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The Brides of Bergen-Belsen

August 11, 2010 | by Michal Eisikowitz

The bittersweet post-Holocaust weddings.

They were the simplest of affairs. Family members were notably absent; elaborate dinners were but a memory. Bridal dresses were visibly homemade; friends were the makeshift escorts of the bride and groom. Simultaneous emotions of profound happiness and deep mourning ran high.

These were the postwar weddings, the bittersweet marriage celebrations of thousands of men and women who had experienced the horrors of the Holocaust. Memorable and historic, they were the unions that ensured the perpetuation of a treasured heritage; they were the ultimate consolation of a broken people.

The Marriage Surge

In the years immediately following World War II’s devastation, the world saw a wave of “survivor” marriages of unusual proportions.

On the one hand, this trend was hardly surprising: the survivor population consisted mostly of young people without families, between the ages of twenty-one and forty-five. On the other hand, when one considers the horrors that these scarred souls had just endured, the abnormally high marriage rate becomes astounding.

The first year following liberation saw six to seven weddings a day, and sometimes even fifty in one week.

Data from the Bergen-Belsen DP camp — the largest and most widely known displaced persons camp for Jewish survivors — reveals that during 1946, 1,070 marriages took place in this camp alone; the first year following liberation saw six to seven weddings a day, and sometimes even fifty in one week.

Even in cities outside of the DP camps, where hundreds of survivors resided as they awaited immigration papers, nightly weddings — and even “double” weddings — were commonplace.

What were the underlying factors behind this surge of marriages? From where did survivors draw the strength to move on? And what did these poignant weddings look like?

I had the privilege of speaking with several of these extraordinary postwar brides. Now grandmothers and great-grandmothers many times over, they shared the intense emotions that characterized this defining period in their lives.

The Will to Marry

Immediately following the war’s end, Mrs. Fran Laufer, author of the autobiography A Vow Fulfilled: Memories and Miracles (Targum Press), found herself in Celle, Germany, in a subsection of the greater Bergen-Belsen DP camp. It wasn’t long before many of her acquaintances and friends began to seek spouses from among their fellow DP camp residents.

Did these men and women feel “ready”? Mrs. Laufer believes that for most survivors, the answer was a resounding “Yes!”

Loneliness, it seems, played a significant role in their strong inclination to wed.

“We were miserable in the DP camps,” recounts Mrs. Laufer. “We had each come to the awful realization that most of our immediate families were gone, and the loneliness we felt as we contemplated that new reality was indescribable. We just wanted to find someone to share a life with, to build a home together.”

Mrs. Chana Stollman, a Hungarian-born survivor of Auschwitz who met her husband in Paris in 1947, echoes these sentiments.

“We had no one else in the world; we felt terribly alone. We possessed this great need to find a partner, a companion.”

A German-born Auschwitz survivor who in 1947 married in Berlin, Mrs. Berta Frank adds another thought along similar lines.

“In those days, women were not independent. Despite our emotionally frail states, we understood that we were alone, and that we had to connect with somebody.”

But as much as these survivors humbly attribute severe feelings of lonesomeness and even fear to their marrying so soon after the war, it seems far too simplistic to conclude that these were the only motivating factors.

“The fact they were able to marry, to trust another human being, and to establish deep, loving relationships, is a penetrating reflection of their inner strength” says Mrs. Brenda Kolatch, a child and niece of several Holocaust survivors. “That they were able to commit to another soul and create strong, lasting marriages — I find it overwhelming to behold.”

But not everyone felt ready or interested.

"When my husband first proposed to me in July 1945, I simply said, ‘No!’ I was skeleton-like and my hair was still growing in."

“Physically,” says Mrs. Laufer, “I did not feel ready for marriage. When my husband first proposed to me in July 1945, I simply said, ‘No!’ I was skeleton-like and my hair was still growing in; I felt the furthest thing from pretty. I spent most of the day coughing in bed; I was certain that I had a spot on my lung. And to top it all off, I didn’t even know how to cook!”

But her future husband, Simon, persisted. “He convinced me that he wanted to marry me, despite my health issues and my physical appearance,” remembers Mrs. Laufer. “He nursed me back to health with extra food rations that he procured by trading coffee and cigarettes. And sure enough, we married that fall, in October 1945. Ours was the first marriage in Bergen-Belsen.”

Yet even if they had healed physically, other survivors couldn’t think about marriage; they were consumed by severe emotional wounds. Absorbed in the raw pain of dark memories and devastating losses, marriage was not a consideration.

