“Our Hopes Are Not Lost Yet.” The Jewish Displaced Persons in Italy: Relief, Rehabilitation and Self-understanding (1943-1948)
by Chiara Renzo
This essay deals with the fate of Jewish Displaced Persons in Italy from the liberation of the Camp of Ferramonti di Tarsia, by the Allied Army in 1943, until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. It focuses on the creation of a complex network of agencies, organizations and individuals involved in assisting the Jewish DPs in Italy, in the framework of the post-war refugee crisis. The article discusses the approaches and ambitions of the rescuers (military authorities, UN agencies and representatives from the Yishuv) and the desires of the Jewish DPs themselves, who played an active role both in the administration of the refugee camps as well as in the political discourse regarding their resettlement in British Palestine. Through an analysis of hitherto unexplored archival sources, it will illustrate the development of new sense of belonging and of a renewed identity among the Jewish DPs.
World War II left a legacy that Europe had never experienced before: a refugee crisis of unique scale. Between 1939 and 1945, approximately 55 million people were uprooted, forced to leave their homes, expelled and deported to forced labor and to concentration camps.1
At the end of the war, 7 million refugees fell burden to the Allies, mainly in the occupied zones of Germany, Austria and Italy. In order to manage this multitude of people, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) prepared an outline plan for the control, care, repatriation and resettlement of refugees. Following the Liberation, they were gradually sheltered in temporary accommodations in refugee camps and assembly centers, often set up in former concentration camps or requisitioned buildings (such as schools, barracks, monasteries, etc.). The Allies adopted repatriation as the principal means to reduce quickly the number of refugees, who were classified “eligible” or “ineligible” for receiving international help according to their nation of origin. On the basis of the neologism “displaced person” (DP) coined by the Allies, only those who were Allied nationals or those who had been persecuted for religious, racial or political reasons, were recognized as eligible for international assistance; whereas those refugees originating from enemy countries were to remain the burden of their national governments.2
Among these men, women and children longing for home, the Jewish survivors comprised a minority that nonetheless constituted for many years a burning issue pending a definitive solution. Refusing the nationality line and the repatriation policy adopted by the Allies, the Jewish DPs strove to be recognized as a national collective with the right to make ‘aliyah or to leave Europe and, in order to achieve these goals, they formed committees to represent themselves as a separate political entity.3
This position and the aspiration for leaving Europe shared by the majority of the Jewish DPs in the refugee camps throughout Europe found powerful expression in the ideological foundation of the She’erith Hapleitah, a biblical formula used by the Jewish DPs to refer to themselves and ambivalently translated as “the surviving remnant” and “the saved remnant”4. Though there are many interpretations of the initial use of this term, it is commonly understood by historiography as an obvious attempt to build a collective and transnational identity among the Jewish survivors, as pointed out by Zeev Mankowitz:
In a more limited sense She’erith Hapleitah referred to the collective identity of some 300,000 displaced persons in Occupied Germany, Austria and Italy who turned their backs on their formers lives […]. For some of the leaders of this unique community driven by a sense of historical responsibility, She’erit Hapleitah was also viewed as the saving remnant who were called upon to play a formative role in shaping the Jewish future.5
Meanwhile, the atrocities experienced by the European Jews slowly began to resonate worldwide in the public opinion, especially after the extensive coverage given by the media to the results of Earl G. Harrison’s mission. In 1945, Harrison was appointed by US President Truman to head an urgent inquiry regarding the situation of Jewish survivors in Germany and Austria. His description of the Jewish DPs’ condition was chilling, and his Report recommended that Great Britain modify the limitations on ‘aliyah decreed by the White Paper from 1939 regarding the British Mandate on Palestine, recognizing that “the only real solution of the problem lies in the quick evacuation of all non-repatriable Jews […] to Palestine.”6 Hence, the publication of the Harrison Report linked the situation of the Jewish DPs in Europe to ‘aliyah in British Palestine and sparked a diplomatic debate between the US Government, which began to openly support the solution proposed by its delegate, and Great Britain, which aimed at securing the future of its Mandate on Palestine implementing the White Paper.7
During the months and years following the end of the war, the “Jewish question” interconnected not only with the political debate among the Allies, but also with the ambitions of the Yishuv, the general refugee crisis and the political, social and economic reconstruction of Europe, the development of new humanitarian approaches to control and take care of the refugees as well as the needs and desires of the refugees themselves.
