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The View From 82: The Cold War in Berlin's DP Camps
Rabbi Mayer Abramowitz

Hans Lowe carrying twenty reams of paper at the printer in the French sector of Berlin. Notice the German word 'Vervielveldigung,' or 'photocopying.'In the seven or eight months following the end of World War II, more than 20,000 Jews made their way to the American Zone of Occupation by way of Berlin. They were helped to leave (escape) Poland by the Bricha, who brought them to the Schlachtensee DP Camp in Berlin. From there the survivors were transported south to DP Camps in the American Zone and processed for the "illegal immigration" (Aliyah Bet) to Palestine -- an epic saga popularized by Leon Uris's book and film, "Exodus".

Fourth graders in a Berlin school using the text book on Genesis published by Rabbi Abramowitz.During those months, Berlin's DP Camp was known by the Jews and the camp's administration as a "Durchgangslager," a transit camp where the Displaced Persons would be temporarily wait, maybe a day or two, to transfer to the Munich area in the southern part of Germany. All this would soon come to an end, however, because of the Cold War – the USSR vs USA.

I arrived in Berlin to become the Jewish chaplain of the Berlin Command in July of 1946. By the end of August, the Cold War was heating up and had created a radical change in the status of Berlin's DP Camps.

To better understand that change I remind you that the Cold War was waged primarily in Berlin, with the Russians insisting that the American troops leave Berlin -- an enclave within the Russian Zone of Occupation. The U.S. responded that it intended to remain there as stipulated by previous treaties. To demonstrate its determination to stay in Berlin, the United States declared that the DP's would remain in Berlin's Camps under the protection of American troops.

This decision brought an abrupt end to any further transports out of Berlin. The camps had now become holding centers for all displaced persons, Jews and non-Jews, pending their legal resettlement.

A pall of hopelessness soon covered the Schlachtensee camp and its 5,000 inhabitants.

After all, they initially were brought to Berlin with the promise of getting away from the Russians (whom they dreaded), and into the Aliya Bet pipeline to Palestine. Now, they came into Berlin with nowhere to go. Their population soon doubled as thousands of Jewish survivors streamed into Berlin daily. To accommodate the incoming Jews, another camp, Templehof, was opened and soon filled to capacity.

That is what I had to contend with when I came to Berlin for my new chaplaincy assignment. I arranged several meetings between the American Jewish GI's and the residents of the camps. Football games featuring the DP team and the Americans were popular, social interactions were also appreciated. Still, I fully realized these were meaningless compared to the malaise settling into the camps.

By the end of 1946, the Bricha operation essentially came to a close; the Bricha were able to send only a few dozen survivors as "medical personnel" on hospital trains that were permitted to leave Berlin. The DPs were now enclosed in the camps -- almost as prisoners.

The immediate problem facing us was the fact that in the two camps and in the Gemeinde (the Berlin Jewish Community), the child population swelled close to 3,000. What was to become of them? What about their education?

The answer was obvious: Schools had to be established, faculty had to be recruited, text books had to be provided.

The Zentral Comitet (the committee administering the camp), with the help of UNRRA, cleared out several barracks and prepared classrooms for the school.

But the most serious problem was that we had classrooms but no teachers: this was the task I assigned for myself.

First, I must tell you that in the first four months I had organized a "package program" in which American Jews sent me gifts of clothing, food, cigarettes, coffee, and chocolates, which I was to distribute to the Displaced Persons. There were ads in various Jewish newspapers (especially the Aufbau). These packages began to arrive in such huge numbers that the APO, the military postal authorities, had problems of storage space. (In a future column, I will describe how I had to contend with the Army's order to confiscate the packages and my efforts to free them.)

I used the items in the packages as an incentive in recruiting teachers. Please remember that the required minimum food for each person in the camp was 1,800 calories, barely enough to sustain life. The items I offered volunteer teachers could be traded for food that was not available in the DP camp kitchens.

There were only three professional teachers -- Warshavsky, Kremer, and Jonas -- in the camps who survived the Nazi horror. They not only became principals of the nascent schools but did a yeoman's job in each camp to interview, recruit, and assign teachers to specific grades.

Here's an example how the recruitment was carried on: Michael (Micha) Glauberman, an eighteen-year-old former student in Pink's gymnasium, was approached to teach a class. He laughed it off, stating he had never been a teacher.

"How much is 2 plus 5?" I asked.

"Seven," he replied.

"You're my arithmetic teacher," I said, offering him a peep at the bag of goodies I had prepared earlier. Micha immediately accepted.

But Micha was right. He knew his arithmetic tables, but had no experience as a teacher. So it was with all other teachers. None had ever taught class. To solve that problem I organized a Teachers Association which met every Thursday evening at my Chaplain's Center. The program consisted of an hour's lecture on pedagogy, or methodology, or class discipline, taught by the three principals of the schools. The rest of the evening was a social hour which often times lasted into the early hours of the morning featuring singing, dancing, refreshments and of course, the weekly teachers' brown bag of cigarettes, coffee, and chocolates.

