Holocaust survivors in post-war Germany | DW Documentary

Holocaust survivors in post-war Germany | DW Documentary

May 1945, Germany. The Nazis have been defeated; the concentration camps liberated. But tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors remain in the land of the perpetrators. DW tells the story of their struggle to rebuild their lives – and the present-day campaign to keep their memory alive.

When World War Two ended in 1945 with victory over Nazism, millions of POWs and slave laborers were able to return home. But for around 50,000 Jews freed from concentration camps, there was nowhere to return. Deported from their eastern European homelands by the Nazis, the Jewish refugees now found themselves in camps for Displaced Persons run mainly by the US Army. One of the largest DP camps was in the town of Landsberg am Lech, in southern Germany. Between 1945 and 1950, it was a ‘city within a city’, home to up to 7,000 Jews.

The DW documentary ‘In the Land of the Perpetrators – Holocaust Survivors in Post-War Germany’ meets survivors of the Shoah liberated near Landsberg and later housed in the DP camp and in the town. The survivors tell of the fate of their families and their own attempts to rebuild their lives. But as 94-year-old Jakob Bresler, who survived 11 concentration camps and ghettos, recounts, ‘What was normal for us, wasn’t normal for the rest of the world. We were disturbed children.’
Life in the DP camp was marked by the trauma of the Holocaust, the search for family members, the need for education and professional skills – and the yearning to leave Germany. Over time, the world found out more about fate of the Jewish survivors. As New York historian Atina Grossmann describes, the DP camps became a global political issue.

The film also exposes what Germany called the ‘Zero Hour’ – the term used to imply a radical break with the past after the war – as an oft-questionable attempt at self-exoneration. In the town of Landsberg in 1951, for example, a solidarity rally attended by local residents called for ‘Christian mercy’ – not for the victims of Nazi tyranny, but for the Nazi mass murderers standing trial in the town and facing the death penalty for their crimes.

In the Nazi era, party officials in Landsberg had built a huge concentration camp complex for almost 30,000 prisoners, most of them Jewish. The film also accompanies Helga and Manfred Deiler, a married couple from Landsberg who have spent the last 40 years campaigning for a fitting new memorial in their town.

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Video Transcript

The history of the Bavarian town of Landsberg am Lech is inextricably linked with that of Nazism. It was here, during his incarceration in the town’s prison in 1924, that Hitler wrote his inflammatory, anti-Semitic manifesto “Mein Kampf”. During the Nazi era, Landsberg was known as “Hitlerstadt”, or “Hitler town”.

A place where many concentration camps were built, right up until the end of the war. As the US Army advanced in April 1945, it liberated the last survivors of the concentration camps. In the months that followed, some 50 thousand Jewish survivors gathered in southern Germany. They had lost everything.

They were once again housed in camps, this time run by the US Army and the United Nations. But in post-war Landsberg, the Holocaust survivors weren’t welcome. To this day, the town can’t agree on an appropriate memorial for the victims of the Shoah. Could you please tell me where is play. I don’t see:

This is play, the second one! We were all singers. My whole family. And also my uncles and my cousins. We used to get together and we used to sing. And the people used to stand outside and applaud. Singing saved my life. Would you like a Cappuccino too? Yes, sure.

Helga and Manfred Deiler are long-time residents of Landsberg. They were both born and raised here. Rolf Mützenich visits European Holocaust Memorial in Landsberg. Very nice. Ah, that’s how they’re framing it: that he’s visiting Carmen Wegge I welcomed the opportunity to show him the European Holocaust Memorial on the site of the former

Concentration subcamp Kaufering Seven. The president of the foundation Manfred Deiler etcetera, etcetera informed Rolf Mützenich about the historical background and the foundation’s efforts to make the site permanently accessible to the public. Well, let’s see. Do you think anything’ll come of it? We’ll have to wait and see. Good.

Manfred Deiler used to work for the Siemens company health insurance fund. He’s also been busy doing work of a very different kind over the last four decades. As President of the European Holocaust Memorial Foundation, he and a group of like-minded residents purchased a section of the former concentration camp complex.

