Displaced Persons

Imagine resettling the entire population of New York City all at once. When World War II ended that was the task. Estimates of the number of displaced persons (DPs) vary wildly, probably depending on who was included in that category. Prisoners of war, concentration camp survivors, partisans, and refugees from towns caught in the cross-fire flooded Europe. At the low end, 6.5 million people were displaced, at the high end 17 million. Berl, David and Batya were among them.

For some, once the bullets stopped flying and the bombs stopped falling, they could go home and rebuild their lives. By September of 1945, three-quarters of the refugees went back to their country of origin. For others, including the Baksts, going home wasn’t an option. Out of the 4000 or so Jews that lived in Iwie, only about 50 survived. The town had been “cleansed” of Jews. The Bakst home was occupied by others.

In order to establish order and begin the process of repatriating DPs, the Allies divided Germany and Austria into zones. Great Britain, France, the United States and Soviet Union each controlled areas and all but the Soviets set up camps to house the refugees. The USSR had a policy of expecting all its DPs to reintegrate into Soviet society, irrespective of their status as a former prisoner of war or a concentration camp survivor, and therefore no DP camps were set up in their zone. The other Allied countries utilized abandoned military barracks, hospitals, apartment buildings, private homes and other assorted structures to establish DP camps. In December of 1945 the American zone had 134 camps, and by June of 1947, they had 416 sites. Great Britain had 272, while the French hosted 45.

An organization called Birchah (the Hebrew word for ‘flight’), which was a semi-clandestine Zionist network, helped Jewish survivors get to DP camps (there were some camps that only housed Jews, but most were a mixture of ethnicities).  The Baksts were assisted by Birchah and got to a camp in the American Zone. Berl had heard that concentration camp survivors were allowed expedited immigration to the United States, so he attempted to register as a camp survivor. Since neither he nor his children had a number tattooed on their arm, they were rejected. It was not uncommon for people to move among the camps since everything was in such flux. They went to another DP camp, this time in Austria, to begin the process again. It turned out to be a lucky thing that they did.

They ended up at Ranshofen. Ironically, Ranshofen was located near Brunau, Hitler’s birthplace. The DP camp was made up of brick buildings that were each two stories, with two  two-bedroom apartments on each floor.  Berl, David, Batya, who had recently married Fishel (the man she met while they were with the Partisans), were assigned one bedroom in an apartment, and another family was assigned the other bedroom. The two families shared the common spaces (living room, kitchen and bathroom).

The other family assigned to the apartment included a woman, Lea Silberfarb, and her three children, from oldest to youngest, Bernard, Paula and Sophia. The families became close, sharing stories of their experiences. David was particularly taken with Paula, who despite being 9 years younger, was a good listener, sympathetic, smart, pretty and mature well beyond her years. Living as the Silberfarbs had through the war, stripped Paula of her childhood.

Paula was 10 when the Germans invaded her town, Serniki, Poland (now part of the Ukraine). She, her mom and her siblings lived, on the run, staying in forest encampments, moving from village to village, for over 4 years. (Note: I will share Paula’s story in next week’s blog post)

David and Paula in Ranshofen

They were all in Ranshofen for about two years before leaving on the next step of their journey. The Silberfarbs wanted to go to Palestine, as did Batya and Fishel. Berl and David were trying to get to the United States. The paperwork to get visas and arrange travel was a bureaucratic nightmare that took patience and perseverance. In the meanwhile, Paula and David got to know each other, as well as take classes and participate in activities. David even played in a volleyball tournament against other DP camp teams, which his team won. Conditions at DP camps varied widely. Fortunately, Ranshofen offered comfortable accommodations and a range of services.

One of the factors that determined which camp a refugee went to was where they wanted to resettle. For example, the best chance to immigrate to Palestine was from a DP camp in Italy. After some time at Ranshofen, Batya and Fishel went to Italy, since that was their goal. The Silberfarbs didn’t because they were considering another option offered by family that was already settled in Cuba.

