Amid today’s refugee crisis, author reflects on post-WWII abhorrence for Jewish DPs

Unlike the ‘outpouring of aid and invitations to resettle’ Ukrainian refugees, historian David Nasaw’s new book charts duel-loyalty paranoia, use of Jews as pawns in the Cold War

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Jewish refugees in 'Displaced Persons' camp in Germany after World War II. (Public domain)
Jewish refugees in 'Displaced Persons' camp in Germany after World War II. (Public domain)

As millions of Ukrainian refugees flee the country, historian David Nasaw is not surprised by the world’s reaction to their plight.

“The outpouring of aid received and invitations to resettle have much to do with the fact that the Ukrainian refugees are European, white, and Christians — with a few Jews,” said Nasaw, author of the recently published “The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War.

“Refugees who are not white and not Christian and not European are going to continue to be poorly treated,” Nasaw told The Times of Israel. “In fact, the treatment [of other refugee groups] may deteriorate due to the attention and resources focused on the Ukrainians.”

In his book, Nasaw recounts the plight of “displaced persons” in the years after Europe was liberated from Nazism, including the quarter-million Jewish Holocaust survivors who became “pawns” in the brewing Cold War between Moscow and the West.

At the end of World War II, Jews comprised two percent of Germany’s “displaced persons” population. By 1947, however, at least 20% of DPs were Jewish, said Nasaw. The world was finding work permits and resident status for Europe’s refugees — except Holocaust survivors.

Nearly all the Jewish DPs who entered southeast Germany in 1946 and later had survived the Holocaust under Stalin’s “protection” in Soviet lands, said Nasaw. When they returned to Poland after the war to reclaim their homes, most of the survivors were chased out of the country a second time by vigilante groups and pogroms.

Jewish children in a DP camp that received aid from the Joint Distribution Committee. (Courtesy)

In the eyes of Western countries, Jews who survived the war on Soviet territory were not desirable immigrants, said Nasaw.

“[These Polish Jews] owed their survival to the Red Army and their families were still under the Communist orbit, and that made the refugees suspect in the eyes of the US and other countries,” said Nasaw. “I think the Cold War really began around these DPs.”

‘Rebirth of old antisemitic myths’

According to Nasaw, the “Red Scare” and existing negative stereotypes of Jews were melded together by antisemitic leaders looking to keep Jewish refugees out of the US.

“During this time in the United States, there were a number of Southern and Midwestern politicians who helped rebirth old antisemitic myths,” said Nasaw, pointing to the canard of Jews as disloyal and incapable of assimilating.

Football team in Jewish DP camp after World War II. (Public domain)

“It was a shameful moment in our history,” said Nasaw.

The Last Million, by David Nasaw

About 50,000 of the quarter-million Jewish DPs in Germany managed to secure visas to North America, said Nasaw. Simultaneously, the US and other countries admitted thousands of Nazi collaborators, as those refugees were deemed to be anti-Soviet.

“The thinking in the US was the Jewish refugees are likely to be Communists or Soviet sympathizers, or at least not in line with the need to prepare for a Cold War that might turn into a third world war,” said Nasaw.

From Moscow’s perspective, the DP camps were potential training grounds for an anti-Soviet insurrection. In fact, said Nasaw, the Allies toyed with ideas about parachuting armed DPs into — for example — Lithuania and Ukraine, where the vengeance-bent refugees would do battle with Russian authorities.

Purim with Holocaust survivors at the Landsberg DP camp in Germany, with a mock tombstone for Haman and Hitler. (Yad Vashem)

While a militia of East European DPs never materialized, Russia’s paranoia had roots in reality, said Nasaw.

“There were plans afoot, some of them fantastical, to make use of the DPs against the Russians,” said Nasaw. “Radio Free Europe was set up with DPs and the CIA funded all sorts of anti-Soviet and anti-Communist organizations.”

‘Abhorrence of Jewish immigrants’

Calling themselves “the last remnant,” many post-Holocaust Jewish DPs believed the best way to mourn the loss of loved ones in the Holocaust was to create new families, said Nasaw.

Two years after the war ended, the world’s highest birth rates were recorded among Jewish DPs in Germany. Despite assumptions to the contrary, said Nasaw, only a minority of refugees were interested in moving to Palestine.

The Bad Reichenhall DP camp, circa 1947. (Courtesy of Leah Rochelle Ilutowicz Zylbercwajg)

“Historians talk about surveys that 95% of Jews were in favor of partition or a Jewish state, but that did not mean that those refugees themselves wanted to go to Palestine,” said Nasaw. “These people had just been through a war and the last thing they wanted was to enter a territory at war or about to be at war.”

While the British blockaded the shores of Palestine to ships filled with Jewish refugees, the US government was preparing its own kind of blockade to keep Holocaust survivors out of America, as described in Nasaw’s book.

In 1948, US president Harry Truman and Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act. European refugees could enter the US as permanent residents — unless they arrived to a DP camp after December 1945. The act effectively barred nearly all Holocaust survivors from coming to the US.

“The nations of the world were united in [their] abhorrence of Jewish immigrants,” said Nasaw, a fact that helped most Jewish refugees become “reluctant Zionists.”

Illustrative: Children at Foehrenwald DP camp gather around a US soldier. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Larry Rosenbach)

When asked why the Jewish DP saga is largely forgotten, Nasaw pointed to Americans’ tendency to isolate themselves from the aftermath of wars.

“It’s too much for Americans to realize we did this to the [Holocaust] survivors for years,” said Nasaw. “That is too frightening a portrait.”

“We don’t want to understand that wars bleed into post-wars, and it’s the civilians who suffer,” said Nasaw. “In parts of Africa and the Middle East, the world has allowed DP camps to become an end in themselves, with the camps housing generations of refugees.”

According to Nasaw, the story of Jewish DPs fills a “blank” between the Holocaust and Israel’s founding in 1948, a space usually “punctuated only by the story of the Exodus [in 1947].”

A key takeaway from his research, said Nasaw, is that humanitarian concerns should guide the treatment of refugees, as opposed to the “harsh Darwinian” principles applied after WWII.

“With the Jewish DPs at the end of WWII, we saw how falsehoods and mistruths were permitted to determine immigration policy,” said Nasaw.

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