Historian reflects on rejection endured by Jews displaced after 1945

Historian David Nasaw is not surprised by the world’s reaction to the plight of millions of Ukrainian refugees fleeing their country.

“The influx of aid and offers of accommodation have a lot to do with the fact that Ukrainian refugees are mostly European, white and Christian, with the exception of a few Jews,” says Nasaw, author of the book. recently published The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War.

“Refugees who are not white, Christian or European are going to continue to be treated badly,” Nasaw told the Times of Israel. “In fact, their treatment may even deteriorate due to the attention and resources focused on Ukrainians. »

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In his book, Nasaw recalls the plight of « displaced persons » in the years following Europe’s liberation from Nazi rule, including the quarter of a million Jewish Holocaust survivors who literally became « pawns » in the cold war between Moscow and the West.

At the end of World War II, Jews made up 2% of Germany’s « displaced persons » population. In 1947, however, at least 20 percent of those displaced were Jewish, says Nasaw. The world issued work permits and residency to European refugees, but not to Holocaust survivors.

Almost all of the Jewish displaced persons who entered through southeastern Germany in 1946 survived the Holocaust under Stalin’s « protection » in Soviet lands, Nasaw said. When they returned to Poland after the war to reclaim their homes, most of the survivors were driven from their homes a second time by vigilante groups and pogroms.

Jewish children in a displaced persons camp assisted by the Joint Distribution Committee. (Credit: Courtesy)

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

 » [Ces Juifs polonais] owed their survival to the Red Army and their families were still under communist rule, which made them suspect in the eyes of the United States and other countries,” says Nasaw. “I think the cold war really started around these displaced people. »

“The resurgence of old anti-Semitic myths”

According to Nasaw, “red fear” and negative stereotypes about Jews coalesced in the minds of anti-Semitic leaders keen to bar Jewish refugees from entering the United States.

“During this period in the United States, a number of politicians in the South and Midwest worked to revive old anti-Semitic myths,” Nasaw said, so that Jews were seen as disloyal and unable to assimilate.

A football team in a Jewish camp for displaced people after World War II. (Credit: Public Domain)

“It’s a shameful moment in our history,” confesses Nasaw.

Some 50,000 of Germany’s quarter million displaced people have managed to obtain visas for North America, Nasaw said. At the same time, the United States and other countries received thousands of Nazi collaborators, considered anti-Soviet refugees.

The Last Million, by David Nasaw

« In the United States, it was thought that Jewish refugees were likely to be Communists or Soviet sympathizers, and in any case not in a position to prepare for a Cold War likely to turn into World War III, » says Nasaw.

From Moscow’s perspective, the displaced persons camps were potential training grounds for an anti-Soviet insurgency. In fact, Nasaw says, the Allies toyed with the idea of ​​parachuting armed displaced people into Lithuania and Ukraine, for example, where vengeful refugees would go to fight Russian authorities.

Purim with Holocaust survivors, at Landsberg Displaced Persons Camp in Germany, with a mock gravestone for Haman and Hitler. (Credit: Yad Vashem)

The fantasy of an Eastern European Displaced Persons militia never materialized, but the Russian paranoia was not unfounded, says Nasaw.

“There were plans, some of them quite spooky, to use displaced people against the Russians,” Nasaw says.
“Radio Free Europe was created with displaced people, and the CIA funded all kinds of anti-Soviet and anti-Communist organizations. »

“Jewish Immigrants Held in Horror”

Calling themselves the “last vestige” of the post-Hoah era, many Jewish displaced people may have thought the best way to mourn the loss of loved ones in the Holocaust was to create new families, Nasaw said.

Two years after the end of the war, the highest birth rates in the world were thus recorded among Jewish displaced persons in Germany. Contrary to what one might think, says Nasaw, only a minority of refugees wanted to settle in Palestine.

Bad Reichenhall Displaced Persons Camp, circa 1947. (Courtesy of Leah Rochelle Ilutowicz Zylbercwajg)

“Historians point to surveys that 95 percent of Jews were in favor of partition or a Jewish state, but that doesn’t mean those refugees themselves wanted to go to Palestine,” Nasaw says. “These people had just experienced a war and the last thing they wanted was to settle in a territory at war or about to be. »

While the British blocked access to Palestinian shores to ships loaded with Jewish refugees, the US government prepared its own blockade to prevent Holocaust survivors from entering 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 United States as permanent residents, unless they came from a displaced persons camp after December 1945.

This law effectively banned almost all Holocaust survivors from coming to the United States.

“The nations of the world were united in [l’] horror of Jewish immigrants,” Nasaw confesses, a fact that led most Jewish refugees to become “reluctant Zionists.”

Illustrative: Children from the Foehrenwald Displaced Persons Camp gather around an American soldier. (Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Larry Rosenbach)

Asked why the « saga » of Jewish displaced persons has been largely forgotten, Nasaw recalls the tendency of Americans to steer clear of the consequences of wars.

« It’s too hard for the Americans to deal with what we did to the survivors [de la Shoah] for years,” says Nasaw. “It’s too terrifying a picture. »

« We refuse to see that wars continue in the post-war period, and that it is the civilians who suffer, » Nasaw explains. “In parts of Africa and the Middle East, IDP camps have been allowed to become an end in themselves, with the camps housing generations of refugees. »

According to Nasaw, the story of the displaced Jews fills a “gap” between the Holocaust and the founding of Israel in 1948, a space usually “punctuated only by the story of the Exodus [en 1947] « .

A key lesson from his research, Nasaw says, is that humanitarian concerns should guide the treatment of refugees, as opposed to the “hard Darwinian” principles applied after World War II.

 » With l'[histoire] Jewish displaced persons after the Second World War, we saw how lies and untruths could shape immigration policy,” concludes Nasaw.

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