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Jewish refugees after Second World War II: searching for refuge

On July 23, 1945, less than three months after Germany’s surrender, Earl Harrison, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, sat down at Bergen-Belsen with a survivor named Yossel Rosensaft. Harrison, who was forty-six, was described by a fellow Philadelphia lawyer as a man with “broad shoulders, curly blond hair, clear blue eyes, a firm jaw and a big smile.” 

The State Department had sent him as a special emissary to investigate the conditions in the camps that were hastily being organized to shelter “displaced persons,” or D.P.s, and to report back “with particular reference to the Jewish refugees.” Rosensaft, Harrison noted in his diary, was “only 33—looks older.” He had been deported to Auschwitz from Będzin, Poland, escaped, been recaptured, and sent to Auschwitz, again, before ending up at Bergen-Belsen. Harrison recorded Rosensaft’s wishes for the future:

1. Peace & quiet—live out remaining years.

2. Can’t go back: Anti-S[emitism], parents killed—Land soaked with Jewish blood.

3. People outside E[urope] too quiet about what has happened—nobody seems concerned.

“Don’t leave us in this bloody region,” the notes continued. “Make effort to have doors of P”—Palestine—“& other countries open.” Listening to him and others, Harrison wrote, “Seldom have I been so depressed. . . . And to think I was told, quite officially, there was no need of my visiting Belsen.”

There were plenty of people in Washington and London who saw no need for Harrison to investigate at all, or even to make any “particular reference” to Jews. As David Nasaw recounts in “The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War” (Penguin Press), Allied authorities initially maintained that it was wrong to differentiate Jews from other displaced people on the basis of their experience as Jews. Indeed, Allied officials argued that to do so would constitute religious discrimination. The week that Harrison met with Rosensaft, a senior British official said that giving targeted support to Jewish survivors would be “unfair to the many non-Jews who have suffered on account of their clandestine and other activities in the Allied cause”—the dismissive “All lives matter” of the postwar days. Instead, displaced persons were to be sorted out on what General Dwight D. Eisenhower described as a “nationality basis,” which meant that a Polish Jew who had survived the death camps might be left to share quarters with someone who had guarded a camp in Poland.

Harrison took a different view, writing, in a report to President Truman, that “the first and plainest need of these people is a recognition of their actual status and by this I mean their status as Jews.” Many had barely survived death marches as the Nazis retreated. In the brief period between the liberation and Harrison’s arrival, more than thirteen thousand former prisoners at Belsen died, as typhus continued to ravage the camp. Those who lived faced a second, bitter abandonment. One Jewish chaplain wrote in June, 1945, “Did our leaders plan on the basis of the fact that no Jews would be alive?”

Harrison’s report had an immediate effect on Truman, and on the organization of the D.P. camps, which were placed under the auspices of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and then of the International Refugee Organization (the predecessor of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). But none of this took place without a struggle. The objection that redressing a historic wrong amounts to reverse discrimination is, apparently, timeless. So is the insistence that those who have suffered injustices must never be pushy about it: in September, 1945, Clement Attlee, the British Prime Minister, wrote to Truman that “if our officers had placed the Jews in a special racial category at the head of the queue, my strong view is that the effect of this would have been disastrous for the Jews.” Ernest Bevin, Attlee’s foreign secretary, echoed that theme in a press conference two months later: “If the Jews, with all their sufferings, want to get too much at the head of the queue, you have the danger of another anti-Semitic reaction.”

The “queue” in question was a long, serpentine thing. The initial nation-based sorting of D.P.s was, on one level, an effort to impose order on a chaotic landscape. When Harrison arrived, Germany’s cities and infrastructure were largely in ruins, and the collapse of the Third Reich had left millions of non-Germans stranded—including prisoners of war, forced and slave laborers, Dutch dissidents, willing collaborators, and what one American chaplain described as “the men with the pajamas, you know, dirty, very short hair looking to talk to someone for aid.” At the war’s close, in May, 1945, there were more than six million D.P.s, by Nasaw’s tally; by October of that year, after a series of repatriations, including those of two million Soviet prisoners of war and forced laborers, the majority were gone. What Nasaw calls “the Last Million” were the “non-repatriable” remnant who refused to leave or had nowhere to go. Only a fraction of them were Jews. Most of the rest were Polish Catholics, Ukrainians, and Balts from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Their reasons for remaining in Germany ran the gamut. There were Poles aligned with the London-based government-in-exile and at odds with the regime forming in Warsaw. There were Baltic S.S. recruits who had fled to Germany in the final days of the war, ahead of the Red Army, in some cases with their families. Some Ukrainians were nationalists who knew that Stalin was in a killing mood; others would have remembered the hunger of the famine years. There was no single story.

