Between Two Worlds: Jew­ish War Brides after the Holocaust

By – May 6, 2024

Author Robin Judd first became intrigued by the sto­ries of Jew­ish war brides who mar­ried mil­i­tary men because her grand­moth­er, Arlene, was one of them. After sur­viv­ing the war by hid­ing in the Tatra Moun­tains of Slo­va­kia, Arlene learned that the Nazis had killed nine­ty per­cent of her town’s Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion, includ­ing most of her fam­i­ly. Arlene mar­ried a US sol­dier, a Jew­ish refugee from her own town. But Judd, a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at Ohio State Uni­ver­si­ty, soon found that her grand­moth­er did not want to talk about her wartime experience.

For­tu­nate­ly, Judd, who writes that mem­o­ry is a his­tor­i­cal source,” found oth­er cou­ples who were will­ing to tell their sto­ries. She pieced togeth­er this lit­tle-known but fas­ci­nat­ing aspect of World War II his­to­ry by inter­view­ing Holo­caust sur­vivors; Amer­i­can, British, and Cana­di­an World War II vet­er­ans; and the mil­i­tary com­man­ders and chap­lains who deter­mined all of their fates. She also con­duct­ed exten­sive archival research in libraries and uni­ver­si­ties through­out the Unit­ed States, Europe, and Canada.

Although war brides fig­ure promi­nent­ly in many his­tor­i­cal accounts, nov­els, and movies about World War II, the unique sto­ries of Holo­caust sur­vivors who mar­ried their lib­er­a­tors has nev­er been told in depth — until now.

Judd fol­lows the tra­jec­to­ries of sev­er­al cou­ples of dif­fer­ent nation­al­i­ties and cir­cum­stances and exam­ines five dif­fer­ent stages of their lives togeth­er: lib­er­a­tion, encounter, courtship and mar­riage, immi­gra­tion, and acculturation.

One of the most poignant sto­ries is that of Nor­man Turgel and Gena Goldfin­ger. Krakow native Gena was impris­oned by the Nazis for six years — first in the War­saw Ghet­to and then in Bergen-Belsen, where she sur­vived by work­ing in the infir­mary. Nor­man, a British offi­cer, was part of the force that lib­er­at­ed the camp in the spring of 1945. They met dur­ing lib­er­a­tion — Gena had to be sprayed with dis­in­fec­tant before leav­ing the camp on their first date. They mar­ried in the Lübeck syn­a­gogue, which the Nazis had used as a horse sta­ble. Gena’s wed­ding dress was made of a silk parachute.

Why did it take more than half a cen­tu­ry for these dra­mat­ic sto­ries to be told? Many sur­vivors, like Judd’s grand­moth­er, were reluc­tant to revis­it such ter­ri­fy­ing times. Judd explains that many Jews remem­bered lib­er­a­tion as the moment when they began to acknowl­edge the enor­mi­ty of their loss­es” — the moment, in oth­er words, when they learned that their vil­lages had been destroyed and their fam­i­lies mur­dered. These trag­ic rev­e­la­tions coin­cid­ed with ill­ness, star­va­tion, and trauma.

The lib­er­a­tors were like­wise dis­tressed by the atroc­i­ties they dis­cov­ered as they entered the camps. One sol­dier wrote, I was pre­pared to see the nude, ema­ci­at­ed dead bod­ies … it was only the liv­ing dead that I wasn’t pre­pared for.” The Holo­caust thus haunt­ed every aspect of their courtship with their beloveds.

Yid­dish played a cen­tral role in their union: it was often the only lan­guage that they shared. Although many of the Jew­ish ser­vice­men had only a rudi­men­ta­ry knowl­edge of the lan­guage, it helped them com­mu­ni­cate with the Pol­ish, Czech, Ger­man, and Aus­tri­an Jew­ish women with whom they fell in love.

Jew­ish war brides who sur­vived the camps had a very dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ence than the war brides from Britain, France, or even Ger­many (esti­mat­ed at 200,000 in the years fol­low­ing WWII). Their expe­ri­ences were also dis­tinct from oth­er camp sur­vivors who, not being depen­dents of the Allied sol­diers, lacked ben­e­fits like mate­r­i­al goods, hous­ing, and immi­gra­tion sta­tus — all of which had become new­ly avail­able to the Jew­ish war brides. The latter’s access to these ben­e­fits some­times caused envy among oth­er sur­vivors in DP camps.

The cou­ples had to strug­gle to stay togeth­er, and their futures were often at the whim of mil­i­tary or immi­gra­tion author­i­ties. They faced many obsta­cles authen­ti­cat­ing their iden­ti­ties in the wake of geno­cide. Not only had their doc­u­ments been destroyed, but also every­one who knew them was gone. They often had to wait many months or even years in DP cen­ters or cig­a­rette camps” (so-called because the econ­o­my was based on the servicemen’s bar­ter­ing for food and oth­er neces­si­ties with black-mar­ket cig­a­rettes) while await­ing ships.

