After the devastation of the Holocaust, rebuilding family life assumed primary importance for many Jewish Displaced Persons (DPs).1 For all too many survivors, attempts to locate loved ones and confirm how family members had died and where often ended in failure. For those still living, a profound sense of the unknown defined the postwar experience.
This lack of closure had practical as well as psychological implications. For religious Jews—particularly for observant Jewish women—the inability to prove the death of a husband presented a problem in traditional Jewish law, or Halacha. According to these traditions, a woman who could not prove her husband'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. The Holocaust, however, introduced special circumstances in which 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 Nazi 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. In order for women to be able to remarry, a new procedure was needed to release them from their ties to their deceased husbands. 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 and created new standards for proof of death that accounted for the processes of industrialized killing.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 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 marriage and "baby boom."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, who was originally married to Laszlo Weiss. In 1944, Laszlo was taken to a slave labor camp. Olga survived in one of Raoul Wallenberg's safe houses, 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 provided the impetus for applying for this release from widowhood. Olga gave birth to a son in 1947, and the family immigrated to Canada in January 1951.