Searching for Refuge After the Second World War

Historians in the News
tags: Holocaust, Jewish history, human rights, refugees, European history, World War 2

On July 23, 1945, less than three months after Germany’s surrender, Earl Harrison, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, sat down at Bergen-Belsen with a survivor named Yossel Rosensaft. Harrison, who was forty-six, was described by a fellow Philadelphia lawyer as a man with “broad shoulders, curly blond hair, clear blue eyes, a firm jaw and a big smile.” The State Department had sent him as a special emissary to investigate the conditions in the camps that were hastily being organized to shelter “displaced persons,” or D.P.s, and to report back “with particular reference to the Jewish refugees.” Rosensaft, Harrison noted in his diary, was “only 33—looks older.” He had been deported to Auschwitz from Będzin, Poland, escaped, been recaptured, and sent to Auschwitz, again, before ending up at Bergen-Belsen. Harrison recorded Rosensaft’s wishes for the future:

1. Peace & quiet—live out remaining years.

2. Can’t go back: Anti-S[emitism], parents killed—Land soaked with Jewish blood.

3. People outside E[urope] too quiet about what has happened—nobody seems concerned.

“Don’t leave us in this bloody region,” the notes continued. “Make effort to have doors of P”—Palestine—“& other countries open.” Listening to him and others, Harrison wrote, “Seldom have I been so depressed. . . . And to think I was told, quite officially, there was no need of my visiting Belsen.”

There were plenty of people in Washington and London who saw no need for Harrison to investigate at all, or even to make any “particular reference” to Jews. As David Nasaw recounts in “The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War” (Penguin Press), Allied authorities initially maintained that it was wrong to differentiate Jews from other displaced people on the basis of their experience as Jews. Indeed, Allied officials argued that to do so would constitute religious discrimination. The week that Harrison met with Rosensaft, a senior British official said that giving targeted support to Jewish survivors would be “unfair to the many non-Jews who have suffered on account of their clandestine and other activities in the Allied cause”—the dismissive “All lives matter” of the postwar days. Instead, displaced persons were to be sorted out on what General Dwight D. Eisenhower described as a “nationality basis,” which meant that a Polish Jew who had survived the death camps might be left to share quarters with someone who had guarded a camp in Poland.

Harrison took a different view, writing, in a report to President Truman, that “the first and plainest need of these people is a recognition of their actual status and by this I mean their status as Jews.” Many had barely survived death marches as the Nazis retreated. In the brief period between the liberation and Harrison’s arrival, more than thirteen thousand former prisoners at Belsen died, as typhus continued to ravage the camp. Those who lived faced a second, bitter abandonment. One Jewish chaplain wrote in June, 1945, “Did our leaders plan on the basis of the fact that no Jews would be alive?”

Harrison’s report had an immediate effect on Truman, and on the organization of the D.P. camps, which were placed under the auspices of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and then of the International Refugee Organization (the predecessor of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). But none of this took place without a struggle. The objection that redressing a historic wrong amounts to reverse discrimination is, apparently, timeless. So is the insistence that those who have suffered injustices must never be pushy about it: in September, 1945, Clement Attlee, the British Prime Minister, wrote to Truman that “if our officers had placed the Jews in a special racial category at the head of the queue, my strong view is that the effect of this would have been disastrous for the Jews.” Ernest Bevin, Attlee’s foreign secretary, echoed that theme in a press conference two months later: “If the Jews, with all their sufferings, want to get too much at the head of the queue, you have the danger of another anti-Semitic reaction.”

The “queue” in question was a long, serpentine thing. The initial nation-based sorting of D.P.s was, on one level, an effort to impose order on a chaotic landscape. When Harrison arrived, Germany’s cities and infrastructure were largely in ruins, and the collapse of the Third Reich had left millions of non-Germans stranded—including prisoners of war, forced and slave laborers, Dutch dissidents, willing collaborators, and what one American chaplain described as “the men with the pajamas, you know, dirty, very short hair looking to talk to someone for aid.” At the war’s close, in May, 1945, there were more than six million D.P.s, by Nasaw’s tally; by October of that year, after a series of repatriations, including those of two million Soviet prisoners of war and forced laborers, the majority were gone. What Nasaw calls “the Last Million” were the “non-repatriable” remnant who refused to leave or had nowhere to go. Only a fraction of them were Jews. Most of the rest were Polish Catholics, Ukrainians, and Balts from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Their reasons for remaining in Germany ran the gamut. There were Poles aligned with the London-based government-in-exile and at odds with the regime forming in Warsaw. There were Baltic S.S. recruits who had fled to Germany in the final days of the war, ahead of the Red Army, in some cases with their families. Some Ukrainians were nationalists who knew that Stalin was in a killing mood; others would have remembered the hunger of the famine years. There was no single story.

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