The foundation runs a small memorial here. But it has bigger ambitions it wants to build a documentation center here. And it’s been waiting for years for the town to amend the land-use plan for the site. It’s been left largely untouched since 1945. In the last four months of the war, two thousand people

Were murdered here in Camp Seven alone: they died of exhaustion or typhoid fever, starvation or were beaten to death. And if you’re undernourished, if you only weigh 40 or 50 kilos and you have to stand for two hours at the morning roll call, well if the weather’s like it is today

It might not seem quite so bad. The sun’s shining, there’s still some warmth. But I can still imagine how bit by bit, your will to live ebbs away as you struggle to withstand the cold and the hunger. Jakob Bresler is 94 years old. He was born in Poland to a Jewish family.

When he was 11, he and his family were deported by the Nazis. His father, mother, four sisters and brother were murdered. I was in three ghettos, Auschwitz, Dachau and ten different camps around Dachau in the subcamps. In 1944, he was deported from Auschwitz to Germany. Whatever you have heard and read,

It’s ten times more. They were beasts. They weren’t human. Jakob Bresler ended up in Landsberg, in the Kaufering concentration camp. Jewish slave laborers were forced to build huge bunkers here, intended for use by the German armaments industry. The SS-Sturmbannführer called Hans. He had a dog. A German shepherd. His pleasure was:

When we went to an Appell in the morning. We used to get out and had to stand and they used to count us. He used to make it his business to take out one person. Mostly an elderly person. And he stood in the middle of the field

And he had to roll himself over to him. Not walk roll himself. And if he didn’t, he sent the dog at him. A lot of people died that way. I have seen that myself! I was there. At the Kaufering camp, the Nazis continued their policy of murder until the very end.

As the Americans approached, the prisoners were sent on death marches. I was a skeleton of course. I could not walk. So I picked up a branch from a tree. I was humping, you know. And we crawl on our stomachs to the tanks of the American army. And kissed the tracks

It’s a scene out of Dante, you know. One cannot imagine, one cannot imagine. The American soldiers looked at us: Who are those people? They are from a different planet. And we were! I will move the chair closer, okay. George Leitmann is 97 years old. He was one of the US soldiers who liberated

The area around Landsberg in 1945. At the age of 18, he volunteered to fight in the war against Nazi Germany. I remember entering towns that had been completely destroyed and there were many dead bodies in the ruins. And there was a certain smell. It’s hard to describe.

It’s apparently the kind of smell that comes from just death. When the war in Europe finally ended on May 8 1945, the full horror of Germany’s extermination program was revealed. The Kaufering camp in Landsberg was no exception. In Kaufering it was doubly bad because the attempt to burn the bodies, the evidence,

Didn’t work. They throw gasoline on dead bodies and light them. But if the dead bodies were only bones and skin it’s not gonna burn very well. These piles of almost not recognizable people, human beings some of them were still smoldering. That’s something that from time to time wakes me up in the night.

But that is not surprising. That comes with the territory, I think is what they say. George Leitmann is US veteran and a Holocaust survivor. He fled the Nazis in 1940 with his mother and both grandmothers, leaving Austria for the United States. His father Josef Leitmann wasn’t able to get a visa

And went underground. He was murdered by the Nazis. George never saw him again. To me it immediately became something connected with my father. When we encountered for example fleeing Displaced Persons, there was always the hope that I would see him. Even though I knew that it is as unlikely as you can imagine,

But nonetheless the human mind always says: it is possible. And sometimes it is, of course. And that sort of distinguished me from the people I served with in the army: there was always a personal element. The Colonel, the commanding officer, Colonel Johnson I still remember his name!

I was so outraged when he entered that camp. There were still burning bodies. The stench – I can still remember the smell, by the way. That he ordered to go through all the surrounding villages between Landsberg and Kaufering and pick up people

And bring them to the camp and make them march through the camp. And I remember two women talking to each other and the words stick in my mind: One said to the other: Der Führer, she said, was right: Americans are barbarians to make us look at this.

George Leitmann is in near-daily contact with the Deilers in Landsberg. He’s helped by his friend Santiago Chen. Do you hear us? That’s good! Hi! So, if you are interested, we have some news from Germany, especially from Landsberg. Are you interested in? Yeah, of course! So, the first thing is: the next week the

Conception for the documentation center, the museum is ready now. Dr. Edith Raim has finished it. And the next good news is: at the end of the month we have a meeting with the Bavarian Minister of Culture to speak about how we want to go on in the future. That’s good news!

