“The Anguish of the Holocaust Survivors”, a talk by Henry Cohen
Return to Witnesses
The Anguish of the Holocaust Survivors
Talk at Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenueon Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day)
April 13, 1996
Henry Cohen was the Director of Camp Foehrenwald, the second largest Jewishdisplaced persons center in the American Zone of Germany in 1946.Subsequently, he served as Director of Research of the New York City PlanningDepartment. He was Deputy City Administrator of New York City during theWagner Administration. Later he was First Deputy Administrator of the NewYork Human Resources Administration during the Lindsay Administration. Whenhe left the city government, he served as Founding Dean of the GraduateSchool of Management and Urban Policy at the New School for Social Research.
On this weekend we commemorate and remember twelve to thirteen of the worstyears in Jewish history. I will be talking about the small numbers ofsurvivors of the holocaust.
While some awareness of the German war against the Jews was known before1945, the full dimensions of the Holocaust became known only after the defeatof the Germans in May 1945.
Surviving Jews streamed into Germany following the war, because the presenceof the United States Army in Germany offered safety. Some were fromconcentration camps; some from Siberia to which thousands of Jews had fledduring the German occupation; others from Eastern Europe, where many Jews hadhidden in the woods and joined the partisan movement; and still others weresaved by good souls.
The allied nations, towards the end of the war, anticipating a variety ofhuman concerns around the globe, established the United Nations Relief andRehabilitation Administration to handle refugees and displaced persons. Withno time to accumulate organizational coherence, or to hammer outrelationships with the occupying authorities, teams of UNRRA workers, drawnfrom many nations, were made available to take charge. Their tasks were noteasy, and the human condition of the populations they dealt with washeartbreaking.
The army in Germany had to find or appropriate housing for the displacedpersons, provide food and clothing, and cope with non-German populationswhich often irritated the Germans and their local officials.
The second largest of these displaced centers in Germany was CampFoehrenwald. The camp was about 15 miles south of Munich, and was near thetown of Wolfratshausen. The main center was a village built in 1939 for 2500to 3000 people by the I.G. Farben firm to house workers they were employingin several well-camouflaged munitions plants in the woods to the south.
The UNRRA Team included at various times between 20 and 25 persons. The teamincluded professionals from France, Norway, Australia, Holland, the UnitedStates, and a group of five people representing the Jewish Agency forPalestine, the pre-Israel instrument of the World Zionist Congress. Thedirector 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 twentythree years old at the time, and had previously served in the infantry and inmilitary government. While I had prior community organization experience, Ihad never before had senior management responsibility comparable to directingan 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 thousandmore than the capacity of the camp. There were rooms with over 25 peoplesleeping 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 placeda great deal of emphasis on rehabilitation efforts. We organized an electionfor a Camp Committee, in order to begin to generate self governance incertain areas of life. We organized skills development programs. We organizedathletic, dramatic, and educational programs. We had an elementary school, arabbinical school, seminar courses, and libraries. The residents published anewspaper, called Bamidbar (The Desert) and printed many literarycontributions from camp residents.
In addition, over 350 youth organized inKibbutzim were settled in a subsidiary installation established as anagricultural and trades-training center. Here they worked on the land, inbarns, with horses, and with plows. Without my specific knowledge, theHaganah was providing the young people with military training.In the early months we had no texts for organizing plays. Many groups wrotetheir own plays, drawing on their recent experiences. It was a memorableoccasion when they secured and produced Sholem Aleichem’s “Tevyeh derMilchiker (Dairyman).”
Foehrenwald became the center of Chassidic life in the American Zone. RabbiYekutiel Halberstam, the Klostenberger Rabbi, established a Yeshiva, andprovided 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), andbaking facilities for matzo.
In addition to the Camp Committee, we organized a Jewish police force, and afire brigade.
Many of you are not aware of the moderate, but distinct, anti-Semitism thatexisted in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s when I was growing up.The anti-Semitism often manifested itself in our relations with the Americanoccupying force. The United States Army, particularly at the local level, wasresponsible for maintaining order in Germany. Many officers were unsettled bythe population flows. In a rather strange way many of the soldiers on theground felt more comfortable with the defeated Germans than they did with theunkempt Jewish survivors.