After the war brides over­came many immi­gra­tion hur­dles, their arrival in the US was not always easy. Many fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties did not wel­come them, and they told Judd they felt most alone when they expe­ri­enced life-cycle events sur­round­ed by their spous­es’ families.”

This vibrant his­to­ry won two Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards: the Women’s Stud­ies Award and the Writ­ing Based on Archival Mate­r­i­al Award.

Elaine Elin­son is coau­thor of the award-win­ning Wher­ev­er There’s a Fight: How Run­away Slaves, Suf­frag­ists, Immi­grants, Strik­ers, and Poets Shaped Civ­il Lib­er­ties in Cal­i­for­nia.

Discussion Questions

Wom­en’s Studies:

We all know snip­pets of the war-bride sto­ries — the gown of silky, white US Army para­chute nylon, hand­sewn by the orphaned bride for her DP camp wed­ding; or the famous scene of Gertrude Klein, whose human dig­ni­ty and will to live were restored when Kurt, an Amer­i­can res­cuer (and, lat­er, her hus­band) held open a door in Auschwitz for her. 

But there is so much more to know. Each war-bride romance con­front­ed chal­lenges: oner­ous immi­gra­tion laws, army rules about sol­diers mar­ry­ing Euro­pean” civil­ians, reli­gious restric­tions imposed on mar­riage, lan­guage bar­ri­ers, and adjust­ment to a new life in an unfa­mil­iar place.

Con­sid­er­ing what an impor­tant part of the larg­er Holo­caust sto­ry this is, it’s sur­pris­ing that no one has under­tak­en this project until now. Con­se­quent­ly, there is lit­tle sys­tem­at­ic or com­pre­hen­sive lit­er­a­ture on which to draw. Addi­tion­al­ly, the time lag cre­at­ed its own prob­lems — the plas­tic­i­ty of mem­o­ry can lead to a skewed rec­ol­lec­tion of ear­li­er times. 

Pro­fes­sor Robin Judd address­es these mat­ters in many dif­fer­ent ways. For one, she begins by describ­ing a wide range of sur­vivors — refugee pris­on­ers, camp inmates, hid­den Jews, and dis­placed per­sons. She con­ducts inde­pen­dent inter­views, track­ing peo­ple down and com­pil­ing exten­sive logs to fill out the record. And to pre­vent the nat­ur­al trans­for­ma­tion of mem­o­ry from under­min­ing the accu­ra­cy of her sub­jects’ tes­ti­monies, she cross-checks every­thing — con­tem­po­rary texts, per­son­al mem­oirs, arti­facts, and more.

Judd has recov­ered the authen­tic, unheard voic­es of a neglect­ed pop­u­la­tion whose accounts of their expe­ri­ences would oth­er­wise have been lost to his­to­ry. From her research, the read­er draws an inspir­ing mes­sage: that most sur­vivors chose life. They didn’t suc­cumb to vic­tim­hood but rather cre­at­ed con­struc­tive lives with new fam­i­lies, in new coun­tries, under new con­di­tions — even as they faced daunt­ing obstacles. 

Writ­ing with dis­ci­pline and restraint, Judd offers por­traits of brav­ery, not in mil­i­tary exploits or der­ring-do but in the chal­lenges of dai­ly life. Her book both offers accu­rate his­tor­i­cal insight and attests to the resilience of human beings after suf­fer­ing and setbacks.

Writ­ing Based on Archival Material:

In Between Two Worlds, Robin Judd exam­ines the post­war expe­ri­ences of Holo­caust sur­vivor war brides” and their Amer­i­can Jew­ish sol­dier hus­bands. Her writ­ing is an intri­cate­ly lay­ered, metic­u­lous­ly researched his­to­ry that’s thread­ed with deep sen­si­tiv­i­ty and superb nar­ra­tion. Uti­liz­ing sources from near­ly three dozen archives in the US, Cana­da, Eng­land, and Israel, Judd tells a sto­ry of post­war love, courtship, grief, loss, and recov­ery — all against a back­drop of encoun­ters with the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary, immi­gra­tion poli­cies, wartime trau­ma, post­war recon­struc­tion, and reset­tle­ment in America. 

Judd’s painstak­ing approach to archival research leaves almost no stone unturned. Incor­po­rat­ing doc­u­men­ta­tion, oral his­to­ry, press accounts, mem­oirs, and more, Judd crafts an inno­v­a­tive, path-break­ing his­to­ry of the post­war lives of the Jew­ish war brides and their fam­i­lies. By weav­ing togeth­er these touch­ing sto­ries and her recon­struc­tion of the post­war world, Judd explores crit­i­cal themes of agency, strat­e­gy, reli­gious author­i­ty, and famil­ial rebuild­ing, as well as loss, exclu­sion, and restric­tions.” Between Two Worlds rep­re­sents excel­lent his­tor­i­cal writ­ing at its best, com­bin­ing con­sci­en­tious research with pol­ished prose.