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Fischer, Greta map 1945

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Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust

Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Europe

This collection explores Jewish life in the postwar Displaced Persons camps of occupied Germany. Letters, newspapers, theater performances, and other sources show some of the different ways that Jewish survivors attempted to rebuild in the aftermath of the Holocaust. 

When World War II ended in Europe in May 1945, about 20 milion people found themselves on the move across the continent.1 This included concentration camp survivors, forced laborers, prisoners of war, political refugees, and Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Most of this population returned to their homelands, but roughly 1.5 million uprooted people remained in occupied Germany and Austria in September 1945. About 300,000 of these people were Jewish survivors.

These displaced people either could not or would not return to their prewar homes for a variety of reasons. The concept of the "Displaced Person" (DP) was a social and legal designation created to help with this unprecedented humanitarian crisis.2 Those who could prove wartime persecution could receive housing and rations as well as special immigration status for some countries. In Allied-occupied Germany and Austria, there were several types of DP camps—former military barracks, former concentration camps, and residential housing in villages or cities. Many former concentration camp prisoners found themselves living in the same place where they had been imprisoned under Nazi rule.

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The Allied governments established the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association (UNRRA) in 1943 as the primary aid organization for refugees. By December 1944, UNRRA had already established 200 teams to deal with the anticipated flood of refugees. By the end of 1947, UNRRA oversaw 762 DP centers.3

Jewish DPs faced particular challenges that were unique to their situation. Former Jewish prisoners sometimes were forced to live in camps alongside their previous tormentors. At first, little effort was made to accommodate malnourished Jews' need for higher rations. Concerns for Jewish cultural or community activities were often ignored.4

In September 1945, Earl G. Harrison of the US Inter-Governmental Committee on Refugees released a report to President Harry S. Truman titled "The Plight of the Displaced Jews in Europe." Known today as the Harrison Report, it gives a scathing review of the conditions of Jewish DPs in Europe:

Beyond knowing that they are no longer in danger of the gas chambers, torture and other forms of violent death, they see—and there is—little change, [and] the morale of those who are either stateless or who do not wish to return to their countries of nationality is very low....they wonder and frequently ask what 'liberation' means.5

Harrison's report called for recognition of Jewish DPs as a separate group with particular needs. Allied soldiers and Jewish DPs also drew attention to these issues and called for improvements to the situation.6 Places like the Bergen-Belsen DP camp or the Neu Freimann DP camp began addressing Jewish DPs' uniquely desperate situation and soon became postwar centers of Jewish community life.7 The camps were only meant to last months after the war ended, but they became transformed from way stations into temporary homes.

The DP camp population changed over the course of the postwar period as people migrated. This posed challenges for aid workers and the DPs themselves. At first, DP camps housed people liberated from concentration camps, death marches, hiding, and other circumstances, but a new population of eastern European refugees also arrived hoping to escaping antisemitism or communism in the eastern part of Europe. Strained relations between different groups and struggles to provide adequate supplies to everyone became major issues for Allied authorities.  

This collection focuses on Jewish DPs in particular, but the vast majority of DPs throughout the Allied zones were not Jewish. Some DP camps exclusively or predominantly housed Jewish DPs, but many Jewish and non-Jewish DPs also resided in camps together and shared certain experiences. Relations among Jewish DPs, non-Jewish DPs, local Germans, and Allied forces were often strained.8

This collection explores the complex experiences of Jewish DPs, focusing primarily on those living in the US zone of occupied Germany.9 These sources show the variety of responses to the needs of Jewish survivors and encourage us to ask several questions: How did authorities understand the problems faced by Jewish DPs? How did the DPs themselves understand their situation? By 1951, most of the major DP camps had closed, and all but a handful of Jews had emigrated. The featured sources show the challenges faced by Jewish DPs—and show how Jewish survivors managed to make DP camps postwar centers of Jewish community life.

Atina Grosssmann, Jews, Germans, and Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied Germany (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 131.

For more information, see Michael R. Marrus, The Unwanted: European Refugees from the First World War Through the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), and Katharine Knox and Tony Kushner, eds., Refugees in an Age of Genocide: Global, National and Local Perspectives in the Twentieth Century (New York: Frank Cass, 2001).

There were 416 in the US zone of occupied Germany, 272 in the British zone, 45 in the French zone, 21 in Austria, and 8 in Italy. To learn more, see Mark Wyman, DPs: Europe's Displaced Persons, 1945–1951 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 47.

Earl G. Harrison, A Report to President Truman: The Plight of the Displaced Jews in Europe (New York: United Jewish Appeal for Refugees, Overseas Needs and Palestine on Behalf of Joint Distribution Committee, United Palestine Appeal, and National Refugee Service, 1945), 4–5.

For example, see the related Experiencing History items, Letter from Barbara Falik to the PM Standard and Letter from Szyja Faktor to His Relatives.

To learn more about Jewish community life in these camps, see Zvi Gurvits, "The Book of Life in the Zeilsheim Camp," George Kadish, "The Persecuted," and Song from Deggendorf DP Camp

To learn more, see Atina Grosssmann, Jews, Germans, and Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied Germany (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007); Anna Holian, Between National Socialism and Soviet Communism: Displaced Persons in Postwar Germany (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011); and Adam Seipp, Strangers in the Wild Place: Refugees, Americans, and a German Town, 1945-1952 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).

For more about DPs and the United States, see the related Experiencing History collection, Displaced Persons and Postwar America

All 20 Items in the Jewish Displaced Persons in Postwar Europe Collection

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