There are a lot of myths surrounding the Holocaust survivors who came to America after the war. They worked hard, they learned English easily (so eager were they to move beyond what had happened in Europe and forget their pasts), they integrated well into society, and they didn’t talk about their experiences. Right? Not exactly, says Beth B. Cohen, author of Case Closed: Holocaust Survivors in Postwar America (Rutgers University Press, 2006). There are a lot of stories Americans like to tell themselves that gloss over the gritty truth, and this is one of them. I knew I had to learn the whole story, and onto my TBR this book went. Thanks, interlibrary loan! (Seriously, is it not the greatest?)
Think back to what you learned about those fortunate few who survived the massacre of European Jewry during the second World War. What did you learn about what happened to them? Some of them came to the US, some of them made their way to the new country of Israel, maybe a few stayed in Europe or went elsewhere. And then what? They worked hard to assimilate and make new lives for themselves, had families, started over. Sure, that was true for some of them, but not all- maybe not even the vast majority. The agencies in the US tasked with helping them rebuild their lives had an agenda, and too bad for anyone who didn’t fit into that agenda’s narrow confines. The displaced persons who came here had one year to become self-sufficient. Health problems, emotional problems, mental illness, language difficulties, having watched your entire family murdered and being the sole survivor after having ended your education at age 10, none of that mattered. One year, and then your case was closed.
Not surprisingly, a lot of people struggled with this. The trauma the survivors had suffered was summarily ignored; work would be what cured them (…sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). Orphaned teenagers were looked at not as victims of unspeakable horror who needed specialized assistance, but as self-absorbed narcissists who expected everyone to cater to them. The physical trauma people had suffered was dismissed as being psychosomatic and a sign that these were lazy, lazy people who didn’t want to work. How dare they expect any different treatment than other newcomers to America?
Ms. Cohen delves into the difficulties different groups faced: the religious Jews who struggled to find their place in a country that didn’t respect their beliefs and way of life; the unaccompanied minors who seemed to be almost universally looked upon by both agencies and their own extended families as massive burdens; the newly-formed families fracturing under the weight of all the burdens they carried. Occasionally an understanding caseworker would come along, but the majority of them seemed to resent their clients.
The style of this book is heavily academic; it’s not a long book, but it’s packed with information and a complex understanding of the survivors’ plights via how the agencies treated them and less via their personal and emotional struggles, and thus it’s a bit of a slow read. The horror is there, though it’s often couched between the lines, but Ms. Cohen doesn’t shy away from calling the agencies and caseworkers out as insensitive and uninformed. The United States has always been a hard country that seems to view the existence of a social safety net as a weakness and a moral failure, but this book really makes it seem as though this country delights in making every situation as difficult as possible for people who have already faced some of the worst situations imaginable. I’m guessing things have not gotten much better for new refugees from places like Syria, who have witnessed terrible nightmares of their own.
If you don’t mind the more academic style, Case Closed is a really eye-opening book. It highlights the insensitivity Holocaust survivors faced from basically every corner. They did make connections amongst themselves, amongst other survivors who understood and could relate to what they’d been through, but others didn’t seem to want to listen for a really long time after the war. It’s a heartbreaking book that tells a story that shouldn’t have happened this way, a story that disappointed me, but that didn’t really surprise.
Be kind to each other, people. It’s tough out there.