On Tuesday, I visited the archives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, colloquially known as the "Joint." (This is not to be confused with The Joint, which was an illegal gambling den behind a cigar store on Kedzie in Chicago. My grandfather frequented The Joint in the early 1960s until my bubbe kicked him out of the house and met with a divorce lawyer.) The Joint was established by American Jews at the outbreak of World War I to help the landshaftsmen overseas during very hard times. I can only imagine what a nightmare it was for them to try and do anything during WWII and how frustrating and heartbreaking it must have been. After the Holocaust, the Joint assisted Jewish refugees in American displaced persons camps across Europe. Since my grandparents and father lived in three of those camps in Austria. I wanted to read the records from that time that reflect my family's journey. In 1946, over 125,000 Polish Jews who had been in Russia during the war returned home, including my family. Many were directed to Lower Silesia, an area that Poland seized from Germany, and urged to start over (yes, including my family). On May 15, a cable from a Joint staff person in Warsaw read, "85,000 REPATRIATES ARRIVED IN LOWER SILESIA STOP 15,000 CHILDREN STOP DISASTROUS SITUATIONS STOP REQUEST IMMEDIATE HELP MONEY CLOTHES FOOD." These people were actually somewhat better off than their peers who went back to their hometowns, only to face angry anti-Semitic mobs. On July 4, a blood libel happened in Kielce, and a mob killed 42 of the 200 Jews who survived the Holocaust. A cable sent from Berlin on July 17 read:
HAVE JUST COME OUT OF POLAND WHERE JEWS LIVE IN APPALLING INDESCRIBABLE MISERY BUT WORST OF THEIR PLIGHT IS THE HORRIBLE TERROR WHICH GRIPS THEM KIELCE WAS ONLY A SYMBOL OF WHAT IS POTENTIAL SITUATION IN EVERY JEWISH TOWN STOP JEWS LEAVING IN GREAT MASSES TO SAVE THEIR LIVES STOP LEARN ARMY LIKELY TO ORDER CLOSING FRONTIERS GERMANY THIS WOULD BE VIRTUAL ORDER OF EXECUTION EYE DON'T CARE WHERE THESE JEWS GO BUT THEY MUST HAVE CHANCE ESCAPE DEATH STOP EYE HAVE CABLED PROSKAUER SILVER ASKING THEM USE INFLUENCE THEIR ORGANIZATIONS WITH STATE WAR DEPARTMENT TO PREVENT CLOSING FRONTIERS STOP PLEAD WITH YOU MOBILIZE ALL FRIEND SIMILARLY TO FAIL TO TAKE ACTION AT ONCE WILL LEAD TO FATAL CONSEQUENCES
Toward the end of July, thousands of people were illegally crossing borders and showing up in German and Austrian DP camps every day. The camps were overwhelmed. Memos from Joint staff in Austria (where my family went) indicate shortages of food, water, clothing, adequate shelter, and heat. Disease was rampant. Camps were in deplorable condition, with more people arriving every day. Still, the Joint aided those who continued to leave. Way stations were set up along the path that the emigrants took, providing them with food.
My family wound up in Haid, a camp hastily opened to alleviate the overflowing conditions of more established camps. A "transient camp," 2,500 people lived there as of Sept. 20, 1946, three of them related to me. When Haid closed at the end of the year (as it should have because the wooden huts were freezing in winter and residents snuck out at night to chop wood from unoccupied huts intended for new arrivals because there was no fuel, and water was only available for half the residents), my family moved to Steyr, another "transient camp." They lived in the more suitable barracks for over three years.
I didn't find many documents from 1947 in the archives, but in 1948, the Joint began publishing a monthly newsletter in English, German, Romanian, and Yiddish. (By then, most of the Polish Jews had gone to Israel or other places, and an influx of Romanian Jews arrived.) The newsletter talked about the Joint's plans for Purim. It had photos of people celebrating Passover in the Ebelsberg camp and tailors at a workshop in Steyr. The director of the work projects admonished people that "the responsibility for bad salaries rests with the workers. Every time a worker does a bad job of manufacturing something he brings down the salaries of his comrades because ultimately everyone is paid with good manufactured in the Camps." Monthly health columns advised people how to avoid TB, tooth decay, and... syphilis. Clearly, if people had time to consort with prostitutes, life had settled down to some degree. As a report that year noted, "One of the most amazing aspects of life in the DP camps is the mental outlook of the people. The three years of vegetating in the camps have not broken their spirits. The people are resilient, despite the grimness of their surroundings, their crowded quarters, their lack of privacy, and their general idleness, and their endless waiting for the chance at normal living."
In October 1948, the rumors about liquidating the camps began. Steyr had less than 800 at that point. People feared being sent to rougher camps if it closed. Eventually it did. In February 1950, my family moved to Ebelsberg. Fortunately, Ebelsberg was also a nice camp. Finally, in late October or early November 1950, my family was one of the last of the Polish Jews to leave the DP camp system.