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A German Town Mourns Its Holocaust Past: The DP Camp Story, Part 2

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We last left Lillian and David Gewirtzman as they were about to meet the Mayor and townspeople of Ulm Germany for the opening of Lillian's DP camps exhibit.

But first, let's go to the back-story of the DP camps and what the townspeople of Ulm were about to view in the exhibit.

When World War II ended, Germany was left with between 8 and 12 million displaced persons. The first DP camps were established by the allied military for anyone who had been in a concentration camp, and they also included forced laborers, prisoners of war, Germans who were evicted from Poland, and even -- to the horror of many former concentration camp inmates -- concentration camp guards. In the cramped, primitive conditions of these first camps of diverse refugees, inmates sometimes would run into guards who had committed atrocities against their families and friends.

Some U.S. military personnel, noticing the awful living conditions, wrote a letter to President Harry S. Truman, who then dispatched Earl G. Harrison, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, to investigate. Harrison fired off a seething letter to Truman, saying that Jews in the camps were being treated as they were under the Nazis but without extermination.

"Three months after V-E Day and even longer after the liberation of individual groups, many Jewish displaced persons and other possibly non-repatriables are living under guard behind barbed-wire fences, in camps of several descriptions (built by the Germans for slave-laborers and Jews), including some of the most notorious of the concentration camps, amidst crowded, frequently unsanitary and generally grim conditions. ... The civilized world owes it to this handful of survivors to provide them with a home where they can again settle down and begin to live as human beings."

Truman ordered Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to look into the situation. Soon afterward, the military administration ordered the establishment of separate Jewish camps. That improved their living conditions immensely and paved the way for the remarkable DP camp story.

The DP camp project sneaked up on Lillian. As with many survivors, her experience in the DP camp had slipped to the back burner of her memory. In 1998 she completed her volunteer interviewing with the Shoah project, which was establishing video archives of the remembrances and reflections of Holocaust survivors. To continue pursuing her interest in the Holocaust, she volunteered at the Glen Cove, Long Island, Tolerance Center.

One day Marcia Posner, the librarian and program director, asked Lillian to be on a panel about DP camps, since she had lived in one. That began Lillian's search of her own memory bank. As images and questions came up, her curiosity intensified, eventually turning into an obsession. She was like an archaeologist on a dig eager to unearth a lost civilization. Scenes from the two DP camps in Ulm where she spent five years began to flood her memory. But she was not sure that her recollections were accurate or complete. She needed confirmation. That led her to explore books, archives, and a network of survivors-which uncovered a rich trove of stories that kept growing.

Word of Lillian's mission spread through the survivor community, producing photos, artifacts, and letters rescued from attics and scrapbooks. Many of the photos arrived in envelopes that had notations from the time they were taken, giving additional details about people, events. and experiences. The stream of memorabilia revved up her search for more documentation. Soon she was learning about musical performances, theater productions, school programs, sporting events, weddings, and political activities calling for a Jewish State.

The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., was one rich source. In the museum's photo archives Lillian stumbled onto a photo of Leah Fischer, who was the lead actress of a traveling theater group that put on performances in DP camps. There she also saw an evocative image that stirred her own recollections: a photo of a hanging blanket that was commonly used to create private spaces in the DP camps, which had large open areas housing many families.

One day Lillian lunched with author Simon Shochet, who had written about Camp Feldafing near Munich, where Lillian spent three years. And, miracle of miracles, Shochet told her that his friend Leah Fischer was still alive and living in Florida. Lillian contacted her. Soon afterward, they met in New York. Leah brought a bounty of pictures of her theater company and records of performances. Her husband, George, who had been a fire chief in a DP camp, brought photos of the frequent sporting contests between fire departments of various camps.

The memorabilia kept pouring in. When a critical mass of material was accumulated Lillian and the program director of the Glen Cove Center realized that they had the makings of an extraordinary story and exhibit. Talented artist Marilyn Rabetz joined the team to design the twenty panels of images and text that resurrected the DP camp experience.

All the panels that Marilyn created were derived from interviews with DP camp survivors and their personal photos and artifacts:

1. MAP AND INTRODUCTION (General information about the camps and their locations).

2. WHERE WE CAME FROM (Concentration camps, hiding places, partisans, Russian labor camps).

3. HOW WE LIVED (The housing: railway terminals, military barracks, schools -- walls out of military blankets).

4. GOVERNING OURSELVES (Democratically elected committees and governing bodies, security police, fire departments and more).

