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Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors
and the Successful Lives They Made in America

by william b. helmreich
simon & schuster, 348 pages, $23

One of the more controversial events in our cultural life this year has been the opening of Washington’s Holocaust Museum. The Holocaust was not an American tragedy, the arguments against the structure went; why give it Mall real estate that elevates its status in our history to that of the events recalled by the Smithsonian or the Washington Monument? The strongest case against the museum’s location, and one made by a group that included many Jews, was the case against the “Americanization” or “federalization” of the tragedy of a specific group. If, for example, this country’s relatively small population of Jews deserves such a grand monument to the deaths of their cousins, what next? Doesn’t then every other group here with some collective memory of suffering—from homosexuals, say, to Armenians—deserve its own House of Sorrow?

For many, this objection weakened at the sight of the museum’s sobering contents. It weakened yet more at the sight of the aged concentration camp survivors who spoke on the day of the museum’s opening. Soon—within five or ten years, or, certainly, a generation—we may need the museum to tell us about what the Nazis did. The survivors themselves will be gone.

Now author William Helmreich offers us a precious record of that disappearing group. Against All Odds is the story of a small number of people: the 140,000 or so survivors who landed on American shores. From their first days in the resettlement center of the Hotel Marseilles on New York’s 103rd street, the survivors in Mr. Helmreich’s book managed to make their way. The majority, in Mr. Helmreich’s telling, were able to find new lives, largely because of simple—in fact, rather old-fashioned—virtues. The survivors themselves, however, self-effacingly attributed much of their good fortune to luck: Mr. Helmreich reports that 74 percent of them cited this as the main factor in their survival. He cites a more significant factor: simple integrity.

The story of the survivors is one of courage and strength, of people who are living proof of the indomitable will of human beings to survive and of their tremendous capacity for hope. It is not the story of a remarkable people. It is a story of just how remarkable people can be.

To read Against All Odds is to retrace that story. The survivors did not make their passage on V-E Day, 1945; many of them languished in displaced persons camps in Europe for years, long enough to witness ugly events like the resurgence of European anti-Semitism: July 1946, for instance, brought the murder of forty-one Jews in an infamous pogrom in Kielce, Poland. Only after 1948, when Harry Truman signed a bill allowing 205,000 refugees to enter the United States, could they board the boats at Bremerhaven. A “small army” of social workers and charitable groups managed their arrivals—from Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society workers in their white enamel badges to the volunteers from the National Council of Jewish Women (light blue silk armbands). The welcome net extended outside New York: the Jewish community in Montgomery, Alabama, distributed the following announcement:

This is where your money goes! : Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Rabinovitz and Children May Move Next Door to You Next Week. They speak no english! they spent four years in Dachau. They have no money, no job . . . what’s to be done for them???

Such shielding didn’t entirely protect the new arrivals from feeling both trivial and profound disappointment with their new homeland. One immigrant tells of how exhilaration “was soon replaced by anger and disbelief when he discovered that a local synagogue in Washington Heights denied him admission to its Yom Kippur services because he had not purchased a ticket, even though he explained that he had only recently been liberated from a concentration camp. ‘I’m in America? Where Am I? They call this liberty?’ he exclaimed bitterly.” Another survivor, Gilbert Metz, describes his first confrontation with bigotry:

My uncle had two water fountains in the store: one was marked “Colored” and the other “White.” And it was a big mystery to me. So one day my uncle said, “Why are you always looking at those fountains?” “Because,” I said, “when you press a button, the same color water comes out.” He laughed and explained to me: “Well, one is for the schvartzes and one is for the whites.” I thought it was the silliest thing I’d ever seen.

Such customs evoked harsher words from another arrival settling in the South, Lola Shtupak: “My aunt gave her black maid food that we wouldn’t eat and made her eat it outside, like a dog. When I fought with her, she called me a Communist. So I saw this was no life for me, and I left for New York.” Another group of immigrants had doubts about choosing America over the Jewish homeland. One of them, a Vera, reports that “From 1948 to 1950 I was thinking of making aliyah . . . . I had wanted to go to Israel all my life and now I could go. I felt it was my own country . . . .” While in Israel, though, she went to hear violinist Isaac Stern and ended up returning to America after all”she married him.

Like Vera Stern, most of those who arrived in America ended up staying, finding jobs, and, frequently, moving into apartments in New York neighborhoods such as Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Washington Heights, or Brooklyn’s Borough Park. Not all survivors chose the city, though. As in Israel, the pull of agriculture was strong, in large part because it was different: “The image of the farmer raising cows and chickens stands in sharp contrast to the stereotype of the city-dwelling, business-oriented Jew.” Helmreich’s research found that “some 1,500 Holocaust survivors and their families selected farming as an occupation after the war.” New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut attracted the greatest number of farmer survivors, Helmreich reports. And as in Israel, many of the farming experiments were mixed successes at best. In Vineland, New Jersey, or Liberty, New York, the arrivals joined already-established Jewish communities. The farms did offer several advantages, including the chance to avoid the problem of language: “With the chickens you could talk any language.”

