Forest Hills Y to remember Holocaust by tracing survivors

Deborah Dwork, an award-winning author and historian, will speak about Jewish refugees at a Holocaust Memorial Day event at the Central Queens YM & YWHA in Forest Hills April 13. Photo courtesy of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies
By Anna Gustafson

The Central Queens YM & YWHA in Forest Hills will commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day with a talk by Deborah Dwork, a renowned historian and author who will speak about Jewish refugees before, during and after World War II.

Dwork, who most recently published “Flight from the Reich: Survivors & Refugees,” will discuss the lives of millions of individuals who fled Nazi-controlled countries to places like Shanghai, Switzerland and the United States, as well as the people who refused to leave their families and risked their lives to stay in their home countries.

“This book is about the efforts by Jews to flee from all of Nazi-occupied Europe, not just the Reich, but everywhere that Germans occupied,” Dwork said. “Other books have focused on Jews emigrating from one particular country — Jews leaving Germany for example, but this is the first book to deal with Jews fleeing from countries across Nazi Europe.”

A former professor at Yale University and the founding director of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University in Massachusetts, Dwork is the author of several award-winning books on the Holocaust. She and the co-author of her most recent book, Robert Jan van Pelt, wanted to focus on the stories of refugees in their newest tome especially because of their own personal connections to refugees.

“We are related by kinship or friendship to Jews who either fled or had the opportunity to flee,” said Dwork, who lives in New Haven. “My aunt, my mother’s older sister, was the only member of the family (in Europe) to survive the war.”

Dwork’s aunt, who was in four concentration camps, eventually left Europe for the United States to live with Dwork’s mother, and Dwork said she was always fascinated by the stories of not just those who left before and during World War II, but after it as well.

“Our ambition for this book was to widen the lens and look at the Jewish refugee movement in the pre-war, wartime and post-war periods,” Dwork said. “Everyone thinks 1945 is the end of the story, everything’s fine then, but that’s not at all true. Nearly 1 million Jews were on the road again after the war and those refugees, now called displaced persons, had no place to return to and no wish to return to the place whence they had come.”

The Jews who left their homes, never to return, weave a narrative that is all too familiar for millions of people today fleeing the violence in places like Darfur and the Congo, and Dwork said society can learn an important lesson about refugees from World War II.

“Receiver communities would moan and groan about what to do with the people coming in,” Dwork said. “What I have learned is people bring human capital with them. They may be financially impoverished and therefore not able to be consumers in a new place right away, but we belong to things in the public sphere. We belong to choirs, we coach sports.

“My own advice to receiver communities is to look forward to the increase in human capital which is coming their way and to do everything they can to integrate the newcomers because, in the end, they’ll enrich their communities. That’s what we’ve seen in these World War II movements.”

Dwork will be at the Hevesi Library of the Central Queens YM & YWHA April 13 at 1:30 p.m. The Central Queens Y is at 67-09 108 St. The event is open to the general public and a $5 donation is suggested.

For more information, call 718-268-5011, Ext. 151.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

More from Around New York