5. OUR FOOD (Communal kitchens, food distribution, drive to establish family-style eating).

6. HOW WE DRESSED (The ingenuity of turning rags into "fashion" -- Eisenhower Jackets made out of military blankets, wedding veils out of hospital gauze, alpine ski sweaters out of mops ... ).

7. OUR HEALTH (Clinics and sanatoriums, self-run medical facilities, rampant tuberculosis).

8. WEDDINGS AND BABIES ("Wedding epidemic," multiple weddings, improvised attire and banquets, the pride of rebuilding families, pregnancy as a badge of victory -- and babies, our hope for the future).

9. CHILDREN AT PLAY (The ingenuity and imagination of children lacking "real toys").

10. EDUCATION (Makeshift schools, children lacking a common language or knowledge of their cultural origin and identity -- the colossal accomplishment of teachers finding common denominators for educating children of wide cultural and language diversity).

11. LEARNING THROUGH PERFORMANCE (Bible readings and stories, school performances, immersion in the Hebrew language as learning tools).

12. OCCUPATIONAL TRAINING (Learning agriculture as a preparation for Palestine, learning the needle trades, auto mechanics, cosmetology, nursing -- attending classes even from hospital beds).

13. COMMUNICATION (Emergence of journalism and newspapers -- because of lack of Hebraic typeset, a jargon emerged devised out of the Latin alphabet, Polish syntax and the Yiddish language).

14. RELIGIOUS LIFE (Cheder, Yeshiva, Synagogue study groups).

15. HOLIDAYS AND CELEBRATIONS (Reclaiming the celebration of religious holidays -- Purim, Succoth, Passover Seder and other holy day observances).

16. REVIVING THE ARTS (Theater, orchestras, skits, poetry readings and more).

17. SPORTS (Sports teams, gymnastics, "olympic games," etc.).

18. ZIONISM (Preparation to return to our ancient homeland -- youth groups, agricultural Kibbutzim, learning to live in an arid desert land -- the vision of the birth of a Jewish State).

19. EMIGRATION (The difficulties of immigration -- the British mandate over Israel, the stringent U.S. visa system, and ultimately a relaxing of both.)

20. HOME (Current photographs depicting the present lives of the displaced persons seen in the 19 previous panels. Summary paragraph: WE ARE NO LONGER DISPLACED ... )

Back to January 2007. Lillian is in Ulm with her DP camp story restored to its place of origin. It reminds residents about a grim chapter in their nation's history that took place before most of them were born.

The doors to the mayor's office flung open. There were the town leaders. The greetings were warm, enthusiastic and genuine. Mayor Ivo Gruenner, a sensitive- looking middle-aged man (born after WWII) later gave a tearful talk to an audience of 250 townspeople who came out despite a fierce winter storm. His inspiring words expressed the intensity of regret and bewilderment that consumes many Germans about the dark past of the Nazi era. And his message was not a gratuitous, politically correct mouthing of words. The talk, as Lillian describes it, was delivered with great passion and sadness. Here's a sampling:

"Destinies such as that of Lillian Gewirtzman always have to be transmitted to the next generation. The shadows of the Nazi era have not yet been banished. This is most apparent in the Iranian president's Holocaust denial. Therefore, it is important that we raise our voices and do not accept it. Misguided tolerance of such statements can lead to further acts of injustice."

Reinforcing Ulm's staunch condemnation of prejudice, hatred, and genocide are the powerful and permanent symbols in the town's famous Lutheran Muenster Cathedral, the tallest church in the world. A commissioned stained-glass window dedicated to the Holocaust portrays a gas chamber scene and bears a Star of David. To all who enter the church, it's a stark reminder of past atrocities. Immediately to the right of the entrance door stands a gravestone from a 13th century Jewish cemetery that had been desecrated years earlier.

Lillian is under no illusion that anti-Semitism is gone from Germany, or any other country. Just the previous year there was a neo-Nazi rally in the nearby town of Crailsheim, and Lillian commented that if she stuck her head inside a beer hall, she might find some patrons with nostalgia for the swastika. But she believes that a man like Mayor Ivo Gruenner and his colleagues can make a difference.

How much has the world learned from history and the retelling of past genocides? That question will take center stage in my next report on David Gewirtzman's Holocaust experiences and his pairing up for lecture tours in 2001 with Jacqueline Murekatete, then a high school student émigré from Africa whose parents, siblings and other relatives were hacked to death by their neighbors in the Rwanda Genocide.