By comparison: that’s very good news. So now you’ve gotta stick with it, just a bit longer This project is really not easy because not everybody here likes it. And that causes problems. That’s the reason why you have to involve more people. Because then it becomes part of their interest.

If you can make the population on your side then the politicians listen to that, you see. So that’s why it is so important to do that. Because people want to be in on something which is important and new. It makes them more important themselves. They want to feel,

You are part of the decision making. Yeah, of course! This is a good advice. We will see! Anyway: Thank you for the good news! So, have a nice day, we have a nice night. Bye! In Landsberg, the foundation is presenting its concept for a new memorial site. Local media have been invited.

Historian Edith Raim is also here, to add her voice to Manfred Deiler’s. Whenever I’m asked if we’ve got the official go-ahead, I don’t have an answer. I have to say: no, not yet. When I’m trying to get people on board, or when I’m fundraising, that’s a problem.

If we were talking about two years on, I could say: it all just takes time. But nine years! I don’t have an answer anymore. And of course, I don’t want to knock my hometown. This is my home. I was born here. I’ve been active in promoting remembrance here for 40 years. But,

As I said, I don’t want to come across as a complainer. When the war ended on May 8 1945, the Germans called it the “Stunde Null” “the Zero Hour”. The moment in which Germany broke with the past, and made a fresh beginning. But for the Jewish survivors liberated from the Kaufering concentration camp,

May 8 did not bring an overnight end to their ordeal. I realized very early on that this is a complicated subject. There were other things happening in Landsberg, apart from the history of the concentration camps. I only really started dealing with the Displaced Persons camp, the DP camp, a bit later on.

Then I began to delve deeper into that history. My mother and my father were long dead. So, I asked an old school friend of my mother’s: Listen, can you tell me something: in the post-war era, were there Jews in Landsberg? And she replied: Jews in Landsberg? No way!

But I kept at it, saying: that’s not what I’ve heard. I kept the questions coming, and eventually, she said: Come to think of it, you’re right, there were some! Anything that had anything to do with Jews was banished from memory, repressed. No one wanted to talk about it.

Right after the end the war in 1945, the US army turned the former Landsberg barracks into a camp for Holocaust survivors who were unable to return home. Several thousand Jews men, women and children lived in the DP camp, many for years. One of the camp’s first commanders was Irving Heymont,

A major in the US Army. He was just 27 years old when he wrote this letter to his wife in September 1945. I am so swamped that I hardly know where to turn first. I have so much still to do even though it is almost

Midnight that I am calling quits to write this letter. I have so much to tell you that again, I hardly know where to begin I guess at the beginning would be the best. We have here in Landsberg a camp for displaced people. The camp population consists of about five thousand Jews and

One thousand others, all ex-inmates of concentration camps. The people sleep in rough wooden beds that are often double or triple-stacked on top of each other. In the makeshift sleeping niches of the living quarters, attempts are made to resurrect family life. As it was explained to me,

For every family group the shared meal is the high point of the day. I was astonished when I learned from Dr. Zabriskie that the health of the people in the camp is quite good. That almost doesn’t seem possible. When he noticed the incredulous expression on my face,

He looked at me rather askance and said: Bear in mind, we’re all survivors. Only the strongest have survived! You have a lot of pictures! I have pictures here. Not only from Landsberg. This is my life here in the United States. Maybe we can begin with Landsberg. Yes,

That’s what I would like to do. If you don’t mind. I don’t want to tell you what to do. This is my memories as I have lived it. This was my first great love in Landsberg. I don’t know if she is alive now or not. This was a girlfriend, too.

Do you remember her name? Yes, this was Rachel and Sasha And this here is this photo was taken in 1945, right after the liberation. When I first arrived in Landsberg. As you can see these are all survivors. Most of them are no longer with us, unfortunately.