There exists today an extensive literature on the history of the Jewish DPs that – while investigating a wide range of perspectives on the topic – centers in particular on the situation in Germany.8 In contrast, research regarding the Jewish DPs in Italy focuses almost exclusively on the organization by the Mossad le-‘aliyah bet of the illegal immigration of the Jewish refugees from Italian shores to Palestine and the attitude of the post-war Italian Government towards these clandestine departures.9 Though these studies still represents a landmark for the analysis of the Jewish DPs’ experience in Italy, they stress its diplomatic framework and its transitory dimension, while leaving several aspects unexplored.
This essay deals with the fate of Jewish displaced persons in Italy starting from the liberation of the concentration camp of Ferramonti in 1943. It highlights the political, social and cultural developments that the Jewish DPs experienced in Italy, up to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. In particular, this paper analyses the complex network of organizations engaged in assisting the Jewish DPs, and sheds light on the way in which the new humanitarian techniques adopted in post-war Europe facilitated the aggregation of the Jewish DPs around a sense of belonging to Eretz Israel. In the peculiar framework of the refugee camps after the traumatic experience of the Shoah, Zionism - challenging the Allies’ policy of repatriation - acquired the features of a powerful and functional ideology able to meet both the Jewish DPs’ need to start a new life and playing an active role in the effort of the Yishuv to encourage the surviving remnants of European Jewry to make ‘aliyah.
On the September 8, 1943, the Italian Government signed an armistice agreement, declaring the unconditioned capitulation of Italy thereby splitting the country into two areas. In Nazi-invaded north Italy, Mussolini founded his puppet Italian Social Republic (RSI) and, in the attempt to maintain his dictatorship, deported political opponents as well as national and religious minorities. In the gradually liberated southern regions, the Allied Military Government on Occupied Territories (AMGOT) provided immediate aid to civilians through a network of sub-commissions.10
For the Jews still under the Nazi occupied area and RSI controlled territories, the Italian armistice marked the “assault on Jewish lives”: more than 6,000 Jews (mostly Italians) were violently arrested, murdered, abused and deported from Italy to extermination camps.11 In contrast, the Allies’ landing in Italy and the consequent armistice led to the liberation of the Jews who had been interned in previous years as “enemy aliens” in Fascist concentration camps, located mainly in south Italy. The restrictive policy adopted by Mussolini from 1940 (when Italy joined the War) through 1943 led to the internment of thousands of non-Italian Jewish exiles who had made their way to Italy, but it was indeed the geography of their internment that paradoxically saved them from deportation and made them the first core of Jewish DPs in Italy.12
In tracing the Jewish DPs’ experience in Italy, the liberation of the Fascist concentration camp of Ferramonti di Tarsia (Calabria) in September 1943 represents a sort of starting point.13 According to a report by Gertrude Clarke (Special Representative of the American Red Cross in Italy) there were by the end of November 1943, approximatively 2,000 Jews in Ferramonti Camp, assisted by the military authority.14 This first group of liberated Jews formed the so-called “old refugees,” which included German and Austrian Jews who escaped Nazi controlled territories during the 30s, Eastern European survivors of failed attempts of illegal migration to Palestine as well as several Yugoslav Jews interned starting from the Italian occupation of part of Yugoslavia in 1941.15 Between the last months of 1943 and early 1944, the continuing arrival on the shores of Apulia of refugees escaping Yugoslavia increased both the number of non-Italian refugees and that of the “old refugees” on Italian soil.16
The northward advance of the Allied Army in Italy continually brought to light other Italian and foreign refugees displaced in the country because of the conflict, among them several thousands of Jews who barely succeeded in escaping deportation by hiding themselves in rural areas. It soon became necessary to regulate mass population movements in order to facilitate military operations. Therefore, in late 1943 AMGOT entrusted this task to two separate sub-commissions: the Italian Sub-Commission, in charge of assisting Italian refugees, in cooperation with the Italian authorities, and the DPs Sub-Commission, providing assistance to foreign refugees and stateless persons.17
The Ferramonti Camp was soon converted to a refugee camp, and - in order to accommodate more DPs - the Allied DPs Sub-Commission set up other refugee camps, assembly and screening centers in Apulia, Basilicata and Campania. Afterwards, the ending of the war in spring 1945 increased the refugee population and necessitated opening additional refugee camps in the newly liberated areas of the country.
