Holocaust Survivors: Rescue and Resettlement in the United States
They had made it through World War II and now they were coming to America, 140,000 strong. The women, along with the men, had survived the rigors of the ghettos, the horrors of the concentration camps, the final agony of the death marches. They had been in hiding, or fighting with the partisans. They had escaped to the Soviet Union, some to Shanghai. And even after the war, they had been penned into displaced persons camps, in a holding pattern, waiting for a place to live, determined to get out of Europe. Now America was finally opening its doors, the doors that had been so tightly guarded during the war and, before, in the 1930s. And the American Jewish community was about to shoulder a responsibility that would sorely test its resources, commitment, and understanding.
The newcomers were refugees, but refugees extraordinaire. Unlike even their Jewish predecessors who had fled Nazism in the 1930s and early 1940s, these people were virtually the only survivors of their entire families and had been victims of and witnesses to unimaginable crimes. Yet they had kept moving, going about the business of living, jump-starting their lives with a remarkable determination. While the men were bent on earning a living, the women were equally determined to raise a family and make a life for themselves and their husbands. In looking over their experience, many of these women today argue that their task was actually more difficult than that of the men. “The men were responsible for work, for a job, but women had to find schools, organizations, care for children, run the household.” “While he was in the store all day, I had to take care of everything else!” “We had to be more flexible and strong.” This was no mean feat considering the fact that they did this not only in an alien culture but, in most cases, without any close family members who could lend guidance and emotional support.
In studies that were conducted both in the early 1950s and then forty years later, researchers concluded that Holocaust survivors did indeed adjust to a new life in America with an “amazing resiliency” that was most impressive, perhaps even heroic. The data on immigrants, however, are not broken down or explored, by and large, with gender in mind. This is particularly surprising given the fact that the majority of professional social workers and volunteers who interacted with the refugees were themselves women. Women’s issues, if they were defined at all, were merely subsumed under the men or ignored. And yet, while there appears to be no variation in the long-term, overall adjustment of men and women, there does appear to be a clear difference in the nature of the struggle that each group fought. Men and women had divergent responsibilities and priorities. They saw life and measured their achievements differently.
The women who came to America after the war were distinct from the majority of women refugees who had escaped in the 1930s. They were generally younger (many in their early twenties), from Eastern Europe versus Germany and Austria, and were less educated or set upon a career path. After the war, despite all the adversity they had suffered, their number one priority was to marry and raise a family. While most women admitted that they had married so quickly after the war out of loneliness and the need for security, the decision to have children was different: It was a positive step of hope and affirmation that the women were making.
The business of marrying and having children had begun in the displaced persons camp immediately after the war. By the end of 1946, nearly a thousand Jewish children were being born each month in the DP camps. In looking back over their experiences, most of the women interviewed in a Pittsburgh study of survivors recalled their great joy at being pregnant. They pointed out that not only were they eager to start a family but they were relieved that they could indeed get pregnant, since most of the women in the concentration camps had not menstruated while they had been there, due to their near-starvation diets. They also had been concerned that, perhaps because of what they had gone through, they would not be able to carry a healthy baby to term. Several women did admit, however, that either they never realized how difficult the job of raising their children would be or that they were scared.
When the women came to America, they knew they would have to work. Very few of the refugees expected the streets to be paved with gold as perhaps an earlier immigration had fantasized. But the work they expected to do generally revolved around the home or, if it involved pay, was to add a little extra to the family income. In a study of survivors that was conducted in Detroit in 1953, the women who were employed, or had at one time been employed, saw their jobs primarily as a way to supplement their husbands’ income. They had no interest in being “career women.” (Neither did most American-born women of that time, for that matter.) Moreover, their occupation range was narrow—nurses’ aides, seamstresses, salespeople, and office workers. In a Cleveland study that included several single women who were heads of households (usually widows with children), none apparently was striving to better herself vocationally. They were “marking time” mostly as factory laborers or seamstresses until they would marry again. In Pittsburgh, the majority of women who did work were either seamstresses working out of their homes or they helped their husbands in small businesses such as cleaning or roofing. But their career or lack thereof was not how they judged their success in America. They, much more than the men, tended to measure their success in America by their family—their children’s character, education, success, happiness, Jewishness. That had been their goal and the source of so much satisfaction and pride.
But there was frustration. Most of the women did not continue the education the war had interrupted, and for some this was a source of dissatisfaction as they looked back over their lives. They felt that they had just been too busy and never had the time. Some women indicated that they did not know that free high school classes, for example, would have been available to them and they bemoaned the fact that nobody really had told them. One woman speculated that perhaps her social worker wanted to make sure that she stayed home and took care of the children. Others noted that no agency or organization (even a woman’s organization) ever offered child care, something that would have been very much appreciated in the absence of family members. There was also no possibility that the women could pay for a baby-sitter to allow them to go to school.
