In the measured, meticulous brush strokes appropriate to its mission of documentation and memorialization, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum paints a somber picture with the exhibition "Life Reborn: Jewish Displaced Persons, 1945-1951." Actually, it isn't so much a single, large image as it is a lot of little ones: a mosaic made up of photographs, letters, diary pages, newspaper clippings, artifacts and posters that only resolves into focus when you step back from contemplating the parts to take in the whole. You might say that the story it tells isn't really a story at all, but an epilogue to one that didn't end exactly the way our memories say it did.
Here, the story only begins where in many tellings it's supposed to have ended.
It was the spring of 1945 and the Allies had taken Germany. Hostilities, as they say, had ended. Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun's charred bodies, slain by their own hands, lay in a hasty grave.
All over Europe, people were staggering out of hiding places and from behind the barbed wire of concentration camps as the good guys rounded up the bad. World War II was over.
Except that for many the suffering was anything but done.
According to the bureaucratese of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force manual issued to categorize the flood of humanity left high and dry by the retreating tide of war, they were Displaced Persons, or more simply DPs. The impersonal catchall term referred to people who had fled or been driven and snatched from their homes by the Nazis -- and there were 7 million of them, processed into some 900 "assembly centers" hastily thrown up across Europe by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. By October of 1945, 6 million of them would be repatriated to the countries from which they had been dragooned for forced labor, leaving yet another million or so who refused or were unable to go home.
Swollen by a wave of "infiltrees" (refugees fleeing antisemitism in Poland, Hungary, Romania and Russia), the masses of those unaccounted for included 250,000 Jews, many of whom were about to be shoved back into the camps from which they had just been liberated, for lack of alternative places to house them. In some cases, because of the shortage of civilian clothing, Jewish DPs had no choice but to wear the striped uniforms of their recent imprisonment while their rescuers tried to figure out what to do with them.
It soon became obvious that the Jewish DPs posed a unique problem and would have to be dealt with separately from the population of non-Jewish DPs, which could just as easily include Nazi collaborators as Holocaust survivors. But while waiting for admission to such perceived havens as the United States and British-controlled Palestine (both of which immediately after the war still imposed strict limitations on immigration), most of the Jews would languish under armed guards in camps housing anywhere from a couple of dozen to more than 1,000 inmates, in some cases for months or even years. As "Life Reborn" makes painfully clear, for these stateless persons there was little to distinguish their post-liberation "freedom" from their pre-liberation hell.
In the succinct words of former U.S. immigration commissioner Earl G. Harrison (a portion of whose 1945 Truman-commissioned inquiry into the plight of the DPs is included in the show): "As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them . . . One is led to wonder whether the German people, seeing this, are not supposing that we are following or at least condoning Nazi policy."
It's little wonder that such callous treatment would be allowed when you encounter something like the Sept. 15, 1945, diary entry of Gen. George S. Patton, who groused that the Jews (whom he termed "lower than animals") were not entitled to special treatment.
What this small, quiet show does is demonstrate how the pockets of Jewish DPs coalesced over the course of several years of waiting into a loosely knit organization called Sh'erit ha-Pletah (a Hebrew term from the bible meaning "surviving remnant"); how they formed theater troupes and traveling jazz bands; how they married (and in some cases re-married) at a rate 10 times that of the German population while beginning to repopulate their race; how they published their own newspapers despite the wartime destruction of Hebrew type melted down for weaponry; and how religious holidays of reconstruction (Hanukah), rescue (Purim) and exodus (Passover) came to take on special significance, even when a menorah had to be jury-rigged out of spent bullet casings. In short, it tells a story of human survival in the most arid of soils.
The paradox that "Life Reborn" effectively combats is how, on the one hand, it must be the story of the "Displaced Person," while on the other hand it must try to counteract the dehumanizing effect that this anonymous term implies. It's a label, like "survivor" or its opposite number "victim," and like any label it tends to create an image (to the extent that it creates any image at all) of a nameless, faceless nobody, a statistic.
That's what the Holocaust Memorial Museum does so deftly. It takes a couple hundred thousand nobodies and turns them into people like: Abe Malnik, the light heavyweight whose boxing gloves from the Landsberg camp speak eloquently about how the spirit can suffuse the flesh; Lilly Friedman, whose simple white wedding dress (made from salvaged German parachute cloth and passed on for re-use to a dozen other brides) shows the simple importance of dignity; and Miriam Levitt, a little girl born to parents confined to the Lampertheim camp.
In one of the last, poignant images of the show, little Miriam is seen wearing a ratty fur jacket in a photograph taken shortly before her departure for a new life in America. It is less a snapshot than a portrait of hope.
LIFE REBORN: JEWISH DISPLACED PERSONS, 1945-1951 -- Through May 21 at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 100 Raoul Wallenberg Place (15th Street) SW (Metro: Smithsonian). 202/488-0400. Web site: www.ushmm.org. Open 10 to 5:30 daily, Thursdays until 8. No tickets are required for the "Life Reborn" exhibition; admission to the permanent Holocaust exhibit is by free, timed-entry tickets available at the museum or through ProTix (800/400-9373; service charge added).
Free public programs associated with the exhibition include:
Sunday at 3 -- Staged reading of the play "DP" by Roy Friedman.
Tuesday at 1 and 7 -- Staged reading of "DP."
Jan. 20 at 7 -- Screening of the documentary film "The Long Way Home" and discussion with filmmakers Mark J. Harris and Richard Trank.
Companion exhibitions to "Life Reborn" at area institutions include:
"Rebirth After the Holocaust: The Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons Camp, 1945-1950," from Jan. 14 to Sept. 4 at the B'nai B'rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, 1640 Rhode Island Ave. NW. 202/857-6572.
Books on the Displaced Persons camp experience will be on display through Jan. 31 in the Africa and Middle East Reading Room of the Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave. SE. 202/707-5000.
"Displaced Persons: Aftermath of Liberation" (including selected pages from the Harrison Report), through Jan. 18 at the National Archives, Constitution Avenue between Seventh and Ninth streets NW. 202/501-5000.
"Rescue and Renewal: GIs and Displaced Persons," through December 31 at the National Museum of American Jewish Military History, 1811 R St. NW. 202/265-6280.
"Life Reborn" is part of a far-reaching project that will culminate in an international, museum-sponsored conference on the experience of Jewish Displaced Persons. The conference will take place Jan. 14-17 at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, 2660 Woodley Rd. NW. For registration and information, visit the museum Web site or contact the conference office at 800/955-8741.