Post-War Immigration of Holocaust Survivors


The Holocaust, or the genocide of European Jews during World War II, is one of the most tragic pages in world history. The deliberate murder of almost two-thirds of the Jewish population by Nazis became the illustration of horrifying violence and intolerance. In history lessons, a lot of attention is paid to this historical period and its tragic outcomes. People around the world are well aware of concentration camps, mass shootings, and other extermination forms used during the Holocaust. However, less has been said about what happened to survivors after their immigration to other countries.

Some people wrongly assume that after World War II, the struggles of the Jewish population ended. It is partly true: many refugees were able to settle down in Palestine, America, and other countries, where their life came back to normal. However, it is necessary to understand that post-war immigration brought new challenges to Holocaust survivors. Immigrants had to go through a difficult period of adaptation, unacceptance of society, remaining psychological trauma and its consequences, and other obstacles. This paper aims to discuss different aspects of survivors’ post-war life in America. With the help of various sources, including survivors’ real stories, it will discuss the issue of immigration in detail, focusing on both successful and challenging experiences of Jews as immigrants.

Reasons for Immigration

Before discussing the challenges of Jewish immigrants’ life after World War II, it is important to mention the reasons behind their immigration. During the period of the Holocaust, which lasted from 1941 to 1945, European Jews were victims of racism. However, after the end of the war, hatred towards Jews remained in certain regions. According to Helmreich, in some European countries, among which he mentions Poland, Hungary, and Romania, there were anti-Semitic movements that threatened the lives and well-being of survivors (21). Many Holocaust victims were afraid to return to their homes due to the hostility of anti-Semites. An example of such violence and intolerance was the pogrom that took place in Kielce, Poland, on July 4, 1946, as a result of which 41 Jews were murdered (Brenner 2). Therefore, immigration became one of the most reasonable solutions for Holocaust survivors.

Besides the mentioned reason for leaving their home countries, there were other aspects that caused Holocaust survivors to undertake one of the most challenging journeys. Their important reason for the mass immigration was the desire to start a new life free of violence and discrimination (Helmreich 20). America became the most attractive destination for refugees, providing conditions for their settlement. In June 1948, President Truman signed a bill, according to which 205000 Holocaust survivors were given the right to enter the United States (Helmreich 21). Some people managed to adapt to their new environment: they created families, found jobs, and were able to return to normal life after their traumatic experiences (Helmreich 14). Others had to face challenges of adaptation, such as the language barrier and cultural differences.

However, not everybody could immigrate to America immediately after World War II. The majority of survivors had to spend years in the aftermath of war in Europe in order to gain their admission to the United States (Helmreich 21). These people lived in displaced persons camps (DP camps); many of them mention that this period of their life was psychologically challenging (Helmreich 21). Being neither free nor imprisoned, limited in rights and freedom, survivors experienced frustration and were insecure about their future.

These facts prove that immigration was the most appropriate solution for European Jews after the end of World War II. Anti-Semitic moods and the massacre of Jews in Europe made it impossible for survivors to return to their homelands. Moreover, after their traumatic experiences, many wanted to gain stability in life and protect their families from the post-Holocaust consequences. Therefore, Truman’s bill marked the beginning of survivors’ mass immigration to America.

The Challenges of Immigration and Adaptation

Some people assume that after all the terrifying experiences of the Jewish people, their immigration could lead them to a better life, free of violence and suffering. However, it is important to understand that immigration is a life-changing event, which requires strength and courage. Moreover, for people, who were abused both physically and psychologically, it was especially difficult to adapt to a new environment and heal after their trauma. This section of the paper will discuss some of the issues related to immigration and the adaptation period.

After the end of World War II, thousands of Jews found themselves homeless and moved to Germany, Austria, and Italy to settle in DP camps. According to Beth Cohen, the first difficulty that Holocaust survivors faced was that there were not many places where they were allowed to move (9). For example, even though they were permitted to enter the Jewish community in Palestine, this British-mandated country restricted entry to only fifteen thousand people per month (B. Cohen 9). As for America, not only the legislation of the country but also the resistance of local people to accept Jews were an obstacle for refugees (B. Cohen 9). After entry to the US became allowed, 140000 displaced persons were able to settle there.

After being permitted to enter America, immigrants had to travel across the Atlantic Ocean, which was another difficulty they had to face. Helmreich writes that people with visas were taken from DP camps to the port in Bremerhaven, Germany, from where the vessels departed (21). He emotionally describes the difficulties that refugees had to face in this long journey. Seasickness made the trip lasting for approximately fourteen days especially challenging for many Holocaust victims (20). Moreover, some people were separated from their families during the journey. Helmreich quotes a Czech survivor who recalled a room for two hundred people with three-level beds (20). Therefore, even though vessels could help Holocaust victims reach the American land, the majority of refugees were unaccustomed to such long journeys.

