Jews and Perceptions of Law and Order in Germany


  1. Historical context of the source
  2. Source
  3. Discussion of the source
  4. Questions for discussion
  5. Selected bibliography
  6. Further reading

1. Historical context of the source

Gordon Craig concludes his masterful history, Germany 1866-1945, with the observation that:

Adolf Hitler was nothing if not thorough. He destroyed the basis of the traditional resistance to modernity and liberalism just as completely as he destroyed the basis of the Rechtsstaat [constitutional state, or country built on laws] and democracy. Because his work of demolition was so complete, he left the German people nothing that could be repaired or built upon.  They had to begin all over again, a hard task perhaps, but a challenging one, in the facing of which they were not totally bereft of guidance.  For Hitler had not only restored to them the options that they had had a century earlier but had also bequeathed to them the memory of horror to help them with their choice.

Like most other scholars concerned with Nazism and modern German history, Craig ends his story at 1945. What happened afterwards has commanded relatively little attention, as opposed to the history of the Third Reich and the Second World War. Compared to the perpetration of the Holocaust, until the last two decades scholars, including Jewish historians, have shown little cognizance that some Jews lived, for more than a fleeting moment, in post-Second World War Germany, and that their situation changed dramatically between 1944 and 1948. The Holocaust, with the extermination of six million Jews, obliterated the continuity of Jewish life in all of Nazi-occupied Europe. But Europe was not a land completely devoid of Jews in 1945, nor was Germany itself.  In addition to abstract problems of memory and accountability, vis-à-vis the Nazis’ Jewish victims, there were some thousands of Jews actually living in Germany and elsewhere in formerly Nazi-controlled Europe.

The initially inconsistent, and frequently insensitive, treatment of Jews by the United States’ occupation authorities and soldiers was deeply disconcerting to President Harry Truman.  He ordered an official investigation into the conditions, led by Earl Harrison (summer 1945). ‘The Harrison Report’ counted as one of its major achievements the creation of separate facilities for Jewish refugees. The ranks of these Jews, who would come to be known as ‘survivors’, swelled considerably in the few years after the war.  Originally the DPs (‘Displaced Persons’) were those who had outlasted the camps and had been in hiding during the war. Especially after mid-1946, they were joined by Jews repatriated from the Soviet Union to Poland. The ‘Kielce pogrom’ (July 1946) and other acts of violence against Jews in Poland prompted thousands to flee westward and establish themselves in the American domain of Germany. With Polish and Hungarian Jews in the majority, they numbered around 250,000 in 1947, and by that point were centered in Bavaria.  Thousands of survivors, whether they eventually landed in Israel (before 1948, Palestine), the United States, or elsewhere, spent periods from several days to several years in DP camps, or else lived on their own as DPs in German cities and towns.

Beginning in the winter of 1944, Jewish DPs organized themselves as a body termed theShe’erith Hapleitah (surviving remnant), a political, social, and cultural body. Beginning in July-October 1945, they vigorously attempted to engage world politics, primarily rallying survivors under the banner of Zionism, with the goals of gaining legal admission to Palestine and easing entry into the United States.  They sought to forge a consensus among Jews and the world at large, as well as to articulate dissenting opinions and options. The work of ‘the Central Committee of the Liberated Jews in Bavaria’ and the educational endeavors of the She’erith Hapleitah were crucial in the lives of the DPs. A great deal of energy and effort was expended on schooling and vocational training, along with attempts to memorialize the destroyed communities. As was to be expected, there were strained relations with their reluctant German host community and complicated tensions with the U.S. Army. The growing orientation of survivors was toward imagining and preparing themselves to join the Jewish community in Palestine, under the auspices of the Zionist movement, to establish themselves in the United States, or perhaps to join relatives or fellow survivors in countries such as Canada, Australia, and Argentina. Some, however, did elect to stay. It was a time of recovery, transition, and mourning for lost loved ones and a vanished world.  They showed remarkable resourcefulness and strength of will by organizing newspapers, schools, clinics, libraries, institutions guaranteeing the rule of law and order, and concern for aesthetic sensibilities, while forging themselves into a community with some control over their fate.