Jakob Bresler spent two years at the Landsberg DP Camp, from 1945 to 1947. We started to have a normal life. Or what we called normal. For us it was normal. For everybody else it was not normal. Because it was not conventional. We were disturbed children! In summer 1945,

Conditions in the DP camps remained dire. US President Harry S. Truman entrusted Earl G. Harrison a prominent lawyer and experienced government official, with inspecting the camps and issuing a report. My dear Mr. President: Pursuant to your letter of June 22 1945 I have the honor to present to you a partial report upon

My recent mission to Europe to inquire into the conditions under which displaced persons and particularly those who may be stateless or non-repatriable are at present living, especially in Germany and Austria. Harrison’s conclusion was damning: As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis

Treated them except that we do not exterminate them. They are in concentration camps in large numbers under our military guard instead of SS troops. One is led to wonder whether the German people, seeing this, are not supposing that we are following or at least condoning Nazi policy. That headline made its way,

Of course, very quickly to Eisenhower and to Truman and cried out for action. Historian Atina Grossmann specializes in the history of Jewish displaced persons. The Harrison Report, she says, is one of the most remarkable documents of recent history. He said. We have to recognize that the Jews, because of the special nature

I’m not quoting directly here, we could pull out the direct quote because of the very particular nature of the suffering that they have endured of the treatment one could almost say the “Sonderbehandlung”, the special treatment that they received at the hands of the Germans of the Nazis

Has already made them a special group with particular needs, that need to be addressed separately. They deserve to be recognized as their own group. The Landsberg DP camp became a camp for Jews alone. And conditions for the people there improved. Jewish survivors began to marry and have children.

Many children were born in the camp. During the postwar period, the DP camps were estimated to have the highest birthrate in the world. But the DPs didn’t want to stay there. They wanted to go to Palestine the future Israel, or to the United States. To prepare for emigration,

They learned a variety of trades. This is me on a motorcycle. Not mine, because I did not own any. Motorcycle meant freedom, right? Yes, but as I said: I didn’t own it. I used to go to the swimming pool in Landsberg. Every day in the summertime. And I met people there.

But we were separated. They did not bother with us. And we did not bother with them. Because the wounds were still very, very raw. Basically, the surviving Jews, at least in theory, did not want anything to do with Germans. They wanted to be amongst themselves. The Germans were the perpetrator people.

And they were living under the sometimes much resented protection, but nonetheless, the protection of allied military government. The Germans were resentful that here were this group of people who they had been told no longer existed. It was, first of all, kind of shocking that there were Jews at all

When supposedly they had been wiped out and Germany was free of Jews who seem to be getting, ironically again, to repeat that word, special privileges. Germans living in Landsberg encountered self-confident survivors who were unwilling to put up with any abuse. On April 28, 1946

Tensions spilled over into skirmishes on the streets of Landsberg. The unrest was branded a “Jewish uprising”. Displaced Persons from the camp unleashed their anger on residents of the town. Joseph Alexander is 100 years old. He was in Landsberg when the Jewish DPs rose up against the local Germans.

Joseph is also Jewish and was born in Poland. He was also deported by the Germans to the Landsberg Kaufering concentration camp. If God didn’t want me to survive I wouldn’t be here. One particular: when I saw Dr. Mengele in Auschwitz. He told me to go to the left.

And then when he moved further on I ran back to the other side. If I didn’t run back to the other side I wouldn’t be here now talking to you, because the people from the left they were brought in the trucks and went straight in the gas chambers. In April 1946,

Joseph Alexander was living close to the Landsberg DP camp. This is one of the pictures from Landsberg. From the riot. You know what the reason for the uprising was? There was another camp not far from Landsberg, a youth camp for young survivors. And one night they said, two disappeared.

And people thought that they were kidnapped by the Germans. It was such a short time after the liberation. So there was a very bad feeling against Germans. That is what it was. Some two hundred DPs went on a rampage through the town. US soldiers marched in with rifles and batons,

And put an end to the unrest. When that happened I was in the Landsberg DP Camp. But I lived in Epfenhausen. And I had my car parked on the side-street there. And I was trying to get home. So I went from the back of the camp, trying to go to the car.

