Non­fic­tion

The Peo­ple on the Beach: Jour­neys to Free­dom After the Holocaust

Rosie White­house

  • Review
By – March 8, 2021

The peo­ple on the beach” were some 1,300 Holo­caust sur­vivors who board­ed a dis­guised banana boat from a remote Ital­ian beach and clan­des­tine­ly sailed to Pales­tine in June 1946.

The boat, a retired Cana­di­an naval ves­sel, had been pur­chased six months ear­li­er by the Aliyah Bet, the human smug­gling arm of the pre-state Jew­ish Agency, and renamed the Josi­ah Wedg­wood, after a British Lord.

Ear­ly on, author Rosie White­house writes that this is not a sto­ry of char­ac­ters from a dis­tant past … it is an inti­mate, per­son­al sto­ry of the Holocaust.”

In truth, this book is more com­plex and ambi­tious, often with only ten­u­ous con­nec­tions to the few Wedg­wood pas­sen­gers White­house was able to find. Rather, the Wedg­wood is the nar­row eye­piece of a tele­scope through which White­house goes back in time and place to explore the his­to­ry of the human smug­gling enterprise.

The Wedg­wood was one of thir­ty-four refugee boats launched from the Ital­ian coast­line that chal­lenged the British naval block­ade of Pales­tine between Germany’s defeat in 1945 and Israel’s cre­ation in 1948.

A self-described road trip his­to­ri­an,” White­house brings the read­er along to the places she writes about, from dis­placed per­sons (DP) camps scat­tered through Ger­many and Italy to sites of hor­rif­ic mas­sacres and death camps that gave the Holo­caust its name.

After the war, Amer­i­can mil­i­tary admin­is­tra­tors viewed the Jews not as a dis­tinct per­se­cut­ed minor­i­ty but as Poles, Ukraini­ans, Roma­ni­ans, etc., to be repa­tri­at­ed. That the Jews had noth­ing and no one to return to did not matter.

Against this broad his­tor­i­cal can­vas, White­house paints inspir­ing por­traits of the many heroes, some famous, oth­ers not, who helped the sick and trau­ma­tized sur­vivors lan­guish­ing in the DP camps. It was from these camps that Aliyah Bet agents fun­neled thou­sands of refugees to emp­ty beach­es and over­crowd­ed ships like the Wedgwood.

One such hero was Rab­bi Abra­ham Klaus­ner, a new­ly mint­ed, bespec­ta­cled US Army chap­lain assigned to a hos­pi­tal near the Dachau con­cen­tra­tion camp. When Klaus­ner arrived, Dachau was ware­hous­ing 30,000 Jew­ish survivors.

Klaus­ner became the sur­vivors’ rab­bi, advo­cat­ing on their behalf — and anger­ing the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary brass. Klaus­ner is cred­it­ed with being large­ly, albeit indi­rect­ly, respon­si­ble for Pres­i­dent Tru­man chang­ing the direc­tion of Amer­i­can policy.

Though Klaus­ner has a detailed Wikipedia entry and received a respect­ful New York Times obit­u­ary when he died in 2007, his exploits are worth retelling and White­house does so in detail.

Less promi­nent was Zol­man Grin­berg, him­self a sur­vivor and physi­cian. With the help of a sym­pa­thet­ic US Army Cap­tain, Otto B. Ray­mond, Grin­berg hatched an auda­cious scheme to take over part of a Ger­many mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal housed in a monastery.

Ray­mond pro­vid­ed Grin­berg with prop­er clothes and a pho­ny ID iden­ti­fy­ing the doc­tor as a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Inter­na­tion­al Red Cross. They drove to the Ger­man mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal and threat­ened its com­man­dant with severe con­se­quences” if he did not make room for the sick Jews. Two weeks after VE day,” White­house writes, US Army ambu­lances moved 420 for­mer camp inmates” into the hospital.

Sto­ries and col­or­ful char­ac­ters like these thank­ful­ly pop­u­late the book. While there are many books about sur­vivors dur­ing the war, few focus on this impor­tant slice of post-Holo­caust his­to­ry. The Peo­ple on the Beach helps fill this niche, and by inter­weav­ing the human sto­ries of all-but-for­got­ten heroes, makes for a com­pelling read.

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