Reasons for Not Going Back

Sheila Fitzpatrick

  • In 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.

People had various motives for refusing repatriation, reflecting the different situations that had displaced them from their countries of origin. A relatively small cohort of Jewish survivors of the Nazi concentration camps was soon joined by a much larger group of Jewish ‘infiltrees’: refugees from Eastern Europe, the majority former Polish citizens who had survived the war in the Soviet Union, then been repatriated to Poland, but soon fled westward because of the anti-semitism and material privation they found there. No attempt was made to repatriate Jews from Central Europe to their countries of origin: it was acknowledged from the beginning by all the Allies, including the Soviet Union, that some other solution would have to be found. Of a total of about a quarter of a million Jewish DPs, a sizeable group were (or became) Zionists and ended up in Israel, the foundation of which in 1948 was not unconnected with the need to find them a home.

Poles formed the largest DP cohort, numbering about 400,000. The government wanted their nationals back (except for the Jews), but as it became clearer that Poland was going to be a Soviet satellite, the DPs became increasingly unwilling to return. Reports of chaos and poverty at home, compared with the relatively benign conditions in the DP camps, didn’t help. The Baltics presented another problem. These three little states, independent in the interwar years, occupied successively by the Soviet Union and the Reich during the war, were now part of the Soviet Union. The great majority of Baltic DPs were strongly anti-Communist and didn’t recognise the Soviet Union as a patria; many had left voluntarily with or in the wake of the retreating German forces in 1944. Although the Soviet Union regarded the Balts as its citizens, it was prepared to acquiesce in the Allies’ decision in 1945 not to repatriate them. It was a different story with the Ukrainians who found themselves in Germany at the end of the war, some because they’d volunteered or been conscripted for labour in Germany during the war; some because they’d been captured as Red Army soldiers and held as prisoners of war; some because they’d fled from occupied Soviet territory with the retreating Germans. To complicate matters, some of the Ukrainians came from regions that had been part of Poland before the war but were now part of the Soviet Union; others had been Soviet citizens before the war but were eager to conceal the fact for fear of forcible repatriation. The Soviets wanted ‘their’ Ukrainians back; the Poles did not.

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