Such quotations highlight one difference between the survivors and their closest predecessors, the Jewish emigrants of the 1930s, namely, education. No Hannah Arendts, these newcomers had spent what should have been their school and university years in gentiles’ closets, or in the camps. Unable to glide into the academy, they turned to more time-honored methods of finding their way in America. Jack Werber recounts an immigrant’s tale so classic it sounds hackneyed:

I took my own place on Avenue C making trimmings on collars. I borrowed one thousand dollars and my partner put in one thousand. Then we sold earmuffs. I worked twenty-five hours a day. I never saw the children awake. Then came Davy Crockett and we started with the coonskin caps. They came with trucks and they were selling like hot potatoes.

The survivors were classic immigrants in another sense: they didn’t assimilate, leaving that challenge to their children. Marrying mostly among themselves, and at a high rate (in 1989, Helmreich reports, 83 percent of survivors were married, compared to 62 percent of American Jews in the same age group), they often resorted to what Helmreich calls “pragmatic marriages””made more for a bed, a blanket, and security than for any grander dreams. Over the decades, they continued to spend time with other survivors; old differences between them sometimes melted. “Whatever prejudices we had against the Ostjuden [East European Jews] were burned at Auschwitz,” one German survivor tells Helmreich.

In recent years observers of survivors have been troubled by what seems to be a disorienting trend—the late suicides or mystery deaths of survivors who distinguished themselves particularly in the postwar years. There was the suicide of Bruno Bettelheim. Primo Levi, one of the most balanced and gifted chroniclers of life in Auschwitz, died as the result of a probable suicide in Italy. Even the mercurial Jerzy Kosinski chose to do away with himself. Helmreich notes the phenomenon, but the weight of his evidence seems to suggest that such cases are exceptions. On one page, for example, we get the story of Major General Sidney Schachnow, a former commander of the Green Berets in Vietnam. When Helmreich interviewed Schachnow, he was serving as commanding officer of U.S. troops stationed in Berlin. It wasn’t Schachnow’s first time in Central Europe though: he had spent time in his childhood in a Lithuanian concentration camp. Of his decision to join the military, the general gives a typically low-key account: “I looked upon it as a kind of temporary relief [from family pressures] but once I got in there, I kind of liked it.” Equally low-key is the account of Tom Lantos, whose American voyage started on the boat Marine Falcon, continued through a doctoral program at the University of California, Berkeley, and eventually led to the U.S. Congress. Of his current job he says, “I feel in many ways that in Congress, I’m here . . . for all the survivors.”

How, though, does the average survivor—by Helmreich’s account a politically average, even marginal person—perceive his new homeland? Despite the immigrants’ love of America, America’s problems, and in particular American racism, has preoccupied many survivors. Helmreich describes, for example, one Sandy Meyer, who had been hidden as a child during the war, and records that she “remembered reading an article in a newspaper that anti-Semitism in the U.S. had risen 12 percent between 1986 and 1987. As a result she had given serious consideration to encouraging her children to move to Israel.”

Many observers—indeed, many prominent ones—have long pooh-poohed such worries. They have argued, with some reason, that Jewish organizations actually foster anti-Semitism in the general American public by “crying wolf” at any tiny incident in what in past decades has been a remarkably tolerant culture. In the year or two since Helmreich completed his research, however, new events have to some extent justified the concerns Helmreich describes. The wide-scale and public racism in New York’s 1991 Crown Heights riots—members of the local black community shouted “kill the Jews” as they attacked orthodox Jews on the street—is perhaps the most prominent example here. In Helmreich’s book, for example, Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman is “upbeat” about the problem of anti-Semitism: Foxman says that “thirty, forty years ago, there would have been anti-Semitism” in America. Now “there isn’t.” Since Helmreich finished his book, though, events like Crown Heights have led Foxman to worry publicly about America’s future.

Against All Odds is best when it delivers raw testimony from individual lives. It is weaker and more frustrating when it moves into social science—Helmreich develops thematic chapters with titles such as “the social world of the survivor” or “living with memories.” Mr. Helmreich is a sociologist, and the book is the product of many years of research, so his impulse to attempt something grander than mere reportage is certainly understandable. But the result is that he frequently sacrifices a good story by chopping it up into smaller units and dropping them in at convenient spots in his narrative. Thus Abe Foxman—the ADL director and one of Mr. Helmreich’s most fascinating subjects—gets mentions at six points in the book. Nowhere, though, does the author take time to unfold Foxman’s story of being a toddler hidden in Christian homes, of being kidnapped, and of a rough economic beginning in the new world.

Against All Odds , then, doesn’t replace previous works on survivors, such as Dorothy Rabinowitz’s 1979 book New Lives , which included, for example, a gripping account of a confrontation between the survivor Stella and the woman who had once guarded her at Maidanek. European and Israeli publishers, too, have offered more dramatic testimony of the world’s Anne Franks—for me, for example, Inge Deutschkron’s Ich trug den Gelben Stern (“I Wore the Yellow Star”) will always be the most memorable story of childhood underground in Berlin. It is the optimism of Helmreich’s subjects, though, that redeems his book. In one sense, it is a very American book, in which the American immigrant impulse (“success at any cost”) shows itself strong enough to vanquish dark European experience, over and over again.

Amity Shlaes is Editorial Features Editor at the Wall Street Journal and author of Germany: The Empire Within (Farrar, Straus).

Image by Karen Ebidia via Creative Commons. Image cropped