All she wanted was a wedding dress, a next-to-impossible dream in the days following the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps.
So Lily Friedman, who was living in the Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp right where she had been imprisoned, got her fiance to barter with a former German soldier for a parachute. She traded her cigarette rations to pay a dressmaker in the camp to create a wedding gown.
That plain off-white nylon, fashioned into a slightly flared dress with a fitted waist, long sleeves and rolled standing collar, is now a museum artifact. Eventually the dress was worn by at least 17 women--all survivors of the atrocities of the Nazis--who were trying to take the scraps that were left of their lives and rebuild a normal existence. The dress is included in "Life Reborn: Jewish Displaced Persons, 1945-1951," the major fall exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. It opens Nov. 19.
The reconstitution of European Jewish life following World War II has rarely been the focus of a museum show, and the museum's own permanent exhibition gives only a small space to that period. The staff, and the adjunct Second Generation Advisory Group, thought it would be possible to do a focused show, covering six years and detailing the struggles of 200,000 people. "The reality is the museum itself and most representations of Holocaust history conclude with liberation, and then perhaps take up the story of the Jewish people with the establishment of the state of Israel," says Jean Bloch Rosensaft, an adviser to the exhibition and a planned conference in January.
The narrative will explore the homelessness of European Jews after liberation; the creation of autonomous Jewish communities within the camps; the establishment of education, sports, religious, health and cultural organizations; and the search for people and pieces of the past. In 1946 the displaced persons camps had the highest birth rate in the world, a fact captured in scrapbooks of survivors. "The exhibit looks at all the different things in re-creating a world. Yet it is also a life in transit. They didn't want to stay in the DP camps but didn't know where to go," says Steven Luckert, curator of the museum's permanent exhibition and head of the planning team for this show.
Though the museum did have some artifacts from the post-liberation camps in Germany, Austria and Italy, staff members sent out a plea for additional materials. They contacted as many of the 90,000 known first- and second-generation survivors as possible. The response almost overwhelmed them and provided some new emotional moments for a staff that is often surrounded with the last remnants of someone's life.
Abraham Malnik brought in his boxing gloves, a worn leather set with the laces still fastened tightly, gloves he wore at the boxing club at the Landsberg displacement camp. Sporting clubs, from soccer to gymnastics to volleyball, were extremely popular. "It was part of the physical rehabilitation after the war. So many people were weakened by the experiences in the slave camps that they were into a physical culture," says Luckert.
Regina Laks sent her Grade 5 report card from Hebrew Public School in a camp outside Berlin. She had excellent marks in everything, as the writing in both English and Hebrew verifies. This use of two languages symbolized the tentative nature of life, and the pull to different worlds. Migration to the United States, Britain and the Middle East was restricted right after the war. The Truman administration began to lift restrictions in the late '40s and the state of Israel was founded in 1948, creating a wave of migration. The last displaced persons camp closed in 1957.
Right now the materials for the exhibition are being restored and polished down in the museum's conservation laboratories. A training manual for carpenters, a sketchbook of sewing instructions and patterns, a flag with the Star of David made by residents of a camp in Shanghai sit alongside a collection from Edmund Goldenberg of medical instruments, including a wooden stethoscope. Horrors became treasures. A handful of bullet shell casings was crafted into a menorah.
Sacred objects came from unusual hands. A volume of the Talmud, printed in 1948 by the U.S. Army, was donated by Rosensaft and her husband, Menachem. Both his parents and hers met and married at the Bergen-Belsen DP camp and held leadership positions in the camps. "It's unique in the history of the armed forces publishing efforts because it is a religious tract," says Jean Rosensaft. "It's another example of starting again. After the war, after so much had been destroyed, Jewish studies had to be restarted again."