2. Source

The document comprises the introductory section of an official report and the first ‘incident’ of six to be considered.  It is located in the papers of Philip S. Bernstein, box 1, no. 71, Special Collections, the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, and is reprinted with special permission of the University of Rochester.

14 September 1946

MEMORANDUM TO: Chief of Staff

SUBJECT: Recommendation Relative to Problem of Law and Order Among Jewish Displaced Persons.

1. During the period of my stay in this Theater, the question of maintaining law and order among Jewish DPs has, on a number of occasions, come to my attention. It is, I believe, fair to state that the number of incidents in which Jewish DPs have clashed with the German civilian population and, as an outgrowth, with the American military authorities, has been remarkably few. This is likewise true of the number of incidents in which Jewish DPs have participated in crimes of violence or in offenses involving moral turpitude.

2. In view of the arrival of new infiltrees from Poland who have not had the experience of contact with the American soldier, and, conversely, with the arrival from the States of young occupation troops who have not had the experience of contacts with concentration camps and DPs, everything possible must be done to prevent friction. The DPs and the soldiers do not, as a rule, come directly in conflict with each other but, rather, meet as a result of some incident in which Germans are involved. However, it is my belief that certain measures can be taken that will continue to keep such incidents down to the very minimum. In this connection, an analysis of the major incidents that have occurred in the past might prove helpful in furnishing suggestions as to what might be done, both by the Army and by the agencies that serve the DPs to maintain the high standards of law and order requisite in a military establishment. The major incidents that have occurred since 1 January 1946 have been chosen for this purpose.

3. I am submitting herewith an analysis of each incident, the conclusions I have drawn from it, and a summary of recommendations for the Army and for the organizations serving and representing the Jewish DPs. I recommend that these be transmitted to the appropriate military authorities and to those organizations.

Adviser to the Theater Commander
on Jewish Affairs



1. Oberammingen Incident

On 26 March 1946, at about 1930 hours, two Jewish DPs, riding on a motorcycle in Oberammingen, became involved in a scuffle with four or five Germans. Later that evening one of these DPs and others entered three German homes in search of the men who had previously participated in the scuffle, and beat up two Germans. When the burgemaster learned of this, he had a bugle blown, to which alarm signal approximately one hundred of the four hundred Germans of the village responded. Armed with sticks and stones, they descended upon a schoolhouse, occupied by twelve of the forty-four Jewish DPs that live in the village. On the way they attacked several Jewish DPs. When they reached the schoolhouse, they surrounded it, shouted threats, broke some of the windows and the door, and assaulted one of the DPs in the schoolhouse. German police from a neighboring village, called to the scene of the disturbance, dispersed the crowd.


It is apparent that this incident would have been avoided had the DPs, who were involved in the earlier phase of the altercation, reported their grievances to UNRRA or military authorities. The Jewish DP must be taught that one of the primary functions of the Army is to maintain law and order and that, under no circumstances, will the Army tolerate acts of revenge on the part of an injured person. Affirmatively, the DP must be educated to subdue his anger and to report any attack upon his person or property to the proper camp authorities. All the resources available; namely, representatives of UNRRA, the voluntary Jewish agencies, and the Central Committee of Liberated Jews, as well as the Jewish chaplains, could be used to orient the Jewish DPs on the role of the Army as a law enforcing agency.