A Ninth Infantry Division document of April 22, 1946 contains the followinglanguage:
These were American officers writing these lines in 1946. The United StatesArmy had been in a brutal war with the Germans for 3 1/2 years in NorthAfrica, Italy, France, and Germany itself. Yet the lack of understanding andempathy on the part of these American officers is, to this day, beyond mycomprehension. Fortunately, senior officers at Supreme Headquarters showedgreater perspective and support.
The anguish of survival was etched on everyone’s face: the persisting painfulmemories 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 thepipes and resulted in the complete or partial damage to 400 of the 600toilets 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 themain pipe line bringing water to the Camp. For five days the camp was withoutwater. No plumbing, no drinking water. No hot food could be cooked. Thehospital was without water. The army provided merely token assistance. Onlyafter I strenuously protested to my headquarters did a two star generalappear on the scene on the fifth day and start issuing orders to correct thesituation and bring in sufficient supplies of water.
There was a black market in food. The army at the field level was obsessedwith the black market and the number of Jews involved in it. Actually thenumbers of Jews involved was small, and considering the quality of the foodwe were serving, it would have been surprising if there were no efforts toimprove it. The volume of activity involved was hardly at a level where itwould have jeopardized the post-war German economy.
To establish good faith with the army I did try to deal with the blackmarket, even when I often had my doubts about the action I was taking. Iwould awaken at four in the morning several times a month, and head for thecamp. No one would know in advance that I was coming for an inspection. Atthe entrance to the camp I would pick up the DP Police who were on nightduty. We would tour around the camp looking for lights in the basements. Ifthere were lights in the basements of the buildings, then it generally meantthat the black marketing butchers were there slaughtering and cutting cattlethey had picked up from German farmers that night.
Without my intervention, what would have happened on an average day is thatat about six in the morning word would spread through the camp that freshmeat was available at specified addresses, and the populace would come andbuy what they wanted and could afford.
My mission was to break up this pattern periodically, and make it expensivefor 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 wouldplace 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 imprisonedbutchers. I remember one of them looking at me with venom in his eyes, “Watchout Mr. Cohen, for us, shedding blood is nothing, not the cow’s blood, noryours.”
Another situation developed which gave me great anguish. Rabbi Halberstam,the Klostenberger Rabbi, had come from a long line of Hassidic Rabbis. Duringthe War, he had lost his wife and ten children. Camp Foehrenwald was thearena 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 beganto 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 withfreight for Rabbi Halberstam and his flock. However, the U.S. Army, everfearful of items getting into the black market, refused to release the goodsto Rabbi Halberstam. Cables flew back and forth between Munich and New York,and Bremen and Washington. His supporters enlisted congressmen, who in turnraised Cain in the Defense Department and in the White House.
Finally, after weeks of haggling, a compromise was reached. The goods, now onthe Bremen wharves, would be released to the UNRRA director of CampFoehrenwald.
In due course the goods arrived in the camp, and we unloaded it into ourwarehouse.
The following morning, I received a message that the Rabbi wanted to see mein his room. He was one of the few people in the camp who had a room tohimself. At about eleven o’clock in the morning I went to see him. He wasdressed in the typical black garb of a Hassid. He had a long black beard. Hisblack piercing eyes penetrated me.
After a perfunctory greeting, he asserted, “When will you transfer the goodsto me?”
“Rabbi,” I said, “if the army had intended for me to transfer the material toyou, 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 hasdeveloped, 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 thepeople in the camp.” I said.
“What do you mean ‘most good for all the people in the camp’? It will do themost good for my group,” he said.
Never in my life before this had I had to confront a situation like this. Thegoods did really belong to him and his group; his supporters had raised themoney 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 Jewishrole in it. For the nth time, I had to walk a tightrope. I had to balance myconcerns over managing the camp in ways that were considerate of theresidents with satisfying the army, even though I believed they were beingoverly paranoid about the black market question. The reality was that RabbiHalberstam and his group really needed the material. It was extremelyunlikely, 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 couldsatisfy the Rabbi without turning over to him all of the supplies. That Icould not do.
I concluded the discussion by telling him that I would have to exercise myjudgment about distributing the goods. An ample share would go to him, butthe 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 areJews too, and they have suffered too.”
In despair, he turned away from me. I left the room and returned to myoffice. I also knew it was not fair.
The lack of sufficient fresh food was a constant problem in the camp. Thearmy was providing GI food, mostly canned and dehydrated. There were no freshfish, no beets, no onions, no chickens, no fresh butter, no fresh milk and nofresh eggs. The diet provided for three ounces of either meat, fish, orcheese per day. Only in the kosher kitchen was the meat freshly slaughtered.I knew from eight months as a soldier in military government, following theend of combat, that American soldiers were eating fresh meat, includingvenison and fresh vegetables, and drinking wine galore. But the survivorswere getting the left over C-rations.
