Return to Witnesses
The Anguish of the Holocaust Survivors – Camp Foehrenwald
Henry Cohen Talk at Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) April 13, 1996
Henry Cohen was the Director of Camp Foehrenwald, the second largest Jewish displaced persons center in the American Zone of Germany in 1946. Subsequently, he served as Director of Research of the New York City Planning Department. He was Deputy City Administrator of New York City during the Wagner Administration. Later he was First Deputy Administrator of the New York Human Resources Administration during the Lindsay Administration. When he left the city government, he served as Founding Dean of the Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy at the New School for Social Research.
On this weekend we commemorate and remember twelve to thirteen of the worst years in Jewish history. I will be talking about the small numbers of survivors of the holocaust.
While some awareness of the German war against the Jews was known before 1945, the full dimensions of the Holocaust became known only after the defeat of the Germans in May 1945.
Surviving Jews streamed into Germany following the war, because the presence of the United States Army in Germany offered safety. Some were from concentration camps; some from Siberia to which thousands of Jews had fled during the German occupation; others from Eastern Europe, where many Jews had hidden in the woods and joined the partisan movement; and still others were saved by good souls.
The allied nations, towards the end of the war, anticipating a variety of human concerns around the globe, established the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration to handle refugees and displaced persons. With no time to accumulate organizational coherence, or to hammer out relationships with the occupying authorities, teams of UNRRA workers, drawn from many nations, were made available to take charge. Their tasks were not easy, and the human condition of the populations they dealt with was heartbreaking.
The army in Germany had to find or appropriate housing for the displaced persons, provide food and clothing, and cope with non-German populations which often irritated the Germans and their local officials.
The second largest of these displaced centers in Germany was Camp Foehrenwald. The camp was about 15 miles south of Munich, and was near the town of Wolfratshausen. The main center was a village built in 1939 for 2500 to 3000 people by the I.G. Farben firm to house workers they were employing in several well-camouflaged munitions plants in the woods to the south.
The UNRRA Team included at various times between 20 and 25 persons. The team included professionals from France, Norway, Australia, Holland, the United States, and a group of five people representing the Jewish Agency for Palestine, the pre-Israel instrument of the World Zionist Congress. The director of such a center was like the “city manager” of a small town.
I arrived in January 1946 to take over direction of the Camp. I was twenty three years old at the time, and had previously served in the infantry and in military government. While I had prior community organization experience, I had never before had senior management responsibility comparable to directing an international team of about 25 persons, all of whom were older than me.
At the time I took over, the Center had 5600 inhabitants, over two thousand more than the capacity of the camp. There were rooms with over 25 people sleeping in them. Double-decker beds filled the rooms, two persons sleeping on each bunk. Blankets hanging from the ceiling separated each family unit. While we were trying to deal with a multiplicity of problems, we also placed a great deal of emphasis on rehabilitation efforts. We organized an election for a Camp Committee, in order to begin to generate self governance in certain areas of life. We organized skills development programs. We organized athletic, dramatic, and educational programs. We had an elementary school, a rabbinical school, seminar courses, and libraries. The residents published a newspaper, called Bamidbar (The Desert) and printed many literary contributions from camp residents.
In addition, over 350 youth organized in Kibbutzim were settled in a subsidiary installation established as an agricultural and trades-training center. Here they worked on the land, in barns, with horses, and with plows. Without my specific knowledge, the Haganah was providing the young people with military training.In the early months we had no texts for organizing plays. Many groups wrote their own plays, drawing on their recent experiences. It was a memorable occasion when they secured and produced Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevyeh der Milchiker (Dairyman).”
Foehrenwald became the center of Chassidic life in the American Zone. Rabbi Yekutiel Halberstam, the Klostenberger Rabbi, established a Yeshiva, and provided for the needs of his flock in many ways.
There was also a large Mizrachi group.
Yet it was difficult to provide synagogue space, mikvehs (ritual baths), and baking facilities for matzo.
In addition to the Camp Committee, we organized a Jewish police force, and a fire brigade.
Many of you are not aware of the moderate, but distinct, anti-Semitism that existed in the United States in the 1930’s and 1940’s when I was growing up. The anti-Semitism often manifested itself in our relations with the American occupying force. The United States Army, particularly at the local level, was responsible for maintaining order in Germany. Many officers were unsettled by the population flows. In a rather strange way many of the soldiers on the ground felt more comfortable with the defeated Germans than they did with the unkempt Jewish survivors.
