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Letters from Harry Lerner to His Parents

The administrators of Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Europe faced unique challenges.1 Some DP camps initially existed in the same spaces as former Nazi concentration camps, which meant that many DPs continued living in the sites of their persecution during the Holocaust. Other DP camps were established by confiscating homes from the local German population and creating makeshift DP neighborhoods among German communities. This situation increased tensions between DPs and local Germans and helped foster a black market in food and other goods. Nearly all of the DP camps faced scarce resources, housing shortages, and other challenges. Originally intended only as temporary shelter, DP camps often had even more difficulties as the years passed.2 

The featured letters between one relief worker and his family in the US reveal some of the challenges of administering a DP camp. Harry Lerner was a Jewish American attorney from a working-class, immigrant, Yiddish-speaking family who had served with the US Army during World War II. After the war, Lerner became a team director for UNRRA in charge of two Jewish DP centers in Stuttgart in the US zone of occupied Germany.3

Unlike many other camps, Stuttgart West consisted of a group of apartment buildings in an urban area. In fact, a streetcar line ran directly through the DP camp. Many Germans continued to believe in anti-Jewish stereotypes of criminal behavior, and the local German population frequently accused Jewish DPs of profiting unfairly from the black market and other crimes.4 

On March 29, 1946, roughly two hundred German police staged a raid to crack down on crime in the camp. Tensions were high and the Jewish survivors greatly distrusted the German police—many of whom had also served Nazi Germany. The DPs resisted the searches of the German police, who had entered the camp with dogs and bullhorns. In the riot sparked by the raid, a survivor of Auschwitz and Mauthausen named Schmul Dancyger was shot and killed by a German police officer.5 In his letter of April 4, 1946, Lerner expresses his frustration at these events and how they made it more difficult to run the camp. After the raid, German police were forbidden from entering the camp on their own or investigating claims of illegal activities.

These letters reflect the many challenges of administering a DP camp, from severe overcrowding and problems with German police to difficulties establishing cultural activities, receiving mail, or getting Yiddish newspapers. In spite of these challenges, Stuttgart West would develop a Talmud Torah (religious elementary school), a kosher kitchen, and two separate Yiddish newspapers, Oyf der fray ("Liberated") and the Shtutgarter byuletin ("The Stuttgart Bulletin"). At its height in the fall of 1946, the camp housed over 1,400 Jews. 

Lerner’s letters paint a vivid picture of life at Stuttgart West and demonstrate that the administrators were living their own complicated lives. Harry Lerner met and proposed to his future wife, Claire, while working at the camp. Her letter to her future in-laws provides further insights into daily life at Stuttgart West.

For more information about American refugee and displaced persons policies for Jews and the resulting conditions, see Anna Holian, "The Ambivalent Exception: American Occupation Policy in Postwar Germany and the Formation of Jewish Refugee Spaces," Journal of Refugee Studies 25:3 (2012): 452–73. See also the Experiencing History collection Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Europe 

For more information about the Stuttgart DP camp, see Margarete Myers Feinstein, Holocaust Survivors in Postwar Germany, 1945-1957 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 48–50.

For more on the Stuttgart DP camp, see Margarete Myers Feinstein, Holocaust Survivors in Postwar Germany, 1945–1957 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 48–50.

German citizens, DPs, and members of Allied forces all participated in the black market in postwar Europe, but local citizens often accused DPs of exploiting them. Many Germans believed that DPs were leading privileged lives at their expense, although living conditions were actually extraordinarily difficult for DPs as well as German citizens. To learn more, see Michael Berkowitz and Suzanne Brown-Fleming, "Perceptions of Jewish Displaced Persons as Criminals in Early Postwar Germany: Lingering Stereotypes and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies," in Avinoman Patt and Michael Berkowitz, eds., We Are Here: New Approaches to Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010), 167–93. For more on wartime profiteering in DP camps, see also the Experiencing History item DP Camp Trial File of Chaim Chajet.

Dancyger had just reunited with his wife and children the night before he was killed. For more on this incident, see Atina Grossmann, Jews, Germans, and Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 176, 224–5. 

Di Zukunft ("The Future") was a socialist Yiddish newspaper published in New York. Papers frequently also sold editions of books, such as the works of Sholem Aleichem mentioned here. 

Morgn frayhayt ("Morning Freedom"), another New York based Yiddish paper, this one communist-affiliated.

Der tog ("The Day"), another New York based Yiddish paper. This time Harry writes the name of the paper in the Hebrew alphabet. For more on the history of the Yiddish language press in New York, see Tony Michels, A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 69–124.

Kleinigkeiten means "minutiae"; the word is written according to German orthography but is also a Yiddish word. 