In desperation, about a week or two before Passover, I went to the Munichrailroad station and sent two cables to friends in the United States to dowhat they could do politically or bureaucratically to help out. So great wasmy sense of despair at the time that I gave no thought to the possibleinterception of my cables by military intelligence.
The person who had originally recruited me into UNRRA was in the StateDepartment Office of Refugee Affairs. The other person was a prominentBerkeley architect who was on sabbatical in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The cable read: “Situation here is deteriorating. Jewish persecutees arebecoming demoralized. Eleven months after liberation they are still in camps.AJDC (American Joint Distribution Committee) supplementary Passover foodinadequate because mil (military) has not helped make special provision. Nofish, 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 dowhat he could.
Bill Wurster responded that he had telegraphed Secretary Anderson, SenatorsWalsh and Saltonstall.
The situation did not get better during the balance of my stay. From the timeI 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 ofMay, 1946, two drunken American soldiers entered a house in the German townof Wolfratshausen. On the third floor lived some German girls whom they weregoing to visit. On the second floor, there lived a Jewish family. The Jewshad some visitors from our Displaced Persons Camp, which was about two milesaway.
The soldiers stopped off in the Jewish occupied apartment. One of them, withpistol drawn, ordered the Jews to stand at attention. One of the Jews had aharmonica and was ordered to play on it. The other soldier drew a knife, andwent around the room, pretending to stab everyone. He demanded that thepeople show him their identification papers. When one of the Jews refused togive the soldier his purse, the soldier struck him on the lower cheek withthe pistol butt. He kept asking everyone whether they were Jewish. When onereplied that he was, the soldier said repeatedly, “Son of a bitch Jew.” Hethen 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 thegate of the camp, they notified the Jewish DP police. One of the policesounded the camp siren, giving the danger signal. In the camp theater at thetime, there were about a thousand Jews watching a movie. Suddenly, from therear of the auditorium, a door opened, and into the darkness, a shriek washeard, “Shkhite- Me harget Yidden in Wolfratshausen.” (Massacre – They’rekilling Jews in Wolfratshausen!)
Within five minutes, the auditorium was cleared of people. The huge mob, fedby conflicting stories, each one bloodier than the previous one, proceeded enmasse, impulsively, in panic — out of the camp, and onto the road to theGerman town.
Margaret Gerber, my Assistant Director, later described the scene:
“A shortdistance from the camp we came upon a mob of DPs milling around and shoutingangrily. We drove the jeep to the edge of the crowd and got out. It took me acouple of minutes to get my bearings…Then I realized that the DPs werebeating up on a German who was bleeding about the head and face and wasprotesting loudly that he hadn’t done anything. I fought my way through thecrowd and tried to get them to leave the man alone. The German clung to mefor dear life, and I protected him as best I could. However, the crowd wasviolent, we were both thrown into the ditch. The German was torn away, beatenagain, thrown to the ground and kicked. I realized his life was in jeopardyand that he had to be safely got away at all costs. I succeeded in gettinghim piled into an UNRAA truck, I climbed in with him, and we drove off to thecamp police station.”
Several hundred DPs started north on the road to Wolfratshausen on a missionof rescue and revenge.
I had been alerted to the problem soon after it started, and instructed mostof the team to head for the Camp. I drove to the police station inWolfratshausen to coordinate with the German police and the U.S. Army. Iadvised the army lieutenant who was there that he place a roadblock aboutthree-quarters of a mile north of the camp, in case we could not control thesituation. I headed for the Camp.
When I arrived at the outskirts of the camp, I saw some of my team membersand the camp police forming a human chain, and beginning to contain the surgeof people towards the German town. Gradually, we got them all back into thecamp.
The army report on the incident provides another illustration of thedifferences of perspective of those of us who were concerned with thewell-being and rehabilitation of the survivors, and who had an empathy forthem, and of those who were concerned with law and order in the occupiedlands.
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 inthe Foehrenwald assembly center created a disturbance in the vicinity of thecamp which resulted in injury to three or more civilians and an attempt todetain an officer of the United States Army. An estimated 300 of the campresidents were involved in the disturbance. Although various rumors ofshooting, kidnapping and otherwise maltreating Jews were current, evidenceindicated that the activity of the DPs was probably the result of agitationby and on behalf of Mr. Cohen, UNRRA Camp Director.”
