When World War II ended, many Jews gravitated to displaced persons (DP) camps in Germany. These camps were designed to be temporary homes, but many Jews remarkably ended up living in them for five years.
These five years are the subject of a recently-published book, The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War. Its author, David Nasaw, is a professor emeritus at the CUNY Graduate Center and the author of highly-regarded biographies of Joseph Kennedy, Andrew Carnegie, and William Randolph Hearst.
The Jewish Press: You write in The Last Million that Jews at first were only a small minority of the DP camp population. What kind of numbers are we talking about?
Nasaw: Somewhere between 20,000-40,000 out of a total of one million. The reasons for that are clear. Very few Jews survived the Holocaust, and the vast majority of Polish and Lithuanian Jews who survived [were able to stay alive] because they spent the war in the Asiatic regions of the Soviet Union [like] Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.
So only a small minority in the camps in the beginning were Jews. But in 1946, Stalin provided railroad cars and free passage for Polish Jews in the Soviet Union to return to Poland. And when they did, they discovered that anti-Semitism was more virulent in Poland than it had been when they left. There were pogroms, and they were greeted by Poles who said, “Why are you here? We thought you were dead. There’s no place for you in the new Poland.”
So the 150,000-200,000 Polish Jews who survived in the Soviet Union recognized at that point that the only safe place for them on Earth was in the displaced persons camps in Germany. So by 1946, those 20,000-40,000 Jews became 200,000-250,000 Jews.
Who else lived in the DP camps other than Jews?
Three-quarters of the displaced persons came from Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Estonia. The Poles had been brought into Germany by the Nazis to take the jobs that the German soldiers on the eastern front had held. Germany didn’t have a large enough population to wage a war against the Soviet Union while keeping its economy going, building armaments, and maintaining a food supply to feed its people. So the Germans essentially kidnapped millions of Eastern Europeans and brought them to Germany.
After the war, a large number of the Poles didn’t want to go back to a Poland, which was now under communist control, so they remained in the displaced persons camps.
There was also a large number of Baltic nationals – Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians – who had collaborated with the Nazis during World War II or were afraid of the Soviets who had annexed their country.
You write that Jews were initially divided by country of origin and housed alongside non-Jews – so Polish Jews with non-Jewish Poles, Jewish Lithuanians with non-Jewish Lithuanians, etc. Many Jews complained, but both America and England insisted that to provide separate facilities for Jews would be almost Nazi-like behavior. How so?
The Americans and British refused to recognize the Jews as a national entity. The British refused to do it because they believed that if they did, that [would ideologically push them toward] recognizing Palestine as a homeland for them.
And the Americans refused to do it out of almost ignorance and stupidity. There was a total lack of understanding of what the Jews had gone through. They refused to recognize that the Jews had been singled out for extermination.
You know, one of the reasons I wrote this book is because the years 1945-1950 are absolutely critical for the history of Zionism and the Jewish people, and we know nothing about them. I’m a historian and a relatively well-informed American Jew, and yet, until I wrote this book, I was under the allusion that once the war was over, the American people and government opened their hearts and gates to the survivors.
But nothing could be further from the truth. European Jews were slaughtered and then from 1945-1950, the survivors had to wait in a second layer of camps before the war was over for them.
Why did it take so long?
We’d like to think that anti-Semitism disappeared in the United States or was rapidly reduced because of what Hitler had done to the Jews. But that’s simply not true. What happened is that anti-Semitism took on a different form.
In 1945-1950, a new strain of anti-Semitism was virulent in the United States, and that was claiming that all Jews are Bolsheviks. It was absurd, and yet, on the floor of Congress, southern Democrats, midwestern Republicans, and others essentially said:
“We can’t let the Polish Jews into this country because they’re sympathetic to communism and the Soviet Union. We can’t trust them. If there’s a cold war, or a third world war, their loyalty will be to the Soviet Union because they’re subversives and revolutionaries.”
So year after year, Congress did nothing to let the Jewish survivors into this country. In June of 1948, a displaced persons bill passed in Congress, which allowed into the United States everybody except the Jews. Ninety percent of the Jews were excluded because they didn’t get into the camps until 1946 and a cut-off date was set.
If Jews were suspected to be communists, why were they eventually allowed in at all?
In large part because men and women of goodwill began to understand by 1949-50 that this exclusion was based on absolute nonsense. That’s number one.
Number two, the American Jewish community was a political force in New York, Chicago, and other places that the Democrats needed to hold onto to maintain their majority. Once the Republicans began to push for more immigration of Jewish displaced persons, the Democrats realized they had to do something about it.
But only 55,000 of the 250,000 Jewish displaced persons got to the United States. That’s not a very high percentage. Many of those who come later went to Israel first.
Eighty percent of the displaced persons who were accepted into the United States were Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian, or Ukrainian, and we don’t know how many of them had been Nazi collaborators or war criminals.
We let in collaborators and war criminals?
It’s a frightening story.
In the Cold War setting, Americans much too quickly forgot what the Nazis had done and wanted to focus all their attention on what the Soviets might do. Now, the Soviets were a threat, but how in G-d’s name could we as a people forget and forgive the Nazi collaborators as quickly as we did and let them into this country?
Was it due to ignorance, poor screening, indifference…?
If the INS – the Immigration and Naturalizations Service – had cared, it could have easily kept the war criminals out. Jews in Europe had assembled records. It wasn’t just Simon Wiesenthal. There were dozens and dozens of historical commissions set up by Jews to identify people who had participated in the murder of Jews or who had served as guards in the camps.
So it shouldn’t have been difficult to keep these people out, and yet, they were let in because by this time no one really cared. The war was over. Hitler was dead. Nazism had been defeated. So what if some of these people had participated in killing Jews or had put on Nazi uniforms and fought on the Eastern front?
It wasn’t just the Americans. In England, a bunch of Latvian, former Waffen-SS soldiers were recruited out of the displaced persons camps, resettled in England, and set to work in the mines. When they took of their shirts, the British miners saw their Waffen-SS tattoos under their arms and walked out. They said, “We’re not going to work next to people who killed our loved ones.”
But the British Home Office – instead of throwing out all former Waffen-SS men and making sure no others entered the country – simply decided that from that point on, they would let as many of them as possible but would put them to work in places where they wouldn’t have to take off their shirts so nobody would see their tattoos.
Canada wound up taking in a good number of Jewish displaced persons. How many in total?
Approximately 15,000. Some went to Canada, some went to Australia, but the vast majority went to Israel, and I argue that Truman recognized the state of Israel – not because he was a humanitarian or had Jewish friends – but because it was the only way to get the Jews out of Germany.
The Americans weren’t going to support a Jewish refugee camp in Germany forever and ever, and the only place to send them if he couldn’t get them into the United States was Israel. And the only way to do that was to recognize an independent state of Israel.