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“For us, the victory had come too late”: what VE Day meant for one Holocaust survivor

Theresienstadt survivors just after liberation in May 1945.
Theresienstadt survivors just after liberation in May 1945.
(Votava/Imagno/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

It's the 70th anniversary of VE Day, the day the Nazi surrender was announced the world. By defeating the Nazis, the Allies put an end to Hitler's plan to exterminate Europe's Jews. Yet the war's end didn't mean an end to Jewish suffering — as this quote from a survivor about liberation shows.

Theresienstadt was one of the last camps to be liberated: Soviet soldiers didn't arrive until May 9, the day after VE Day. And for the survivors liberated that day, the joy of celebration was tempered by guilt, fear, and loneliness, writes history professor Dan Stone in a piece on Yale University Press's blog.

This is how Shmuel Krakowski, a Theresienstadt survivor, remembers that experience:

Although we had seen a lot and experienced the worst, we still had hoped, still had dreamed. All those days we struggled to survive, hour after hour, day after day, there had been no time to grasp the enormity of our tragedy. Now everything became clear. No longer were our families waiting for us; no homes to go back to. For us the victory had come too late, much too late.

In other words, surviving the Holocaust wasn't enough. People like Krakowski had managed to overcome impossible odds and unspeakable hardship in order to stay alive, but when they emerged from the hell of the camps they discovered that their families had not been so lucky. By the end of the war, Jewish communal life in Europe had been annihilated. After the Nazis were defeated, Jews couldn't just go back to their old houses: the friends, families, and communities that made their home home were just gone.

Nor were the Gentile communities in Europe very welcoming. "After liberation, many Jewish survivors feared to return to their former homes because of the antisemitism (hatred of Jews) that persisted in parts of Europe and the trauma they had suffered," the US Holocaust Museum explains. "In postwar Poland, for example, there were a number of pogroms (violent anti-Jewish riots). The largest of these occurred in the town of Kielce in 1946 when Polish rioters killed at least 42 Jews and beat many others."

That's why Krakowski and hundreds of thousands like him felt like they had nowhere left to go — and the Allies, incredibly, took years to find homes for them. Yet the survivors made the most of it. Jews forced to live in miserable displaced persons (DP) camps, some of which were repurposed concentration camps, "transformed the camps into active cultural and social centers," the Holocaust Museum recounts.

"Religious holidays became major occasions for gatherings and celebrations ... Journalism sprang to life with more than 170 publications. Numerous theater and musical troupes toured the camps. Athletic clubs from various DP centers challenged each other."

And these survivors eventually found homes, through the relentless efforts of Jewish organizations and some lawmakers. About 136,000 displaced Jews settled in the new state of Israel, 80,000 in the United States, and another 20,000 in scattered places around the world.

This "happy" ending hardly makes up for the rest of the story — but it was the least the world could do.

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