Vida Kaufman had followed the progress of World War II from afar—the safety of New York City. Yet as a Jew born into a religious family in Dukla, Poland, in 1902, she felt particularly connected to the plight of the Polish and Eastern European Jews who had survived the Holocaust and were now trying to rebuild their shattered lives. Most now looked to the Allies, and westward, for help.
On Victory in Europe, or VE, Day, May 8, 1945, there were one and a half to two million displaced persons (DPs) in Europe—many who could not be repatriated to their prewar homes because they feared retribution, economic deprivation, or continuing attempts at annihilation.
Of these DPs there were approximately two hundred thousand Jewish survivors of the forced labor and extermination camps, death marches, and partisan units, as well as those who had spent the war years in the Soviet Union or had survived in hiding. Those from Western European countries generally returned home. However, many of the Jewish survivors from Poland, Russia, and the central European countries believed that the lesson of the Holocaust was that Jews must take control of their own fate. Most of these survivors determined to start new lives in Palestine. Many sought to join their families in the United States.
By 1946, Vida Kaufman was an accomplished administrator in Jewish communal organizations. She applied to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (known as “the Joint”) to work in Europe with the Holocaust survivors. Along with large numbers of new Jewish refugees fleeing from the continuing antisemitism in their hometowns and villages in Eastern Europe, survivors were streaming into the DP camps, primarily in the British and American zones of occupation in Germany and camps in Austria and Italy.
Although at this time the camps were operated by the military, basic food and other services were supplied by recently established international organizations such as the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) set up in 1943. Jewish agencies, such as the Joint, and Zionist emissaries from Palestine were also providing humanitarian aid in education, welfare, health, and immigration services for the survivors.
On July 15, 1946, Vida Kaufman arrived as a Joint welfare worker to the DP camps in the British-occupied zone of Germany. She served on a team sent by the Joint to improve conditions of the survivors at the main DP camp in the British zone at Bergen-Belsen. It was on the site of what had been the SS quarters for the concentration camp. Although the barbed wire and other signs of incarceration under the Nazis were gone, the needs of the survivors, many shattered physically and emotionally, were daunting. Sanatoriums and children’s homes were set up; medical care and legal assistance were provided; and schools, yeshivas, and synagogues were established.
Survivors were also active in setting up their own political and social organizations as well as registries to reconnect with loved ones—and to find out what happened to them. Telegrams came and went, people desperately were trying to find husbands, wives, brothers, and sisters. Few old people and fewer children had survived the camps. Many of the survivors were eager to start families. There were marriages and a baby boom, and at Bergen-Belsen, Kaufman participated in celebrating the birth of the thousandth baby in the camp. All this also meant nurseries and kindergartens , which Vida Kaufman helped to supervise. The Joint was soon financing the greater part of the welfare, cultural, and educational activities in the camp.
As an administrator who spoke English, Yiddish, and Hebrew, Kaufman was invaluable, and she also brought great interpersonal skills to bear in the midst of a highly emotional and potentially chaotic situation. She worked with hundreds of individuals, and functioned as a liaison officer to many other organizations, Jewish and non-Jewish, that were providing services to the refugees. She participated in the establishment and development of a school system for the survivors, from nursery schools through high school.
The learning of modern Hebrew at Bergen-Belsen and the other DP camps—much of which Vida soon began to supervise as the director of education and chief welfare officer for the British zone—had far more than educational and cultural significance. To learn Hebrew, in the view of the Zionist organizations and youth groups active in the camp, was to prepare to live, ultimately, in the future Jewish state.
Kaufman arrived at Bergen-Belsen shortly after the visit there by David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Jewish community in British-occupied Palestine. With a quota of 1,500 legal immigrants a month strictly enforced, Ben-Gurion’s visit galvanized the Zionist youth groups and survivor organizations in the DP camps. These organizations regarded the plight of the survivors and other displaced persons as an important means to focus the world’s attention on the issue of Jewish self-determination. They joined with Jewish leaders in Palestine to promote a program of Aliyah Bet, or illegal immigration. Their aim was both to smuggle Jews to “Eretz Israel,” or the Land of Israel, and also to force the political issue of the establishment of a Jewish state.
Six months after Vida Kaufman arrived in Germany, the ship that would come to be known as Exodus 1947 was acquired by the leaders of Aliyah Bet. On July 11, 1947, at dawn, the ship, loaded with 4,500 refugees, many with whom Vida had previously worked in Bergen-Belsen, sailed from the French port of Sete for the shores of Palestine. The refugees vowed never to return to Europe, but British destroyers, with other intentions, accompanied the ship to Haifa.
The refugees were prevented from disembarking in the port of Haifa. After armed resistance in which three Jews were killed, the passengers on the Exodus 1947 were forcibly removed and taken to British ships waiting to return them to Europe. The refugees’ plight and the extensive media coverage it generated became known as the “Exodus affair.” It had a major impact on the post-Holocaust situation of the Jewish DPs, and ultimately on the decision of the British to leave Palestine and the subsequent establishment of the State of lsrael.
Kaufman’s last major assignment in Germany was to assess the needs of these Exodus refugees, who were returned to Germany on September 8, 1947. They were interned in special prison camps, and in these exceptionally tense conditions, Kaufman worked with the Exodus‘s refugee passengers, particularly those in the camp at Poppendorf, where many of them stayed until they could immigrate to Palestine.
When Kaufman returned to the United States, bearing tokens of gratitude from the hundreds of people whose lives she affected, she resumed her career. She worked with Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, and also advocated the study of the Hebrew language in the New York City public schools.
In “An American in Belsen,” an article Vida Kaufman published in 1956, 10 years after her service in Europe, she wrote: “For everywhere, the emphasis was on creating an atmosphere of living, living for the future and not in the past …. I treasure no title more than that which was given me in the camp—the American D.P.”