Hence, a second wave of Jewish survivors reached Italy, they were the so-called “new-refugees” who managed to enter Italy through the Alpine passes, launching the “Brichah” movement (in Hebrew, “flight”). This seemingly ceaseless migration began in the spontaneous fleeing of individuals and small groups, and in a short time took on an organized form.18 This mass movement of Jewish survivors was generally carried out through illegal or quasi-legal means and involved Jews who wished to avoid repatriation as well as all those who attempted to return home after liberation only to be compelled to move again because of recurrent episodes of anti-Semitism.19 The Brichah movement involved some 250,000 Jews and was soon linked to the clandestine activities of the Mossad le-‘aliyah bet, whose main headquarters was in Italy. Notwithstanding the fact that not all of the Jews displaced in Italy opted eventually for resettlement in Palestine, in the collective imagination of the Jewish DPs, Italian harbors were seen as the jumping-off point for Eretz Israel, as exemplified in the memoires of Shmoel Mordekhai Rubinstein, a Polish Jewish DP who reached Italy from Salzburg:
“In Salzburg we found a camp for refugees ‘who were going’ to Eretz Israel. They continually talked about the soldiers from Eretz Israel, the emissaries from Eretz Israel, the ships of their political movements that sailed from Trieste to Eretz Israel, and so on. It seems that all you need to do was to reach Italy, once there you already were in Eretz Israel […].”20
From 1945 until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, an average of 15-16,000 Jewish DPs per year found accommodation in refugee camps or assembly centers in Italy. Though these numbers are small as compared to the numbers of Jewish DPs in Germany, the Jewish displacement in Italy was characterized by a high fluidity of arrivals and departures and constituted constantly the majority of the total number of DPs passing through Italy in those years.
The first report concerning the specific “conditions of the Jews in Italy, Sicily and Sardinia” was drafted by the DPs Sub-commission in January 1944. The estimated population of Jewish DPs assisted by the Allies at that time was just 5-6,000, but caring for these Jewish DPs began already to raise a critical problem for the Allies:
“Jews […] have no interest and no wish to take part in either local or national political life. On the contrary, most expresses a strong desire to be allowed to enter Palestine where they expect to be free from political influences and persecution.”21
Before long, the Allies in Italy began to be aware of the singular “plight of the Jewish refugees,” whose claims were being systematically reported to the DPs Sub-commission by Jewish soldiers (in Hebrew, hayalim) and chaplains serving in the Allied Army.22 The Jewish soldiers acted as mediator between the military authorities and the Jewish DPs and were instrumental in facilitating a sense of community among the Jews in the refugee camps in Italy as well as in initiating an efficient assistance network on behalf of the Jews in Italy. Indeed, upon their arrival in the country, the Jewish soldiers attempted to reinstate the role of the Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Refugees (known with the acronym DELASEM) with the purpose recruiting local help in rescuing the Jewish survivors, along with the other Italian Jewish institutions, in order to facilitate the reconstruction of the Italian Jewish communities.23 Driven by humanitarian and political motivations, the Jewish soldiers were soon able to gain the trust and support of the Jewish DPs; to establish the first contacts between the “remnants” of the Diaspora and the Jews in Eretz Israel; to play a prominent role in the reconstruction of the Jewish communities in Italy; and to stress emigration to Palestine as the preferred solution to the Jewish DPs’ condition.24