Mrs. Rose Stark relates her heartbreaking story: her husband and eleven month-old baby boy, along with her mother, father, and sisters, were gassed on arrival at Auschwitz. A Czech survivor originally from Munkacs, she recalls how the possibility of marriage didn’t even occur to her.

“For several years after the war, I couldn’t think about marrying; I couldn’t even understand how people could laugh or go out for an evening. My lagersisters, the girls who I had befriended through our shared survival, all actively pursued marriage. But for them it was different: they didn’t lose a husband and child.”

Eventually, however, her outlook changed.

“At some point,” says Mrs. Stark, “I realized that I wanted a family and I was getting older. I needed a home of my own; I was tired of living in relatives’ homes indefinitely. So I agreed to meet my future husband, and when I saw that he was an honest and good man, I married him.”

Mrs. Peska Friedman, a survivor of Auschwitz who authored the autobiography Going Forward (ArtScroll/Mesorah), recalls her feelings of disbelief when the prospect of marriage was first mentioned to her after the war.

“I was in shock. I never dreamed that I would come to a point where I’d be able to get married. It didn’t occur to us survivors that we’d be able to make a normal life for ourselves.”

The Search for a Spouse

For some it took months, for some it took years. But when a Holocaust survivor made the decision to pursue marriage, what did they look for in a spouse? Were their postwar criteria different from what would have been before these years of suffering?

Mrs. Laufer remembers that the engagement process was quick, with little or no “dating.”

“If a man was recommended by a friend and he seemed like a good person, you got married."

“There was no ‘let’s go out and get to know each other,’” she asserts in her matter-of-fact style. “If a man was recommended by a friend and he seemed like a good person, you got married. We had no parents to check out potential spouses; we relied on common sense and mazel (good fortune). In my case, though I didn’t have a father or mother to give approval, an older cousin highly recommended my husband, and I trusted his judgment.”

Indeed, without parents or family members to approve of the match (as was the tradition in prewar Europe), some survivors found comfort in the fact that their parents had known their future spouses or their spouse’s family; Mrs. Berta Frank was one of them.

Before being deported to Auschwitz, Mrs. Frank had worked as a receptionist in the laundry center of the Lodz ghetto. After the war, while walking through Berlin’s subways, she met her former “boss,” a Hasidic young man who had been appointed to oversee laundry operations in the ghetto. They renewed their relationship and after several meetings, he proposed marriage.

“I agreed,” says Mrs. Frank. “My parents had known him from Lodz, and he knew my parents. I knew that they would have been happy with my choice.”

Other survivors were forced to project whom their parents would have wanted them to marry. Mrs. Rachel Novogrodsky, a survivor whose written testimony is featured in the Yad Vashem archives, describes how she made the decision to marry her husband.

“I wanted to get married. It was important to me that he be religious, that he would know [how] to study, that he would be easy to talk with — he was the only [one] that fit. Not a simple decision [to make] right after the war. I remember sitting alone in the woods, under the trees, writing his name in the sand, and thinking about my father. I knew that if Father were to see him — especially studying Gemara (the Talmud) — he would be pleased. I knew that Yishayahu would fit my family.”

For young Rachel, feeling the warmth of her father’s approval was essential. At the same time, however, her criteria were few.

In a similar vein, Mrs. Chana Stollman contrasts the postwar shidduch process with that of today’s, emphasizing the Holocaust’s unsolicited role as the “Great Equalizer.”

“There wasn’t much information to look into. We were all the same ‘poor,’ we were all the same status. You looked for someone with similar values — as close as possible —and that was the only thing that mattered.”

With regard to altered criteria, Mrs. Stollman freely admits that her match probably would not have happened in prewar days. “I doubt that I, a quiet girl from a small town in Hungary, would have married a city-bred boy from Warsaw from a distinguished, hasidic family. But after the camps, family background and lineage didn’t matter as much; we made it work.”

“I looked for a man who would be kind, gentle, tolerant, with a good sense of humor, and of course, with the same religious beliefs as I had,” says Mrs. Rose Stark. “When a friend asked me if he would have to be rich, I said ‘not necessarily.’ And to be sure, G-d made no mistake — for rich he wasn’t! But we were the happiest people in the world.”

Mrs. Stark’s daughter, Mrs. Miriam Zakon, grew up with many other children of survivors. She believes that the overwhelming success of these impromptu unions stemmed from the fact that survivors shared a common objective.

“The Holocaust survivors that I know,” says Miriam, “married with one goal: to establish nice Jewish families — good, decent children who would be a source of nachas to their parents’ memory and to their Creator. Because this was their primary focus, they didn’t get hung up on externalities.”