A Ninth Infantry Division document of April 22, 1946 contains the following language:
- “The most troublesome problems of administration with regard to policy have been centered among Jewish groups.
- “The most important problem in the DP picture is the lack of cooperation and in some cases outright disobedience of orders in the case of persecutees.
- “These people spend much of their time in black market dealings and openly flaunt this fact in the face of the civilian (German) police knowing full well that the civilian police could not bother them.
- “These people infiltrated into Germany in great numbers; this was allowed by directive from higher headquarters which stated that the American zone would be a haven for these people. … The main reason for these people to enter the Ninth Division zone was that Munich was the headquarters for the clandestine organization by which these people were trying to enter Palestine. These people have influential friends in all countries and complain loudly that they are again being persecuted. …because of their conduct they have renewed the feelings of anti-Semitism in the civilian population which at some future time may cause these persecutees untold trouble and grief.
- “There have been numerous incidents involving Jewish DPs. They are permitted to escape from situations in which, other DPs are summarily handled and disposed of. This, in its turn, has a definitely bad effect on the German population, who, when conscious of such situations, rather incline toward their belief Hitler was not such a bad judge of the Jew, after all.
- “While humanitarian aspects do exist, and must be given the serious consideration that is their due, it is certainly not in the best interests of the United States to permit political groups to dictate an overly-mild or irresolute policy.”
These were American officers writing these lines in 1946. The United States Army had been in a brutal war with the Germans for 3 1/2 years in North Africa, Italy, France, and Germany itself. Yet the lack of understanding and empathy on the part of these American officers is, to this day, beyond my comprehension. Fortunately, senior officers at Supreme Headquarters showed greater perspective and support.
The anguish of survival was etched on everyone’s face: the persisting painful memories of relatives and friends killed; the horrendous memories of one’sown survival experience; the sight of children quiet and unsmiling. Managing the Camp was often impossibly difficult.
In January, when the camp was most congested, a Bavarian frost froze the pipes and resulted in the complete or partial damage to 400 of the 600 toilets in the camp. The sanitary conditions in the toilets was appalling. A month or two later, explosives at the I.G. Farben plant cracked open the main pipe line bringing water to the Camp. For five days the camp was without water. No plumbing, no drinking water. No hot food could be cooked. The hospital was without water. The army provided merely token assistance. Only after I strenuously protested to my headquarters did a two star general appear on the scene on the fifth day and start issuing orders to correct the situation and bring in sufficient supplies of water.
There was a black market in food. The army at the field level was obsessed with the black market and the number of Jews involved in it. Actually the numbers of Jews involved was small, and considering the quality of the foodwe were serving, it would have been surprising if there were no efforts to improve it. The volume of activity involved was hardly at a level where it would have jeopardized the post-war German economy.
To establish good faith with the army I did try to deal with the black market, even when I often had my doubts about the action I was taking. I would awaken at four in the morning several times a month, and head for the camp. No one would know in advance that I was coming for an inspection. At the entrance to the camp I would pick up the DP Police who were on night duty. We would tour around the camp looking for lights in the basements. If there were lights in the basements of the buildings, then it generally meant that the black marketing butchers were there slaughtering and cutting cattle they had picked up from German farmers that night.
Without my intervention, what would have happened on an average day is that at about six in the morning word would spread through the camp that fresh meat was available at specified addresses, and the populace would come and buy what they wanted and could afford.
My mission was to break up this pattern periodically, and make it expensive for the butchers. When I spotted a basement lit up, I would stop the car, enter the basement with the DP police, and confiscate the meat. We would place the butchers under arrest and lock them up in the brig we maintained.Sometimes, I would come by later in the day and look in on the imprisoned butchers. I remember one of them looking at me with venom in his eyes, “Watch out Mr. Cohen, for us, shedding blood is nothing, not the cow’s blood, nor yours.”
Another situation developed which gave me great anguish. Rabbi Halberstam,the Klostenberger Rabbi, had come from a long line of Hassidic Rabbis. During the War, he had lost his wife and ten children. Camp Foehrenwald was the arena in which he had to recover his strength and rebuild his flock. He was in touch with supporters in the United States, and quickly they began to raise money to provide him and his people with clothing, kosher food, religious books and materials.