Nasaw, who has written well-regarded biographies of Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst, makes clear how much the Allied forces wished that those in the displaced remnant would simply go back to wherever it was they came from. (At one point, Fiorello La Guardia tried to talk the Poles into it.) Nasaw also captures the power of refusing to leave—the decision not to disperse. This isn’t to say that the goal of the Last Million was to stay in Germany forever. By not going through one door, they were trying to open others. For the Jews, the main options were, as Rosensaft laid them out, Palestine or some other place that had not been the recent site of genocidal murder, and the central conflict of “The Last Million” is the fight, in the years following the war, over which it was going to be.

One reason that the D.P.s were stuck was that so much around them had changed; with maps redrawn, there was no such thing as simply going back home. Stalin claimed the Baltic states, but the United States did not recognize their annexation, and was not about to force the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian D.P.s to return. Poland’s map had been radically reconfigured; it lost some territory to the Soviet Union and gained other regions from Germany, including land that had been German even before the Third Reich. (In effect, the entire country was picked up and moved to the west.) Nasaw offers a glimpse of the mutual incomprehension that resulted in scenes like the one in which an aid worker boosterishly presents the new map to a Polish refugee she is encouraging to return—“Just look what Poland got in exchange”—and is dismayed when the man keeps pointing to a village on the Soviet side of the line. That’s home, he says, and as long as it’s in the U.S.S.R. he’s not going back.

Many Polish Jews did try to return home, only to be greeted with violence from neighbors or newcomers who, in some cases, had taken possession of their houses. The point of no return came with a pogrom on July 4, 1946, in the town of Kielce, in which forty-odd Jewish survivors were killed: “stoned to death, beaten to death, thrown from windows, shot, bayoneted,” Nasaw reports. News of Kielce accelerated an exodus of Jews into the western occupation zones of Germany. In May, 1945, there were about thirty thousand survivors in those German D.P. camps; a little more than a year later, there were some two hundred thousand.

The fate of the D.P.s, as Nasaw vividly shows, could hinge on how well they fit a certain stereotype of the worthy victim. Nasaw quotes aid workers who were consistently impressed by the Baltic D.P.s—“charming peoples to whom we could easily relate,” as the wife of one British official recalled—and put off by what they saw as the neediness of the Jews—as if they were too pitiful to truly pity. General George Patton, in his diaries, complained about how the Jewish survivors smelled. “Harrison and his ilk 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,” he wrote. He called the Balts “the best of the Displaced Persons.” In another entry, after a tour of a former German military hospital, Patton wrote that the facility was “in a bad state of repair when we arrived, because these Jewish DP’s, or at least a majority of them, have no sense of human relationships. They decline, where practicable, to use latrines, preferring to relieve themselves on the floor.” It was lost on him that there might be other reasons that people recovering from years of brutalization, malnutrition, death marches, and the destruction of their families were not cheerfully organizing themselves into plumbing-repair brigades.

Patton wasn’t alone in his anti-Semitism or his blindness, and both of these things had an effect when it came to resettling the refugees. The prospect of increased Jewish immigration to Palestine, which Harrison recommended and Truman endorsed, exasperated the British, who still controlled the region and worried about its stability. In October, 1945, Lord Halifax, the United Kingdom’s Ambassador to the United States, told Secretary of State James Byrnes that his government did not want to put itself “into a position of accepting a Hitler thesis that there is no room for Jews in Europe.” By “Europe,” the British plainly did not mean London; there was no concurrent mobilization to bring Jewish refugees into the U.K. In the United States, too, the number of Jews admitted during the first several years was achingly small.

The Western allies, when they did take in displaced persons, tended to go full Patton, cherry-picking those who were healthy, strong, and Christian. A telling example is the British “Balt Cygnet” scheme, which gave sanctuary to thousands of young Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian women—the “swans”—who, as a government memorandum reassuringly put it, “are of good appearance; are scrupulously clean in their persons and habits; have a natural dignity in their bearing.” An aid worker wrote that most “would look more at home in the drawing room than in the kitchen.” (They were put to work in kitchens, though, and in tuberculosis sanatoriums.) A follow-up program, chirpily called Westward Ho!, brought in men, with a preference for Balts, to address labor shortages in British agriculture and industry. It hit a snag when a doctor in London noticed that many of the Latvian men had their blood types tattooed under their left arms, revealing them to have been members of the S.S. The British authorities decided to accept a convoluted explanation for this: that the tattoos meant something different for Latvians than for everyone else. They told the doctor to stop asking about the tattoos. When British miners refused to work with the Baltic men whose S.S. tattoos they had spotted, the National Coal Board, Nasaw writes, recommended that they not be given jobs “where they might have to remove their shirts.”

The American version of the story includes a note of political tragedy. In late 1946, the American Jewish Committee and other groups made the tactical decision that the best way to bring Jewish survivors to the United States was to make sure that the efforts to do so didn’t appear “too visibly Jewish,” as Nasaw puts it. Through lobbying and coalition-building, they pushed Congress to pass legislation to accept four hundred thousand D.P.s; the “calculated gamble,” based on the proportion of Jews in the D.P. camps, was that a good hundred thousand of those admitted would be Jews. But it didn’t pay off: senators who didn’t want to let Jews in added language to what became the Displaced Persons Act of 1948—a preference for agricultural workers and those from nations that had been annexed, and a provision disqualifying anyone who entered the western zones after December 22, 1945, thereby excluding the Jews who had fled the Polish pogroms. In the end, Jewish D.P.s were left with few spots. (Nasaw makes the point that, because of the American restrictions, many Jews had to get fake papers or give false information to immigration authorities—something worth keeping in mind when considering the choices available to refugees today.) The politesse recommended by Attlee, Bevin, and others had gained the American Jews almost nothing.

A major revision of the Displaced Persons Act, in 1950, finally opened the door to the United States, but by then a majority of the Jews in the D.P. camps had given up and gone to Palestine, often illegally, and then to the new State of Israel, where many of them, in the early days of conflict, took up arms. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Eastern Europeans arrived in the United States with little real examination of their wartime records. Most, Nasaw notes, were not collaborators, but the heedlessness of letting in those who were tainted the resettlement project. Nasaw can be too blithe about what D.P.s from lands the Soviets controlled, including prisoners of war, risked by returning there, and about how helpful Stalin might have been in separating the guilty from the innocent—Nasaw suggests that there was a missed opportunity here. The former Soviet prisoners of war presented in the book’s opening pages are quickly whisked off the stage. Timothy Snyder, in “Bloodlands,” provides a more comprehensive view of that juncture. (So, from another vantage point, does Svetlana Alexievich, in “The Unwomanly Face of War.”) Such omissions may be attributable, in part, to Nasaw’s reliance on English-language sources. He is better at illuminating the mind-set of the Americans and the British than that of the Germans and the Eastern Europeans. Still, a great contribution of Nasaw’s book is that it takes the cinematic moment in which American soldiers arrive and pronounce the nightmare over—“Shalom Aleichem, Yidden, ihr zint frei,” a Jewish chaplain from Brooklyn announced when he drove into Buchenwald—as a starting point rather than a closing scene.

“The Last Million” is, in one sense, a book about what happens when the concept of nationality proves inadequate, which is why it returns, again and again, to Palestine. Jewish survivors, having been told that only their national identity mattered, understandably looked to the idea of a nation. Nasaw regards the opening of Palestine and the creation of Israel not only as a just outcome but as the “simpler” one—and perhaps even the only possible one—by contrast with gaining entry to the United States. At times, he seems frustrated that everyone in the postwar period can’t see how obvious it is: Congress isn’t going to come through; there’s only Palestine. This is how history worked out, of course, but that does not make it inevitable. And, as the Palestinians can attest, it certainly hasn’t been simple. Other endings might have been possible, too.

