As administrators of Displaced Persons (DP) camps struggled to fulfill the physical needs of their populations, Jews in DP camps set out to rebuild and reformulate Jewish culture in the wake of profound tragedy. Their activities assumed many different forms, from cultural pursuits and educational efforts to political activism. The diversity of these efforts points to an important question about the nature of DP life: In what ways did these camps—despite all their problems and challenges—serve as centers of Jewish life after the Holocaust?
While religious observances within the DP camps varied widely, two celebrations held particular resonance for many Jewish DPs: Hannukah and Purim.1 As Margarete Myers Feinstein points out,
"Secular Jews could observe these minor holidays, not included in the Five Books of Moses, as expressions of ethnicity rather than religious faith. The historical themes of the holidays—Hanukkah, celebrating the triumph of the Maccabees over the Syrian Greek desecrators of the Temples, and Purim, celebrating the rescue of Jews from the genocidal plans of the Persian vizier Haman—had clear parallels to the liberation from Nazi bondage and to the national struggle of the Zionists. The entire Jewish DP community perceived the contemporary relevance of these holidays."2
The photograph here provides a record of a performance at the intersection of secular showmanship and religious ritual: the Purim play, or purimshpil. While plays were performed to commemorate other Jewish holidays, including Hanukkah, Purim plays held special resonance. Traditionally, the purimshpil provided an opportunity for Jewish communities to satirize their oppressors. For another parody based on the Purim story, see Samson Först's satire, Der Grager, published in 1947. Horst Rotholz's "Purim Song"—recorded in a notebook in 1941 by a fellow member of the children's home in which he was staying also uses Purim as the occasion to find humor in what was, for many, a humorless situation.
In the DP camps, these plays sometimes took the form of revenge fantasies against Adolf Hitler and other Nazi leaders. A number of photographs document scenes of Hitler hanging from the gallows, Hitler and Joseph Goebbels as paupers begging in the street, or Hitler burned in effigy.