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Hello, Mother

No developments on my assignment yet, and still no mail.

Talked for only a few minutes yesterday to a representative of the Joint (Saul Elgart).1 Joint now has an understanding with UNRRA that Jewish Displaced Persons will be put in Jewish camps, and the UNRRA personnel to operate these camps will as far as possible be Jewish. Several camps are scheduled to open soon. If I still am not assigned when these new Jewish camps are open, the Joint will ask UNRRA to send me to one of them.

Visited several of the DP camps around Karlsruhe the last few days. So far the Army is furnishing the supplies, and that solves most of the problems. One camp was getting pea soup (made from American canned soup) everyday for a month; they were very tired of pea soup. One camp was all Poles; a vote showed 95% wanted to go back to Poland. They do not know why they keep waiting. They were in the Russian-occupied zone of Germany, but were shipped by the Russians to the American zone; and when they were shipped, they were told by the Russians they were going to Poland.

Also visited Mannheim; it is destroyed even more than Karlsruhe. Saw the 1st football game of the year there, between units of the American 7th Army. Today am trying to locate a German Jewish family in town. It will be interesting. Have to meet the person I'm going with in a minute.



Can you send me a booklet of 6 cent airmail stamps? And when they are available, a calendar for 1946.


H. Lerner, UNRRA Team 502
APO 757
21 Dec 45

Dear Mother,

Am sending this care of Joan. You and dad probably are there, and will get the letter quicker that way.

So far I've had lots of work from my job, and darn little result. I don’t know whether other Jewish camps in Germany are better or worse off than this one. I cannot understand how those of us who are with the UNRRA have worked so long and so hard and so earnestly with so little result. This camp was in a mess when I got here and it is still in a mess.

People are still coming in—from Poland, and even from Russia, all unofficially. If the present trend continues, there soon will be no Jews left in Poland. There was an article on the subject recently in Stars and Stripes; the whole situation is now in the open. Here in Stuttgart, the Military Government has forbidden me to accept any more people. But so far they have not set up another place for the newcomers to go. Now I have about 400 people squeezed into corners and attics, without proper quarters. Military, and UNRRA, did not anticipate such a flow of newcomers; that explains the [illegible] lack of stability in the situation. Have been receiving the New York Yiddish newspapers lately, as well as now and then some from Omaha. The Joint has two people here now, and is also bringing in newspapers. In about 10 days, I hope to have a building for a school, library, welfare, and for an office for the Joint. That will make their work easier—finding relatives for example.

[. . .]


11 Jan 46

Hi, folks

I am so far behind in my mail that I am not even going to look through it all now to find your last letters—it would take too long. Tonight we are having a farewell for two of our good people—Mr. and Mrs. Tobias, two Hollanders who are resigning from UNRRA to go back home. They have been with these people (of our Center) from the very first day that UNRRA made contact with them. They themselves were in underground activity in Holland and France during the war, several times just escaping death. We are sorry to see them go. They have been working hard and long without results or encouragement from the people—and without recognition from UNRRA. If they themselves weren't Jewish, they would have gone home long ago.

Tomorrow we plan the opening of a Cultural Center: a library, school, and place for the choir and dramatic groups. How different from 2 and 3 months ago when the people were solidly organized against everything except transfer to Palestine. About 6 or 7 weeks ago, I got a Welfare Officer, and about 5 weeks ago a lady from the Joint. Most of the time they are like fire and water. But on the Culture Center, I’m hopeful they will work together. There will be classes for children and adults; a special kitchen for children; and group activities. About a month ago, an Oneg Shabbath observance was started, and is going well. Last night about 400 or 450 came. We are starting, at least, to move forward.

I've gotten several packages of books and clothes lately. I have not had time to go through them myself—I've been that busy—just turned them over to Joint to open up and sort. Lt. General Keyes was here Thursday. He was quite sour in his short visit. But the Colonel who is here and knows him says we did all right.

There has been almost no mail for anyone for two weeks. The UNRRA Central Offices are being moved, that's why. We have just moved our own offices, by the way, to a bigger (but still not big enough) place; next week, the Joint is supposed to move their office in with ours. Also, we now have a good set-up for the infirmary and dispensary. We still need a good hall, a place for a synagogue, and more staff transportation, and lots of other things. But even so, the prospects for rehabilitation are much improved. I’m trying to get the Military Government to open another camp for people who are still coming in from Poland—we are too crowded here. UNRRA is backing me. If I can get that agreed do, and UNRRA can set up another Team for it, I can then begin to have some time for myself for a change.

How was your trip East, Mother and Dad? How's everybody, including the little one's especially? Will try to send you some pictures soon. All my love, till I find time to write again.



