After the devastation of the Holocaust, it became important for many Jewish Displaced Persons (DPs) to rebuild family life.1 Many survivors failed to locate loved ones and could not confirm how or where family members had died. For those still living, a profound sense of the unknown defined postwar experience.
This lack of closure had practical as well as psychological implications. For religious Jews—particularly for observant Jewish women—proving the death of a husband was necessary in traditional Jewish law, or Halacha. According to these traditions, a woman who could not prove her spouse's death became an agunah—"chained" to her marriage and unable to wed another. Normally, rabbinic authorities would require a death certificate or a witness to the death in order to declare a Jewish woman a widow. But the Holocaust imposed special circumstances where deaths often had no official certification and living witnesses could not be identified.2
Concerns over these issues affected Jewish communities even as the war still raged. Rabbi Shlomo Kahane, who left Warsaw in May 1940, organized special bureaus to resolve these problems almost immediately after the German invasion of Poland in 1939.3 After the war, when a more complete understanding of the genocide began to emerge, these questions became more urgent. Women needed new procedures in order to be released from ties to their deceased husbands and remarry. In August 1946, a general committee of rabbis formed in the DP camps in the US zone of occupied Germany to address the issue of agunot. They created new standards for proving a person's death that accounted for the difficulty of tracing the victims of mass murder.4
The featured document from the Hungarian Orthodox rabbinate in Budapest highlights questions and concerns that were important to religious Jews throughout the region. The document released Golda Leitman Weiss from her marriage to Moshe Tovia Weiss, who was presumed dead. He had been deported to Auschwitz in 1944 as part of the mass deportations from Hungary that resulted in the murder of nearly 450,000 Jews.5 This standard printed form reveals that this was not an uncommon event. It also might suggest her intention to remarry. After the Holocaust and World War II, Jewish communities experienced a postwar rise in rates of marriage and childbirth.6 In addition to allowing its recipient to remarry within the Jewish faith, the form served another purpose as well—in the eyes of Jewish law, this document is also a de facto death certificate.
Golda was the Hebrew name of Olga Leitman Weiss. In 1944, her husband was taken to a forced labor camp. Golda survived in a safe house organized by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, and her daughter Eva also survived in hiding in Budapest. In 1946, she married Albert Freedman, who had lost his entire family. It is likely that the prospect of this marriage inspired the application for this release from her marriage to Moshe. Golda gave birth to a son in 1947, and the family immigrated to Canada in January 1951.