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The View From 82: The DP Camp, a Beehive of Activity
Rabbi Mayer Abramowitz

Imagine you are a Holocaust survivor, a fleeing refugee, unable to return to your former home. You finally find refuge in a DP Camp in Berlin where you await resettlement. Months and years go by and your emigration is nowhere in sight. You are stuck in the DP camp with thousands of others who, each day, line up for their meals, which you eat in the central dining room or in your tiny cramped quarters in a huge military barracks.

Yes, life in the DP Camp could become bleak and depressing.

But there was another aspect to camp life, created entirely by the residents, which helped lift the spirit of those condemned to live behind barbed-wire fences. I refer to the round-the-clock activity which characterized life in a DP Camp.

Soccer players and DP camp residents pose after playingFirst was the corps of leadership that maintained the camps and gave it a semblance of a community. The administrative committee, the Zentral Comitet, which controlled the fiscal aspects of the camp (the food supplies, the housing needs, the hospital, and the sanitation of the camp), attracted dozens of energetic people who efficiently and capably ran the camp.

Under its jurisdiction was the Chaverim Gericht (Peer Court), which was the accepted arbitration body for all civil and criminal cases within the camp. Throughout the time I was in Berlin, I never heard any voice of dissatisfaction with its rulings. Its head was an attorney, Janek Einhorn, but other members like Shmaryahu Kosowki were non-professionals who were, before the war, reputable and trusted business men.

There was also a camp police group who day and night guarded the gates of the camp and were on duty to maintain the safety and security of its residents.

Heading the Zental Comitet was a Mr. Schwartzberg, who was probably the most amazing personality within the DP population. With no academic background nor political experience, he ran a tight ship, controlling the manifold activities of the camp. It is to his credit that in all the years that he served as its head there was no riot or violence in the camp.

Then there were the various educational groups which provided the children a good schooling, and the adults an opportunity to train for a future. In the schools there were over 120 teachers who volunteered to teach, full-time, in the three schools of Berlin. These teachers also prepared school children to present educational programs for camp residents, especially for Jewish and legal holidays.

Whether you had children or not, you would have enjoyed these programs and they would have given you hours of delightful entertainment.

For the adults, there was an organized ORT school operated by the DPs and available to anyone desiring to learn a trade. One of my fondest memories was my part in helping to establish the ORT School. The school wanted to teach engineering but had no facilities. I was fortunate to have been able to provide the school with two Jeeps which I "borrowed" from the military motor pool and turned over to the school. I was amazed at the dexterity of instructors, who were able to dissemble the motor and in a jiffy re-assemble the parts so that the Jeep was in perfect running condition. You could have gotten your hands soiled with oil and dirt, but it would have kept you quite busy in that dreaded camp.

In addition to the ORT trade school there was the open university in the camp, which offered courses in any subject in the arts or sciences. Although its "graduates" did not receive college credit and were not recognized by any university, I later learned that many of its students were able to complete studies in their chosen fields at a faster pace. Also, if you were an artist, there were art classes in painting, sculpting, or ceramics.

As for entertainment and cultural outlets, you, the camp resident, could always find within the camp a theater performance, a musical evening, a political presentation, even a "disco" to satisfy your social or cultural taste.

All these programs were listed in the camp's newspaper Unser Leben (Our Life), which was published by a group of editors and distributed to all camp residents.

I hasten to add that the compensation received by all the above -- teachers, actors, editors, maintenance personnel, and civil workers -- was supplemental food to augment the regular 2,000 calories a day each resident received. This was controlled by the Zentral Comitet, which received these foods from the JDC and from the UNRRA.

Finally, the sport activities: There were regular soccer games by "professional" players whose team played to a standing-only crowd against teams from the military or camp.

Some of my fondest recollections were the many times I would bring my Jewish soldiers to play against the camp's team. These turned out to be a combination of a Mardi Gras and a Super Bowl event which lasted all day and often through the night.

Added to all these activities I cannot fail to mention the synagogue which played so vital a role in maintaining the spirit and the hope of Holocaust survivors. Yes, I know some who wouldn't step into the synagogue after what "God did to my family." How often would I have to remind you that the Nazis did it -- not God.

The Camp Director

Harold Fishbein was the director of the two Jewish DP Camps in Berlin -- Schlachtensee and Tempelhof. There were about 10,000 Jews in the camps in whose lives "Fish" had become deeply and personally involved. He was a big man, tall and chubby, but cuddly and warm-hearted. His staff consisted of only eight UN assistants. But he was able to inspire the Holocaust survivors to run the camps.

I called him Harold and he called me Mike -- my name since my days at Yeshiva College. The friendship that existed between us was not limited to us alone -- it extended to the camp residents, whose trust and faith in him was unquestioned. Although he only spoke English, the bit of German he had learned years earlier in school enabled him to connect with the DP -- probably because he was able to "Yiddishize" the language of Goethe's German.

It is no exaggeration when I say that he knew most of the camp's residents by name and also knew many of their personal problems (which he helped to solve). His office was like an open foyer. Any Displaced Person could get to "Herr Fishbein" at any time. At a camp's social, cultural or sport activity, Harold was either part of the program or a most welcome guest. And, at any family occasion, a wedding, a birth, or a birthday, Mr. Fishbein was there as a "member of the family."

I recall one afternoon when he arranged to take hundreds of residents to a musical concert at the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Harold was there ready to climb onto one of the ten-ton trailer trucks which transported the DPs.

"Mike," he said to me, "I hate opera but I gotta be with "meine leute" (my people).

In a letter to his daughter, he proudly wrote that he had been at three circumcisions that particular day, where he was the sandek (the person holding the baby while the mohel performed the circumcision). This is an honor usually conferred upon an important family member: a grandfather or an uncle.

Harold was exactly that: the adopted grandfather to thousands who lost beloved family in the Holocaust.

When we met in Miami many years later, he told me that his greatest accomplishment in his four years with the UNRRA was during the famed Berlin Airlift in the winter of 1948. At that time, the United States decided to transfer all Displace Persons out of Berlin, flying them south to camps in the American Zone of Occupation. But the Air Force permitted each family to take only two suitcases as they boarded the plane. This placed a great hardship on the displaced persons who, during their enforced three-year stay in Berlin had acquired many family items

"I knew that my Jews were preparing for their resettlement in Palestine by acquiring from the Germans articles they would need for their new home," Harold said. "Many of them had sewing machines, kitchen appliances, vacuum cleaners and so on. And they weren't going to leave them behind."

He told me how he had fought with the Army, with the UNRRA, and with military government to allow "his" DPs to take these items with them aboard those planes.

His passionate appeals won his case. This was Harold Fishbein, whose compassionate personality and infectious smile lit up the camp.

The author can be reached via e-mail at ibbar@aol.com.