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Manfred Gerstenfeld on The Jews Are Coming Back: The Return of the Jews to Their Countries of Origin after WWII

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, Europe and Israel
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 20:1-2 (Spring 2008)


European Anti-Semitism Remained after the War

The Jews Are Coming Back: The Return of the Jews to Their Countries of Origin after WWII, edited by David Bankier, Yad Vashem and Berghahn Books, 2005, 319 pp.

Reviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld


In 2001, Yad Vashem held a conference on Jews’ return to their countries of origin after the Holocaust. This gathering attracted a number of scholars in a field where far too little research had been done. This volume’s fourteen essays are based on the papers that were read, and deal with nine countries in Western and Eastern Europe.

Nowhere did anti-Semitism disappear after the war. As editor David Bankier, inter alia Head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, points out in his introduction, anti-Semitism also existed in circles of opponents of the Nazis. Today it remains an integral part of European culture.

What all the countries reviewed in the book have in common is that anti-Jewish discrimination did not disappear with the defeat of the Germans and their many allies. Western Europe, however, differed from the East mainly in that Jews there were no longer killed or wounded.

East European Pogroms

The pogrom best known internationally took place in the Polish town of Kielce on 4 July 1946 when forty-two Jews were killed. The research of Joanna Michlic, who in 2007 transferred to Lehigh University, shows that communists and “the illegal oppositional press of the early post-war period reveal that the Kielce pogrom was primarily evaluated as an event that ‘slandered the good name of Poland and its people,’ rather than a terrible tragedy that befell the Jewish survivors” (223). All in all between 1,500 and 2,000 Jews were murdered in Poland between 1945 and 1947 (211).

Jean Ancel, who has done in-depth research on Romanian Jewry, writes about the return of the survivors from Transnistria to Romania. He relates that hundreds of Jews were murdered after the end of the war in various parts of Romania, especially in southern Bukovina and northern Transylvania (241).

Yehoshua R. Büchler’s essay on Slovakia discusses the pogrom in Topolcany in September 1945. During the war the town had been a bastion of the anti-Semitic fascist Slovak regime and collaboration with Germany. A blood-libel rumor spread that a Jewish doctor, who was inoculating schoolchildren against smallpox, had “inject[ed] Christian children with poison.” This man was a survivor of Auschwitz. Forty-seven Jews were injured, fifteen of whom had to be hospitalized (266). The police knew about the attacks in advance but did nothing to prevent them.

Yaacov Ro’i of Tel Aviv University analyzes how Soviet policy impeded the reconstruction of many Jewish communities in their territory. Jewish learning was often impossible as Soviet law prohibited all religious instruction.

In the first years after the war in Eastern Europe, the foundations were laid for what later became known as double victimization. Those who had suffered under Nazism now underwent the less murderous experiences of the second totalitarianism, communism. Even if communism gradually became less comparable in its murderous character to Nazism, Jews often continued to suffer more than others.

Western Europe

Renée Poznanzki of Ben-Gurion University notes that in France, organizations of people who had purchased Jewish properties made threats against Jews who tried to recover their assets. In the spring of 1945, after the liberation, there also was an outburst of anti-Semitism. “Antisemitic demonstrations took place in the 3rd, 4th, 11th and 20th arrondissements of Paris. Demonstrators marched through the streets of Paris, shouting ‘Jews to the crematoria'” (48). These incidents, occasionally violent, “sometimes even received a sympathetic reception in the civil service, the police and certain Resistance circles” (49).

Standing somewhat apart from the rest of the book is an essay by Manuela Consonni of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It discusses memoirs written by survivors in Italy during the period 1945-1947. This should be considered part of a much broader subject: creativity as a survivors’ reaction to the Holocaust. Generally only small publishers were willing to accept such manuscripts. That had little to do with quality. Natalia Ginzburg of the important Einaudi publishing house rejected the manuscript of  Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man-an infamous event that has become part of Italy’s literary history. It reflected a Europe-wide attitude. One only has to recall how difficult it was to get Anne Frank’s diary published.

Other authors are Pieter Lagrou (overview article), Patrick Weil (France), Franck Caestecker (Belgium), Dienke Hondius and Conny Kristel (both Netherlands), Mario Toscano (Italy), Kinga Frojimovics and Laszlo Karsai (both Hungary).

An Additional Volume Required

One can only hope there will be another similar volume dealing with additional situations and countries involved, especially as there is a direct line from postwar anti-Semitism in democratic countries to its recent significant revival partly in the new disguise of anti-Israelism, that is, the irrational hate manifestations against the Jewish collectivity.

The best case in point is Norway, a country in which large sectors of the elite, including government, media, and NGOs, are among the pioneers of the current demonization of Israel. Postwar Norway applied a highly discriminatory restitution policy to its tiny Jewish community. In this respect, Norway distinguished itself negatively from other democratic countries.

It is against this background that the World Jewish Congress chose Norway as its first target for the renewed restitution process in Western Europe in the mid-1990s. Although Norway ultimately received positive publicity for the settlement it reached, the road to it was paved with many attempts by leading Norwegians and various government bodies to sabotage the process. The postwar history of other countries such as Greece and Yugoslavia is of great interest as well-Greece, among other things, from a twenty-first-century perspective because of the many attacks on Holocaust monuments, particularly during the rule of the Pasok Socialist government; Yugoslavia, where the breakup of the country into several republics has contributed to the disappearance of Holocaust memorials.

The book covers a wide range of issues. They include postwar migration, battles of the returning Jews to recover children placed with foster parents during the war, restitution issues of various kinds, attempts to accelerate the abolition of anti-Jewish laws passed during the occupation, the issue of war crimes against the Jews, as well as early struggles against the falsification of Holocaust history.

The Jews Are Coming Back makes a major contribution to the underdeveloped field of post-Holocaust studies.[1] As in Holocaust studies where multiple aspects are investigated as part of a single discipline, there is a need to research and review the many matters related to the Holocaust in the post-Shoah period within a single scholarly framework.

This valuable book leads to another major conclusion. During the postwar era, the Jews demonstrated an incredible resilience and ability to rebuild their lives and communities despite the huge handicaps. This has to be underlined specifically in view of the current opportunistic attempts to present non-Western immigrants in Europe as new eternal victims who are unfairly prevented from advancing in European society.


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[1] See also Manfred Gerstenfeld, Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2003).

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DR. MANFRED GERSTENFELD is chairman of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and an editor of the Jewish Political Studies Review.