The second challenge that immigrants faced was that upon arrival, they found themselves on their own. Some of the passengers were lucky to have friends or relatives who could help them in settling in America. However, the majority of Holocaust survivors were worried about their future life as refugees. At the same time, it is important to mention the vast system of Jewish organizations assisting new settlers (Helmreich 22). According to B. Cohen, The United Service for New Americans was created by the Jewish community in America as a part of the preparation to meet arrivals (9). The New York Association for New Americans was also founded to help those who settled in New York. Such organizations were responsible for assisting the Jewish people and coordinating their resettlement across the country and in particular cities.

The third important aspect of immigration was the lack of language knowledge and its consequences. This problem affected children, who often felt detached because of their inability to make new friends. Such difficulties are described by Ruth Gruener, who immigrated to America as a child. Her family barely knew English; at the same time, she had to attend school and be among other children (Gruener 12). Moreover, the knowledge of English was essential for the employment of adult Jews. In addition to the language barrier, many refugees experienced prejudice and intolerance. As mentioned by Helmreich, even during their trip across the Atlantic Ocean, many non-Jewish passengers were hostile towards Jews (22). Being different in terms of language, culture, religion, and history, refugees found it difficult to merge into society.

Despite the general tolerance and assistance of the American government, not all citizens were ready to welcome Jews into their country. According to B. Cohen, the American public preferred displaced persons to move to Palestine (3). Moreover, Jews’ cultural and ideological differences were another difficulty of their adaptation in America. Certain organizations were formed to help groups of refugees that demanded an individual approach, such as European Orthodox Jewry. However, many social workers did not understand the need of religious immigrants to maintain their lifestyle and values (B. Cohen 4). The primary task of such assisting organizations was refugees’ employment; however, less attention was paid to their spiritual needs.

In conclusion, even though immigration was the most appropriate solution for Holocaust survivors, their journey and adaptation in America were not easy. First of all, refugees traveled across the ocean, while many people had to wait for this opportunity in DP camps. Secondly, immigrants were insecure about settling in America, despite the fact that many organizations were created to provide them with assistance. Finally, the language barrier and difficulty of merging into society made adaptation psychologically difficult. These aspects are not explicitly described in academic sources about genocide; however, they were significant in Jews’ refugee experiences.

The Continuous Trauma

Another significant problem that Jewish immigrants faced was the psychological trauma as a result of the Holocaust. Even after the end of the war, some of the survivors were not able to return to normal life. For example, in Ruth Gruener’s memoirs, the author mentions that she often had nightmares and flashbacks about her childhood in hiding (1). In her autobiographic book, she vividly describes the struggles of European Jews that she witnessed as a child. She was only five years old when Nazi soldiers invaded Poland. “We can’t speak unless spoken to. We can’t walk on the main streets of our city. We can’t use the parks, the swimming pools, the libraries, the cinemas!” – describes Gruener the anti-Jewish restrictions of that time (6). Such memories remained throughout the whole life of many survivors.

Another evidence of the severity of psychological trauma is that many people suffered from emotional breakdowns even after their successful adaptation. According to Kahana et al., it is wrongly assumed that “socially and occupationally well-functioning” Holocaust survivors are no longer influenced by their experiences (10). However, deep-buried psychological issues may still bother these people, especially at the time of crisis (Kahana et al. 10). Social research confirms this idea: for example, Holocaust survivors with cancer have a higher level of distress compared to other patients.

In addition to the violation of rights, Holocaust victims experienced severe physical and moral suffering. “The Holocaust is the abyss which never cries “Enough!” – writes Brenner about these consequences of the genocide of Jews (4). He implies that people who were “starved in ghettos, shot in ditches, gassed in camps, burned in ovens” remained mentally impaired (4). Moreover, the traumatic events of the Holocaust influenced not only first-generation survivors but also their children and grandchildren. This consequence is explicitly described in an autobiographic book by Emily Cohen. According to the author, her life decisions were often affected by the struggles of her mother, a first-generation Holocaust survivor. Moreover, E. Cohen’s relationships with her mother also reflected the wartime struggles of the latter (14). Therefore, it is important to break the cycle of passing the tragic experience of the Holocaust from one generation to another.

Even though finding a job in America was important for immigrants, their tragic past remained an essential part of their identity. For example, B. Cohen explains that even though the acculturation of Jews was deemed to be successful, their trauma was often hidden from the outside world (5). According to the reports of social workers, many Holocaust survivors still suffered from the effects of their wartime struggles (B. Cohen 5). Therefore, it is possible to conclude that the problem of survivors’ mental well-being was not addressed properly. Even though Jewish communities assisted refugees in employment, their psychological needs were rarely met. Instead, they affected further generations and negatively influenced the quality of survivors’ life.

Financial Aspects of Immigration

Much has been said about the psychological difficulties of immigration and the challenges that Holocaust survivors had to overcome before reaching the American land. However, another important aspect of immigration is connected to finance. According to Bazyler, “the Holocaust was both the greatest murder and the greatest theft in history” (xi). He refers to the statistics and mentions that assets stolen by Nazis from the Jewish population were estimated at approximately $320 billion (Bazyler, xi). Therefore, multiple suits in courts followed Holocaust survivors’ mass immigration.

