German Jews After World War II

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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.

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19 thoughts on “German Jews After World War II

  1. Thanks for sharing this fascinating information.

    Both my maternal grandparents and my husband’s maternal grandparents ended up in DP camps in Germany after the War. My grandparents were fortunate to get visas to the US by the end of 1946 (maybe I should blog about this some time), but my husband’s grandparents weren’t able to leave Germany until about 1950 or so. In fact, my mother-in-law was born in Germany.

  2. When we went to Wannsee in the summer, the tour guide at the centre gave a really interesting talk in the room where the Final Solution was agreed upon. He said that a very large proportion of Jews in Berlin in particular were secular and barely identified as Jewish in their day to day lives. They were German first, pulling together with their countrymen and women to resurrect the country after the First World War.

    I cannot even begin to imagine how the DPs must have felt after the war – even before they chose a more permanent place to live, they would have been living a transient existence for many, many months. At some point, laying down roots almost anywhere must have been preferable to having to keep on starting your life again in a new country.

    What a fascinating book.

  3. It’s too bad there is no English translation, as this sounds like a book I would definitely be interested in reading. Thanks for sharing this, as it is an issue not many know of.

  4. wow tnx you for the great and interesting article! i think nowadays lots of jews from russia came to live in germany, as russia was one of countries who had serious damage from the war with hitler, so in 90-s germany offered to some russian jews to immigrate there…

  5. Hello: My father was German and succeeded in feeling to the USA, along with his parents and brother. My mother is Austrian – same story. Neither came/comes from a religious household, although both sides of my family were Jewish oriented and minimally observant (Reform by today’s standard). After the War, all stayed here in the US. As a youngster, all of the adult family members I knew, and almost all of my parents’ friends, were refugees who managed to escape Hitler’s regime; not one of them returned to Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, or Belgium – not one, and with only one exception,
    none of their children learned German.

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