Reasons for Not Going Back
- BuyIn War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order by Gerard Daniel Cohen
Oxford, 237 pp, £22.50, December 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 539968 4
‘The magnitude of the problem is such as to cause the heart to sink,’ a member of the Fabian Society wrote in 1943, contemplating the hordes of uprooted people who would need resettlement when the Second World War was over. The International Labour Organisation estimated that 30 million had been ‘transplanted or torn from their homes’ since the beginning of the war. When it ended the Allies found themselves coping with eight million displaced persons (DPs) in Germany alone. Their handling of the problem, together with the two UN relief organisations, UNRRA and its successor, the IRO, has to be accounted a great administrative success, despite the discovery at war’s end that a substantial minority of the DPs did not want to go home. Six to seven million were repatriated anyway, willingly or unwillingly, to their countries of prewar residence in Eastern Europe, including the Soviet Union, before the year was out. The large-scale epidemics that had been feared were avoided, as was mass starvation. The refugees’ material situation, once they were registered as DPs, was significantly better than that of the surrounding German population. The ‘last million’ DPs, who’d spent up to five years in DP camps throughout Germany, Austria and Italy, were finally dispatched out of Europe to new homes in distant places: North America, Latin America, Australia and Mandate Palestine.
Vol. 35 No. 9 · 9 May 2013
I was an American soldier in Occupied Germany after the Second World War. We GIs lived in a former SS barracks in Frankfurt am Main. We were comfortable and happy, free to loot the fine wine cellar the Nazi elite had stored in the basement. Our ‘shit work’ – cleaning toilets, sewing uniforms – was done mainly by Polish, Russian or Balkan Jews, some of them Displaced Persons from the murder camps, others tossed into western Germany by the chaos of war. Gerard Daniel Cohen, quoted by Sheila Fitzpatrick, is correct when he writes that ‘contrary to the collective invisibility and silence of Holocaust survivors elsewhere in Europe, Jewish DPs loudly asserted their identity’ (LRB, 11 April). The key word is ‘loudly’. On the whole we GIs preferred the compliant, smiling, deferential, defeated Germans to these spiky, sallow, sullen, often angry Jews who looked like ghosts from another world. German mothers offered their daughters to us in exchange for a bar of soap or Lucky Strike cigarettes (coin of the realm then). The DPs had to keep their lips zipped as we, their recent liberators, fraternised with the former enemy who had killed their families.
DPs I spoke to were desperate to get out of Europe’s ‘bloodlands’ and somehow make it to Mandate Palestine. They begged me to sell or smuggle them guns to take on their escape route to Bari and thence to the eastern Mediterranean. There was no talk from them of Zionism; that came later. These were people who, based on their experience with American soldiers who didn’t much like them, felt they had no choice.
I assume that Sheila Fitzpatrick is paraphrasing Gerard Daniel Cohen’s In War’s Wake: Europe’s Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order when she writes that ‘the “last million” DPs, who’d spent up to five years in DP camps throughout Germany, Austria and Italy, were finally dispatched to new homes in distant places.’ This suggests that most European DPs were taken care of by 1951. However, DP camps in England were still open in May 1955 when my family emigrated from Doddington Park in Cheshire to Niagara Falls. My father, now 90, estimates that there were still between four hundred and five hundred Poles in the two camps at the time we left.