Within a few months of their arrival in Italy, the hayalim’s efforts resulted in the founding of the Merkaz ha-Plitim (in Hebrew, Centre for the Refugees), the first institution of reference for the Jewish DPs. The Merkaz established its headquarters in Bari, in the barrack that served as a club for the Jewish soldiers, and included several facilities for the DPs, such as a canteen, a clinic, a synagogue, a dormitory, a school for children, and a meeting-room.25 The hayalim also supported the Jewish DPs’ organizing themselves in hachsharot as alternative accommodation to the DP camps and with the view of training the Jewish survivors for resettlement in Eretz Israel.26 Moreover, other facilities for the relief of the Jews were opened by the hayalim in gradually liberated regions and - following the establishment of the Jewish Brigade, on the 29th of October 1944 - the Merkaz Ha-Plitim changed its name to Merkaz la-Golah be-Italia (in Hebrew, Center for the Diaspora in Italy, also known as the Merkaz la-Golah).27
The structure and nature of the information contained in the reports of the Merkaz ha-Plitim and the testimonies of the hayalim lead to reconsider and re-evaluate the role the hayalim played in 1943-44. These sources challenge the idea of an initial lack of guidelines from the Yishuv with respect to civilian rescue operations.28 It appears that the soldiers of the Merkaz ha-Plitim established early-on a collaborative relationship with the Jewish DPs in Italy, while constantly updating the Jewish Agency on their activities. The hayalim clearly stood out for their resourcefulness, but their actions can be fully grasped only by looking at the shift that occurred when the Zionist leadership became aware of the role the survivors would play in the Zionist struggle after the war and gradually reconsidered the principle of selective ‘aliyah.29 Zvi Ankouri’s oral testimony on his experience as leading figure of the first units of Jewish soldiers that arrived at Ferramonti with the Allied Army in 1943 are illuminating on this aspect:
“We felt that the different groups would have speak as one voice to the Allies and to the Jewish Agency regarding ‘aliyah certificates and relief funds. This meant coordination and a new political orientation. […] They had to be given a new Zionist orientation.” 30
It appears that the primary goal of the hayalim was to channel the Jewish emigration to Palestine. In this regard, in cooperation with the Jewish DPs in liberated Italy, the Jewish soldiers had already established in December 1943 the Joint Palestine Emigration Committee (JPEC), charged with the registration of the Jews willing to make ‘aliyah and the promotion and implementation of the Jewish immigration to Palestine. JPEC was headed by a board of eight Jewish DPs from Ferramonti and Bari refugee camps who were already affiliated and active in Zionist movements or served in important roles in Zionist institutions in their countries of origin.31
Whilst in January 1944 there were 1,300 Jewish DPs registered at the JPEC,32 only in May 1944 did the Supreme Allied Commander approved the appointment of a representative of the Jewish Agency, in charge of selecting immigrants for Palestine and of issuing immigration certificates subject to the prior approval of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (IGCR)33. Accordingly, the Jewish Agency appointed as its official delegate in Italy Umberto Nahon, who was able to reach the country only in February 1945.34 Despite the uncertain status of the Jewish Agency’s role in Italy before Nahon’s arrival, in May 1944 a ship carrying approximately 560 Jews left from Taranto port for Palestine.35 Though it was one of the few ships authorized to sail for British Palestine, the relations with the Yishuv continued to intensify, especially with the arrival in Italy of the shlihim, the representatives of the political movement of the Jewish Agency.36 They shared the same goals of the hayalim, but their intervention marked a sort of transition from the military to the civilian operations of the Yishuv in aiding the “remnants.” On the one hand, their efforts definitely attributed to the She’erith HaPleitah a political factor able to influence the Zionist struggle for the establishment of a Jewish National Home and, on the other hand, successfully directed the Jewish DPs to evolve a sense of belonging to Eretz Israel.
As illustrated in the next sections, the enterprise of the Yishuv representatives developed in conjunction with the humanitarian missions of institutional and voluntary organizations that pursued a new approach in managing and assisting the refugees. In this framework, for the Jewish survivors in the DP camps, Zionism took on the particular character of an organizational and unifying ideological paradigm that in a pluralistic way was able to influence their lives while displaced.
