Perhaps it is the human instinct for closure that prompts us to believe in happily-ever-afters. Fairy tales end with marriage. War movies end with the last gunshot, the smoke clearing. If there's such a thing as a collective notion of the Holocaust, it might end--as in "Life Is Beautiful"--with an American tank thundering in to save the Jews, buoyed by triumphant music.
All of which, of course, is to neglect the aftermath of the Holocaust for the living. Many Jews survived concentration camps only to be placed--some for as many as six years--in another sort of camp, with its own penury and isolation. For many sent to displaced persons camps, it was as if the war were not quite over.
Today, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opens its first exhibit on the 90 camps built for the minority of displaced Jews who could not or would not return home after World War II. For these survivors, most of them Eastern European, repatriation was not an option--either because antisemitism still raged in the motherland or because, as one Holocaust survivor says of her birthplace, Poland: "That was no longer my country. . . . There was nobody left."
Between 1945 and 1951, 250,000 Jews were housed in displaced persons camps in Germany, Austria and Italy. They evolved into communities rooted in Zionism and survivalism. (In total, 700 to 900 camps existed for people who lost their homes in the war.) In time, these Jews moved to Israel, America and elsewhere. But the years in displacement camps served as a time of grinding transition from horror to hope.
In the small space devoted to "Life Reborn: Jewish Displaced Persons, 1945-1951," which runs through May 2000, are artifacts of a people struggling to reclaim normalcy in grim circumstances. There is a wedding dress made of a white nylon parachute that was lent to 17 women who married while in the camps. There is a Hanukah menorah whose candleholders are copper bullet casings. There is the frontispiece of a Torah printed in the camps, decorated with the image of barbed wire.
The early conditions of the camps--complete with barbed wire and guards--were deplorable, and in late 1945, the exhibition says, the United States stepped up efforts to improve them. A handful of displacement camps were initially situated on the grounds of former concentration camps. In one exhibition photograph of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, taken immediately after its inhabitants were freed, survivors cook outside on the cold ground with the naked bodies of the dead piled casually behind them.
Over time, many of the displacement camps became clean, safe refuges for those who had nowhere else to go. For Polish-born Bella Mischkinsky, 77, who had survived ghettos and two concentration camps, a displaced persons camp in Zeilsheim, a small town near Frankfurt, Germany, was a place to rest, try to find her family, and look toward the future.
"People were free," says Mischkinsky, who now lives in Derwood, Md., and volunteers at the museum. "They were entertaining themselves. It was a young crowd."
The very old and the very young had been gassed, worked to death or conquered by disease during the war, so those who lived in displaced persons camps were middle-aged and young adults. In 1946 and 1947, the Jewish camps had one of the highest birth rates in the world, according to museum curators.
"Part of it was motivated by the desire to deny Hitler final victory," says curator Steven Luckert.
With the help of Allied money, relief agencies and the U.N. Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, a civilian organization, the survivors established schools, hospitals, makeshift theaters.
In 1948, many of the Jewish camps started to dissolve as Israel opened its doors and the United States passed the first of two acts widening its borders to immigrants. The last camp closed in 1957, by which time America was well into its economic and population boom and war seemed, strangely, very far away.
It's far too easy to forget the immediate aftermath of the war, says Menachem Rosensaft, a New Yorker who sits on several of the museum's committees and who was born in the displaced persons camp at Bergen-Belsen. For many people, "the survivors are last seen in concentration camp uniforms on the day of their liberation, staring aimlessly into the distance. And then, fast forward 40 or 50 years to communities where gray- and white-haired men and women light candles and recite memorial prayers."
But the years of transition in displacement camps, say the survivors and their children, are too crucial to be forgotten. They tell of pride, resilience and that thing we call, grandly, the human spirit.
Romana Strochlitz Primus, chairman of the project that includes the exhibit, tells a story about her mother and father, who met and fell in love at the displaced persons camp at Bergen-Belsen. Her father one day borrowed a motorcycle to impress the woman he loved. He took her for a ride, but realized once they hit the road that he didn't know how to stop.
So they rode the motorcycle till they ran out of gas. But it didn't matter. They rode simply for the pleasure of it. Because they could.
"There was no destination," Primus says. "It was purely for joy."
CAPTION: Bella Mischkinsky, 77, survived two concentration camps and a displaced persons camp.