And I was caught with a bunch of them who were rioting in the back of a German home. So I got caught with them and we were captured and taken to the Landsberg prison. We were 19 people. A US military tribunal sentenced Joseph to a custodial sentence of one year. The camp newspapers,

Like the Landsberger Szpigel, also reported on the unrest. They became one of the most influential voices of the survivors. The papers were unsparing in their observations about the Germans after the war. They also reported on political developments in Palestine and later Israel. But above all, they were a crucial platform for survivors

Until the closure of the camp in 1950. With a print run of up to 17 thousand, they reached audiences far beyond the region. To our friend Zusanna Gutman with Miklosz Pereslin, we wish great fortune and a wonderful mazel tov. Mailech and Emi Rosenwald. If you read it out loud,

You can understand Yiddish well enough. His archive is a trove of information. Nearly every week, Manfred receives inquiries from all over the world. You might find the birth announcement of someone born in Landsberg to former concentration camp inmates. For those people, these are documents they never knew existed.

These are newspapers published in Germany, and they don’t exist wherever they live now. But here they might find a notice of their birth. Or their parents’ wedding announcement. And they also contain search notices, which might lead people to discover that they have relatives in the US or somewhere.

This is one of the most important historical sources on the DP camps. Not the broad, big picture history but the history written with a fine brush, the details. Manfred Deiler’s office is in his basement. The foundation receives public funding to maintain the former concentration camp buildings.

But the work he does is voluntary: his research and his contacts with people who experienced the events first-hand. Even today, there are still a great many people, in politics too, who think we need to control the narratives. And that means steering the story in a way that

Makes it more palatable to the broader population. That’s been the case throughout the entire postwar period and even now, to some extent. The Nazis are always ‘the others, ‘someone else’’. You, your family, your hometown, they’re all victims in their own right. That’s how people prefer to tell that history.

And if we were to open an exhibition now, it would quickly be clear, we can’t all be victims, that’s just wishful thinking. We also belong to, perhaps I shouldn’t say the actual perpetrators, but to those who’ve profited from it. On January 7, 1951

Almost six years after the end of National Socialism and the war, the people of Landsberg gathered for a political rally. Four thousand people flocked to the main square almost a third of the town’s population. They included a cross-section of society and people of influence representatives of nearly all the political parties,

Leaders of the Protestant and Catholic church. They had come to call for Christian charity. Not for Holocaust survivors, but for war criminals detained in Landsberg. Their trials were ongoing, and they faced the death penalty. And the citizens of Landsberg were calling for mercy. They demanded mercy for Otto Ohlendorf. As an SS-Einsatzgruppen commander,

His job was the mass murder of Jews, Sinti and Roma. He ordered the murder of 90 thousand people in eastern Europe. They asked for mercy for Oswald Pohl. The SS general, who when he decided the mass murder of Jews in death camps like Auschwitz wasn’t proceeding swiftly enough,

Would appoint someone else to take over. The really strange thing about it is that the demonstrators who gathered on the main square in Landsberg were siding so firmly with the war criminals. These weren’t innocent people, they were mass murderers. True mass murderers: not people who’d killed two or three, but tens of thousands.

They had so much blood on their hands. And the demonstrators were standing up for them of all people, and discovering their humanitarian side for them. Edith Raim was born and raised in Landsberg. She’s spent decades researching her Bavarian homeland’s involvement in Nazi persecution and terror.

This idea that the Third Reich just descended upon us, that no one participated and that everyone was a victim, because they were forced to take part, as they claimed. Well, there are good reasons why that wasn’t the case for Landsberg. Landsberg had a local Nazi party chapter as early as 1920.

There wasn’t any pressure at that point, you couldn’t say: ‘I’ve been forced to join the party by the local Nazi Party leader.’ So that speaks for a kind of mentality in the region that allowed the dark spirit of Nazism to take hold there at a relatively early stage.

A counter-protest emerged on the sidelines of the Landsberg rally, organized by DPs from the region. They were chased away by the crowd, who called Juden raus! Jews out! I work at the Sparkasse bank. As colleagues started to realize I was a member of THAT foundation including colleagues who I wasn’t working with directly,

So they can’t have heard me ever really talk about it, but they found out, I started to notice that certain people started to avoid me. It was the same thing with older colleagues: a group of us used to go skiing together on weekends. And suddenly: an older colleague,

When we approached each other on the street, he’d cross the road. I didn’t really notice it at first. But then you realize wow, that’s someone who doesn’t want to have anything to do with you anymore. And I used to be a private customer consultant. There were customers I’d been advising for years,

And suddenly they were no longer making appointments with me. They went to other colleagues. And afterwards, when I started looking into their family background before that I never gave a second thought to my colleagues’ family history, or how their family might have been involved in Nazism I wasn’t ever really interested in that.