The administration of the displaced persons after the war provided a testing ground for the rise of new humanitarian techniques and ideologies. Thus, the aid network in post-war Europe faced the DPs crisis by means of a completely innovative approach that combined for the first time immediate relief actions with long-term physical, moral, social, cultural and educational rehabilitation projects, with the purpose of guiding the DPs towards “normalization.”37
In the particular context of Italy, a new stage in the administration of the refugee crisis and a fundamental turning point for the Jewish displacement was sparked by the liberation of Rome in June 1944. It marked the establishment of a coalition government composed mainly of anti-fascist parties eager to achieve a new position in international politics as well as the beginning of the complicated reconstruction of the main Italian Jewish communities and institutions.38
The urgency of solving the post-war crisis prompted a successful cooperation among military authorities, institutional agencies and private organizations, through a system of mandates and agreements. At a national level, the establishment of the new Italian government led also to the foundation of the High Commissioner for Refugees, who took over the administration of the refugee camps billeting Italians, as well as the Italian refugees’ reintegration in the country.39 Instead, at the international level, the Allies had prepared well before the end of the War a specialized rescue program and had established in November 1943 the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), dealing with the urgent economic and social questions expected to arise in Europe after the War, including the predictable refugee crisis.40 Starting from September 1944, UNRRA provided Italy with limited aid (food supplies, medical help, welfare service for children and mothers) and was in charge of housing, feeding, guaranteeing medical care and assisting in repatriation and resettlement the DPs eligible for receiving international help.41
The general picture of the refugees’ situation in Italy became clearer when UNRRA published in May 1946 the results of its “Eligibility Survey.” It emerged that out of 18,553 persons interviewed, only 7,920 – mostly Jews – had been accepted in UNRRA camps, whereas the other 10,633 remained under the Allies’ responsibility.42 By the end of 1946, out of a total number of more than 40,000 refugees in Italy, UNRRA was assisting 17,095 Jews “not desiring to return to their country of origin,” of whom 7,152 were in camps, 5,943 in hachsharot and 4,000 in towns.43
While groups of Jewish DPs were scattered in almost all Italian regions, it appears that the largest groups were located in four DP camps in Lecce province (i.e. Santa Maria al Bagno, Santa Maria di Leuca, Santa Cesarea Terme and Tricase Porto). Others Jewish survivors were accommodated in several transit camps in Bari area, in Rome area (Cinecittà DP Camp and several hachsharot nearby Castel Gandolfo, Ostia, Ladispoli and Grottaferrata), in small DP camps in Tuscany and Marche, in Piedmont (in particular, the DP camps and hachsharot in Rivoli e Grugliasco), in Lombardy (such as in Milan area and Cremona DP camp), in nearby Genoa and in Reggio Emilia DP camp.44 This distribution of the Jewish DPs remained largely unchanged at least until spring 1947, when UNRRA closed the large refugee camps in Lecce province and the residents were transferred northward. The closure coincided with the announced end of the UNRRA mission in Italy as well as with the restoration of Italian sovereignty in 1947. Henceforth, another temporary organization of the United Nations - the International Refugee Organization (IRO) - was charged with the definitive and specific operational task of bringing about “a rapid and positive solution of the problem of bona fide refugees and displaced persons” in post-war Europe by repatriation or by resettlement.45
Along with military authorities, government representatives and international refugee agencies, numerous voluntary organizations were active in assisting the DPs after 1945. As a matter of fact, the cooperation between institutions and voluntary organizations led to the creation of a network that in many cases was able to guarantee a high standard of assistance as well as to alleviate and improve the workload of the intergovernmental and governmental agencies. In the specific case of the Jewish DPs in Italy, the most effective contribution came from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, also known as “Joint” or JDC. The goals of the JDC mission in Italy were delineated in early 1945, when an agreement with UNRRA established that JDC would act as a specialized Jewish agency providing supplementary facilities and services to all Jewish DPs within the UN agency mandate. In post-war Italy, the JDC – though maintaining itself as an apolitical organizations – was a resolute ideological supporter and the main financer of the (often Zionist-oriented) rehabilitation programs for the Jews in DP camps as well as hachsharot, and acted as liaison between the UN agencies and the Jewish DPs.46
The endeavor to provide aid as well as to rehabilitate the Jewish survivors in DP camps so they would be capable of leading a productive life challenged the Allies’ post-war plans, the Jewish Agency’s purposes and the policies of the international and voluntary organizations. In this multifaceted scenario, the Jewish DPs did not remain passive “recipients” of the political and humanitarian strategies adopted by the above-mentioned rescue network. Instead, they themselves became involved in their own rehabilitation.
