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Journal of the History of Sexuality 11.1 and 2 (2002) 291-318

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Victims, Villains, and Survivors:
Gendered Perceptions and Self-Perceptions of Jewish Displaced Persons in Occupied Postwar Germany

Atina Grossmann
Cooper Union

As we write the history of the post-1945 years, we are only now rediscovering what was amply obvious to contemporaries: that in the immediate postwar period occupied Germany was the unlikely, unloved, and reluctant host to hundreds of thousands of its former victims, housed in refugee camps in the U.S. and British zones and in the American sector of Berlin. Of course, at war's end, millions of people, including ethnic Germans expelled from Eastern Europe as well as former soldiers, forced laborers, and survivors of death and work camps, were on the move. The available statistics, both those collected at the time and those calculated by historians, are highly variable and surely inaccurate, itself a sign of the chaos that accompanied peace and the speed with which conditions changed. Some twenty million people clogged the roads, straggling from East to West and West to East. Astonishingly, between May and September 1945, the victors had managed to repatriate about six million of the seven million persons defined as "displaced" and eligible for return to [End Page 291] their homelands, hence not including the Germans expelled from occupied areas. A significant number of those who remained uprooted and on western Allied territory as displaced persons (DPs) were Jewish survivors of Nazi genocide and involuntary migration, primarily from Poland to the Soviet Union; precisely the people that both the Allies and the Germans had least expected to have to deal with in the aftermath of National Socialism's genocidal war. 1

The existence of displaced persons and the "DP problem" in postwar Europe are certainly not new topics for historians. Yet it has been particularly difficult for historians to chronicle or understand adequately the Jewish DP experience. For both scholars and survivors, the transitional years of the displaced persons have generally been bracketed and overshadowed by the preceding tragedy of war and holocaust and the subsequent establishment of new communities and the state of Israel. The problem is certainly not one of available sources. Yet, despite the very recent proliferation of publications, conferences, films, and exhibitions, spurred in large part by the efforts of the "second generation" born in DP camps or communities, the social history of Jewish DPs remains a topic for which there are many more contemporary sources than good current work that mines them. 2 Moreover, some of the most important studies have been written either for [End Page 292] a German-speaking audience interested in the postwar history of Jews in Germany 3 or as part of an Israeli historiography focused on the history of Zionism and the role of Holocaust survivors in the founding of the state. 4 [End Page 293] To add to the confusion, the history of the Jewish DPs, perhaps like that of any community that had endured overwhelming losses and lived in transit, is not only their own but that of many other interested (and more or less powerful) parties. It involves Allied occupation policy, which evolved from unconditional surrender and de-Nazification to Cold War anti-Communism and cooperative reconstruction in western Germany; the British policy toward Palestine; the U.S. policy on immigration in general and American Jewish pressures in particular; the Zionist demands and actions to deliver Jews to Palestine for the establishment of a Jewish state; the politics of the Soviet Union and the newly Communist Eastern European nations from which many of the survivors came; the emerging mandates of the United Nations and the international relief organizations; and finally the varied experiences of the by no means monolithic Jewish survivor community itself. In my previous work, I have juxtaposed German and Jewish postwar history, insisting (as I would still, despite some highly skeptical responses) that the story of the Jewish DPs (and other survivors) needs to be firmly inserted into our...


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