By Brad Pareso
May 8, 1945 is known as Victory in Europe Day—the day when Nazi Germany surrendered to the Allies and the Third Reich came to an end. With it came the end of World War II, and with that, freedom. The final concentration camp was liberated.
The Holocaust was over.
The Center’s fifth gallery focuses on the liberation period immediately following the end of World War II and the lives Holocaust survivors tried to piece back together. Nearly every picture, every bruised, battered and beaten face, weathered by physical, mental and psychological torment and persecution, shows relief. Many are outright grinning ear to ear, and justifiably so. These people had endured years of despicable treatment and gruesome conditions nearly impossible to fathom, even after listening to a firsthand account of a survivor’s story and being given a tour of the museum, with its video testimonials and black-and-white photos literally bigger than I am.
But it makes me wonder: How long did those smiles last?
Werner Reich first went into hiding when he was 13. Born in Germany, he moved with his family to Yugoslavia when his father lost his job. When the Germans invaded, the country split in two. He was now a citizen of fascist Croatia.
After moving from family to family every six or eight months, Werner was arrested by the Nazis for being Jewish when he was 15. He “had the daylights” beaten out of him for three days. And yet, he saw it as a stroke of good luck—Croatian soldiers were known to skip the arrest and indulge in murdering competitions, seeing who could slash the most throats in a day.
After being moved from Slovenia to Czechoslovakia to Poland to Austria; after spending nine months in Terezin—a town that held 2,700 converted into a concentration camp that held 90,000—and having A1828—a number, not a name—stamped on his arm in Auschwitz; after emerging as one of the 40 Birkenau Boys who, out of 6,000, were the only ones to survive mass murdering ordered by Josef Mengele, Werner finally returned to Yugoslavia when he was 17, by way of hitchhiking. Things would have returned to normal by then, he hoped.
What he found couldn’t have been further from the truth.
“When I came back to Yugoslavia, I found just destruction,” he says. “My mother was dead, my sister was in Italy, my father had died before [I was arrested] and I found myself under Communism.”
Werner was alone in standing, but not in situation—his predicament was similar to many Holocaust survivors. Upon returning to their homelands, they were greeted not with open arms but with the same hatred they had hoped to escape.
“And the Communists said to me, ‘Hey, you’re garbage,’” Werner recounts. “And I said, ‘Why?’ ‘Because you didn’t help us fight while we were partisans. You were not fighting with us in the woods.’ So I said, ‘Well, how the hell could I?’ They said, ‘Oh, well that’s your problem.’”
Left with missing relatives, stolen property and nowhere to go, many survivors sought out displaced persons camps. They were havens for people who had made it out of concentration camps alive, people with like minds and similar backgrounds.
Like the families Werner lived with as a young teenager, there were people who had risked their lives to save those being persecuted. Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Consul living in Lithuania, rescued 2,000 Jews. Eva Schiff, who would later meet Werner and marry him, was one of 700 children English stockbroker Nicholas Winton brought to England by forging documents. Heroes like these saved tens of thousands of lives from certain death. Many of the survivors in Europe wanted to leave the country, but had nowhere to go.
England controlled Palestine in the immediate years following V-E Day, but did not allow Jews in. After being taken from their homes, thrown in camps, freed and left with nowhere to return to, they were forbidden from entering what was the only land that offered any sense of belonging. The Brichah—Hebrew for “flight”—began, where Jews would illegally sneak into Palestine. Tensions rose until British began opening fire on boats filled with Jews hoping to reach the country.
Jews seeking refuge in America were not met with bullets; instead, stern rejection. The United States imposed strict immigration rules after WWII ended, stranding immigrants for years. It took until 1950, when a revision was made to the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, for Jews to be granted access to the country. The Land of the Free was finally opened to Holocaust survivors. By 1954, 140,000 had moved there, evidenced by a picture of immigrants waving at the Statue of Liberty on a wall at the end of the room.
The war had ended. The camps were dismantled. Survivors were moving on. But they faced opposition everywhere they went, be it in gaining entrance to a new land or even learning to communicate—Werner was unable to speak Croat when he left Yugoslavia as a teen, and couldn’t speak English when he arrived in England. Pages on the calendar had been torn away, but for survivors, things hadn’t changed.
“The only thing I knew how to do was steal bread,” Werner says, “and you can’t make a living out of that.”
The Holocaust wasn’t over.