There was no reference in the army report to the incident in Wolfratshauseninvolving 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 dangerduring the holocaust years.
We had many visitors to the Camp. One weekend we were visited by Rabbi ChaimHerzog, the Chief Rabbi of Palestine. The spirit among the displaced personson this occasion was excited and optimistic.
Among other prominent visitors were the prominent Yiddish poet, H. Leivickand the singer, Emma Shaver. In the two evening concerts we arranged, MsShaver sang Yiddish songs, and Leivick read his poetry and short stories.On their last morning in the Camp, while having their breakfast, a teen-agegirl came over, and said to them with a touch of hesitation, “I would like tosing 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 inanother 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’sthoughts 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 herselfagainst the wall. She announced that she would sing a song of the Shavlerghetto. “Then I will sing a few other songs. I have a large selection.”Leivick recounted, “She begins to sing with a deep-throated voice. Shebecomes completely absorbed with the pain of a Jewish child, whose mother hasto give her away to non-Jews in order to save her from the fire. The song isfull of endless pain.”
Leivick told me later, “We swallowed our tears, listening to her energeticvoice.”
When she appeared to be finished, Leivick asked her for her name and whereshe was from. She responded that her name was Basha, she was sixteen, shecame from the Vilna area, and that she was all alone.
Girl: “My parents were killed. At the age of twelve, I was taken to aconcentration camp. Altogether, I was in eleven camps. I spent my timecarrying rocks. I was freed by the Red Army. I went to Byalistock, where Icontracted Typhus Fever. As I got better, I eventually made my way west toFoehrenwald. 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 therewith some complaints, and were crying.
“The food supplies are inadequate,” the women complained. “Forget us, we canmanage, but our small children are hungry. There is no butter for them, nomilk, no eggs, no fruit. What shall we do?”
I tried to reassure the women. “I am doing all I can do to secure better foodsupplies. I hope my efforts will succeed.”
Leivick remarked to Emma Shaver as they were leaving: “He is trying toconvince the women, though he himself is not convinced.”
Between 5 and 9 babies were being born each week. Nine to fifteen monthsafter liberation, there were about 200 pregnant women in the camp at any onetime. 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 thousandpopulation, at least 50 percent greater than the highest current birth ratesin the world, in Afghanistan and Kenya. It was obviously a response to thelosses suffered during the Holocaust.
Our hospital was well equipped, and fully used. The physicians, who were notJewish, had escaped from Hungary towards the end of the war, as the Russianarmy was advancing on Hungary and the Germans were retreating. The physicianswere already in place when I arrived in the camp. For all I knew they werefascists, but they were good doctors, and the survivors needed good medicalcare.
There came a time in the Spring when the surviving Jewish doctors wanted totake over from the Hungarian doctors. The Jewish doctors had not practicedmedicine for four or five years. While all my sympathy lay with them, I waseven 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 wantthe Hungarian doctors.”
To this day, fifty years later, I still hear the man at the head of the womenprotesters repeating the same words, “We pregnant women want the Hungariandoctors.”
We kept the Hungarian doctors in place. Several months later, after I leftthe camp, the changeover to the Jewish doctors was made.
One of the more eloquent statements about the effects of the holocaust wasincluded in a report prepared by Simon Rifkind, prominent New York jurist andlawyer, who served as Chief Advisor on Jewish Affairs to Generals Eisenhowerand McNarney during 1945-46. He wrote:
“In the eastern countries, principally in Poland and the Baltic states, theJews developed a religious civilization far different from the nativeculture…. Despite poverty and oppression … [their way of life] was richin ethical significance, colorful in expression, and always intense.Scholarship was … accorded first priority in Jewish life in Eastern Europeand great academies of learning were built from which graduated people ofrenown. Seminaries poured forth religious leaders who carried to Jewishcommunities all over the world spiritual inspiration and guidance. Jewishmusic was scored, a Jewish literature flowered…. This … civilizationenriched not only the Jews of the world but played an important part in theenhancement of human thought everywhere.
“Their civilization, laboriously created over the centuries, has been broughtlow; its leadership is dead; its institutions–economic, social, religiousand scholarly–are demolished.”
This tragedy is what we are remembering today.
Copyright 1996 Henry Cohen. All Rights Reserved.