In order to shed light on this aspect of the Jewish displacement in Italy, the following section of this article will focus on the rehabilitation activities carried out in the DP camps, on the tension between the (ambiguous and often non-coinciding) politics of the “rescuers” and the desires of the Jewish DPs as well as on how this situation shaped the remarkable features of the Jewish displacement in Italy.
Following the gradual stabilization in the management of the DPs after the war, the establishment of regional and local committees among the She’erit Hapleitah in Germany and Austria as well as the political orientation undergone by the Jewish displacement in Italy, the Jewish DPs themselves founded in November 1945 the Organization of the Jewish Refugees in Italy (OJRI). This entity – that served as the official administrative and political organization representative of the Jewish DPs in the country – was the result of two further motivating forces. On the one hand, the refugee agencies – “hewing to the model of active welfare” 47 - advocated the formation of DP committees in order to include the refugees in the administration of the camps. On the other hand, this inclination towards self-representation and organization begun with the liberation of Ferramonti was further encouraged by the hayalim, who sponsored soon Zionism as leading ideology. Indeed, a centralized organization of the Jewish DPs in Italy would help in reducing the workload of the international missions, in giving the DPs the chance to renew their purposefulness and guaranteeing them a certain extent of independence as well as the opportunity of being spokespersons of their own needs.
According to the leaflet of invitation to the First Conference of the Jewish Refugees in Italy (Rome, November 26-28 1945), OJRI’s main goals were to
“re-educate them [i.e. the Jewish DPs] for life in civilized society and develop their sense of social responsibility; sponsor the creation of institutions for mutual aid; educate them to productive work; satisfy their cultural and spiritual needs; fight against phenomenon of demoralization among the refugees […]; re-awaken their sense of human dignity, their self-confidence and in general to give them guidance in their return to a normal way of life; promote agricultural and professional training in view of emigration to Palestine.” 48
It is evident that for the Jewish DPs’ leaders, moral rehabilitation and a renewed sense of self-respect could be achieved only through a Zionist-oriented education which sponsored the ideals of mutual aid, productive work, and ‘aliyah as guideline for starting anew. As pointed out by Atina Grossmann, the “Zionists, both the emissaries from Palestine and the young leaders of kibbutz groups, were determined to look ahead rather than dwell on the effects of trauma.”49
With the motto “The Eternity of Israel Will Never Fail, Our Hopes Are Not Lost Yet,”50 the First Conference of OJRI institutionalized the Jewish DPs presence in Italy and started an official political discourse among the Jewish DPs in the country. The Conference contributed to a worldwide recognition of the precarious condition of the Jewish survivors and of the obstacles to their ‘aliyah.
