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The New Life

Jewish Students of Postwar Germany

Jeremy Varon

Education, European History, Holocaust, Jewish Studies

Published: June 2014
ISBN: 9780814339619
Pages: 376 Size: 6 x 9
Illustrations: 23 b&w illus.
Published: June 2014
ISBN: 9780814339626

Jewish Displaced Persons (DPs) survived in concentration and death camps, in hiding, and as exiles in the Soviet interior. After liberation in the land of their persecutors, some also attended university to fulfill dreams of becoming doctors, engineers, and professionals. In The New Life: Jewish Students of Postwar Germany, Jeremy Varon tells the improbable story of the nearly eight hundred young Jews, mostly from Poland and orphaned by the Holocaust, who studied in universities in the American Zone of Occupied Germany. Drawing on interviews he conducted with the Jewish alumni in the United States and Israel and the records of their Student Union, Varon reconstructs how the students built a sense of purpose and a positive vision of the future even as the wounds of the past persisted.

Varon explores the keys to students’ renewal, including education itself, the bond they enjoyed with one another as a substitute family, and their efforts both to reconnect with old passions and to revive a near-vanquished European Jewish intelligentsia. The New Life also explores the relationship between Jews and Germans in occupied Germany. Varon shows how mutual suspicion and resentment dominated interactions between the groups and explores the subtle ways anti-Semitism expressed itself just after the war. Moments of empathy also emerge, in which Germans began to reckon with the Nazi past. Finally, The New Life documents conflicts among Jews as they struggled to chart a collective future, while nationalists, both from Palestine and among DPs, insisted that Zionism needed "pioneers, not scholars," and tried to force the students to quit their studies.

Rigorously researched and passionately written, The New Life speaks to scholars, students, and general readers with interest in the Holocaust, Jewish and German history, the study of trauma, and the experiences of refugees displaced by war and genocide. With liberation nearly seventy years in the past, it is also among the very last studies based on living contact with Holocaust survivors.

Jeremy Varon is associate professor of history at the New School in New York City. He is also author of Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, The Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies and is a co-founder and editor of The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics, and Culture. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and son.

This well-researched examination of the Jewish Student Union in postwar Germany deepens our appreciation for the diversity of Jewish life in postwar Germany. The study of young survivors who chose to pursue a university education rather than join the kibbutzim of Zionist youth movements, start new families, or pursue vocational training further complicates the portrait of DP society, while illuminating the many possible responses to trauma after the war. By nuancing our understanding of the surviving Jewish population or She’erit Hapletah, Jeremy Varon adds an important chapter to the growing literature on this fascinating period in Jewish history.

– Avinoam Patt, University of Hartford, co-editor of "We Are Here": New Approaches to Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany (Wayne State University Press, 2010), and author of Finding Home and Homeland: Jewish Youth and Zionism in the Aftermath of the Holocaust (Wayne State University Press, 2009)

What was it like for Holocaust survivors to sit in university classes amid former Wehrmacht soldiers? Jeremy Varon’s intimate, probing study captures pitch-perfectly the tense courtesies masking mutual contempt in everyday interactions, and makes brilliant original arguments about guilt, trauma, the importance of emotional repression, and the sheer impossibility of normalcy.

– Dagmar Herzog, Graduate Center, City University of New York

In this fine study, Jeremy Varon expands our understanding of the variety of ways in which Jews experienced the Holocaust and reconstructed their lives as DPs in postwar Germany. Varon fruitfully examines this rather exceptional group of DP students to illuminate current scholarly debates on how survivors reworked the past, the function of Zionism within the DP community, and postwar Jewish-German relations.

– Margarete Feinstein, research scholar, UCLA Center for the Study of Women

The New Life: Jewish Students of Postwar Germany studies for the first time this chapter of Jewish survivors’ lives. Jeremy Varon builds his study on a rich array of archival sources and several dozen in-depth interviews with Jewish students of postwar Germany. His main group of interest is the Jewish Students’ Union in Munich, which was established in December 1945 as the largest organized association of Jewish students and contained 460 students by the fall of 1947. This number is quite remarkable considering that the total number of Jewish students in interwar Poland was restricted and that after the war only small fragments of Germans were able to enter university studies.

– Michael Brenner, American Historical Review