German Jews After World War II


I have just read a fascinating book, L’impossible Retour (The Impossible Return,) by Olivier Guez, a French journalist and writer.

Before the Nazis came to power in 1933, about 600,000 Jews lived in Germany. – more than 160,000 in Berlin alone. At the end of the war, only 14,000 remained. Half of the German Jews had been exterminated, the rest had gone into exile.

However strange this may seem, some German Jews chose to remain in Germany and about 10,000 more settled there after the war. Olivier Guez decided to investigate and find out why these people had stayed there instead of settling in the USA or in Israel (then still called Palestine) like most Holocaust survivors.

The majority the Jews who stayed in Germany were very assimilated people who had very little contact, if any, with the Jewish community. Some had managed to survive thanks to their Gentile friends or non-Jewish spouses. They selected their friends and didn’t feel too uncomfortable living in Germany. Others just couldn’t envisage living elsewhere while they remained cautious about the Germans all their lives.

The people who settled there after the war didn’t choose Germany. They were DPs (Displaced Persons) – in other words refugees from Eastern Europe. The majority were inmates of Nazi concentration camps who ended up in yet other camps before they could find a place to call home. They had obviously no desire to go back to the countries they came from. A number of Western countries issued them visas, mainly the USA, Israel, Canada and the UK.

However some were too sick to travel or to get a visa and their children didn’t want to leave them behind. That’s why they finally settled in the very country which had tried to eliminate them. They had more ambivalent feelings towards their new country and the Germans – they did not share the same culture as those who had been raised in Germany. In addition they often felt guilty: because they were still alive and because they had remained in Germany. As a result they led a very secluded life and had no German friends.

Olivier Guez also met people who had tried to live in Israel but had come back to a country where they felt more at ease. Sometimes it was their children who later settled in Israel. He also met German Jews who had chosen to live or go back to GDR (East Germany) and who had a totally different – even if no better – experience. I’ll try to write about them in another post.

Apparently there is no English translation of the book, which is a shame, but its author gives lectures abroad.