Displaced Persons Literature

Marcel Krueger explores the Displaced Persons Literature collection at the Berlin State Library…

They don’t look like much. Just a selection of pamphlets and booklets printed on cheap paper, dog-eared and rumpled from frequent use, bound together with rusty clips. But this collection of works, the first Jewish publications written and printed in Germany right after World War II—so-called ‘Displaced Persons Literature’—are a powerful and poignant reminder of a time of uncertainty, resilience and hope.

Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – PK. Lizenz: CC-BY-NC-SA

The term Displaced Person (DP) was widely used by the western Allies and referred to the many people—around eleven million in total, seven million of whom wound up in Germany—who found themselves removed from their native country as refugees, former concentration camp prisoners or slave labourers for Nazi Germany in the aftermath of World War II.

Many came from the eastern Europe, and most wanted to return to their native lands as quickly as possible. In the case of Jewish DPs however, this was not easy: whole communities had been uprooted and destroyed by the Nazis in the Holocaust, and many of those liberated from the concentration camps had no home or family left to return to: many planned to emigrate to the USA or Palestine.

By 1947, some 850,000 people lived in camps the US troops had set up in their respective zones of occupation, which by then were operated by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). In Berlin there were ten such  camps altogether: four in the US zone of occupation in Zehlendorf, Schlachtensee and Mariendorf, four in the French sector in Wittenau and Wedding, and two in the Soviet sector in Mitte and Pankow. Most existed only for a few months, but those in the US zone operated longer.

The largest of these was the Düppel Center, or Schlachtensee DP Camp, in Steglitz-Zehlendorf which housed over 5,000 Jewish Displaced Persons. As with most other DP camps, the Düppel Center had its own schools, churches, synagogues, gyms and sporting events—even its own university and a Yiddish theatre. At the top of the local administration was an elected central committee that took care of the camp, and the camp also had its own courts and police. The main language was Yiddish, and kosher meals were offered.

Exterior of the the centre at the Berlin-Duppel displaced persons camp, 1947. US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In this waiting room of uncertainty, for a short time, a special publishing industry blossomed. Poets, writers and editors living in the camps produced their own newspapers, poetry collections, memorials to murdered people, lists of missing persons, most of them in Hebrew and Yiddish. Among the publications that blossomed in these times is the camp newspaper “Undzer hofenung” (Our Hope), printed in the Eschwege Airbase DP camp in Hesse, and the “Sh’erit ha-Pletah” (The Remnant of the Saved) created by American military rabbi Abraham Klausner (1915-2007).

Klausner served in a Displaced Persons camp created at the former concentration camp in Dachau, Bavaria. In his own words, his collection was “an extensive list of survivors of Nazi tyranny […] so that the lost may be found and the dead brought back to life”; several volumes listing thousands of names would eventually be printed and distributed around German DP camps.

The Displaced Persons literature collection also features works published by writers who perished in the Holocaust, like the novel “Dos Geto in flamen” (The Ghetto in Flames) by Łódź-born poet and scholar Shmuel Gelbart (1908-1943), which retells the destruction of the Kaunas ghetto in Lithuania. Other works reflect on the situation in the camps like “Tsurik tsum leben”, (Back to Life), a collection of DP camp stories by Malkah Kelerikh (1897-?). Malkah was born in Rovno (today: Rivne) in Volhynia and published her first stories before World War II. Her book addresses life in hiding, and a satirical view of life in the ghetto, including the dehumanisation aspect of the death marches.

Duppel, Germany, Jewish children at an UNRRA camp read from a Hebrew wall newspaper called “Baderech” (On the Way) , year unknown. Image Yad Vashem

For the majority of Holocaust survivors—who also referred to themselves as the She’erit Hapleta—the DP camps represented a transitional phase, with people moving between camps on a regular basis; before he emigrated to the US in 1949, Lithuanian filmmaker and poet Jonas Mekas (1922 – 2019) lived in camps in Bremen, Wiesbaden, Mainz and Kassel.

Sometimes the atmosphere of uncertainty and toll of transit, plus the fact that some DP camps, just like Soviet POW camps, had been erected in former concentration camps, also led to frustration. The Polish writer Tadeusz Borowski (1922 – 1951) expressed this in his poem “Dary demokratyczne” (Democratic Gifts), written during his time in the Dachau camp:

Democracy gave Unra, in Unra – beer

and a sixth part of bread each day (three hundred grams).

Long live democracy! It’s a good thing we survived,

one needs to leave a trace for those who will come, the ages.

Democracy gave everything, it wants nothing itself,

Churchill said: “we’re fighting for an idea, not profit”,

I would like to give democracy something… more than time and space,

I would like to offer democracy punch in the face!

Slowly but surely the displaced persons moved on, and most of the camps were closed by the end of the 1940s—although one camp, Föhrenwald in Bavaria, operated until 1957. The Düppel Center was closed during the Berlin Blockade in July 1948 together with the rest of the camps in the western zones of Berlin, and its inhabitants were all airlifted to camps in West Germany.

The camp barracks were afterwards used to house refugees from the GDR and, after the Wall was built in 1961, as accommodation for socially deprived West Berlin families. The Steglitz barracks were finally demolished in the early 1970s, and today a memorial plaque on house number 87 on Potsdamer Chaussee and an information board at the Kurstraße bus stop are the only reminders that the Düppel Centre once existed.

Berliner_Gedenktafel_Potsdamer_Chaussee_87_(Nikol)_Düppel_Center. Via Wikimedia Commons.

What remains of the DP camps today is their literature of uprootedness and hope. Due to the transitional character of the camps and their writers and publishers it is not possible to precisely quantify the number of publications that are considered DP literature, and there is no overall bibliography or a central archive. Literature is still being found that, due to the time and place of publication, must be clearly considered DP literature.

At the time of writing, the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Berlin State Library), along with the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Library in Hanover and the Bavarian State Library in Munich, has one of the most important collections of Displaced Persons literature in Europe.

With the help of the Freunde der Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin e.V. (the official support association of the library), the collection is currently in the process of being restored and made widely accessible for scholars as well as the public. The restoration project bears the Yiddish name “Mir zenen do!” (“We are here!”), after the chorus of a partisan hymn written by poet Hirsch Glik (1922-1944), and aims at restoring all 430 items of DP literature in the library collection. If you would like to donate to this project, details can be found below…

Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – PK. Lizenz: CC-BY-NC-SA

 

The Berlin State Library together with Freunde der Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin e.V. is looking for donations to help the restoration effort. 

Freunde der Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin e.V

IBAN: DE 69 1007 0024 0439 3922 04

Reason for payment: DP-Literatur + name + address for donation receipt

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