Immigrating to Palestine was very difficult and conditions in the Holy Land were challenging as the area tried to absorb survivors and build a new country in a hostile environment. In 1939 Great Britain, which exercised authority over the area, severely limited Jewish immigration. After the war, 69,000 survivors attempted illegal immigration, less than half were successful. Others were arrested and interned on Cyprus. Batya and Fishel were among those waylaid in Cyprus. In fact, their daughter, Rochelle, was born there. Once the state of Israel was established in 1948, immigration flowed more freely. Batya, Fishel and Rochelle finally made it to a Jewish homeland, and faced another war, the war for Israeli independence.

Meanwhile, Berl and David went to another DP camp in Germany, one step closer to getting to the United States. David and Paula agreed to correspond by letter. David told Paula that if she ended up going to Cuba, they would meet again. Paula held on to that thought.

(Next week: Paula’s experience during the war)


8 thoughts on “Displaced Persons

  1. My mom called the town where she was born Sanik not Serniki. Serniki is still a city in eastern Poland (famous for its cheesecake). My mom said that her town was completely destroyed in WWII. Based on what my mom has told me the town was located at convergence of 2 small rivers (one is the Pina) that lead to Pinsk and then to Minsk. Based on that I believe the town where the Sliberfarbs were from is in Belarus. The rivers are important because my mom said her father & grandfather were boat builders.


    1. I know there is confusion about the the town – Paula called it Sarnik, too. And yes, there was a river – their father was a boat builder. However, when I watched Paula’s Shoah testimony, she spelled it and she spelled it Serniki. It surprised Gary and I, too. The Jewish population was wiped out – and I will write about that in the next blog post. Their father studied at the University in Kiev – they had family in Kiev (in the Ukraine). The story Paula told in her Shoah testimony parallels the story of Serniki (the one in the Ukraine, not the one in Poland)- so we came the conclusion that it was their town, rather than Sarny or other variations. Serniki is also near Pinsk. It is understandable that there could be differences, given the language issues and lack of birth certificates and such.


  2. It has always amazed me how most survivors, my parents included, were able to move forward and embrace life with a positive attitude…after the years of atrocities they witnessed and endured. The fear and heartbreak alone could easily break ones spirit.
    In two weeks Paula and David celebrate their 68th wedding anniversary.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Stewart-I think Serniki is correct. Linda spent a fair amount of time working on that issue and the combination of the fact that my Mom spelled it out and her description of what happened fit. Also, the location of Sernyky or Serniki, Ukraine is very close to Pinsk, Belarus. My Mom would pronounce it Sarnik and there is a Sarny but that seems not to fit.

    Ro-I agree. It seems to me that most survivors are so horribly scarred and that Dad in particular has more of an ability to enjoy life than just about every survivor I have ever met. There’s a friend of mine here in Albany, David Giwerc, who’s father Izak had a similar joyfulness but I find that most unusual.
    I can’t even imagine how disorienting the entire undertaking would be-new country, new people, every part of your prior life (what work you did, clothes you wore, etc.)-would be after suffering through what they had been through. The fact that so few of the people they had known were even alive would just be so devastating.

    Linda, the research you have done and the way that you have presented their stories and then put that background information in to provide a greater understanding of what was going on is really amazing. Thank you.
    Great photo!


  4. It’s possible that the town could have been Sernyky Ukraine. Sernyky is on the Stuba river & I do remember my Mom mentioning the Stuba river. The thing that perplexes me is that my Mom always says she is from Sanik, she never called the town Sernyky.


  5. Mom definitely always pronounced it Sarnik but I also remember that she belonged to a Sarnika Society when I was young. Linda. it amazes me that each week I learn new things about their life story from you.


  6. I am amazed at your research and combine it with the family’s stories makes reading your blog so wonderful
    I look forward to next week


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s