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Case Closed: Holocaust Survivors in Postwar America.

Case Closed: Holocaust Survivors in Postwar America. By Beth B. Cohen. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2007. Pp. xv, 223. $44.95.)

In this well-documented study, drawing on archival materials, case files, and oral testimonies, the author probes the difficult transition that survivors, arriving as refugees under displaced persons legislation, experienced in postwar America. About 140,000 Jewish refugees settled in the United States by 1954. Several themes emerge, including the priority given to Jewish agency goals working with newcomers regardless of their special needs, de-emphasis on health and psychological issues, feelings of isolation among many newcomers, and nascent efforts by survivors to communicate and commemorate.

The general portrait Beth B. Cohen draws is not pretty. Although American Jews and Jewish agencies sought to help the refugees, they did so without deep feeling for or understanding about their needs. Even most sponsor families provided neither consistent financial nor human support: the pattern was "limited help to outright indifference to active rejection" (49). Agencies emphasized finding quick paths to employment and self-sufficiency over dealing with human needs. Special tensions marked efforts to assist Orthodox Jews, who were thought to be exceedingly demanding. Lack of empathic understanding also shaped responses to adolescent orphans, who had suffered great losses and learned aggressive coping behaviors in Nazi Europe.

Cohen says that the contemporary impression was of "quick and successful adaptation" by the newcomers, and she points out that sociologist William Helmreich in Against All Odds [1995] concluded similarly. They emphasized the long-term triumph by survivors in rebuilding new lives in America. In contrast, Cohen argues that the reality in the early years was more complicated, and readers can see this if they think of the arrivals as multiple selves--that is, as refugees adapting to a new society, but also as survivors carrying burdens of trauma and anguished memories. Jewish social workers communicated that they simply should not spend too much time thinking about the past. Issues of illness and difficult readjustment loom large in the files, Cohen reports. She concludes that agency caseworkers "exhibited nearly universal blindness" to their charges as survivors.

In the best chapter, Cohen analyzes the state of psychological knowledge regarding survivors in the late 1940s and the 1950s, as well as the new awareness of problems of emotional apathy (affective anesthesia) and of survivor guilt. But the predominance of Freudian models minimized comprehension of the catastrophe's deepest human impacts. Social workers knew no better, generally urging clients to forget.

Cohen writes that the need of survivors to dwell in the past, to grieve, and to remember, as well as to embrace the future, was served primarily by their own efforts. Memory was served as landsmanschaftn produced yizkor books, newcomer associations memorialized losses and created monuments, and individuals wrote memoirs in Yiddish.

In Case Closed, the author argues that Holocaust survivors were not welcomed warmly initially, nor were their burdens fully comprehended. They were dealt with as newcomers, not survivors of genocide. But Cohen goes too far in saying Americans or American Jews "should have responded differently" (174). As the Holocaust looms larger today, and as psychological knowledge about trauma deepens, Americans comprehend better in hindsight the shortcomings of the initial response than contemporaries could during the 1950s. Thanks to Case Closed, though, readers better appreciate that becoming Americans for the new arrivals was no easy road.

Kenneth Waltzer

Michigan State University
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Author:Waltzer, Kenneth
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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