The Holocaust Refugee Experience

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Holocaust Survivor

The 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.

Prior 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.

 When 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 internment camp.

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 
Western Reserve University. The Veterans Readjustment Act or “GI Bill of Rights” stipulated that a veteran could be supported with a stipend and free tuition for four years. Therefore I did what anyone would do, I earned a BA and MA in four years. That allowed me to become an assistant professor at a small, western college. By luck I was later  accepted as a teaching assistant at  a major university, and thereafter was appointed to the faculty of Buffalo State College. I then earned a doctorate at the expense of a New York State scholarship, leading to an academic career.

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 “Sholtach Tiyee.”

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.

Shalom u'vracha.

  Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Jewish Community in the 20th and 21st Century (2021).

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