H. Lerner, UNRRA Team 502
APO 757
23 Jan 46

Dear Dad,

Yours of 14 Dec on hand, and if I rightly remember still unanswered. You begin with the bad news that you were sick and needed an operation on your colon, and then you say it wasn't necessary after all. Which is good. What did Joe Davis have to say about it? Your trips East are becoming an annual event, aren't they? But this time you had to take the train, didn't you? How is Ben's paper doing? And what did you finally decide about Gene?

We moved our UNRRA staff house almost a mile away from the DP Center. Now and then we have enough hot water for a bath; I took one tonight. Fuel, as you know, is severely rationed. So the water very seldom is really hot. The last month the city has been turning on the gas in various parts of town. Here we aren't doing so well—in our part of town the gas mains are so badly battered the gas isn't on yet, and probably won't be.

Our fellow Jews are gradually beginning to be more like people now. They have stopped believing that in a day or two they will be taking a ship for Palestine. And now they are paying some attention to their lives here. They still are not working and not keeping their rooms clean. But are beginning to talk about workshops, and we now have a school underway. We hope soon to put out a newspaper, and start shops; tailor shops at first, then perhaps something in auto mechanics, in which the Zionists seem to be particularly interested.

Nothing I particularly need right now, except a bottle of ink. And I could use some more tea.

As I wrote Mother, we are now getting Yiddish newspapers direct—no need to send any.

Was recommended by UNRRA for the position of Director. It will probably be several months before you notice any difference in the checks.

Hope your colon isn't troubling you. Love to Mother and the Richards.



5 Feb 46

Dear Dad,

Have several of your letters; the one last received is dated 29 September. It was apparently sent back once for better address, although the address was perfect and complete.

The Anglo-American Commission on Palestine was supposed to be here at noon tomorrow. 7th Army called this afternoon that the Commission had been delayed, and will not be here till Thursday evening. I am quite sure they already know the sentiment of these people about Palestine. As a tentative program (depending on what the committee wants) we are planning 1) a brief 15 minute resume of how a Jewish community (Radom, Poland) was destroyed; 2) Statements by Partisans and combatants on how they fought for the Allies; 3) Testimony by people who have left Poland (including more recently the Partisans) on conditions there and why they left; 4) a statement on the impossibility of remaining in Germany; 5) figures on how many want to go to Palestine, their ages and trades, etc. if the Commission asks, etc. If the Commission spends some time here, I think we will make their time interesting.

I'm enclosing some miscellaneous papers, which are noted on how they are to be handled. Have you been paying my insurance ($6.90 month) to the Veteran's Administration? If not, will you now send them a check to bring me up-to-date, and send $6.90 per month. I have been going over the figures on my account, which you sent in one of your letters, as of 1 Dec., you sent me two lists. I'm enclosing these in an envelope, with comments.

Everyone has been complaining the last month about mail, including the soldiers and the British. So all the complaints from you, Mother, and Vicki are matched over here. I think I acknowledged all the packages I've received. In the last four weeks (when mail has become more plentiful) I've received half a dozen packages from the Zukunft—including a complete set of Sholem Aleichem.2 These of course go into the library we now have set up in our Community Center, Beth Bialik. The only item I can’t seem to get ahead on is tea; everything else I’m getting. I’m receiving all the Yiddish papers from New York City except the Freiheit.3

After months of scrapping for more space for our people here, the Military gave us a school building almost 25 miles away, which can hold about 400. The last few days we have been having a hectic time trying to get our 500 overflow (for which we have no rooms) to move there. Our people would rather float from room to room night after night, than go to some new place they have not seen, and where they know no Jewish activity exists.

Did you talk much to Gene while you were in NYC? How is Joe getting along in his new set-up? Any political activity at home? Have been reading about the strikes; seems that the whole wide world is unsettled. Hope your intestinal trouble definitely has turned out to be no trouble. Love to you and the rest of the family.


P.S. Got a letter from Der Tog,4 saying that they were not going to send the paper to our DP’s anymore unless I could write them immediately that we wanted the papers, and how we were using them. Told them to send it. They may print my letter, which after all I think was their main idea.



4 April 1946

Hi everybody

I suppose you all know about the riot in my camp last Friday. One Jewish DP was killed, 3 injured by gun fire. Since then I have been meeting Generals, investigators, delegations, and reporters until I’m sick and tired of almost everything. Today the DPs had a meeting in the Camp commemorating the shooting, and protesting use of German police. So starting at 8:30 in the morning I was bedeviled by UNRRA, the military government, the occupation forces, and the DPs with all sorts of kleinigkeiten5 and all for nothing. I had five full colonels at the DP Center today, plus I don't know how many lesser officers. And then, just to make the day complete, I had the "Oberbürgermeister" or Mayor of Stuttgart for dinner tonight. Since the riot last Friday I haven't had a minute for myself, not even to open letters and read my mail.

