Commentary Magazine


The Redeemers: A Saga of the Years 1945-1952, by Leo W. Schwarz

The Saving Remnant
The Redeemers: A Saga of the Years 1945-1952.
by Leo W. Schwarz.
Farrar, Straus and Young. 385 pp. $4.50.

 

The “redeemers” in the title of Mr. Schwarz’s book are the liberated Jews in Germany, known to the outside world as “displaced persons,” described by themselves as the Sherit ha-Pleta, an expression derived from Chronicles I meaning “the remnant that escaped.” One might think, at first, that the title is a misnomer; the “redeemers” should perhaps have been the “redeemed.” But in the selection of his title Mr. Schwarz has stated the theme of his book and epitomized the historical role of the 200,000 homeless Jews who escaped the destruction of Hitler’s war against them.

In telling the story of the Jews in Germany from the time of their liberation until the closing down of the displaced-persons camps, Mr. Schwarz makes explicit the fact that by their very existence and their tremendous clamor for a new life they brought about the creation of the State of Israel. For the Sherit ha-Pleta was the keeper of the world’s conscience, the living reminder of the Jewish catastrophe, the rear guard of a ghostly army of 6,000,000 Jews. Burdened with an unwanted sense of guilt for the murdered and provoked by the incredible vitality of people whom even death had not vanquished, the United Nations had indeed little choice when it voted the partition of Palestine.

Mr. Schwarz has elected to tell his story from the point of view of a small group of men, themselves survivors of the death camps, who became leaders of the Sherit ha-Pleta, and it is through their eyes that the dramatic events from 1945 to 1952 are seen. The perspective is true; though the other participants in the drama-the Americans, British, and French as liberators and occupiers, the Germans as the defeated and conquered, the United Nations as welfare and political instrument-played important parts, it was the Jews themselves who took the leading role and who, in the main, fashioned their future destiny.

The author was intimate with the people and events. As director of the Joint Distribution Committee program in the American zone of Germany in 1946-47, he worked closely with the organizations of the Sherit ha-Pleta. As a Jewish writer and scholar, Mr. Schwarz brought to his administrative functions compassion, breadth of vision, and knowledge of East European Jewish life, qualities infrequent among the army, UNRRA, and JDC personnel in Germany. Most important perhaps was his recognition of the dignity of the Sherit haPleta and its right to autonomy in that strange community that developed in the displacedpersons camps in Germany.

The internal life of the Sherit ha-Pleta comprises a good part of the book and Mr. Schwarz vividly describes how the men and women who emerged from the German death camps and the Russian labor camps with nothing more than haunting memories and a will to live organized a society that for seven years existed in a political limbo. Its government, the Central Committee of Liberated Jews, was unique -a representative autonomy functioning under what was practically statutory recognition by the American army; its economy was anomalous, based as it was on UNRRA and JDC relief and only tangentially touching the German economy; its social institutions were a mixture of the old and new-a self-contained, selfadministered system of justice reminiscent of medieval Jewish communities and 20th-century schools and kindergartens. The vivid account of the origin and development of these and other institutions and of the Central Committee’s constant struggle for broader responsibility and self-government in the regulation of the Sherit ha-Pleta’s internal affairs is, however important, only part of the book. For though the Jews in the camps fought daily for more freedom and better living conditions, their thoughts were dominated by hopes for the future and the chance to forsake once and for all their limbo existence.

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It is with these hopes that the author is most concerned, and the role of the Sherit ha-Pleta in the complex international political situation occupies a substantial part of the book. Every Jew had to find a home, a place where he could once again seek personal happiness and security in a normal society. But few doors were open and even those were not open very wide.

Of the 200,000 liberated Jews, 145,000 (72.5 per cent) eventually went to Palestine (later Israel), 46,000 (23 per cent) to the United States, and 9,000 (4.5 per cent) to Australia, Canada, England, France, Sweden, and other countries. It would be pleasant to think these figures represented emigration to countries of the emigrants’ choice, but the very fact that now, at the close of 1953, hundreds of liberated Jews who had emigrated to Israel have returned to the hated German soil merely to remain eligible for American or Canadian visas, is sad proof of the restrictions on immigration faced by the Sherit ha-Pleta.

Mr. Schwarz says, at one point, that only “small but significant groups” among the Sherit ha-Pleta “preferred” to emigrate to the United States, Canada, and Australia. Actually very many-who knows, perhaps mostwould have “preferred” to emigrate to the United States and other Western countries. But it was not so much a question of preference as of possibility. Many Jews throughout Germany were registered for emigration to several countries at one time, with a view to accepting the first possibility that appeared. In Bergen-Belsen in the British zone of Germany, a stronghold of political Zionism, a substantial part of the camp population was registered for emigration to Canada, Australia, and whatever countries were at that time accepting immigrants. The arrival in 1947 of the Canadian Tailors’ Commission to select a small group of Canadian immigrants touched off near riots in the camp when many hundreds besieged the Commission for applications.

Because there was really no free choice in emigration, the longing of the Sherit ha-Pleta for a home and normality was channeled by its leaders (with an assist from the Jewish Agency for Palestine) into the organized Zionist movement. This longing accounted for the tremendous surge and power of the demands by the Sherit ha-Pleta for free immigration to Palestine. It explains the willingness of people who had already endured too much to undertake illegal journeys covering hundreds of miles that frequently ended, not unexpectedly, in the detention camps on Cyprus. It explains the solid front presented to the various UN investigating commissions. It explains the almost inexplicable fortitude and single-mindedness of the 5,500 Jews of the “Exodus 1947,” whose extraordinary story Mr. Schwarz tells from start to finish.

But we should not overlook the fact that the Zionist organizations exercised discipline and pressure to keep many liberated Jews in line with Zionist political demands. There were actually instances of Zionist sabotage of specific immigration projects to countries other than Palestine. (One instance that this reviewer learned of concerned an immigration scheme for a small number of people to go to Holland. Local Zionist opposition in the camp effectively killed the plan; subsequently it was learned that migration to Holland, in this case, had merely been the start of a route for illegal immigration to Palestine.) After the State of Israel was established, the Zionist pressure in the camps for migration to Israel mounted, and Mr. Schwarz himself discusses briefly the unpleasant aspects of the “giyus” (“draft”), in which economic sanctions and other methods of coercion were applied to effect greater immigration to Israel.

But this exception to Mr. Schwarz’s opinion on the Sherit ha-Pleta’s emigration preferences need not seriously affect our admiration for his splendid book. While his own experience contributed to the depth of his understanding, Mr. Schwarz had, in preparing his book, the additional benefit of his incomparable collection of published and unpublished materials on the subject. Most of the documentation is concentrated in sixty-five pages of notes at the end of the book.

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One word more. The Redeemers has significance beyond the Sherit ha-Pleta. Some of the problems encountered in the camps in Germany were similar to those faced by the United States in administering its unfortunate relocation centers for Japanese Americans during the last war. Alexander H. Leighton’s excellent book about the relocation centers, The Governing of Men (Princeton University, 1945), dealing in large measure with the problem of self-government, was little noticed by the welfare teams who worked in the camps in Germany and who might usefully have applied some of the book’s findings. Mr. Schwarz’s book now may be a useful handbook for administrators working in areas among uprooted or ravaged populations, whether they are concerned with the rehabilitation of Jews or Arab refugees or South Koreans.

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