Displaced Persons

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DISPLACED PERSONS , term for the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees and millions of non-Jews uprooted by the devastation of World War ii, a large proportion of whom wound up in Displaced Persons camps set up by the victorious Allied forces in Germany, Austria, and Italy. Today the term is often synonymous with Jewish Holocaust survivors, who in the early years after the war sometimes referred to themselves as dps. As such it embraces both the Jewish survivors of the concentration and forced labor camps as well as those who survived the war by hiding or by fleeing east to the Soviet Union, a group that may have constituted a majority of the displaced persons.

The Allies estimated that in May 1945 the tumult of the war had displaced eight million people from their homes in virtually all the countries of Europe. But within a few months three out of every four found their way back to their cities and villages, reducing the scope of the problem significantly but still leaving masses of frail people to feed, shelter, and repatriate. Assembly centers designed for 3,000 people soon began to contain over 10,000, resulting in crowding, unsanitary conditions, and shortages of clothing and basic supplies. Historian Yehuda Bauer estimates that of the 200,000 Jews who emerged alive from the concentration or labor camps, 55,000 remained in occupied zones of Germany and Austria. Other historians say the number could be as high as 100,000. The Polish and Baltic Jews who found a wartime haven in the Soviet Union and then were allowed to repatriate more than doubled the refugee number so that at its peak in 1947 there were almost 250,000 displaced Jews in Europe.

The Jewish refugees, after learning how their families had been slaughtered and communities destroyed, could not or would not return to their hometowns and cities, and that feeling only hardened after the pogrom in the Polish town of *Kielce in July 1946 in which 41 Jews were massacred with police help. Many were helped to smuggle themselves across borders and reach the refugee camps in the Allied occupied zones by an organization of partisans and Zionists called *Beriḥah (Flight). Once in the dp camps, the refugees waited for permits that would admit them to Palestine, the United States, Canada, Australia, and a handful of countries that were willing, however grudgingly, to absorb refugees. But with immigration restrictions as stringent as they were the dps often languished for years. As a result, camps initially set up as a short-term solution lingered as refugee settlements into the early 1950s, with one remaining open until 1957.

Initial conditions at the camps were squalid, reflecting either poor preparation by the Allies, plain negligence, or in more than a few cases outright contempt for the Jewish refugees. Some of the dp camps were set up on the very grounds of the concentration camps as they were at *Bergen-Belsen, where the German officers barracks were converted by the British for use by the refugees. Others were set up at prisoner-of-war barracks and institutional settings, though one was at a fancy hotel in the Austrian Alps. Many camps were surrounded with barbed wire as if it were the refugees who represented a threat to the neighboring population. dps lacked underwear, shoes, toilet paper, toothbrushes and there were reports that refugees were being given less food per day than German prisoners of war had been given. Some American soldiers brought their antisemitic prejudices with them, manhandling Jewish dps and encouraging them to return to their home countries. In some camps, German police, some of them ex-Nazis, were placed in charge, and in one famous incident in Stuttgart in 1946, 200 German policemen accompanied by dogs raided a Jewish assembly center in search of black market goods and killed one dp. Most appalling to the Jewish refugees was their intermingling in the camps with Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, and others who had collaborated with the Nazis in the murder of Jews.

When reports about maltreatment filtered back to Congress, Earl G. Harrison, dean of the faculty of law at the University of Pennsylvania and a former commissioner of immigration, was appointed to investigate. He reported back on August 1, 1945, that conditions were so grim that "we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except that we do not exterminate them." The camps under General George Patton in southern Germany were said to be particularly poorly managed. (Patton wrote in his diary in September 1945 that some believe that the Displaced Person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to the Jews, who are lower than animals.) In response to the Harrison report, a distressed President Harry S. Truman appointed an advisor to the military with sole responsibility for the camps. Jewish chaplains were also important in prodding the military to treat the refugees more humanely, as was pressure from relief workers for organizations like the *American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and *hias (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society). A visit to the dp camps by David *Ben-Gurion, chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency, in October 1945 helped spur the army to concentrate Jews in their own camps and allow the entry of Jews from Poland. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which had for months done an incompetent job of ministering to the refugees, was told to appoint Jewish refugees as camp administrators. Food was increased and conditions began to improve markedly.

While the discussion continued on what would be done with the dps, whether they would be resettled in Palestine or in one of several Western countries, the refugees did not just remain idle. They started schools – including some 12,000 children at one point – and set up makeshift synagogues. They gave opera and theatrical performances and staged boxing matches. Despite the difficulty of obtaining printing presses and Hebrew type, they started some 70 newspapers, like Unzer Shtimme at Bergen-Belsen, the Landsberger Lager Zeitung and Dos Fraye Wort in Feldafing. Scores of writers and editors worked on those newspapers, many who had been human skeletons just months before or had been partisans staging ambushes against the Nazis. The more entrepreneurial traded in the black market that had cropped up in the occupied zones with the connivance of gis and bureaucrats.

In many camps, the refugees took charge of their fate, setting up camp committees to run practical matters or aiding the Beriḥah network to smuggle people across a gauntlet of European borders to Palestine. Decades later, Menachem Rosensaft, a child of Bergen-Belsen and then a leader in the so-called Second Generation movement of children of survivors, recalled how his father, Joseph, an Auschwitz survivor, governed the Bergen-Belsen camp, organizing cultural and political activities, rooting out collaborators, and defying the British overseers, as he did when they attempted to transfer two groups of refugees to squalid camps. In effect, he said, from 1945 to 1950, his father had been the mayor of a largely autonomous Jewish community with its own schools, hospitals, and police force. In some instances, refugees directed the smuggling of arms to the *Haganah army in Palestine that was pressing the British to give Jews a state or trained for the Haganah using arms given to the refugee camp policemen.