One day in the late winter of 1946, a boat arrived in Bremen laden with freight for Rabbi Halberstam and his flock. However, the U.S. Army, ever fearful of items getting into the black market, refused to release the goods to Rabbi Halberstam. Cables flew back and forth between Munich and New York,and Bremen and Washington. His supporters enlisted congressmen, who in turn raised Cain in the Defense Department and in the White House.
Finally, after weeks of haggling, a compromise was reached. The goods, now on the Bremen wharves, would be released to the UNRRA director of Camp Foehrenwald.
In due course the goods arrived in the camp, and we unloaded it into our warehouse.
The following morning, I received a message that the Rabbi wanted to see me in his room. He was one of the few people in the camp who had a room to himself. At about eleven o’clock in the morning I went to see him. He was dressed in the typical black garb of a Hassid. He had a long black beard. His black piercing eyes penetrated me.
After a perfunctory greeting, he asserted, “When will you transfer the goods to me?”
“Rabbi,” I said, “if the army had intended for me to transfer the material to you, they would have given it to you directly.”
“What do you mean?,” he asserted.
I replied, “I mean what I said. I am very sorry about how the situation has developed, but I cannot release the supplies to you.”
“What will you do with my goods?” he said.
“I will distribute it in ways that I think will do the most good for all the people in the camp.” I said.
“What do you mean ‘most good for all the people in the camp’? It will do the most good for my group,” he said.
Never in my life before this had I had to confront a situation like this. The goods did really belong to him and his group; his supporters had raised the money to send the material to Germany to him, not to me. The army was, however, concerned with the growing black market in Germany, and the Jewish role in it. For the nth time, I had to walk a tightrope. I had to balance my concerns over managing the camp in ways that were considerate of the residents with satisfying the army, even though I believed they were being overly paranoid about the black market question.
The reality was that Rabbi Halberstam and his group really needed the material. It was extremely unlikely, considering the composition of the goods, that much of it, if any,would slip into the black market. There was, however, no way in which I could satisfy the Rabbi without turning over to him all of the supplies. That I could not do.
I concluded the discussion by telling him that I would have to exercise my judgment about distributing the goods. An ample share would go to him, but the balance would go to other people in the camp.
He raised his voice, “That is not fair. It belongs to me.”
“Rabbi,” I said, trying to assuage him, “The other residents of the camp are Jews too, and they have suffered too.”
In despair, he turned away from me. I left the room and returned to my office. I also knew it was not fair.
The lack of sufficient fresh food was a constant problem in the camp. The army was providing GI food, mostly canned and dehydrated. There were no fresh fish, no beets, no onions, no chickens, no fresh butter, no fresh milk and n ofresh eggs. The diet provided for three ounces of either meat, fish, or cheese per day. Only in the kosher kitchen was the meat freshly slaughtered. I knew from eight months as a soldier in military government, following the end of combat, that American soldiers were eating fresh meat, including venison and fresh vegetables, and drinking wine galore. But the survivors were getting the left over C-rations.
In desperation, about a week or two before Passover, I went to the Munich railroad station and sent two cables to friends in the United States to do what they could do politically or bureaucratically to help out. So great was my sense of despair at the time that I gave no thought to the possible interception of my cables by military intelligence.
The person who had originally recruited me into UNRRA was in the State Department Office of Refugee Affairs. The other person was a prominent Berkeley architect who was on sabbatical in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The cable read: “Situation here is deteriorating. Jewish persecutees are becoming demoralized. Eleven months after liberation they are still in camps. AJDC (American Joint Distribution Committee) supplementary Passover food inadequate because mil (military) has not helped make special provision. No fish, onions, beets through normal supply channels. Plenty on black market. UNRRA team personnel is increasingly becoming a shock absorber for mil. Feeling of frustration is tremendous. Stir up the bees.
Dick Winslow, from the State Department, replied that he would try hard to do what he could.
Bill Wurster responded that he had telegraphed Secretary Anderson, Senators Walsh and Saltonstall.
The situation did not get better during the balance of my stay. From the time I sent the cables, the army was out to get me fired.
A year after the Allied defeat of the Germans, on the evening of the 22nd of May, 1946, two drunken American soldiers entered a house in the German town of Wolfratshausen. On the third floor lived some German girls whom they were going to visit. On the second floor, there lived a Jewish family. The Jews had some visitors from our Displaced Persons Camp, which was about two miles away.
The soldiers stopped off in the Jewish occupied apartment. One of them, with pistol drawn, ordered the Jews to stand at attention. One of the Jews had a harmonica and was ordered to play on it. The other soldier drew a knife, and went around the room, pretending to stab everyone. He demanded that the people show him their identification papers. When one of the Jews refused to give the soldier his purse, the soldier struck him on the lower cheek with the pistol butt. He kept asking everyone whether they were Jewish. When one replied that he was, the soldier said repeatedly, “Son of a bitch Jew.” He then hit the Jew on the head with the gun.
Some of the Jews ran out of the room, and managed to reach the camp. At the gate of the camp, they notified the Jewish DP police. One of the police sounded the camp siren, giving the danger signal. In the camp theater at thetime, there were about a thousand Jews watching a movie. Suddenly, from the rear of the auditorium, a door opened, and into the darkness, a shriek washeard, “Shkhite- Me harget Yidden in Wolfratshausen.” (Massacre – They’re killing Jews in Wolfratshausen!)
Within five minutes, the auditorium was cleared of people. The huge mob, fed by conflicting stories, each one bloodier than the previous one, proceeded en masse, impulsively, in panic — out of the camp, and onto the road to the German town.
Margaret Gerber, my Assistant Director, later described the scene:
“A short distance from the camp we came upon a mob of DPs milling around and shouting angrily. We drove the jeep to the edge of the crowd and got out. It took me a couple of minutes to get my bearings…Then I realized that the DPs were beating up on a German who was bleeding about the head and face and was protesting loudly that he hadn’t done anything. I fought my way through the crowd and tried to get them to leave the man alone. The German clung to me for dear life, and I protected him as best I could. However, the crowd was violent, we were both thrown into the ditch. The German was torn away, beaten again, thrown to the ground and kicked. I realized his life was in jeopardy and that he had to be safely got away at all costs. I succeeded in getting him piled into an UNRAA truck, I climbed in with him, and we drove off to the camp police station.”
Several hundred DPs started north on the road to Wolfratshausen on a mission of rescue and revenge.
I had been alerted to the problem soon after it started, and instructed most of the team to head for the Camp. I drove to the police station in Wolfratshausen to coordinate with the German police and the U.S. Army. I advised the army lieutenant who was there that he place a roadblock about three-quarters of a mile north of the camp, in case we could not control the situation. I headed for the Camp.
When I arrived at the outskirts of the camp, I saw some of my team members and the camp police forming a human chain, and beginning to contain the surge of people towards the German town. Gradually, we got them all back into the camp.
The army report on the incident provides another illustration of the differences of perspective of those of us who were concerned with the well-being and rehabilitation of the survivors, and who had an empathy for them, and of those who were concerned with law and order in the occupied lands.
I found the following memo at the National Archives three years ago.
“23 July 1946 (Ninth Division, Operations Report, Asst. Chief of Staff, G-3)
“On the 22 May 1946 between the hours of 1930 and 2230 Jewish DP residents in the Foehrenwald assembly center created a disturbance in the vicinity of the camp which resulted in injury to three or more civilians and an attempt to detain an officer of the United States Army. An estimated 300 of the camp residents were involved in the disturbance. Although various rumors of shooting, kidnapping and otherwise maltreating Jews were current, evidence indicated that the activity of the DPs was probably the result of agitation by and on behalf of Mr. Cohen, UNRRA Camp Director.”
There was no reference in the army report to the incident in Wolfratshausen involving the American soldiers.
The collective outburst reflects how close to the surface were the anxiety,the anger, and the realization of enforced passivity in the face of danger during the holocaust years.
We had many visitors to the Camp. One weekend we were visited by Rabbi Chaim Herzog, the Chief Rabbi of Palestine. The spirit among the displaced persons on this occasion was excited and optimistic.
Among other prominent visitors were the prominent Yiddish poet, H. Leivick and the singer, Emma Shaver. In the two evening concerts we arranged, Ms. Shaver sang Yiddish songs, and Leivick read his poetry and short stories. On their last morning in the Camp, while having their breakfast, a teen-age girl came over, and said to them with a touch of hesitation, “I would like to sing for you.”
Leivick: “What do you mean, sing to us?”
Girl: “What it means, plainly is that I want to sing songs. I like to sing.”Leivick: “Your own songs?”
Girl: “No, not mine. I do not write songs. I sing.”