The United States became the arena of compensating monetary losses of the European Jewry. Bazyler emphasizes that the intervention of American courts allowed realizing Holocaust survivors’ hopes for compensation (xi). In most cases, the lawsuits were initiated against the three largest Swiss banks that failed to return the money deposited with them before and during World War II. Since 1996, many European insurance companies and banks in Germany, Austria, and France were sued for stealing the money of Holocaust survivors (Bazyler xii). These mass litigations led to successful results and helped many Jewish refugees solve their financial issues.

The American legal system allowed foreign citizens to commence lawsuits even if human rights abuses were committed abroad. Moreover, the affordable fees for filing civil lawsuits and the willingness of American lawyers to take high-risk cases made litigation easier for Holocaust survivors (Bazyler xiii). It is possible to conclude that the legal system of America was one of the most positive aspects of immigration. It supported the human rights of Jews and allowed many people receive compensation for their financial loss during World War II.

The American Dream and Jewish Heritage

Even though for many Jewish refugees, adaptation to their new life in America was challenging, it became the most positive life-changing experience for the majority. According to Helmreich, many people have a stereotypical image of a Jewish refugee who is “chronically depressed, anxious, and fearful” (14). However, the destinies of many Jews are examples of the American dream – a successful and prosperous life in freedom and equality. The author argues that in most cases, these people live a full, vivid life and contribute to the American Jewish community (Helmreich 14). He agrees that the Holocaust events shaped their worldview and made them reconsider the meanings of hope and fight (Helmreich 14). However, despite their tragic past, the majority of Holocaust survivors managed to find good jobs, create families, and enjoy peace and stability.

It is worth mentioning that many refugees dedicated their life to protecting the rights of Jews in America and raising awareness about the Holocaust and its consequences. Helmreich mentions Abe Foxman, who survived the Holocaust as a child and is now the head of the Anti-Defamation League combatting anti-Semitism (13). Similarly, Sam Brach, who survived Auschwitz, became a philanthropist and political activist fighting for the dignity of Holocaust survivors (Helmreich 13). Ruth Gruener, who was a hidden child during Holocaust, is now working as a docent at the Museum of Jewish heritage in Manhattan (Gruener 210). Traveling around the country, she educates schoolchildren about the Holocaust and its role in world history. These examples prove that those who went through the horrifying events of the Holocaust preserve their national heritage and advocate for the rights and well-being of Jewish communities.

The aforementioned stories of real people demonstrate that an image of Holocaust survivors is often generalized. However, immigration helped many Jewish refugees achieve what is referred to as the American dream. The Holocaust made Jews different from other immigrants since it significantly influenced their views and attitudes. The respect for their cultural and historical values, contribution to society, and the sense of cohesion are some of the essential features of the Jewish population.


The Holocaust was one of the most tragic events in history, resulting in the death of thousands of people. The atrocities of genocide are described in all history books; however, less is said about the destiny of Jewish refugees after the end of the war. Anti-Semitic moods and the desire to start a new life triggered the mass immigration of Jews. This paper was focused on the key aspects of their life in post-war America.

Among the major challenges of refugees were immigration regulations of the US, a long journey across the Atlantic Ocean, cultural, ideological, and religious differences, employment, and insufficient knowledge of English. The majority of Jews were not able to immigrate immediately; frustrated and insecure, they had to wait for this opportunity in displaced persons camps. In addition, many of them could not return to normal life due to psychological trauma.

At the same time, it is necessary to mention the significant role of the American government and society in assisting immigrants. Jewish organizations and communities helped survivors adapt in the country, while the American court system contributed to solving their financial issues. As a result, many Holocaust survivors were able to merge into American society and enjoy a life free of violence. Moreover, some of them dedicated their lives to raising awareness about the Holocaust and its place in history.


Bazyler, Michael J. Holocaust Justice: The Battle for Restitution in America’s Courts. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2003.

Brenner, Reeve Robert. The Faith and Doubt of Holocaust Survivors. London, UK: Transaction Publishers, 2014.

Cohen, Beth B. Case Closed: Holocaust Survivors in Postwar America. London, UK: Rutgers University Press, 2006.

Cohen, Emily Wanderer. From Generation to Generation: Healing Intergenerational Trauma through Storytelling. New York, NY: Morgan James Publishing, 2018.

Gruener, Ruth. Out of Hiding: A Holocaust Survivor’s Journey to America. New York, NY: Scholastic Inc., 2020.

Helmreich, William B. Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017.

Kahana, Boaz, et al. “Placing Adaptation among Elderly Holocaust Survivors in a Theoretical Context.” Holocaust Survivors and Immigrants: Late Life Adaptations, edited by Boaz Kahana et al., New York, NY: Springer Science & Business Media, 2007, pp. 1-15.

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