Off the Shelf: Displaced persons looking for a home

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When we study history, we often view the result of an action as inevitable. We forget that there was no guarantee that a revolution would succeed or fail, or that any particular country would win a war. That can make it harder to understand the decisions people make during times of upheaval. For example, what if you believed that Germany would win World War II and that the occupation of your country would continue indefinitely? Think in particular of the German conquest of eastern Europe, where some countries welcomed and accepted German rule since it freed them from the yoke of the Soviet Union. Pondering this idea makes it easier to understand the difficulties that occurred when displaced persons – defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a person who is forced to leave their home country because of war, persecution, or natural disaster; a refugee” – either refused to return to their native countries after the war or found that they were unwanted in what had once been their homeland.

David Nasaw discusses what happened to these refugees in the years after World War II in “The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War” (Penguin Press). What might come as a surprise to Jewish readers is how small a percentage Jews were of this population. Immediately after the war, only 5 percent of the DPs in the American-British zone were Jewish. With the later exodus of Jews from Poland that number went up to 20 percent. Not all DPs created problems for the Allies, who opened camps and provided food, housing and clothing for the refugees. Some were eager to return home, particularly refugees from western European countries like France. However, the majority of the million did not want to return to their homelands. For example, those who came from Eastern European countries refused to leave, some because they knew they would be viewed as traitors or collaborators and punished for the help they gave the Germans. Others refused to accept the Communists as rulers of those lands and would not return until those governments changed. 

Nasaw notes that those who refused to return for political reasons “governed themselves as if they were out-posts of nation-states soon to be reborn ... camp leaders oversaw the construction and presentation of patriotic displays and performances to commemorate the ‘nations’ they were a part of. Local committee leaders and regional and central committees sponsored history and language training for the young, as well as national theaters and choirs, orchestras, chamber music groups and bands.” They also published newspapers and journals in their native languages and celebrated national holidays. 

Many Jews were also not eager to return to their former homes due to the persecution they’d faced before and during the war. Jews had been viewed in those countries as supporters of the Communist regimes. Once the Soviet Union left, these Jews were persecuted and killed by fellow citizens, even before the Germans invaded. In fact, those who did return to their hometowns to search for family were made unwelcome: their lives were threatened and multiple killings did occur. Nasaw notes that, for most Jewish survivors, “there were no conditions under which they could even contemplate repatriation. Europe was a dead zone, their former cities, towns, villages, and neighborhoods populated by men, women, and young people who had participated in the murder of their families and loved ones, stolen their property, burned their synagogues, despoiled their homes, and now wished them dead and gone.” For some, particularly the Zionists, the dream was to create a Jewish homeland in the Middle East. Others sought to go to Palestine because there seemed no other alternative since few countries were welcoming Jews. 

Handling the DP population was not an easy task. At first, the refugees were placed in camps by nationality in order not to discriminate against any particular religion. However, this meant that Jews were forced to live side by side with those who had collaborated with the Nazis and persecuted them. The Allies had not wanted to give the Jews special treatment, but finally saw that their needs were different, and created separate camps for them. Deciding what should be done with the Jewish population caused a rift between the U.S. and England. The U.S. wanted the Jews to emigrate to Palestine, while England still hoped the Jews would return to their prior homes. What is clear is that neither of those countries wanted to welcome Jewish DPs to their shores. 

When exceptions were finally made to immigration laws, it was easier for DPs – including many Nazi and Nazi sympathizers – to emigrate, including to the U.S. In the U.S., the exceptions were based on economic reasoning – the need for labor, for example – rather than helping impoverished refugees. Unfortunately, background checks were lax and these new immigrants included Nazis or Nazi sympathizers. By this time, the U.S. was more concerned if a person was anti-Communist than if they were a Nazi. In fact, one reason for not wanting Jews to enter the U.S. was that the politicians feared all Jews were radicals and Communists. These new Cold War fears had erased the former fear of fascism. 

“The Last Million” is an impressive work of history. Nasaw’s prose is blunt and the subject matter can be depressing, but the amount of detail he includes is amazing, not only for facts and figures, but the many short stories of the individuals who were displaced persons. Hearing their words makes the history come alive. Readers may be overwhelmed at time by the sheer amount of material, but anyone who wants to understand the ultimate cost of World War II would do well to read “The Last Million.”