The wide-open moment after the war ended, when all sorts of imaginative futures did seem possible, is the subject of another new book, “Ruin and Renewal: Civilizing Europe After World War II” (Basic), by the Oxford historian Paul Betts. Its somewhat hopeful premise is that Europeans, as they stood amid the rubble of their cities in 1945, realized that they might not have the clearest idea of what it meant to be a civilized person, and might want to learn. “Civilization,” as an ideal, has meant different things in different eras, and Betts doesn’t try to define it. He’s more interested in the importance that people gave to the notion of civilization after the war, and in the novel and often self-contradictory ways in which they tried to express it.

Betts covers some of the same ground as Nasaw, but his focus is less on the journeys of the D.P.s than on how their fellow-Europeans were affected by the responsibility of looking after them. A notable divergence between the two books has to do with the ethnic Germans who were expelled from Czechoslovakia, Poland, and other countries in a vast act of ethnic cleansing after the war. There were, by some counts, more than ten million of them, and many had been subjected to state-sanctioned vengeance before they left; for others, the road to Germany was a gantlet of hunger and sexual violence. There is something of a lacuna in Nasaw’s book where one might expect them to be, given that they were, by many definitions (although not necessarily the one used by the occupying forces) displaced persons, too. Nasaw notes the phenomenon, observes that many ethnic Germans had collaborated with the Nazis, and reports that there was “little debate and no dissension” about the expulsion when it came up at Potsdam. Otherwise, the expellees remain at the margins of his story.

Betts demonstrates that, while other Allied leaders went along with the German expulsion when Stalin pushed for it at Potsdam—part of his ravenous campaign of ethnic reshuffling—public figures such as John Dewey, Varian Fry, and Norman Thomas fervently debated it. The popular press joined in. One widely discussed pamphlet featured the photograph of a malnourished expellee child with the headline “is it nothing to you?” What Betts calls “the polemics of pity” were part of a postwar effort to place civilization and humanitarianism in alignment with each other. Still, by emphasizing how many people on all sides had suffered, Betts writes, these responses at times “unwittingly erased the specificity of Jewish victimhood.” One benefit of reading Nasaw alongside Betts is to put a question mark next to the word “unwittingly.” But the questioning works both ways, as Betts delves usefully into some of the murky areas that lie beyond Nasaw’s purview.

Betts’s approach can be somewhat scattershot, moving from the fetishization of refrigerators and the mania in Germany for etiquette books to U.S. scares over brainwashing, a wave of Marian apparitions, the aspirations of the first Pugwash peace conference, in 1957, and the ways in which independence movements in African countries claimed the language of civilization for their own. As a cultural history the book is unusually rich and engaging, though Betts may be a better source on, say, the legal battle over the ownership of European paintings from an art museum in Algiers or the Afromodernist collaborations of Eastern European and Ghanaian architects than on the actual political struggles in those countries. There is something poignant about an international endeavor he recounts to write a history of civilization that mostly leaves out the wars—the idea being that civilization and armed conflict are antithetical—and something rousing about the coöperative effort of dozens of countries to save the monuments of Nubia from the rising waters of the Nile during the construction of the Aswan High Dam. (New York got the Temple of Dendur out of that.) At a certain point, the reader wonders what went wrong—when did certain of the possibilities, and the earnest ambitions for a world civilization, wither away?

An obvious answer is the escalation of the Cold War, which also, as it happens, underlies much of the bad behavior depicted in Nasaw’s book. (Nazi collaborators were repositioned as anti-Communists.) In Betts’s terms, talk of civilization came to provide an “ideological pretext for an emotional language of fear.”

There are few straight lines in Betts’s account, but in history there rarely are. Yossel Rosensaft, after a brief trip in 1949, decided that Israel was not for him. (“Ben-Gurion will not meet you at the boat,” he said in a speech to other survivors.) He eventually moved to New York and, as Josef Rosensaft, went into the real-estate business, and began collecting art. Earl Harrison comes across as a hero in the pages of Nasaw’s book—the model of a civilized man—and two years after visiting Germany he continued on that righteous trajectory by travelling to Texas to testify on behalf of Heman Marion Sweatt, an African-American who had been denied admission to the University of Texas School of Law because of his race. Harrison was an opponent of restrictive immigration policies and had been so even during the war, when he served, for two years, as the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The commissioner’s remit was broad, and so Harrison, with his curly blond hair and his big smile, also supervised many of the camps in which Americans with Japanese ancestry were interned.

Amy Davidson Sorkin