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In the Footsteps of the Bricha

Baruch Kraus as a child in Foehrenwald DP camp

My husband and I recently participated in a journey that took us, literally, in the footsteps of our parents, on the route they used to escape from Soviet-held territory after the end of World War II in Poland. The routes they and more than 250,000 other Holocaust survivors followed were set up by the Bricha, the grassroots movement that helped these Jews smuggle themselves across borders and mountain passes to reach DP (Displaced Persons) camps, mainly in the American zone of occupied Germany, and from there to Palestine, or in our case, the US.

Like most of the other forty participants on this trip, we knew the basics of our parents' stories: They survived the Holocaust, went back to their hometowns, found that no family members had survived and that their Polish neighbors had moved into their homes and taken over their businesses. The Poles, surprised by their return, were not welcoming. Not to mention the flagrant anti-Semitism that resulted in the murder of 1,000 survivors, most notably in the Kielce pogrom of July 1946, when 42 Jews were killed. After that, the stream of Jews moving westward became a flood, driven by their unwavering determination to leave Europe and reach their real homeland – Palestine.

The Bricha movement had already been founded in late 1944, when the Soviets conquered eastern Poland and Lithuania, and as the Soviet forces moved westward, so did the Jews. The founders were survivors, members of Hashomer Hatzair and other Zionist youth movements, and partisans, such as Abba Kovner and Antek Zukerman. Aside from organizing their own transport, housing, food, and forging papers, they also ferreted out hidden Jewish children and set up children's houses for them, nourishing them in body and soul, among other efforts.

Our eleven-day journey of discovery "In the Footsteps of the Bricha" (organized by the Next Generation of Holocaust and Heroism Legacy and the Bricha Legacy Association)

began in Wrocław, Poland (formerly Breslau). This city and surrounding towns – the region of Lower Silesia – was one of many collection points for the survivors who were making their way across borders into freedom, escaping Polish anti-Semitism and increasingly oppressive Communist rule. Wrocław and Lower Silesia, we learned from a local professor, represented a confluence of opportunities: The German inhabitants had been deported overnight, making housing and work readily available, and it was close to the Czech border, where the Jews would be able to cross, albeit by stealth. The Polish government was obliging at first, embarrassed by the often violent outbursts of anti-Semitism in the face of the unspeakable atrocities the Jews had endured during the war. The area became a convenient way station for Polish Jews, those repatriated from the Soviet Union, like my parents, and others wanting to leave the past behind in search of a new life.

As on every day of our trip, we learned about this moving flood of hundreds of thousands of Jews through the lens of our fellow travelers. In Wrocław, in front of a building that had served as the children's home, Lea told us about her mother. A mere teenager, she became a counselor, really a substitute mother for the youngsters. Lea's father, also a survivor, came to help out now and then, and that was how they met. Here, as in all the other temporary shelters along the routes, the Bricha and its survivor volunteers quickly set up schools and cultural activities, understanding that their young charges needed to learn to be children and to hope. Every day Dr. Miri Nehari, head of the Bricha Legacy Association and one of the initiators of this trip, would tell us stories about the ingenuity, derring-do, and chutzpah of the Bricha members. Our guide, Yaron, recapped history and geography as we traveled, and oriented us to the sites we visited.

The next day we went to another town in Lower Silesia, Wałbrzych, where a member of our group, Simcha, had been born. Thanks to him, we met with the mayor, who received us warmly and recounted the history of the town, and its Jewish and post-war connection. From there we continued toward the Czech border and the area of Náchod, a major crossing point. Simcha told us that as an infant, he had been smuggled across this border in a backpack. To "re-enact" his and all of our parents' journeys, we walked along a bicycle path that led us from Poland into the Czech Republic.

Having crossed into Czechoslovakia, the survivors waited in the Náchod station for trains that would take them to Austria. My husband and I walked around the station holding hands, knowing now that our parents must have waited for their train right here, where we stood. We recalled what they had told us, years before when we were about to visit Prague: We only saw Prague "from the train." This was probably because the Czech's had only allowed the Jews to remain in their country for 72 hours, long enough to traverse it on the route of the Bricha.

My parents told me that they met "on the way." This must be what they had meant, the flood of Jews moving westward. And now, I was walking "along the way" wondering how they had found the strength to move on after all they had gone through.

After the initial grassroots period, the Palestinian Jews of the Jewish Brigade serving with the British forces provided invaluable assistance to the Bricha, as did Jewish chaplains serving with the American and British armed forces, often under the noses of their commanders, and sometimes with the aid of soldiers and officers. The Joint (the American Joint Distribution Committee) provided the funds, but it was the survivors themselves who did the work, joined later on by members of the Mossad l'Aliyah Bet (Organization for "Illegal" Immigration) and the Haganah.