With the establishment of OJRI, the Jewish survivors in Italy claimed an active role in determining their own future, motivated by the “urgent necessity to improve the situation of the Jewish DPs in Italy, to hasten their emigration and settlement in Palestine, and to assist them in their efforts towards rehabilitation and ultimate emigration.”51 In accomplishing these goals, Zionism filled the Jewish DPs’ need for an ideology and soon permeated their lives in the refugee camps, accelerating the process of self-understanding undertaken by the Jewish survivors. Furthermore, Zionism became the most important element of cohesion: for those Jewish DPs who did not wish to be resettled in Eretz Israel, it nevertheless became a powerful ideology, supporting their urgency to reaffirm their Jewish identity; whereas, for those who longed to make ‘aliyah, Zionism represented the concrete opportunity to start a new life after the war. Indeed, in contrast to the marginality produced by the displacement, nationality as well as a national project became a leading parameter determining group belonging in the refugee camps.52
Zionism was fostered by OJRI who received the constant support of the Jewish Agency through its delegates as well as the help of the JDC, which became the major sponsor of OJRI activities and acted as liaison with the camp administrators. Under the supervision of the UN agency, the cooperation between the Jewish DPs’ self-representative organizations, the shlihim and the JDC focused on improving the condition of the DPs’ life, their care and their health; on implementing the return to manual labor; and on managing educational programs in order to elevate the DPs’ cultural and mental level. All these purposes - in particular, those related to productivity and culture - were bent towards training the Jewish DPs in view of their expected resettlement in Palestine through a bottom-up education process. The joint work of this Jewish network facilitated launching a Zionist-oriented education program, whose best expressions were the so-called hachsharah movement, the vocational training and a wide-ranging cultural program.
The hachsharah scheme – initiated by the hayalim in 1943-44 – represented the primary means “to prepare young people for future life in Palestine.”53 Hachsharah groups were organized according to the age of the residents and their affiliation to a specific Zionist movement. OJRI managed this program in close collaboration with the Merkaz He-Halutz (Hebrew for the “Pioneer’s Center”), established by the Merkaz La-Golah in January 1945 in agreement with the Zionist youth movements in order to select and lead the Jewish DPs in hachsharot. However, the main sponsor of these collective farms was the JDC, which obtained recognition for the hachsharot from UNRRA and IRO that agreed to consider them as self-governing organizations and to grant international assistance to their residents, who were treated as “out-of-camp” DPs54. Indeed, JDC officers chose the hachsharot as “the policy for Italy,” stressing that “the hachsharah community type of living offers an excellent opportunity to help these people become re-orientated to normal community living and to help rehabilitate them to undertake constructive and productive efforts.”55
Providing work and vocational training programs in the DP camps were a means toward the wider goal of rehabilitating the victims of the war and impacted as well on migration policies.56 Even in this field, the UN agencies and the Jewish organizations worked together offering extensive work programs with the common goals of reducing the risk of idleness and black-marketing in the refugee camps and allowing the DPs to acquire vocational skills that would grant them further opportunities of employment as well as better chances of resettlement. A pamphlet concerning the activities of the JDC between 1945 and 1946 emphasized these aspects:
“[…] the process of engaging in purposeful labor and study develops at an early stage a spirit of self-respect and hope on the part of the student. […] Apart from such practical achievements, however, there is a unique therapeutic value in these activities which must not be overlooked. Every trainee, who feel that he is making progress toward a new life, is an investment in the welfare of Jewry at large.”57
In the particular case of the Jewish DPs, the stress placed on work and productivity was associated also with Zionist ideology that glorified manual labor, and agriculture in particular, and sponsored a direct participation of the Jews in “building” the Jewish National Home. In hachsharot and DP camps, a considerable number of residents were engaged in cooking, house-cleaning, laundry, etc. as well as in taking part in vocational training workshop of agriculture, carpentry, tailoring, plumbing, fishing, building construction.58