Yet while women often did not pursue educational opportunities in this country, they did adjust rapidly to American life, which in large measure was tied to their ability to learn English. While many women had indicated that upon arrival their toughest problem was the language, they still felt they learned the language faster than the men. And they did this without the help of classes, which the men, but not the women, were encouraged by social workers to take before obtaining a job. Unlike an earlier wave of immigrants at the turn of the century, being housebound was not nearly as stifling and isolating as it had been, for much could be learned from the radio as well as from children. A number of women interviewed in Pittsburgh felt that women tended to talk more to Americans for a variety of reasons as they went about their daily household business and/or they had a greater natural facility for languages than the men.
The program that assisted the refugees after the war was a far-reaching one that depended on national and local community organization and cooperation. Communities around the country were given quotas of new immigrants that they were asked to resettle so that the financial burden would be distributed. The United Service for New Americans (USNA), which was formed in 1946 from a merger of the National Refugee Service and the Service to Foreign Born Department of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), coordinated the resettlement of the postwar refugees in America. Katharine Engel of the NCJW became the first chair of the USNA board. Indeed, since the turn of the century, NCJW women had offered an array of services to assist immigrants, from location of relatives to Americanization programs. In the 1930s, Cecilia Razovsky of NCJW had become the first head of the newly formed National Coordinating Committee to aid refugees.
By 1950, more than two hundred local sections of the NCJW were carrying on a wide program of services, and in communities where there was no Jewish family agency, the women volunteers were the heart of the immigrant resettlement program. In Pittsburgh, for example, NCJW women met newcomers at the train station, took them to appointments, offered English and naturalization classes, and helped them find housing (a particularly difficult task given the postwar housing shortage and the fact that landlords often chose not to rent to couples with a child). NCJW women also established a special thrift shop which, at the height of the refugee crunch in 1949 and 1950, relieved some of the financial strain on the Pittsburgh Jewish community and provided clothing and household goods to the refugees.
Yet, despite the efforts of NCJW women, there was still a distance between them and the newcomers that was keenly felt by the refugee women. NCJW volunteers did not provide the friendship and warmth that many of the survivors of the Holocaust needed. Americans, both men and women, did not understand or appreciate what these “greeners” had been through, and the survivors soon learned, if they had been so inclined, not to talk about their experiences except among themselves. Ethel Landerman, a young social work intern for Montefiore Hospital where the refugees were treated free of charge, remarked: “We had no sense of the Holocaust as we know now, with a capital H. We really didn’t understand what people were telling us. The stories sounded too horrible. We simply did not believe them.” The women survivors associated with one another. They met in the park with their children. If they joined American organizations (which they did do at a greater rate than the men), they tended to join organizations (at least in the Pittsburgh sample) that were dedicated to Israel. This, of course, is not surprising, since so many of the women had wanted to go to Palestine immediately after the war but for a variety of reasons, including pregnancy, could not. Not one woman in Pittsburgh mentioned joining the National Council of Jewish Women, which had provided them with early assistance. Hospitality was extended to the Pittsburgh survivors through the women of the Friendship Club, a group of German Jewish refugees formed in the early 1930s. However, while many postwar refugees appreciated their outreach and went occasionally to Hanukkah parties and the like, many of these Eastern European women were uncomfortable with the older German women.
The women survivors who came after the war were driven to re-create a world of family. This was their priority and the task to which they dedicated themselves, but they were on their own, often citing Dr. Spock as their only adviser. They had to maneuver in a culture that offered exciting possibilities and opportunities, which they appreciated, but that also was not beyond criticism. While they applauded the freedom children had in America, for example, they deplored the numbers of “sassy and fresh” kids it produced. In inventing a family and running the household, these women acted as the bridge between the despair and destruction of the past and the hope of the future. They were the ones who communicated to the next generation the sense of possibility to which their children so readily responded. The very fact that women chose to have children was itself an act of faith and courage.
These were traditional women, but they were faced with anything but traditional challenges. The fact that they succeeded so well in raising children and making a life for themselves and their husbands can be seen as more than their defiant response to Hitler. It is a testament to the strength of these women and to the human spirit.
Research included interviews with fifteen women Holocaust survivors, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, summer 1996.
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Kirschmann, Doris, and Sylvia Savin. “Refugee Adjustment—Five Years Later.” The Jewish Social Service Quarterly 30, no. 2 (Winter 1953): 197–201.
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