I'm assuming you know all about the riot. Do you? Last Friday 230 German police, accompanied by GIs, began a raid on the DP Center at Stuttgart West. I knew nothing until the raid was already on—although Army directives say that UNRRA directors shall be first consulted. When I arrived at the DP Center, as a result of a phone call, there were no American military personnel and only the German police. They were with dogs, had come into the center of the camp with a loud speaker apparatus telling all the people to leave their rooms and come out on the street. The MPs—there had been 8—had not been told where they were going. They and the German police in town, with instructions that they were to protect American soldiers who might be involved. So when the DPs had to be forced from the houses they did not know what to do and left.

Since then, no one in the Center has been able to do a lick of work. Reporters, investigators, visitors, litigations, reports, writings—and the day is gone. Yesterday there was a protest meeting in the camp, and somebody called the American troops in here to prevent trouble. That's why all the "brass" was at my place. The troops were kept around the corner, where the brass meeting couldn't see them. And someone [had] all the roads to Stuttgart blocked off until the meeting was over. What great lengths they went to.

The Oberbürgermeister was a very nice man to meet, he explained that the police were selected not through him, as would be done in peace time, and that he knew nothing of the raid until it was over. He asked for an affidavit with me and Mr. Gutman (president of the Camp) as soon as the Investigation Board established by the Army makes its report. I've been before the board once, and I'm expected to be called again today. More time taken.

Naturally everyone connected with the portion of the DP Center has been working even later than usual because of the riot. (And coincidentally, the Joint's working quite hard in our offices now re immigration. They had a very good typist, half Jewish and half German who hasn't come back to work since the riot. Too frightened, perhaps). We are all well and surprised at how much spirit and energy we can show.

Love to all,



UNRRA Team 502
APO 454
c/o PM New York
May 20, 1946

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Lerner,

This is, in all probability, one of the most difficult letters I have ever written in my life—writing to strangers is always a problem, but when one is trying to establish contact with prospective parents-in-law, the difficulties seem enormous!!

It is so hard to know what to say—I know that today Harry is trying to make an appointment to telephone you, and failing that, he will send you a telegram telling you the news. I hope most sincerely that you will be pleased—and can only say that I will do everything in my power to give him the happiness he deserves more than anyone else I know. You would both be so proud and happy if you could hear what our DPs say of him—and no one knows better than I do, how much of himself he has given to this work.

You may, perhaps, be a little apprehensive because we have known each other for only 3 months, but believe me, 3 months in a DP camp is equivalent to about 5 years at home. We have worked and lived together through the most diverse experiences and we have seen each other face up to tragedy and shocks, sudden death and violence. We have laughed together and we cried together—and I cannot think of one human emotion we have not shared. Quite apart from these bigger issues we have lived in the same house all the time—and even know the small things about each other, like how much sugar we take in tea!! We are the same age—and both seem to agree on the important things in life. Even above all these things is the fact that I am prepared to leave my home in England—and my family and friends to whom I am devoted, and come with Harry to America and begin a new life. How soon that will be I cannot say—it depends on the DP problem, and for how long we feel we are needed here.

As I write this letter I am expecting a call from Harry—he left Stuttgart this morning for his new Camp and I am hoping to join him at the end of the week. En route he was going to call in and talk to his Rabbi and make arrangements for our wedding, which should take place about June 4th—but we'll let you have more details as soon as we know. We shall both be thinking of our parents and families on that day and wishing with all our hearts that you were with us.

I'm sure that you'll be wanting to know a great many things about me—I know that if I were Harry's mother or father I'd certainly want to safeguard his happiness!! But I don't know what he's writing to you—so the best I can do is to say that you can ask as many questions as you like! And I'll answer them!!

I've a great many letters to write just now, as you can imagine—but please tell your daughters and your son that I hope to be writing to them personally soon.

Meanwhile I sent you all my most sincere greetings, and look forward to a letter from you. I am enclosing three not-very-good photos—the largest one is my passport and tho rather grim, it may give you some idea of what to expect when we meet!!

Keep well—and please keep a place for me in your hearts.

Very sincerely yours,


Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Accession Number 1992.A.0110
Date Created
December 21, 1945 to April 20, 1946
Page(s) 13 pages
Author / Creator
Harry Lerner
Claire Lerner
Stuttgart, Germany
Reference Location
New York, USA
Document Type Letter
How to Cite Museum Materials

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