A Caveat

Despite the valuable lessons to be learned from these less-than-typical marriages, it would be overly simplistic to claim that they all turned out rosy.

“We used to joke that for many people, Adolf Hitler was the matchmaker!"

“We used to joke,” says Mrs. Berta Frank, “that for many people, Adolf Hitler was the matchmaker! Some of my good friends married men who really were not suited for them, or who were considerably older. Once married, they tried their best to make it work, but it certainly wasn’t a smooth ride.”

Mrs. Rose Stark relates a poignant incident that occurred just before she decided to marry her second husband.

“After only three weeks of getting to know me, my future husband proposed marriage. I was apprehensive; wasn’t this rushing things a bit? His rabbi had only praises for him, but warned us that if we didn’t marry soon, we would have to wait until after the days of sefiras HaOmer, the time period in which weddings are not permitted. I was so unsure. I wished my mother was alive — she would really know what I should do.”

“When I asked a colleague at work for his opinion, he advised me to go for it. After all, he said, in this country, the law is on the woman’s side; if it will not work out, just walk out. ‘Oh no, sir,’ I responded. ‘I am from the old country, where marriage was for better or worse. And I will not walk out just because the law is on my side.’”

Weddings of Wonder

What were these emotional celebrations like?

“I borrowed a gown and veil from a local German woman by giving her cigarettes,” recalls Mrs. Fran Laufer. “My future husband hired a shochet (ritual slaughterer) from Hamburg to prepare some meat, and my older cousins did the rest of the cooking. More than 300 girls from the makeshift Bergen-Belsen Bais Yaakov attended, and one of the girls lent me a pair of white gloves. Together, my friends chipped in to buy us a wedding present: a tiny silver spoon.”

“As we stood under the chuppah,” tells Mrs. Laufer, “Simon asked me, ‘Should we go on and be religious? After all, look at what happened to us.’ I told Simon that we had to be Torah-observant, religious Jews. I believed that my mother and father, had they lived, would have wished that we follow in the footsteps of our parents and grandparents.”

“I was 24 years old at the time,” recalls Mrs. Berta Frank, who married in Berlin in 1947. “I was a very tall girl, and I could not find a dress to borrow that actually fit. Finally, my gentile German neighbor offered to lend me her long brown dress, and I gratefully accepted. The shoes that I wore had been distributed by the Joint; they were navy blue, and on my head I wore a white veil. What can I say? It’s a good thing that the pictures were black and white!”

On a more solemn note, Mrs. Frank describes her intense emotions.

“I cried at my wedding because it was in the city where I was born and my parents weren’t there with me. I cried, but at the same time, I was happy that I found such a wonderful man, a learned man of whom my parents would have been proud.”

Mrs. Peska Friedman’s wedding was a most assuredly homemade affair.

“I sewed my own gown and I cooked my own food. My cousin made wine and chopped some herring. To save money, we decided to do a double wedding: we booked a restaurant together with another couple and our wedding guests sat together for a shared dinner.”

“I was joyful to have found my match,” Mrs. Friedman continues. “But I can tell you that when my brother came to bless me my bedeken — the ritual ceremony that takes place just before the chuppah — I never cried in my life as much as I cried then. I poured out all of the longing and pain that was in my heart.”

Mrs. Rose Stark’s wedding in New York, a second marriage, was of a decidedly different nature.

“My wedding was a simple affair,” she relates. “I couldn’t imagine having a festive celebration; I was still in mourning for my family.”

“It was Saturday night when we went to the home of the rabbi who would officiate. The wedding guests consisted of two of my aunts and my husband’s aunt and cousin; they were virtually our only living relatives. The rabbi performed the chuppah ceremony and then we went home.

“I vividly remember the bewilderment of my eight-year-old niece on seeing this strange, no-frills affair. ‘What is this?’ she demanded. ‘I never saw a wedding with no food!’”

Simple Beginnings, Beautiful Lives

Marriage is never a simple decision. But for these survivors, it came on the heels of years that were indescribably hellish.

And yet, though their decisions to marry and their actual weddings were fraught with difficulties and grief, these women now look back at the magnificent outcome: beautiful families that follow in the ways of their parents and ancestors.

“All my children turned out to be honest, good people, raising G-d-fearing families,” Mrs. Rose Stark says tearfully, with obvious pride. “God has paid me back.”

They walked to their chuppos without parents at their side. In doing so, these heroic brides honored the legacy of the parents and the families they had lost; their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are our nation’s greatest consolation.

This article originally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine and is reprinted with their permission.

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