rebuilding after the Holocaust


The Holocaust ravaged the Jewish community.

In 1933, around 9.5 million Jews lived in Europe, comprising 1.7 percent of the population of Europe. This means that nearly 2/3s — or 66 percent — of Jews in Europe were murdered in the Holocaust. In other words: out of every 3 European Jews, 2 of them died in the Holocaust.

Prior to the Holocaust, Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe, standing at 3 million, or 9.5 percent of the total Polish population. 2.7 million — or 90 percent — of Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

Entire Jewish communities across Europe were decimated, resulting in the near complete decline of the Yiddish language. Entire families were exterminated. 

In 2005, a report found that Jewish Holocaust “damages” add up to $240-330 *billion* dollars. The unpaid wages of slave labor add up to some $11-52 *billion.* After the war, no more than 20 percent of looted Jewish assets were returned to their rightful owners.

Millions of Jewish survivors became refugees. They tried desperately to find their loved ones alive, with public radio broadcasts and newspapers publishing lists of survivors and their whereabouts. Some 250,000 Jewish survivors were held in refugee camps known as Displaced Persons camps, in abysmal conditions, oftentimes under armed guard. Many survivors suffered from serious health conditions and survivor’s guilt. 

And yet: Holocaust survivors were eager to get on with life. Marriages and births in Displaced Persons camps were commonplace. Somehow, miraculously, after experiencing the absolute worst of humanity, they found the strength to rebuild, against all odds. It’s an incredible story of strength and resilience that I think we should talk about more often. 



The discrimination against Jews did not end with the Holocaust. 

The end of World War II saw the biggest refugee crisis in history. While the world — including the United States — opened its doors to non-Jewish refugees, Jewish refugees remained locked away in Displaced Persons camps for years. Displaced Persons camps were usually repurposed concentration camps; for example, the Nazi camp Bergen-Belsen was repurposed into the largest Jewish refugee camp.

Many Jews tried to return to their old homes in Europe, which had been overtaken by squatters, who were usually their old neighbors. Threatened by the return of their Jewish neighbors, the squatters oftentimes shot them in cold blood. It’s estimated that around 2000 Jewish Holocaust survivors were murdered at the hands of Polish citizens between the end of the war and 1946. 

The most significant post-Holocaust pogrom (anti-Jewish massacre) in Poland was the Kielce pogrom in July of 1946, when 42 Holocaust survivors were murdered. A survivor of the pogrom wrote: “I would like to mention that as a former prisoner of concentration camps I have not gone through an experience like this. I have seen very little sadism and bestiality of this scale.”

Hundreds of survivors were also massacred in Ukraine, Hungary, and Slovakia. 

Inside the Displaced Persons camps, the conditions were hardly any better. An American government representative wrote of the camps: “As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them.”



The Allies originally planned to repatriate Jewish Holocaust survivors to their countries of origin. This proved impossible: first, because Jews who attempted to return to their homes were frequently murdered, and second, because most Jews refused to return to their old homes.

In a poll of 19,000 Jewish Displaced Persons, 97 percent of them stated they wanted to go to Palestine. When asked for a second choice, as many as 25 percent in some camps said “crematorium.”

As explained in the previous slide, the Allies left the Jews locked away in abysmal conditions. In November of 1943, the Allies formed the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, to assist refugees of the war. The agency, however, was plagued with corruption from the start. So the survivors organized socially and politically, with the help of Jews in different countries, such as the United States and Mandatory Palestine. They elected their own representatives and demanded self-governance. 

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the British Jewish Relief Unit provided financial and vocational assistance. The survivors also maintained close relationships with the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine. Political debate, activism, and organizing was lively and even heated, with almost all survivors embracing Zionism. 

While the Jewish refugees established institutions in the camps characteristic of a durable, long-term society, their primary goal was the dissolution of this community; in other words, they refused to remain refugees, instead making every imaginable attempt to find new homes. 



In 1939, the British, at the behest of the Arab Higher Committee, passed what is known as the 1939 White Paper, which all but outlawed Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine.

Between 1939 and 1948, with the establishment of the State of Israel, virtually all Jewish immigration to Palestine was illegal. Not to be deterred, the Jewish paramilitary organizations in Palestine, led by the Haganah, carried out dangerous, clandestine missions to bring Jewish refugees to Palestine. These missions are known as “Aliyah Bet.”

Many of these attempts were intercepted by the British, and caught Jews were held in prisons and internment camps, usually in Cyprus, which was a British colony at the time. 

Between 1946 and 1949, some 53,510 Jews were held prisoner in Cyprus; 80 percent of the prisoners were between the ages of 13-35, and 6,000 of them were orphans. Some 2000 Jewish children were born in the camps. 

The conditions at the camps were atrocious. Jews had to face obstacles such as poor sanitation, overcrowding, lack of privacy, and a shortage of drinkable water. The American Joint Distribution Committee, which provided medical aid, extra food rations, and more, stated that the British treated Jewish refugees in Cyprus worse than they treated Nazi prisoners of war in adjacent camps. Some 400 Jews died in these camps. 

Meanwhile, in Palestine, the Jewish paramilitary Irgun targeted British military and police targets (worth noting: though the Irgun retaliated against Arabs, including civilians, for the Arab massacres of Jews in Palestine in the 1930s, during the insurgency against the British after World War II, they did not target civilians). 



The threat of total extermination of world Jewry did not end with the Holocaust. 

Leading up to and during World War II, the Arab Higher Committee of Palestine fostered an intimate relationship with Nazi Germany. Their leader, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, was a member of the Nazi Party, as were many others. In 1941, Hitler “recognized the right” of the Arabs to solve “the Jewish problem” in Palestine, just as Germany was doing in Europe. During the Holocaust, Husseini worked as a propagandist for the Germans, influencing the public opinion of the Arab and Muslim world. In 1943, Husseini spoke to the Muslim world: 

“It is the duty of Muhammadans [Muslims] in general and Arabs in particular all Jews from Arab and Muhammadan countries...” In a radio broadcast in 1944, he stated: “Arabs, rise as one man and fight for your sacred rights. Kill the Jews wherever you find them. This pleases God, history, and religion.”

The threats continued after the end of the war. In the months leading up to the 1947 Partition Vote in the United Nations, Azzam Pasha, the General Secretary of the Arab League, threatened: “Personally I hope the Jews do not force us into this war because it will be a dangerous massacre which history will record similarly to the Mongol massacre or the wars of the Crusades…We will sweep [the Jews] into the sea.”

Following the Partition Vote, the Arab Higher Committee of Palestine published a leaflet stating: “The Arabs have taken the [Nazi] Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.” Other genocidal threats were made in 1948 by the Muslim Brotherhood and other members of the Arab League.

The Jews perceived the 1947-1949 war as an existential threat from the outset. In the beginning of the war, their stated objectives were simple: to survive Palestinian Arab attacks and an impending invasion by foreign Arab armies. Records from the time indicate that not only did the Jews take the Arab threats to genocide seriously, but that they feared a second Holocaust in the Middle East.



The very next day after the partition vote, Arab mobs in Palestine began attacking Jews near the Jaffa Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, Arab gunmen ambushed two Jewish buses near Petah Tikva (killing 7), and Arab snipers shot at buses and pedestrians in Haifa, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv; as such, a civil war broke out.

Two weeks into the war, Palestinian Arabs had murdered some 126 Jews (of note: this is before any massacres or expulsions of Palestinians took place). 

On May 14, 1948, the British Mandate over Palestine came to an end. Within hours, five Arab armies — Iraq, Transjordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt — invaded the newborn state.  Soon thereafter, Saudi Arabia and Yemen joined the invasion. They were aided by the British and former Nazis who had escaped to the Middle East, who created their own battalion known as Black International.

A source close to the group commented: “…their cynical joy is unbounded at the double gift which has been handed them — the opportunity to butcher Jews, and get paid for it.”

The invading Arab forces had fully-functioning militaries, including tanks, armored cars, machine guns, and more, as well as an endless supply of oil. Egypt, Iraq, and Syria had air forces. The Jewish forces had none of those things. To make matters worse, the United States imposed an arms embargo on Israel. In fact, only Czechoslovakia agreed to sell the Jews arms.

The Jews were heavily outnumbered. Jews from across the Diaspora rushed to Palestine (and, after May 14, 1948, to Israel) to help their Jewish siblings, eventually growing the Jewish forces from less than 30,000 to nearly 120,000 by the end of the war. 



In 1948, some 850,000 Jews were forcibly displaced from Arab and Muslim-majority countries. Thousands were murdered, tortured, arrested, and more. Their properties were seized and assets stolen. Now stateless, the majority of these refugees migrated to Israel, many in dangerous secret operations. 

Within a period of just 3 years (1948-1951), Israel had to absorb nearly a million Jewish Holocaust refugees and refugees displaced from Arab and Muslim countries. This, coupled with the 1948 Arab invasion of the new Israeli state, had the country on the verge of economic collapse.

The rapid absorption of refugees resulted in a major housing crisis for the economically-fledgling nation. As such, by 1951, 250,000 refugees were housed in transit camps known as “ma’abarot.”

The conditions were abysmal. There were fly infestations and inadequate water supply, which resulted in disease. At first, the refugees were housed in tents, though later tin and wooden shacks were constructed. Infants were separated from their mothers and placed in children’s housing. Infant mortality rate was high. One Israeli politician described the conditions in the ma’abarot as a “holy horror.”

Inequality was also a problem. While 58 percent of Mizrahi refugees were placed in ma’abarot, only 18 percent of Ashkenazi refugees were. Ma’abarot with larger Ashkenazi populations were usually less dense and had better employment opportunities.

By the early 1950s, one out of every six Israelis lived in a refugee camp. Because Israel was on the verge of economic collapse, the government instituted a policy of austerity — known in Hebrew as “tzena” — severely rationing food and other resources. This policy lasted until 1959. 



We are the strongest people I know.

After the Holocaust, all odds were against us. Out of a world Jewish population of about 16.6 million, six million were murdered. Jewish life in Europe was completely destroyed. Entire communities were decimated. Our assets were stolen. Survivors were left stateless. The Allies treated Jewish refugees like prisoners, locked away under armed guard. No one wanted us. 

The Arab world explicitly threatened a second Holocaust just a few years later. We hadn’t even begun to recover. Yet we defied the largest empire in history — the British Empire — and smuggled Jewish refugees into our ancestral homeland. We forced them to leave.

Five much more powerful armies attacked us, at once. We had nothing: no tanks, no air force, no armored vehicles. The world placed an arms embargo on us so we had to stock up through illegal, dangerous means. We were completely outnumbered. Jews from across every corner of the Diaspora rushed to help, because no one else would help us. That’s what we learned from the Holocaust.

All of this while absorbing over a million Jewish refugees from Europe and the Arab world, who came with absolutely nothing. 

Under the worst of circumstances, we rebuilt. And we will continue to rebuild again and again if we have to, just as we have for the past 3000 years. 

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