Foehrenwald – a Jewish Shtetl in Upper Bavaria

The DP Camp was opened 75 years ago…

By Jim G. Tobias

The Föhrenwald settlement was built up in the 1930s in what is today the Wolfratshausen district of Waldram for the workers of the nearby munitions factory. Following the defeat of the Nazi regime, uprooted and displaced people – so-called DPs (Displaced Persons) – were accommodated in the one hundred odd single and multi-family houses. At times up to 5,000 Jews lived in Föhrenwald from September 1945. The camp was a place of refuge for Shoah survivors, an island within the country of its perpetrators. Existing up until early 1957, Föhrenwald was the longest remaining Jewish DP camp in Europe. Simon Ajnwojner, born there in 1950 recalls: „We were among the last families to leave Föhrenwald. I have unpleasant memories of that time. I knew my way around the camp, although our world ended at the entrance barrier.“

As the Jews were allowed a large degree of autonomy by the US occupying power, an autonomous administration and infrastructure quickly grew up in Föhrenwald. This included police, a camp court, synagogues, Mikwaot, kosher kitchens, schools, kindergartens, theatres, sports clubs, Yiddish language newspapers and a lot more. An eastern Jewish Shtetl had virtually been created overnight, right in the middle of Germany.

Föhrenwald was, however, only really meant to have been a temporary home. People did not want to stay in the land of the Holocaust perpetrators. Many wanted to go to Eretz Israel, but the Jewish state did not yet exist. Even the usual countries of emigration such as the USA, Canada or Australia pursued a very restrictive immigration policy. Some Jews had to wait for years until a new future opened up for them overseas. It was only after the foundation of the State of Israel in May 1948 that the great wave of emigration began. At the end of the decade, the USA and other countries also liberalised their entry regulations. Nevertheless, the number of inhabitants in Föhrenwald remained fairly constant, as the camp took in DPs from other, now closed facilities. In addition, the settlement had become a waiting room for the „unfortunate“, for those people who were unable to emigrate due to physical or mental illness. At the same time, some returning emigrants from Israel also sought shelter in Föhrenwald. They either could not cope with the harsh social and political conditions in the new state, or suffered health problems with the climatic conditions in the Middle East.

In December 1951 Föhrenwald was placed under German administration and continued as a „government camp for homeless foreigners“. The local authorities wanted to close the camp as soon as possible – but where should the people be put? In their frustration and hopelessness, the inhabitants also showed little motivation in taking their fate into their own hands and shape their future. Many were afraid to leave the safety of the camp and to live among their persecutors. Nevertheless, members of the Bavarian parliament repeatedly called for the closure of Föhrenwald. The Bavarian government negotiated with the German Association of Cities and the Federal Government concerning housing for the people of Föhrenwald. There were also discussions about subsidies to help them build up their existence or emigrate. But the closure was postponed again and again, not least due to massive protests by the residents. Finally, in March 1956, the last Jewish DP camp in Europe was now to be dissolved: „We do not believe that violence will be necessary“, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency predicted, expressing the hope that „through the good will of all those affected, it should soon be possible to close Föhrenwald and at last consign the DP phase of Jewish history to the past“. However, it took until February 28, 1957 for the last Shtetl residents to leave the home that they had become fond of.

Of the approximately 800 men, women and children, the city of Munich took in just under 500, followed by Frankfurt with 125 – including Simon Ajnwojner and his family – and Düsseldorf with 73 Föhrenwald residents. The remainder were distributed in fairly equally sized groups among six other cities. These people were all “ … cases of hardship, who, for health or other reasons, faced overwhelming immigration difficulties,“ as a journalist from the Allgemeine Jüdische Wochenzeitung described the situation. Together with German Jews who had survived or had returned from emigration, many Föhrenwald residents created the common foundation of the new German-Jewish communities in Germany.  – (Translation: CB)

Foto: Street scene at Foehrenwald Camp. Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society – Public Domain

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