Perhaps the most moving encounters of this emotional and information-laden trip took place in the former DP camps, with the most poignant occurring at Bad Reichenhall, in Bavaria, not far from the Austrian border. Under a fine drizzle we stood at the entrance to what is now a German military base, while the commander and a local historian told us how they are preserving the memory of the DP camp, Camp Tikvah, which functioned there from 1946-1951 under US military rule. During WWII, this nineteenth-century military base had been a camp for Nazi soldiers. While standing there looking up at the fresco of young, glassy-eyed Nazi soldiers, and the Nazi symbol, the spread-winged eagle below it, we heard how, on the very parade grounds where German soldiers had marched, survivors held demonstrations to demand that all Jewish DPs be allowed to enter Palestine immediately. A Zionist congress took place in this camp, too. According to the local historian, it was here in Bad Reichenhall, Camp Tikvah, that the State of Israel was born. Ultimately, the pressure of the DPs could not be ignored. Finally, Riki, whose parents had met and married in the camp, unveiled a plaque (a local initiative) commemorating the years it served as a way station for the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust on their way to establishing the State of Israel.

The following day we visited another camp, Föhrenwald, where my husband Baruch was born. Here, too, local citizens are preserving the memory of their neighborhood's post-war years when it served as the one of the largest DP camps in Bavaria. Baruch and I visited Föhrenwald twenty-five years previously, when we had serendipitously arrived on the day of a conference honoring 40 years of the camp's closing. Now with our group, we toured the museum, the camp's former bath house, which documents its transformation from workers' quarters to forced laborers' barracks, to a DP camp, and today, a leafy suburb called Waldram of the town of Wolfratshausen, near Munich. The museum, a local initiative, also showcases the enormous variety of educational, cultural, and political activities that took place in the camp, from schools, yeshivahs, and vocational classes, to newspapers, theater groups, political parties and youth movements.

From here our journey took us across the Brenner Pass, the only easy access into Italy for the survivors seeking to reach the ports of the Mediterranean. We learned how the British had pressured the French and Italians to prevent the survivors from crossing their borders and how the Bricha found other ways to smuggle the Jews into Italy, one of them by way of the much more difficult Krimml Pass. We stopped at the Italian side of this mountain path, where the Alpine Peace Crossing, a non-profit organization established in 2007 by an Austrian banker, sponsors an annual hike to memorialize the courage of the survivors who did not let anything, not the British and not the Alps, stand in their way.

At war's end, the Jewish Brigade was encamped at a significant crossroads between Austria, Italy, and Germany, where they were able to assist the Bricha and help its volunteers house and feed the survivors. Many of the Palestinian Jews were serving in British military transport units and under their commanders' noses, they used British military trucks to transport Jewish survivors across borders into Italy. It didn't take long to figure out the subterfuge and the Jewish soldiers were soon transferred to Belgium.

We had to stretch our imaginations on our last day, as we traversed the main street of Chioggia, a town reminiscent of Venice, and took a ferry to Pellestrina, a barrier island in the Venetian lagoon. Two "illegal" immigration ships had actually set sail for Palestine from the shores of this toothpick-shaped island. We had shed our layers, were back in short sleeves and sandals, but more importantly, we could smell the Mediterranean, or the Adriatic, and feel its breeze, the promise it must have held for our parents – the promise of Palestine. I felt the surge of hope my mother* must have felt when she boarded the Exodus, albeit in France, not Italy, on the verge of the journey that would take her to the homeland she yearned for, the true homeland the survivors yearned for and had fought so hard to reach.

On our journey of learning, personal discovery and introspection, and group interaction, walking in our parents' footsteps, we all began to understand that they had wanted to forget their harrowing journey of nighttime border crossings, by covered trucks, trains, and on foot, that they had to put it behind them if they wanted to rebuild their lives, and build ours. We understood that they had not wanted to burden us with all the hardships they faced "on the way," in the DP camps, on the rickety clandestine immigration ships, not to mention what they endured during the war years. If we had thought of them as heroes before this trip, they were now our superheroes.

*My mother, Frances Greenberg, was one of the more than 4,500 passengers of the Exodus. Like her fellow ma'apilim, she was forcibly returned to Germany. There, my father persuaded her to marry him and go to America with him. Eventually, a year after he died, she finally made it to Israel, where she was involved in ESRA

For further information:

The Bricha Legacy Association

A second journey is planned for August 2023. Information is available in Hebrew on the above site.

Alpine Peace Crossing 



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Thursday, 18 July 2024

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