LONDON — The end of World War II brought with it the end of the Holocaust, and beginning in July 1944 with Majdanek, concentration camps in Poland and Germany including Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, were liberated by Allied forces. On May 8, 1945, the day Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally, Soviet troops also liberated Theresienstadt.
But the end of the Holocaust shouldn’t be confused with the end of liberation itself. In his new book “The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and Its Aftermath,” Dan Stone, a professor of Modern History at Royal Holloway, University of London, argues liberation “was a process, something that happened over time.” It did not “immediately bring about an end to the camp inmates’ suffering,” particularly for the thousands of Jewish displaced persons (DPs) who remained stuck in camps in Europe for years after the war.
In “The Liberation of the Camps,” published mid-May, Stone also makes clear that “the murder of the Jews and the collapse of the Third Reich helped to shape the pattern of the postwar world,” including in the Middle East.
The Times of Israel sat with Stone at his University of London office at Royal Holloway to discuss the fate of Jewish DPs and how, as both a refugee problem and an international question, they became caught up in the politics of the Cold War and the domestic affairs of the superpowers.
Jews constituted a minority of those who were liberated. Does that explain why, in the immediate aftermath of the war, there was a failure to recognize both that there was a Holocaust and that there was an essential Judaic centrality to it?
Partly. There was enormous chaos at the end of the war. About 90,000 Jews are liberated inside camps, and of those, around 20,000 die in the first few weeks, but there are around 250,000 people altogether liberated in concentration camps. There are also millions of other people on the move: forced laborers, POWs, volunteers, collaborators, refugees, and so on.
‘There are about 20 million people on the move in Europe in the spring and summer of 1945, and so the Jews are just one small problem group’
There are about 20 million people on the move in Europe in the spring and summer of 1945, and so the Jews are just one small problem group. There was an understanding from before the war that Nazi anti-Semitism was central to the party program. There was an understanding about the way that Jews were being targeted, but at the end of the war, I think it’s understandable that people didn’t simply look at all the different victims of the camps and say, “This particular group are the most victimized.”
One of the other crucial factors is that Europe is now entering into the Cold War. In eastern Europe, the communists don’t want to talk specifically about the Jews because the defeat of Fascism is the victory of the working class – Jews don’t really feature in that story. And, in western Europe, there’s an emphasis much more on nation-building and unity, so to talk about different victim groups and what they experienced – Jews, deported political prisoners, resistance fighters, as well as volunteers – these distinctions were suppressed in order to make it easier to cement the nation-building project after the war.
Why was it the case that, out of the 20 million DPs, Jews remained a core group whose statelessness remained unresolved for much longer?
That’s a good question, and this is part of the process where the centrality of the Jews to Nazi ideology started to become clear. After the war, at first, Jews were a small minority among the 20 million displaced persons, but within a year, they suddenly stood out like a sore thumb because their visibility among the DP population increased.
By the spring of 1946, there are almost a quarter of a million Jewish DPs, most of them eastern Europeans who not only don’t want to go back but can’t go back because where they’ve come from doesn’t exist anymore. The shtetls and the Jewish communities in the larger cities have been completely destroyed, their families have been destroyed, and there are people living in their former apartments. They are not welcome back.
So these Jewish DPs then get stuck in the DP camps in Germany, and there is a mismatch between where they want to go and where the authorities will let them go. They want to go to Palestine and to the United States – the British won’t let them into Palestine and the Americans won’t let them in to the US.
There’s a tiny monthly quota of 1,500 Jews to go to Palestine, which is why you have the process until 1948 of illegal immigration from ports in the south of Europe, with the result of large numbers of Jews being interned in camps in Cyprus – what they regard as British concentration camps.
Only after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the amendment of the DP Act in America two years later can the vast majority of DPs go somewhere they want to.
And their continued stateless was because they became an international problem, as it relates to Palestine and also the Cold War.
Yes, because Jews are used as a pawn between the superpowers. The Soviets take a moral stance against British imperialism and American intransigence. The Americans fall out with the British because they recommend that 100,000 Jews go live in Palestine and so the Americans and the Soviets find themselves on the same side attacking the British. They all fall out over this. It becomes a test of Cold War resolve between the Allies and the superpowers as well.
What was the American consideration here? You suggest that the Americans support emigration to Palestine and become more Zionistic because they didn’t want more Jews in their own country.
I think that’s demonstrably the case, and there are constituencies within the American Jewish community who think like that as well, that admitting large numbers of Jews will give rise to anti-Semitism in America and make community relations worse.
The Americans, particularly at the end of the war when there is a debate about retreating from Europe and isolation and so forth, are wary about simply saying yes to all these refugees. I think it’s quite clear that the US position is to some extent motivated by a desire to keep as many Jews as possible out of the US.
On the other hand, it’s also motivated quite clearly by what [they] discover in the DP camps which is that many of the DPs say they want to go to Palestine, so it’s not entirely cynical.
There seems to be a mixed picture about how important Zionism was in the DP camps. Zionism is there, it’s sincere and deeply felt, but at the same time large numbers of people wanted to go to America.
It’s very difficult to work out because some people said they wanted to go to Palestine because they wanted to, but for others it was their only option. It’s quite clear that some thought, “We will get to Palestine and then we can use that as a stepping stone to get to America.” That’s reflected in the numbers: about half of all the Jewish DPs did end up in Palestine/Israel, and somewhat less than half ended up in the US, which suggests that Zionism was not the sole ideology which was in evidence in the camps.
‘The difficulty is that Zionism functioned as a political tool to attack the British’
The difficulty is that Zionism functioned as a political tool to attack the British: the demonstrations in Belsen and elsewhere campaigning against the treatment of Jews on the SS Exodus 1947, or what they regarded as [British Foreign Secretary Ernest] Bevin’s concentration camp policy, holding Jews in Cyprus. Zionism was clearly, given that the British were the holders of the Mandate, a way of attacking British policy.
On the other hand, you can quite understand why, especially for younger Jews who have lost all their family, Zionism felt like the only option they had. It’s quite understandable why they thought Jews no longer had a future in Europe, and there were people coming over from Palestine saying, “We really need you to help build a future here.”
One of the things you have written about previously is history and memory, and memory of the Holocaust. Do you think in Europe today we are experiencing a loss of Shoah consciousness?
I certainly wouldn’t agree that we’ve lost Shoah consciousness. I think the problem is that commemoration, as it’s generally promoted, is platitudinous.
Isn’t there something rather obscene about an official British delegation going to Belsen, just days after thousands of migrants are drowning in the Mediterranean, which doesn’t seem to impact on people’s consciousness at all? It doesn’t appear to have changed the debates about migration in Europe.
Part of the history of the Holocaust is the failure of liberal democracies before the war to allow refugees in and at the end of the war to migrate where they want to. Since the question of migration is so central to the history of the Holocaust, it seems a little empty and hollow at best to say “never again” when you close your borders and stop rescue operations for desperate people trying to reach Europe. I find that deeply depressing.
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