But I think that’s what they were afraid of. Joseph Alexander’s entire family was murdered by the Nazis. He visits the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles several times a week, to talk about his experiences. You know who this is? It’s the former chancellor Angela Merkel. Yes. Angela Merkel, I spoke to her in Dachau.

When I was there in 2015. Did she say something to you? Well, I said, that I liked what she supporting for Israel. And she should keep on doing. She said, she will. They say that about 70 percent of the kids never heard about the Holocaust. So,

That’s why I am here to tell them the truth about what happened. And I get letters from them afterwards: amazing! Back in Landsberg, members of the foundation and their president Manfred Deiler are presenting their concept for a memorial site to the public. It’s all been a bit much over the last few weeks.

And I’m noticing it now: I’ve got a scratchy cough that’s really bothering me. It’s not Covid, I’ve tested for that. And I’m sleeping badly. Whenever I’ve got images in my head to do with all of this, the cough comes. When I get the images out of my head, it’s gone.

Almost all the town’s main decision-makers are here, at the invitation of Manfred Deiler and his fellow campaigners. This image is from 1944: Camp 11 construction totally new! Camp 7, not yet occupied Clay pipe structures 3 not yet occupied interior shot. 1944 taken by the OT. Silence!

Can we take the noise level down a bit please! There are two Landsberg mayors here: Moritz Hartmann and Mr. Brettschneider. Thanks for coming! Now I’m not sure if the former mayor comes before the Bavarian Memorial Foundation, let’s welcome the former Mayor of Landsberg first, Franz-Xaver Rössle.

Then the mayor of the municipality of Igling. And then Jascha März from the Bavarian Memorial Foundation. Let me have another look around. Wait, I’ve forgotten something, we’ve also got city council member Mr Axel Flörke here in yellow, thank you for coming. People I know, and people I don’t know.

But I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone. For the next part, I’d like to hand over the podium to Dr. Raim, who’s also responsible for the basic concept of the exhibition. How democratic was the Federal Republic of Germany, if it didn’t adequately succeed in distancing itself from the Nazi era?

And yet in Germany it still seems easier to engage with the perpetrators than with the traces left behind by the victims. Easier to acquire funds for exhibitions or documentation centers, than for concentration camp memorials. Kaufering Seven is a place where people will be reminded of the consequences of tyranny and violence.

Now we’re at the point where we should stop focusing on the problems, and look for solutions. Thank you. I’ll make it brief, I need to get home to bed. Thanks to all those who are still here. I need to head out and recharge my batteries. Manfred Deiler is fighting for a concentration

Camp memorial in Landsberg am Lech. And for his vision of a meaningful engagement with the past. People put on some sort of event to provide a somewhat pointed example let’s say a music event, ideally together with young people. And then a sponsor comes along, some politician. A musical performance always goes down well.

And during the event, you’re commemorating the Holocaust. Is this how we’re pushing back against anti-Semitism nowadays? As I always say, events like these will surely strike fear into the hearts of anti-Semites and the far right and make them change their ways! I like to call this a light-version culture of remembrance.

Maybe some klezmer music, a concert, a few readings. People acknowledge the past and say yes, anti-Semitism is bad. And politicians love to be involved as patrons. Because it’s all very innocuous. What you end up with is a pleasant event. A trend that’s currently gaining the upper hand. For Jakob Bresler,

There’s no such thing as a ‘light-version’ culture of remembrance. He survived the Holocaust. Singing saved his life, it earned him bread in the camp. But his entire family was killed. He saw his father Chaim Bresler for the last time in 1943, in the Lodz Ghetto.

One day there was a letter on the table for me, saying: I am going back to prison because I cannot take away your bread. He went back to prison. I ran the same day to prison and wanted to see him. And I scolded him and I said: Why did you do that?

After five years and what you went through. And now that you can be with us. And he said: Yes, but I am gonna starve you too, you are starving as it is. He said to me: You are young. If this is life, I don’t want it. And we said goodbye.

And never seen again. So, that gave me strength. To survive. And tell his story as well as I possibly can.

Video “Holocaust survivors in post-war Germany | DW Documentary” was uploaded on 05/06/2023 by DW Documentary Youtube channel.