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Europe’s Displaced Millions

Pages 24-25

Well before the war in Europe ended, the Allies had made plans to assist millions of people uprooted by the war to return to their former homes. At war’s end, an estimated 11 million people were classified as displaced persons (DPs), including former prisoners of war, forced laborers, and concentration camp survivors. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) had been established to work with DPs until relocation efforts could be completed. As temporary housing for the DPs, the western Allies used military bases, former prisoner-of-war camps, abandoned training areas, castles, barns, schoolhouses, and numerous other establishments. They also converted some concentration camps, including Bergen Belsen and Dauchau, into DP assembly centers.

Planners had not anticipated, however, that hundreds of thousands of people might not wish repatriation; nor did they consider the possibility that thousands would go back to their former homes and then return to Germany. Some Jews, who had left the concentration camps or who came out of hiding, returned to eastern Europe in search of loved ones. When they found no relatives, no restitution of their former property, and continuing anti-semitism, most realized that they could not rebuild their lives in communities that no longer existed. Violent attacks against Jews in different parts of Poland also hastened the departure of Jews who had returned to their prewar homes. So they made their way back to Germany and into the American displaced persons camps, which had relatively lenient entry policies.

By September 30, 1945, the western Allies, assisted by the UNRRA, had repatriated almost 6 million DPs. Among them were 32,000 Jewish and hundreds of Roma and Sinti (Gypsy) survivors. Supplies were limited: the DPs did not get everything they needed. The UNRRA teams in 1945 were always understaffed and overworked; the military functioned well when it came to planning, order, and discipline, but lacked the requisite skills to minister to the emotional needs of people who had survived the conflagration. The young replacement soldiers were inexperienced and ignorant about the European wartime experience and special needs of the DPs.

The Allied policy of treating DPs according to their nationality rather than religion was an admirable attempt to discredit and not perpetuate the distinctions of Nazi racial theory. While in theory this practice may have been planned with the best intentions, it was incredibly cruel because Jews of Italian, German, Austrian, and Hungarian background were placed with others of their nationalities and categorized as “former enemies,” while Balts (Lithuanians, Estonians, and Latvians), Poles, Ukrainians, and Yugoslavs, including those who voluntarily aided the Nazis, received special consideration as DPs because they came from liberated countries.

By the middle of May 1945, word of cruel and inhumane treatment of Jewish DPs reached Washington. President Truman authorized an inspection of DP camps. A scathing report concluded:

As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except we do not exterminate them. They are in concentration camps in large numbers under our military guard instead of SS troops. One is led to wonder whether the German people, seeing this, are not supposing that we are following or at least condoning Nazi policy.

The President wrote to General Eisenhower about the Jewish DPs, ordering him to improve their accommodations, food, clothing, separate them from former enemies and tormentors, and, in general, better the quality of their lives. Eisenhower’s orders were followed in some places but not in others. The army established 80 separate centers for Jewish DPs. While many centers showed marked improvement, some were still filthy, overcrowded, and rigidly organized; these conditions extended well into the fall.

Ignoring pleas to open the United States to more Jews, President Truman urged Great Britain to open the gates of Palestine to the Jewish DPs. Britain rejected the idea that Jewish DPs— whose numbers had grown to 100,000 by early 1946— be admitted to Palestine.

In the Jewish camps, material goods were in short supply, since the US Army allocated a total of only 79 cents per day per DP for food, clothing, medical supplies, linen, and personal items. Assembly center life in the fall of 1945, despite its difficulties and harshness, had some positive aspects. Individuals had a chance to once again order their own lives. Cultural and political affiliations were reestablished and job training and educational programs became available.

The residents of the camps also engaged in the normal activities of work, marriage, child-rearing, reestablishing a semblance of community, and thinking about their future. If people wanted to live outside the centers, they could; but before leaving, the camps offered a time and place to consider choices. The best that can be said for them is that they were a way station to another life for those that had been uprooted as a result of World War II.

Courtesy of: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum