen died after the camp was liberated, and after six weeks were still dying at the rate of fifty a day.
A million and a quarter people form a considerable community; this is nearly twice as many Jews as there are in Palestine. How can it be said, then, that European Jewry has been wiped out?
You have to look at those who are left. I looked for Jews all through France, Belgium, Holland, Germany; I sought them in every concentration camp ; I hunted survivors on the roads where they had scattered from the last death trains. I’ve seen what is left of them in the west, and in Prague I talked with a man who as a member of the Czech mission for displaced persons had followed the Russian armies arid sought surviving Jewish communities. I pooled my information with Dr. Rosenberg’s, to arrive at the total picture.
About half of the remaining Jews of Europe are in Rumania. Though the Iron Guardists and their followers were violently anti-Semitic throughout the rise of fascism, the 600,000 Jews of Rumania were never seized for slaughter; they therefore form the only intact European Jewish community outside of Russia.
Numerically, the Polish Jews come next. Dr. Rosenberg estimates that from 200,000 to 300,000 are still alive. They are scattered, starved, and in constant fear of pogroms. Poland was the ever-living well, the source of Judaism in modern times. The Jews of Poland were the real Jews; they thought of themselves only as Jews; and though they were despised and reviled, though they were hated even by sections of their own race, such as the German Jews, they were nevertheless the source of Jewish vitality. Westernized Jews detested the old-fashioned pious Poles with their long caftans and ear curls, the peddlers and beggars who were the characters of anti-Semitic cartoons. French, Belgian, and Dutch Jews charged that it was the Polish Jews, swarming westward, who were the cause of the new anti-Semitism. Well, the last ghettos have been burned. From General Bor himself I heard of the incredible fight put up by the young Jews of the Warsaw ghetto, and that the ghetto now is only a large burned area in the middle of the city. Yet there is still anti-Semitism, a new and fresh anti-Semitism, all through Europe.
After the Polish come the Hungarian Jews; they have a higher percentage of survivors since they were the last to be rounded up for elimination. Nearly 150,000 in and around Budapest were not gathered in, and the others—those who survived the Auschwitz ordeal—suffered less than a year of slavery. Wherever groups of Jewish factory slaves were found, Hungarians predominated; the Poles had had more time to die. In two places near Leipzig I encountered groups of a thousand Hungarian girls. They were emaciated—stylishly thin, as they wryly put it—and their fingers were yellow from war chemicals, but they were still young and alive. Each had a faint hope that some member of her family had also survived; each wanted to return to Hungary long enough to find out her family’s fate. But live there? No, they could not imagine going back to live among the people who had let this be done to them.
In France, of 350,000 Jews, 175,000 survived. The French people as a whole were sympathetic during the German occupation and helped Jews to hide; but now the atmosphere is different. Every Jew who returns to Paris and tries to recover his apartment, or his business, or his job has to displace a Frenchman, and though the law declares that the victims of Nazism shall have their belongings restored, each returning Jew faces a court battle, and in each case a new little circle of anti-Semites is created. Some new tenants’ organizations, such as the Locataires de Bonne Foi, have urged their members to use force to prevent Jews from moving back into their apartments; even returning soldiers—propagandized in German prison camps—have demonstrated against Jewish shopkeepers. Anti-Semites say the Jews took no part in the resistance movement; but all-Jewish companies fought in the Battle of Paris, there were all-Jewish groups in the maquis, and thousands of other Jews were active in the resistance movement everywhere, though not identified as Jews.
This same bitter aftermath is found in Slovakia, where Jews fought as partisans and then returned to their villages only to find a hatred so great that, in the words of a former Jewish partisan leader, it became “impossible to live in an atmosphere so anti-Semitic”
In Belgium, where the Jewish population shrank from 90,000 to 23,000, the community leaders told me that though they were making the most energetic attempts at readjustment, the Jews were encountering an anti-Semitism that had not existed before. “What can we expect? The population was subjected to years of concentrated propaganda. Victory does not erase this.” In Holland, of 140,000 Jews, some 25,000 remain. Anti-Semitism was previously unknown. But when the little Jewish community in Maastricht tried to arrange a Purim festival for American Jewish soldiers, they were advised to omit it, lest the report of the celebration add fuel to the rising feeling against Jews.
In the Duchy of Luxembourg the old and prosperous Jewish settlement has dwindled to a few hundred.-Dr. Henry Cerf of the SHAEF mission told.me that a number of Jews had come in from France and Belgium but had found so much hatred where there had been none before that they had despaired and wandered back westward.
Even in the concentration camps anti-Semitism was fostered to such a point that when Chaplain Eichhorn attempted to bold an open-air service for the Jews of Dachau, the newly formed selfgoverning committee of the camp declared that such a service would lead to disorders.
The effect of persecution has been to drive the survivors to extremes: either they have become Jews in a more positive sense than ever before, or they have decided to lose their identity as Jews. The man who is led to affirm his Jewishness is convinced that his miraculous survival is proof that he was always completely right in all his beliefs and principles: thus the orthodox Jew is more zealous than ever in his orthodoxy; the Zionist upholds more strongly his particular sectarianism, be it labor Zionism or political Zionism or cultural Zionism; and while the Communists, the Zionists, and the religious bodies in the surviving communities work together on ameliorative projects, they have little inner unity as Jews. Those who have concluded that being a Jew is not worth the price are, constantly slipping away from the community. Day after day in the Journal Officiel one finds columns of notices of Cohens and Levys who have changed their names to Dumont and Bontemps.
In Italy several thousand Jews are reported to have followed a converted rabbi into the Catholic church; in France, where there has always been active proselytizing among the Jews, the movement has noticeably increased. Many Catholics made a definite effort to retain in the faith the Jewish children who had been confided to them for safekeeping. I witnessed an actual struggle betewen a priest and a rabbi for the souls of several hundred children. The priest, who alone knew where the children had been placed, maintained that he would have to secure the order of some living relative of these children before he could give them back to the Jewish community. He finally agreed that if no relatives could be found, the children would be returned.
It is charged that up to 3,000 children have thus been lost to Judaism in France. This is a large number when one realizes that there are exceedingly few Jewish children left in Europe. Some 6,000 children were hidden in France by various undeground organizations; perhaps an equal number were hidden by their parents, in direct placement. Beyond these, scarcely more than a thousand were found in the concentration camp, mostly in the fourteen-to-eighteenyear age group, though so stunted and starved that they were six years under age. There is no Jewish generation under fourteen. These children were destroyed.
The destruction of the Jews was most complete in Germany itself. In each city I found a dozen, perhaps a hundred, survivors living in the remaining official Jewish houses, one family to a room. In Leipzig I found exactly 16 of a former 16,000. Only Jews married to non-Jews had been permitted to remain, and of these marriages only the children who professed Christianity were alive. During the last months even Jews married to Gentiles had been seized. In each city, a doctor, a lawyer, and a community head had been left. It seemed to be generally expected that a great many Jews would “come out of hiding” after the Nazi defeat. Their number is insignificant; 1 doubt that it totals 500 for all Germany, where some 4,000 have survived.
About 4,000 Jews were found alive in Buchenwald, 5,000 in Dachau, 12,000 in Bergen Belsen—perhaps 50,000 in all the camps. With the exception of the young Hungarians found in factory enclaves, nearly all the survivors are suffering from physical and mental exhaustion which must have a permanent effect. What shall be done with them? Some have been repatriated to France and Czechoslovakia, but the Poles protest bitterly against being sent “home.” What do the Jews in the camps ask for themselves?
A small percentage know they want to go to Palestine, and they are the luckiest, for they have a specific objective and a will to live: The one cheerful hour in all my time among Jews was spent in a barracks in Bergen Belsen, where a dozen youngsters sang Hebrew songs, of Palestine. The mass of survivors have no clear hope for the future. “We are too weak, too tired; we can endure no more struggle in our lives,” they say. “We need only some place where we can live out our years.” A large proportion have relatives outside Europe with whom they hope to get in touch, but few have exact addresses. Contacts will be difficult to make, and then the cry will be raised against Jewish immigration, as though these few thousands were hordes of undesirables, For most of the survivors the obvious solution is Palestine; yet there are already complaints that the sickly products of the concentration camps are unfit material for the upbuilding of that land. And of course there will be a campaign against a “flood of Jews” directed toward Palestine, and there will be Zionists making calculations about how many millions Palestine can absorb. It will be forgotten that there are no millions to come. If Palestine cannot give immediate refuge to the few thousand survivors of the concentration camps, that is indeed the last miserably ironic comment on what world politics has done to the Zionist ideal.
Outside the camps, and outside Rumania, some halfmillion scattered Jews will make an effort to adjust and resettle in their previous lands; most of them can perhaps still find a way to live as Jews in France, Belgium, and Holland, though in the coming years they may seek either to assimilate or to emigrate.
With the well of Europe so dry, the threat of Jewish “domination” in Palestine is deflated. The millions who might have pressed in from Poland are dead. The Jews of Russia and the United States are not likely to emigrate to Eretz Israel. When all the scattered refugees in the Russian area and in ours are registered, it may turn out that there are some hundreds of thousands for whom Palestine should offer a solution. Still, the ever-renewing sources of Jewish population are gone. The continuing stream of emigration must run dry. It looks as if the Jewish population of Palestine must level off and depend chiefly on its birth rate for increase. In this, it is always behind the Arabs. Thus there is no real population threat to the Arabs of Palestine. This knowledge should dampen the growing conflict there.
The heart, of Jewish culture, it seems to me, is now definitely in Palestine; the greatest population is in the United States. Jewish casualties in the war—not in proportion but in actual numbers—are as large as those of the great nations. Seven million Jews were slaughtered for being Jews, and added to this number are the Jewish casualties in all the Allied armies.
It is common knowledge that anti-Semitism is rising in this country. In a large sense, the fate of the Jewish people will be decided here.