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Displaced Jews in Europe

Migration Following World War II in Europe - 1945-1951


Jewish Refugee
Kurt Hutton/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images
Approximately six million European Jews were killed during the Holocaust during World War II. Many of the European Jews who survived the persecution and death camps had nowhere to go after V-E Day, May 8, 1945. Not only had Europe been practically destroyed but many survivors did not want to return to their pre-war homes in Poland or Germany. Jews became Displaced Persons (also known as DPs) and spent time in helter-skelter camps, some of which were located at former concentration camps. The preferred migration destination for almost all survivors of the genocide was a Jewish homeland in Palestine. That dream eventually came true for many.

As the Allies were taking Europe back from Germany in 1944-1945, the Allied armies "liberated" the Nazi concentration camps. These camps, which housed from a few dozen to thousands of survivors, were complete surprises for most of the liberating armies. The armies were overwhelmed by the misery, by the victims who were so thin and near-death. A dramatic example of what the soldiers found upon liberation of the camps occurred at Dachau where a train load of 50 boxcars of prisoners sat on the railroad for days, as the Germans were escaping. There were about 100 people in each boxcar and of the 5,000 prisoners, about 3,000 were already dead upon the arrival of the army.

Thousands of "survivors" died in the days and weeks following liberation, the military buried the dead in individual and mass graves. Generally, the Allied armies rounded up concentration camp victims and forced them to remain in the confines of the camp, under armed guard.

Medical personnel were brought into the camps to care for the victims and food supplies were provided but conditions in the camps were dismal. When available, nearby SS living quarters were used as hospitals. Victims had no method of contacting relatives, as they were not allowed to send or receive mail. Victims slept in their bunkers, wore their camp uniforms, and were not allowed to leave the barbed-wire camps, all whilst the German population outside of the camps was able to try to return to normal life. The military reasoned that the victims (now prisoners) could not roam the countryside in fear that they would attack civilians.

By June, word of poor treatment of Holocaust survivors reached Washington, D.C. President Harry S. Truman, anxious to appease concerns, sent Earl G. Harrison, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, to Europe to investigate the ramshackle DP camps. Harrison was shocked by the conditions he found,

As things stand now, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except that we do not exterminate them. They are in concentration camps, in large numbers under our military guard instead of SS troops. One is led to wonder whether the German people, seeing this, are not supposing that we are following or at least condoning Nazi policy. (Proudfoot, 325)
Harrison found that the DPs overwhelmingly wanted to go to Palestine. In fact, in survey after survey of the DPs, they indicated their first choice of migration was to Palestine and their second choice of destination was also Palestine. In one camp, victims where told to pick a different second location and not to write Palestine a second time. A significant proportion of them wrote "crematoria." (Long Way Home)

Harrison strongly recommended to President Truman that 100,000 Jews, the approximate number of DPs in Europe at the time, be allowed to enter Palestine. As the United Kingdom controlled Palestine, Truman contacted the British Prime Minister, Clement Atlee with the recommendation but Britain demurred, fearing repercussions (especially problems with oil) from Arab nations if Jews were allowed into the Middle East. Britain convened a joint United States-United Kingdom committee, the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, to investigate the status of DPs. Their report, issued in April 1946, concurred with the Harrison report and recommended that 100,000 Jews be allowed into Palestine. Atlee ignored the recommendation and proclaimed that 1,500 Jews would be allowed to migrate to Palestine each month. This quota of 18,000 a year continued until the British rule in Palestine ended in 1948.

Following the Harrison report, President Truman called for major changes to the treatment of Jews in the DP camps. Jews who were DPs were originally accorded status based on their country of origin and did not have separate status as Jews. General Dwight D. Eisenhower complied with Truman’s request and began to implement changes in the camps, making them more humanitarian. Jews became a separate group in the camps so Polish Jews no longer had to live with other Poles and German Jews no longer had to live with Germans, who, in some cases were operatives or even guards in the concentration camps. DP camps were established throughout Europe and those in Italy served as congregation points for those attempting to flee to Palestine.

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