Most importantly, the refugees revived family life, marrying and bearing children. The marriages were as often arranged out of convenience and desperate loneliness as out of romance, but that they took place at all signified a determination to carry on with life. The United States Holocaust Museum and Memorial has a singular wedding dress used by Lilly (Laks) Friedman, who survived Bergen-Belsen and was married in January 1946 near that camp. Because supplies were so scarce, her husband-to-be managed to scavenge a parachute from a German airman which Lily, trading her cigarette rations for the services of a dressmaker, converted to a dress. The dress was eventually borrowed by as many as 20 other refugee brides.

The dps, most in their early twenties and thirties, also had thousands of children, making the dp camps, by some reckoning, the world's most fertile spot between 1946 and 1948. Historian Yehuda Bauer wondered decades later how the survivors summoned the strength and spirit to recapture life with such speed after spending years in the realm of death. Sam Norich, who was born in the Feldafing dp camp and went on to become the publisher of the Forward newspaper in the United States, offered a theory based on the Hebrew term originally used for the dps, the She'arit ha-Pleitah, the surviving remnant. They saw themselves as the remnant that perpetuates, that redeems the family and the community as a whole, the community from which they came, he said in a speech in 2002.

It seems clear that the refugees were eager to see the establishment of a Jewish state, one that at a minimum would resolve their homelessness. In July 1945, 94 delegates from Jewish assembly centers held a conference at the St. Ottilien camp near Munich calling for the immediate establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. More official entities also focused on this solution. Harrison proposed that the British accept 100,000 Jews into the territory of the British Mandate for Palestine and what was known as the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry recommended in April 1946 that the British government immediately grant the Jewish refugees 100,000 immigration certificates to Palestine. Despite these pressures, the refugees in the British Zone were given only 6,000 immigration certificates until the establishment of the State of Israel and other zones received only 1,460. Therefore illegal immigration became the only option for most refugees.

The moral pressure of this mass of Jewish displaced persons – a problem that could not be solved without the creation of a Jewish homeland – is now regarded as having been crucial in persuading the British to hand over its mandate in Palestine to the United Nations in 1947 and in persuading President Harry S. Truman to push for the creation of Israel despite the resistance of his own State Department. Jewish leaders in Palestine agreed to settle for a partitioned country rather than a whole loaf of the land because of the unresolved situation of the refugees.

The creation of Israel did indeed begin solving the refugee problem. By the beginning of 1950, 75,000 Jewish dps had made their way to Israel. Meanwhile, other countries like Australia and Canada opened their doors to take in refugees. In America, admission of Jewish refugees was notably grudging. One might have thought that given the failure of the United States to admit the imperiled Jews of Germany before the war and to admit refugees during the war that after the war the doors would have been opened generously. But that was not the case. Many in Congress believed that the dp camps were filled with Communist sympathizers; other legislators simply did not want to admit more Jews. President Truman issued a directive in December 1945 mandating preferential treatment in the immigration laws for displaced persons. But as of June 30, 1947, only 22,950 visas had been issued to dps in Germany, just 15,478 to Jews. In 1948 Congress passed a law that gave preferential admission to dps who had held that status as of December 22, 1945, a date that effectively excluded most Jews. Provisions in the law also gave preferences for entry to Baltics, Ukrainians, and ethnic Germans, some with collaborationist backgrounds, and people working at occupations like agriculture in which Jews were not heavily represented. The law was amended in 1950, with a later cutoff date, but still only 16 percent of the 365,000 visas issued to dps between July 1, 1948, and June 30, 1952, were issued to Jews. All told, fewer than 100,000 Jewish dps reached the United States as a result of the Truman directive and the two dp acts, historian Leonard Dinnerstein reported.

Still, the laws produced a fresh cohort of immigrants – 140,000 of them from all sources between 1946 and 1953 – who brought an unusual spice to the American stew. These Jews were different from the more established descendants of the so-called Lower East Side generation of the late 19th century in everything from accent to the depth of sorrowful experience. A study published in 1992 by the sociologist William B. Helmreich, Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America, found that despite the brutality of their wartimes experiences and the many years they lived in limbo afterwards, the survivors amassed an impressive record of achievement. At first the American dps took jobs in the blue-collar industries like garment manufacturing and used their small nest eggs to purchase candy stores and laundromats, and a significant proportion went on to earn fortunes in real estate and other business enterprises. By 1989 more than 34 percent of the survivors reported earning $50,000 annually, far higher than the national average. They divorced less than American Jews and had more children. They formed strong friendships and social networks. Their children adjusted well, worked hard in school, and went on to successful lives of their own. Children of displaced persons who achieved national fame include Daniel Libeskind, who designed the Ground Zero replacement for the destroyed World Trade Center; Wolf *Blitzer, a leading anchor and correspondent for cnn; Hadassah Lieberman, wife of Senator Joseph *Lieberman of Connecticut, who ran unsuccessfully for the vice presidency of the United States often mentioning his wife's Holocaust roots; and Sam Gejdenson, who became a Democratic congressman from Connecticut. As a result, the story of the displaced persons may ultimately be seen as a story of the steely resilience of the human spirit and its ability to recover from the unspeakable.


J. Berger, Displaced Persons: Growing Up American After the Holocaust (2001); L. Dinnerstein, America and the Survivors of the Holocaust (1982); H. Epstein, Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors (1979); W.B. Helmreich, Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America (1992); A.L. Sachar, The Redemption of the Unwanted: From the Liberation of the Death Camps to the Founding of Israel (1983); D.S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941–1945 (1984).

[Joseph Berger (2nd ed.)]