3. Discussion of the source

The immediate postwar period in Germany was generally a time of uncertainty and want.  The very landscape was something other-worldly.  The presence of Jews was regarded with suspicion by many Germans, who assumed that they would exploit any opportunity to express their hostility to non-Jews, and to disturb the peace as much as possible. It was, in fact, reasonable to assume that Jews would not rest easy with the fact that Germans had eradicated them from their own society, and attempted to exterminate them altogether.  But as scholars such as Zeev Mankowitz and Atina Grossmann have demonstrated, the lives of Jews in Germany was animated overwhelmingly by dedication to their own perseverance, as opposed to exacting revenge on the Germans.  Many Germans feared that, somehow, even the miserable Jews in their midst were plotting a much harsher peace than that which was imposed on Germany.  As absurd as it seems, Germans tended to see themselves as innocent victims, conveniently ignoring the fact that their own nation, with the utmost greed, hubris, and malice, had launched the world into war.

Certainly Jews had conflicting feelings and diverse approaches to their place in post-1945 Germany, which was by no means uniform or well-defined.  Although nearly everyone participated, to some degree, in the black market, which was already thriving during wartime, Jews were often singled out for allegedly having instigated, and reaping exorbitant profits from, ubiquitous and essential dealing  outside the letter of the law.  Expressions of blatant racist antisemitism were predictably subdued, yet it was still possible, and even good form in many circles, to decry a Jewish menace in Germany and worldwide.   This often took the form of continuing to discern Jews according to the stereotype of criminality and otherwise lacking respectability.

The Jews in postwar Germany, however, had to struggle ardently simply to survive, as well as to comply with the occupation forces.  They benefitted from the activities of Jewish organizations, but these arrived on the scene belatedly and were not always able to meet their comprehensive needs.   Sometimes, DPs revealed a desire simply to let loose, which occasionally had unfortunate and unintended consequences.

Most Germans probably assumed, after 1938, that they would never in their lives see a sight such as two Jews tearing around in a motorcycle.  Moreover, the notion that a couple of Jews who had been involved in an altercation with a non-Jewish German could return to his house for a fist-fight was beyond unthinkable.  None of this is outrageous in itself.  But in the context of post-Nazi Germany, it is fraught with implications.  This document, written by Rabbi Philip S. Bernstein, reveals something of the tensions of the time.  Bernstein, from Rochester, New York, was appointed as the second Adviser to the Theater Commander on Jewish Affairs.  (No such position existed in any of the other zones of occupation.)  He had been the head of the Committee on Army and Navy Religious Activities of the National Jewish Welfare Board during the war.

4. Questions for discussion

  1. Why might there have been resistance to examining the history of Jewish DPs?
  2. What were the expectations of the ‘Surviving Remnant’ in postwar Germany?
  3. How might one describe the prevailing attitudes among non-Jewish Germans toward the Jews in their midst?
  4. What does this particular document infer about the persistence of stereotypes, or, conversely, about the ability of societies to adapt to changing realities?

5. Selected bibliography

Although a number of prominent scholars, including Yehuda Bauer, Michael Marrus, Leonard Dinnerstein, Mark Wyman, Angelika Eder, Jael Geis, and Angelika Königseder and Juliane Wetzel produced important studies of the DPs, Zeev Mankowitz was the first (not being a survivor or “liberator” himself) to approach the subject mainly from the perspective of the survivors.  Mankowitz argues that despite their impairments and severely limited political clout, the survivors mainly attempted radically to reconstruct their individual, communal, and national bodies and minds.  In contrast to Mankowitz’s view, historian Edith Zertal believes that the DPs became unwitting pawns in Zionist politics over which they could exercise little autonomy.  From the perspective of social and gender history, Atina Grossmann leaves the politics per se in the background. She richly details the experience of Jewish DPs in Germany, emphasizing that their relations with non-Jewish Germans were much closer and more complex than is often assumed. Avi Patt has focused on the manifestation of a Zionist inclination among the younger generation of DPs.  Suzanne Brown-Fleming and Michael Berkowitz specifically address the myth of ‘Jewish criminality’ in postwar Germany.

Comprehensive treatments

  • Bauer, Yehuda. (1988) Out of the Ashes: The Impact of American Jews on Post-Holocaust European Jewry. Oxford: Permagon Press.
  • Brenner, Michael. (1977) After the Holocaust:  Rebuilding Jewish Lives in Postwar Germany, trans. Barbara Harshav. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Brown-Fleming, Suzanne. (2006) The Holocaust and Catholic Conscience:  Cardinal Aloisius Meunch and the Guilt Question in Germany. Notre Dame, IN:  University of Notre Dame Press.
  • Dinnerstein, Leonard. (1982) America and the Survivors of the Holocaust. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Eder, Angelika. (1998) Fluechtige Heimat: juedische displaced Persons in Landsberg am Lech 1945 bis 1950. Munich: Kommissionsverlag UNI-Druck.
  • Myers Feinstein, Margarete. (2010) Holocaust Survivors in Postwar Germany, 1945-1957. New York:  Cambridge University Press.
  • Geis, Jael. (2000) Übrig sein, Leben “danach.”  Juden deutscher Herkunft in der britischen und amerikanischen Zone Deutschlands 1945-1949. Berlin: Philo.
  • Grossman, Atina. (2007) Jews, Germans, and Allies:  Close Encounters in Occupied Germany. Princeton:  Princeton University Press.
  • Koenigseder, Angelika and Juliane Wetzel. (2001) Waiting for Hope:  Jewish Displaced Persons in Post-World War II Germany. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
  • Mankowitz, Zeev W. (2002) Life between Memory and Hope:  The Survivors of the Holocaust in Occupied Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Marrus, Michael. (1985) The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Patt, Avinoam J. and Michael Berkowitz (eds.) (2010) “We Are Here”:  New Approaches to Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany. Detroit:  Wayne State University Press.
  •  Wyman, Mark. (1998) DPs: Europe’s Displaced Persons, 1945-1951. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Zertal, Idith. (1998) From Catastrophe to Power: Holocaust Survivors and the Emergence of Israel. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Works concerning Jews and their relationship to the United States Army in Germany

  • Bendersky, Joseph. (2000) The “Jewish Threat”:  Anti-semitic Politics of the U.S. Army. New York: Basic Books.
  • Berkowitz, Michael. (2007) The Crime of My Very Existence:  Nazism and the Myth of Jewish Criminality. Berkeley:  University of California Press.
  • Bernstein, Philip S. (1971) Rabbis at War: The CANRA Story. Waltham, MA:  American Jewish Historical Society.
  • Grobman, Alex. (1993) Rekindling the Flame: American Jewish Chaplains and the Survivors of European Jewry, 1944-1948. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
  • Hyman, Abraham S. (1993) The Undefeated. Jerusalem:  Gefen, and Hewlett; NY: Gefen.
  • Klausner, Abraham J. (2002) A Letter to My Children, from the Edge of the Holocaust. San Francisco:  Holocaust Center of Northern California.
  • Schwarz, Leo W. (1953) The Redeemers: Saga of the Years 1945 to 1952. New York: Farrar, Straus & Young.

Related work and larger context

  • Geller, Jay Howard. (2005) Jews in post-Holocaust Germany, 1945-1953. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Judt, Tony. (2005) Postwar:  A History of Europe since 1945. New York: Penguin.
  • Kauders, Antony. (2007) Unmögliche Heimat:  Eine deutsch-jüdische Geschichte der Bundesrepublik. München:  Deutsche-Verlags-Anstalt.
  • Lavsky, Hagit. (2002) New Beginnings: Holocaust Survivors in Bergen-Belsen and the British Zone in Germany, 1945-1950. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

6. Further Reading

  • Geller, Jay Howard. (2005) Jews in post-Holocaust Germany, 1945-1953. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Judt, Tony. (2005) Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945. New York: Penguin.
  • Kauders, Antony. (2007) Unmögliche Heimat:  Eine deutsch-jüdische Geschichte der Bundesrepublik. München:  Deutsche-Verlags-Anstalt.
  • Lavsky, Hagit. (2002) New Beginnings: Holocaust Survivors in Bergen-Belsen and the British Zone in Germany, 1945-1950. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

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