Leivick: “We are in a hurry. We have to leave soon. We are expected in another camp.”
Girl: “It doesn’t matter. You’ll leave a little later. Give me a few minutes. I shall sing for you.”
Leivick said to me later, “She comes in at 9 in the morning, when nobody’s thoughts are on singing, and she wants to give us a concert.”
Leivick: “Tell us something about yourself before you sing.”
She said, “I want to sing first.”
She waited no longer for Leivick to say anything, and positioned herself against the wall. She announced that she would sing a song of the Shavler ghetto. “Then I will sing a few other songs. I have a large selection.” Leivick recounted,
“She begins to sing with a deep-throated voice. She becomes completely absorbed with the pain of a Jewish child, whose mother has to give her away to non-Jews in order to save her from the fire. The song is full of endless pain.”
Leivick told me later, “We swallowed our tears, listening to her energetic voice.”
When she appeared to be finished, Leivick asked her for her name and where she was from. She responded that her name was Basha, she was sixteen, she came from the Vilna area, and that she was all alone.
Girl: “My parents were killed. At the age of twelve, I was taken to a concentration camp. Altogether, I was in eleven camps. I spent my time carrying rocks. I was freed by the Red Army. I went to Byalistock, where I contracted Typhus Fever.
As I got better, I eventually made my way west to Foehrenwald. I follow my fate. Can I sing some more?” She sang some more. Before they left the Camp, they came into my office to bid me farewell. When they entered my office, I was in the middle of a characteristic scene. Two Jewish mothers, were sitting opposite me at the desk. They were there with some complaints, and were crying.
“The food supplies are inadequate,” the women complained. “Forget us, we can manage, but our small children are hungry. There is no butter for them, no milk, no eggs, no fruit. What shall we do?”
I tried to reassure the women. “I am doing all I can do to secure better food supplies. I hope my efforts will succeed.”
Leivick remarked to Emma Shaver as they were leaving: “He is trying to convince the women, though he himself is not convinced.”
Between 5 and 9 babies were being born each week. Nine to fifteen months after liberation, there were about 200 pregnant women in the camp at any one time. I have tried to translate these birth numbers into annualized birthrates. The rate was very high, on the order of 70 to 80 births per thousand population, at least 50 percent greater than the highest current birth rates in the world, in Afghanistan and Kenya. It was obviously a response to the losses suffered during the Holocaust.
Our hospital was well equipped, and fully used. The physicians, who were not Jewish, had escaped from Hungary towards the end of the war, as the Russian army was advancing on Hungary and the Germans were retreating. The physicians were already in place when I arrived in the camp. For all I knew they were fascists, but they were good doctors, and the survivors needed good medical care.
There came a time in the Spring when the surviving Jewish doctors wanted to take over from the Hungarian doctors. The Jewish doctors had not practiced medicine for four or five years. While all my sympathy lay with them, I was even more concerned with the quality of medical care our people would begetting.
One day there appeared before our administration building a mob of people, mostly woman, but led by a man. They were yelling, “We pregnant women want the Hungarian doctors.”
To this day, fifty years later, I still hear the man at the head of the women protesters repeating the same words, “We pregnant women want the Hungarian doctors.”
We kept the Hungarian doctors in place. Several months later, after I left the camp, the changeover to the Jewish doctors was made.
One of the more eloquent statements about the effects of the holocaust was included in a report prepared by Simon Rifkind, prominent New York jurist and lawyer, who served as Chief Adviser on Jewish Affairs to Generals Eisenhower and McNarney during 1945-46. He wrote:
“In the eastern countries, principally in Poland and the Baltic states, the Jews developed a religious civilization far different from the native culture…. Despite poverty and oppression … [their way of life] was rich in ethical significance, colorful in expression, and always intense. Scholarship was … accorded first priority in Jewish life in Eastern Europe and great academies of learning were built from which graduated people of renown.
Seminaries poured forth religious leaders who carried to Jewish communities all over the world spiritual inspiration and guidance. Jewish music was scored, a Jewish literature flowered…. This … civilization enriched not only the Jews of the world but played an important part in the enhancement of human thought everywhere.
“Their civilization, laboriously created over the centuries, has been brought low; its leadership is dead; its institutions–economic, social, religious and scholarly–are demolished.”
This tragedy is what we are remembering today.
Copyright 1996 Henry Cohen. All Rights Reserved.