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Americans and the Holocaust


Displaced Persons and Postwar America

Following World War II and the Holocaust, the United States responded to a major humanitarian crisis in Europe by providing aid and facilitating the emigration of hundreds of thousands of European Displaced Persons (DPs). These sources reveal the diverse experiences of DPs as they encountered Americans and reacted to United States policies. Through government documents, private correspondence, films, and other materials, this collection examines how DPs understood and experienced immigration to the US and explores their reception by American citizens and policymakers.

As a result of World War II and the Holocaust, approximately 11 million people remained uprooted and displaced in Europe after the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945. Among them were former forced laborers under the Nazis, Jewish and non-Jewish survivors of the concentration camps, former prisoners-of-war, and Eastern Europeans who had fled rising Soviet influence.1 While the armed forces of the Allied powers and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) helped seven million people return to their home countries, nearly one million people remained behind in temporary camps in occupied Germany, Austria, and Italy. In response to this extraordinary refugee crisis, the United Nations created the classification "Displaced Persons" to describe the unique status of those who could not be repatriated and needed assistance emigrating. The United States was one of the countries where they resettled.2

US refugee relief efforts had begun before the end of World War II. In 1944, growing American awareness of the Holocaust led President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to create the War Refugee Board.3 International relief organizations, churches, and ethnic relief agencies helped the board provide relief to Jewish victims of Nazism in Europe. This activism reignited a debate among Americans about the nature of their government's humanitarian responsibility to migrants.

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By 1945, the United States Army, along with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), had established nearly 50 camps for DPs in Europe (predominantly in Austria, Italy, and the American and British zones of Germany). Conditions in these camps changed greatly over the years. The featured letters from Szyja Faktor and Barbara Falik reveal the difficulties faced by Jewish DPs in postwar Europe and the many problems plaguing the DP camps. DPs' interactions with Americans in these settings were often complex. The featured letter from Harry Lerner illustrates how American administrators struggled to overcome their own challenges. The efforts of such devoted American officials did not go unappreciated—the featured booklet compiled by Jewish DPs as a farewell gift for US Army Major Alexander Rosenbaum shows that the DPs under his care thought of him "like a brother."

Within months of the establishment of the first DP camps, a report by Earl G. Harrison alerted President Harry S. Truman and the American public to the many hardships faced by Holocaust survivors living in them. In response, Truman asked General Dwight D. Eisenhower to offer his own first-hand account of the conditions in the camps in September of 1945. The DP camps were reorganized in the wake of Harrison's and Eisenhower's reports, and Truman issued an executive order to give DPs from Europe priority within the US immigration system. Known as "the Truman Directive," the order helped nearly 23,000 DPs immigrate to the US.

In an effort to further formalize and expand resettlement assistance for DPs, Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act in 1948. It established the US Displaced Persons Commission to oversee the allocation of visas, while non-governmental organizations assisted with the resettlement process. To receive a visa, DPs had to overcome many bureaucratic obstacles and obtain a clean bill of health. Most importantly, they needed to find someone in the US who would sponsor them financially after their arrival. The film of the International Refugee Organization (IRO) registration process featured here demonstrates some of the necessary steps taken by DPs wishing to emigrate from Europe. This entire process often could take months, if not years.

DPs' experiences encountering US authority varied greatly depending on when they occurred. Although the DP Act dramatically altered the way US immigration laws approached the crisis, refugees to the US initially faced severe restrictions on their personal freedoms. The first refugees to arrive in the United States outside of the immigration system came during World War II as "guests" of the president. The featured photograph of the emergency refugee shelter established at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York reveals how these first refugees—including some concentration camp survivors—encountered trains, barbed wire, and military personnel when they arrived in the US. By 1948, however, American officials were celebrating the first shipload of DPs to come to the US under the DP Act with banners and a brass band.

As they prepared to leave the DP camps behind them and resettle abroad, DPs faced the prospect of becoming citizens of foreign nations. As documented in this film, American relief agencies such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helped DPs immigrate to many countries, including the US. Those who were hoping to resettle in the US sometimes began taking English lessons in DP camps before they left. The US was an important destination for DPs emigrating from postwar Europe, although many of those who resettled in the US did so for complicated personal reasons. These complexities are reflected in the featured DP camp theater costume of Margret Hantman, which uses patriotic American themes even though Hantman later explained that she would have originally preferred to immigrate to Palestine. 

Americans reacted to the presence of DPs in the US in different ways. Many Americans became official sponsors under the DP Act, and many more assisted in other ways as private citizens and members of different ethnic or religious organizations. The featured letter from Larissa Prychodko to John Panchuk expresses her appreciation for his help with their immigration. An article from The Michigan Daily reveals how student-led groups provided assistance. The comic strip Dondi—which follows an orphaned refugee boy’s adventures—presented DPs to the American public in a favorable and sympathetic light. As the IRO questionnaire of Bela Berkes demonstrates, the rapidly escalating international tensions of the early Cold War in the late 1940s and early 1950s often increased sympathy for political refugees hoping to flee postwar Communist rule. Some Americans, however, reacted negatively to the resettlement of DPs in the US. For example, the featured article by Albert Barnett highlights how racial tensions within US society could stirred anti-immigrant sentiment directed against DPs.

The Displaced Persons Commission dissolved officially in 1952, marking the end of the US government's formal efforts to resettle Europeans displaced by World War II and the Holocaust. By that time, roughly 400,000 DPs had immigrated to the United States. The Commission noted in this final report that this unprecedented effort to facilitate the relocation of peoples uprooted by mass conflict had reshaped US foreign policy and strengthened the American public's perception of immigration. The "DP experiment" provided an example of humanitarian aid becoming increasingly intertwined with US foreign policy as the emerging Cold War came to define postwar international affairs.4

The sources presented in this collection reflect the diverse experiences of DPs as they navigated shifts in US immigration law over the period from 1945 to 1952. Though the challenges to immigration were numerous, the United States was an important destination for many DPs during these years as they sought opportunities to begin rebuilding their lives. Moving from DP camps in Europe to life in the US was often a complex journey and DPs encountered a variety of responses from US policymakers and citizens. As they resettled, these former DPs began another journey: adapting to life in an unfamiliar new home.

Jewish DPs in Europe numbered roughly 250,000. Approximately one million Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, and Baltic DPs fled Communist domination of their home countries after the war. For more detail, see Leonard Dinnerstein, America and the Survivors of the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982); Haim Genizi, America's Fair Share: The Admission and Resettlement of Displaced Persons, 1945-1952 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994); Atina Grossmann, Jews, Germans, and Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

For more on the wider impacts of resettlement and the DP crisis, see Daniel Gerard Cohen, In War's Wake: Europe's Displaced Persons in the Postwar Order (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

For more on the War Refugee Board, see the related collection on US Government Rescue Efforts.

For more on the intersection of the Cold War and the resettlement of European DPs, see Carl J. Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees During the Cold War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

All 18 Items in the Displaced Persons and Postwar America Collection