Monday, September 21, 2015

Displaced Persons Camps, No. 3: A Personal Story


Last week, I wrote a post about persons displaced by war in the Middle East; this week I recount a bit of family history, my father's story, as I know and understand it.

A DP Camp Marriage: Yad Vashem writes: “Much attention was paid to weddings, and very often they were the main agenda in the social life of the camp. During the first year after liberation there were numerous weddings, not uncommonly six or more in a single day, even fifty in a week. During 1946 there were 1,070 weddings. But statistics, as impressive as they may appear, do not convey the atmosphere surrounding the weddings. To get married had many bright, as well as sad, aspects, reflecting the essence of being a survivor in a DP camp. First there was a question of halakah (Jewish law). Most couples decided to be married in a Jewish wedding ceremony. It was not just a question of being religious. Even for the secular, it meant forming a new link with the past, overcoming the disaster and continuing the family chain, being Jewish and keeping and manifesting the Jewish tradition.”
Photo Source: Yad Vashem

My father spent six years in a displaced persons camp; this is what my mother told me, although my father never talked about it. I do not remember the name of the camp or its geographical location, but I do know that such camps were the outcome of a devastating war that left tens of millions of persons displaced, no longer having a permanent place to call home.

The survivors of the Holocaust are called, in Hebrew, “She'erit Ha-Peletah” (The Surviving Remnant), a remnant being a part of something larger. Initially, when the Allies set up the camps, the Jews were placed with the Poles, Ukrainians and Baltsmany of whom were Nazi sympathizers, a mistake that was only rectified with the Harrison Report to President Truman (August 1945). The Jews were then placed in a separate DP camp; the report also led to improvements in the general conditions of the DP camps.

As is common when such large groups of people are put together, out of necessity, there were criminal elements inside the camp, and acting in accordance to their baser instincts and desires, without any compassion or moral inclinations, they acted like thugs. Such is the sorry state of human affairs. A few, a small minority, take advantage of the kindness and generosity of others and the obedience to law and moral codes of the majority.

Soon the Jews adapted to “life” inside the gates of the camp, and as the photo and the previous documentary shows, many marriages took place; children were born in DP camps, and life continued the best it could under less-than-ideal conditions. This included schools, the continuation of religious and cultural services and all manners of things associated with living, this being the antithesis of death. The camps had an emphasis on the continuity of life.

There is a bit of a mistake in the otherwise excellent documentary when it suggests that Jews had a choice of where they could emigrate; apart from Israel, the choice was left up to the governments. For example, my father had told me that he had applied to a number of nations, including Argentina, Australia and the United States before being accepted by Canada. He arrived here in 1951, first by ship in Halifax, then by train to Toronto and then to Montreal. It was there where he soon met and married my mother, an arranged marriage, in 1952. It was in Montreal that he made a life for himself for more than 28 years; and in doing so, he made a life for us.

He kept up a correspondence with those who moved elsewhere; I remember fondly the distinctive airmail envelopes that contained the thin blue paper (onion-skin); the letters were written in Yiddish in Hebrew script. What was more exciting was receiving visitors from abroad. On one occasion, a couple visited us from Australia (I think they lived in Melbourne) in 1967 for the Montreal world’s fair: I was about nine and excited to meet someone from the other side of the world.

Airmail envelope
Photo Credit & Source:
Although my father did all he could to forget the past and make better the present in an attempt to secure the future, the past did seep into our lives and sometimes became an intruder. Memories are important; but the question on my mind is how much should one remember the past horrors, possibly giving these more meaning and importance today than they deserve. When does knowledge and understanding of such events become an impediment to living happily today? Can memory be an unwelcome guest? Or is it necessary to make us more human?

Finding the right balance is tricky, and not easy. Perhaps I can take some instruction and comfort from my father, who spoke little about the past (at least with us) and spoke more about how to live in the here and know. He was a proud and grateful Canadian, and cherished the values of liberal democracy that defines Canada.

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