The Holocaust Refugee Experience
phrase “Holocaust Survivor” is opprobrium in the American Jewish community.
This attitude concerning those few Jews who survived the mass murders inflicted
upon the European Jews between 1933 and 1945 is related first to the
victimization of the German Jews before the start of the Second World War on
September 1, 1939, the day on which the German army invaded Poland.
to that invasion, the eastern European Jews were not available for mass murder
by the Nazional Sozialistsche
Deutsche Arbeiter Partei. Note that NAZI is not a word but a pair of
syllables from the shortened word spelled national in English.
The Jewish refugees who came to
America between January 1933 and September 1939 were
German speakers who did not know the Yiddish language. Nevertheless, American
Jews, who at that time were largely acquainted with the Yiddish language,
resented that German Jews did not speak Yiddish and claimed that “you are too
arrogant to speak Yiddish.” That nonsense was used to exclude German Jews from
any assistance, from any help. It is true that in the 1890s until 1924, 2.5
million Russian Jews came to America by way of Hamburg in Germany. German Jews
called Yiddish “kaudervelsch,” meaning corrupt German.
This was indeed nothing more than
a prejudice, since all languages spoken by any people is as legitimate as any
language. Yiddish was spoken by ten million European Jews and includes a great
literature written by great scholars and poets. Any language, including English,
can be called by a similar name. Consider the following, which demonstrates
that one half of English is derived from Latin . Is English therefore corrupt?
Here is a paragraph every American reocgnizes at once.
Fidem meam obligo vuxillo federalis civitatis Americae, et Res Publicae
quo stat. Uni nationi sub Deo, non
dividende cum libertati et iusquiasque, omnibus.”
Yiddish is as legitimate as all
languages, and all languages are legitimate because some people speak them.
we came to America and were greeted with Yiddish we answered in German. This
angered Americans so much that I was told to get out of a synagogue and not come
back. “We don’t need you arrogant Germans here,” “Too bad Hitler did not
get all of you,” and other hateful
phrases were commonly said to us. The third generation of Russian-American Jews
were revenging themselves on what our German ancestors had done to their
grandparents. The result was the
alienation of the German immigrants from the Jewish community.
We had another problem. Most
German Jews came alone. Unlike the eastern European Jews who came to America
with their whole families, the German Jews were mostly alone because
Congress had stipulated in 1924 that free immigration was ended and a
quota system established. That system required, among other obstacles, that an
American citizen had to file a financial report with the Immigration and
Naturalization Service to the effect that he could support for five years any
immigrant he wished to sponsor. Most American Jews could only support one
immigrant or did not wish to support more than one. Therefore, numerous single
immigrants came to America, leaving their families to die in the gas ovens. This
meant that these individual German Jews, unlike the earlier families of
immigrants, were isolated and without any emotional support. We literally had no
one to talk to us or to befriend us. We had no family. American Jews did not
understand this. Yet, parents sent one of their children to America under a
program called “Kindertransport.” These children were alone and faced a
world they could not understand, not only because Germans don’t know English,
but also because the whole American culture was foreign to us.
A third problem holocaust
survivors faced was abject destitution. The Jewish community claimed that all
German Jews were arrogant and wealthy. The fact was that the Nazi government
seized all Jewish bank accounts, fired all Jews from their jobs, and prohibited
any “Aryans” from helping Jews under penalty of death, so that the Jews who
came to America had nothing. Literally, nothing. Furthermore, the Nazis ruled
that Jewish emigres could not take more than 10 marks with them. That amounted
to four dollars. Anyone caught at a railroad terminal with more money was
arrested and sent to a death camp. Therefore
we were not poor but destitute.
Another problem German Jewish
young people faced when coming to America was that we were ignorant. Hitler had
ordered that no Jew was allowed to remain a student at a German school, and that
all Jewish teachers, including professors, were fired. Therefore I came to
America after having not been in any school for eight years. I was a total
ignoramus. This meant that we could not go to an American school because we had
no knowledge of math, history, geography, science, etc. We didn’t fit in.
Therefore a good number of German Jewish immigrants never learned much in
a lifetime and were forced to live by working in jobs requiring little
education. A self-run business was possible for a few. Many others had to accept
common factory labor.
There was one more way out of our
dilemma. After Japan attacked the United States in 1941 it appeared that at
least young men could join the US armed forces while women and older men
could find work in the defense industry.
For German born immigrants there
was yet one more obstacle. The law was that only those German born residents of
the USA who were citizens could be allowed into the armed forces. Those who were
German born but had not been here the required five years could not be citizens
and were therefore not eligible to join the armed forces lest they were Nazi
sympathizers. Jews were exempt from this rule but were sometimes sent to an
I did not know this until a
recruitment sergeant told me to forget joining the army and kicked me out of his
office. When I visited a local rabbi he told me that Jews were exempt but would
have to prove they were indeed Jewish. Well, I still had my “Jew
Identification Pass” which the Nazis had issued to all Jews. I still have it.
It has a large J engraved on it, also my fingerprints, since all Jews were
criminals. The Jew pass called me Israel. This pass let me join the 94th
Infantry. Unfortunately, I was soon discharged with a 50% disability, as the
doctors called it.
Therefore I became eligible to
enter any institution or establishment in which I could learn something that
would give me a chance to earn a living.
Therefore I graduated from an
adult high school and to my surprise was accepted as a student at
Everyone is not interested in
being a professor, nor is everyone interested in Business Administration or
becoming a carpenter. My experience merely illustrates one person’s
experience. There are thousands with different outcomes. One thing, however, we
German Jews had in common. We meant to succeed, and we did so no matter what the
obstacles, no matter what the difficulties. Just like millions of others of our
brethren, whether from Russia or the Ukraine, whether from Poland or the
Today, after all these years and
all our success we think all day, every day about the Nazi horrors. They stay
with us, no matter what we do, no matter what our work, no matter what time it
is, no matter the season of the year, no matter what we have become. Each day,
all day, we see in our mind’s eye the horrors of our youth and pray to Shem
Yisborach that somehow, some way we may yet be unburdened of that
perpetual weight that presses down on us day after day.
Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Jewish Community in the 20th and 21st Century (2021).