Even the cultural activities among the Jewish DPs in Italy did not follow a blueprint, but rather they followed the haphazard lines of development of the general situation of the Jewish refugees. Educational activities of one kind or another originated early-on, either spontaneously or, more often, through the effort of the Jewish soldiers who were “anxious to bring the message of the Yishuv and world Jewry to the pitiful remnants of Europe’s Jewish community.”59 The establishment of a Culture and Education Department of OJRI aimed at filling in the educational gap in the younger Jewish DPs caused by the six-year war and develop ad hoc programs, with the emphasis on providing the DPs in Italy a “national education.”60 Starting from 1946, the Jewish DPs’ representatives in cooperation with JDC were able to plan a comprehensive educational program, with the support of UNRRA and IRO. In particular, JDC played a direct role in the DP camps, where it supported a successful program, as confirmed by the Director of the JDC Educational Department in 1947:
“the educational programme in Italy cannot be confined to administrative routine, it must be a creative one. No other country in Europe affords such opportunities for educational and cultural activities […] Compared with the cost of the other phases of our programme, the money spent for educational and recreational purposes is most productive of morale building values and the most appreciated.”61
In 1947, one year after the establishment of its Culture and Education Department, OJRI was managing 9 schools for almost 800 students and 8 kindergartens for 252 children in 10 refugee camps in Italy. For these schools, OJRI prepared special study programs based on the educational system developing at the same time in the Yishuv. The study program was thus an intensive one; most of the lessons were given in Hebrew and students were encouraged to discuss topic related to life in Eretz Israel.62
At the beginning of summer 1946, OJRI founded also an Art Department, which dealt with dramatic and musical activities, individual as well as groups of artists. A special installation - supported by JDC and coordinated by the Art Department of OJRI - hosted only Jewish artists displaced in Italy: it was the Kibbutz Omanut (“Art,” in Hebrew) in Castel Gandolfo, near Rome. The institution had a capacity of 35 residents, and accommodated painters, sculptors, musicians, singers, dancers, writers and journalists. Their task was to prepare material, train instructors, stimulate and organize activities in the field of art as well as to conduct dramatic groups, orchestras, choral groups, etc. that toured the camps and the hachsharot at frequent and regular intervals.63
This overview on the flourishing of such a “creative” and wide-ranging cultural and educational program helps us to understand Italy not only as a place where the Jewish DPs passively waited for their resettlement. Instead, the above-depicted situation testified to the active and enthusiastic role of the Jewish DPs and their representative institutions in cooperating with different actors for the implementation of a suitable comprehensive rehabilitation plan.
Notwithstanding the high mobility and the different backgrounds and ambitions of the Jewish refugees, the Jewish DPs across post-war Italy moved together on the path towards the re-definition of their Jewish identity. The extraterritoriality of the refugee camps, the yearning for a new life as well as the fundamental support of the Jewish voluntary organizations and the influence exercised by the Yishuv contributed to the creation of a successful environment wherein the “surviving remnants” elaborated their personal experiences and shaped a new collective national identity.
The Jewish DPs’ (more or less) convinced affiliation with Zionism ascribed to the condition of Jewish displacement a clear political dimension. The active participation as well as the determination of the Jewish DPs in defining their future is evidence of the fact that Zionism became “the main available language of hope” for those Jews yearning to recreate a familiar environment and longing for a sense of home.64
The DP camp became a dynamic place where its inhabitants shared a common past and actively strove to secure themselves a better future. Thus, the displacement represented for the Jewish survivors a sort of in-between that marked the slow transition from the diasporic past towards a normal life in Eretz Israel, as well as in other countries. In this framework, DP camps, assembly centers and hachsharot were powerful meeting places for the Jewish DPs and gave birth to a vibrant “community in transit.”
Chiara Renzo is Postdoctoral Fellow in Jewish History at the Department of North African and Asian Studies of Ca’ Foscari University, Venice. In 2017 she received a PhD in History from the joint doctoral program of the Universities of Florence and Siena, defending a dissertation titled ‘Where Shall I Go?’ The Jewish Displaced Persons in Italy (1943-1951). For her PhD research project, she received the support of the Claims Conference through the Saul Kagan Fellowship (2016-17). Between 2015 and 2016, she was Visiting Research Fellow at the Hebrew University (Jerusalem), at the Yad Vashem International Institute for Holocaust Research (Jerusalem) and, in the framework of the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure (EHRI) fellowship program, at the Wiener Library for the Studies of the Holocaust and Genocide (London).
How to quote this article:
Chiara Renzo, "“Our Hopes Are Not Lost Yet.” The Jewish Displaced Persons in Italy: Relief, Rehabilitation and Self-understanding (1943-1948)", in Miscellanea 2017, eds. Quest Editorial Staff, Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Journal of Fondazione CDEC, n.12 December 2017