Very soon, the weekly sessions of Hever Hamoraim d'Berlin -- the Teachers Association of Berlin -- became the meeting ground for the elite of the camps. This solved, in a large measure, the recruitment problem. But, what about text books? And equally important, what would be the language of instruction in our schools? The 3,000 children spoke a polyglot of languages -- Polish, Russian, Hungarian, German, etc. Early in our program we (the teachers and I) decided that Hebrew would be the language of instruction. That meant we had to get text books in history, geography, science, arithmetic and literature -- all in Hebrew.

I turned to the JDC Department of Education. Dr. Leo Jung, my former teacher at Yeshiva College, was its chairman. I wrote to him describing our text book problem and eagerly reported to my principals and some faculty members that Dr. Jung agreed to provide the school with the books. Soon, we got word from the APO that ten cases of books had arrived in Berlin. I alerted my teachers and we went down to the military post office to claim our prize.

There they were: ten huge cartons, each approximately 5x3x3 feet in size. The postal authorities helped us with crow bars and hammers to open the crates; the teachers and I worked with zeal to pry open them open. Imagine our utter disappointment as we opened each crate only to find hundreds of old chumashim, and siddurim with English translation and nothing else.

The disappoint we all felt is hard to describe. Dr. Jung probably considered our schools to be the usual afternoon congregation Hebrew schools.

So, I undertook a new task -- to publish our own text books and without clearance from the CCD (the Civilian Censorship Division, which had to approve all publication in Occupied Germany.

What did I know about publishing? I owe my success to my German driver (Hans Lowe), who introduced me to a new world of publishing: vervielveltigung in German, photocopying in English. I scrounged around Berlin's Gemeinde (Jewish community) and found one book in each of the subjects which could be photocopied. All I needed now was hundreds of reams of paper, gallons of printers' ink, and cardboard material for book covers -- books for the forty classes already formed.

That's where the military's Disposable Warehouse of the US Quartermaster Corps came into play. Let me explain: a disposable warehouse is the supply depot for those items which do not have to be returned, items such as candles, bulbs, soaps, and, thankfully, paper, ink, and file folders.

In Chaplain's School back in the U.S., I learned that the army doesn't travel on its stomach. It travels on its sergeants. God bless the Disposable Warehouse sergeant of Berlin. He not only helped me find the stuff I needed, but also helped load my jeep's trailer with hundreds of reams of paper, gallons of printers' ink and dozens boxes of file folders (as book covers). All this of course required my signature, stating the amount of supplies taken and describing the use for all these materials. I gladly signed the form and returned it to the sergeant because I learned an important army lesson: Sign all requisition forms and get as much supply as you can.

I will never forget what the sergeant said as we pulled out of the warehouse depot. "Gee, Chaplain, you can turn out a lot of lectures with all this stuff you got."

That's not the end of the story. How do I publish my books? Simple: I instructed my driver to go to a print shop in the French sector of Berlin (away from the U.S. authorities), where my driver stormed into the store announcing my arrival and schlepped the paper, ink, and file folders into the print shop.

I showed the printer the first book I wanted published -- the book of Genesis, with commentary by Weingarten (once a rabbi always a rabbi -- the Bible comes first!). I asked the printer how long it would take to print 300 copies. He replied that, with the rationing of electricity, the cold winter, and lack of workers, it would take about six weeks. At that point, Hans brought in two cartons of cigarettes, a five pound bag of coffee and a box of Hershey bars. The printer looked at the treasure trove and his eyes almost popped out of their sockets.

"Mister," I said, "I need these by the end of the week."

The poor man was startled. But, once again Hans came to the rescue. He lugged in a pail of coal, reminding the printer that there was much more coal and zigareten if he would give the lieutenant all his time to print the six books for which I had planned.

Fourteen days later, at a meeting of the Teachers Association, we distributed a set of books -- bible, history, arithmetic, science, geography and literature, all in Hebrew and all with the imprint: "Published by the Teachers Association of Berlin."

For the next eighteen months, the schools attracted many visitors from the JAFP, Jewish Agency of Palestine, the JDC and American and foreign dignitaries.

We invited these dignitaries to speak at our Teachers Association meetings. One person we invited but did not come was Lady Astor of Great Britain. She was part of a fact-finding mission sent by His Majesties' government.

"I am told that the language of instruction in the schools is Hebrew," she accusingly asked, broadly hinting that this was part of a secret plan to send the survivors to Palestine.

"Ma'am," I replied, "if England would today open its doors to accept these refugees, we would immediately change the language of instruction to English.

Lady Astor did not reply.