Following their liberation, many survivors returned to their hometowns from camps of from hiding places, but often found that their homes and families had been destroyed. Many too encountered violent anti-Semitism. The question emerged: where should they go?

Hoping to settle elsewhere, anywhere, but preferring Palestine, the ancient land of Israel, many survivors joined the movement called Brihah. Brihah, a Hebrew word meaning escape or flight, was dedicated to accomplishing a Jewish exodus. It began spontaneously with partisans in the Soviet controlled areas of Vilna, Rovno, and Chernovsty, and from 1945 to 1948 it directed more than 150,000 refugees and displaced persons into the Allied western zones of Germany, Austria, and Italy. Brihah’s aim was to help these displaced Jewish “wanderers” leave, legally or illegally, for Palestine.

Many of the original Brihah activists came from the three infantry battalions of Palestinian soldiers who fought in Italy as the Jewish Brigade within the British Army. Altogether a total of 30,000 Palestinian Jews served in the British Army from 1939 to 1945. The Brigade soldiers organized Brihah stations throughout Austria and Germany to assist in immigration to Palestine. 

In April 1945, the partisan Abba Kovner attempted to provide a firmer structure to Brihah and established initial transit points along the Polish border with Czechoslovakia and Romania. In July 1945, Brihah in Poland organized the movement of displaced persons to Italy—by way of Budapest and Graz—which permitted 50,000 Jews to reach the coast before that route was closed. Brihah also used other routes to move vast groups secretly through Prague to Bavaria or Bratislava and then to the important station of Salzburg and finally to Germany.

The American Jewish Distribution Committee covered the Brihah’s basic senses, often creatively. Brihah had no real central hierarchy, and few local workers knew the names of leaders or destinations beyond their own transit points. The movement depended on the energy of its young workers and on the determination of the displaced persons it sought to help. In general the British responded to Brihah activities with hostility, the Soviets with indifference, and the United States with only grudging acceptance.

Although continuing into 1949, Brihah movements decreased substantially by 1947 and were not really needed after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, when immigration became legal. Still, as a moment filled with uncertainty in postwar history, Brihah—without any organized structure or funding—enabled over a quarter of a million Jews to find routes to safety.

 

Image credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum