Displaced Persons After the Holocaust

The survivors said: "We were liberated, but we are not free."

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Political Representation

In many DP camps the liberated Jews elected representatives almost immediately after liberation. In Bergen-Belsen they formed a representative committee as early as 18 April 1945, until the first Congress of Liberated Jews in the British zone convened in September of that year. In the American zone, the Committee of Liberated Jews in Bavaria (later expanded to the Committee of Liberated Jews in the American Zone) was constituted at a meeting on 1 July 1945 in the DP camp of Feldafing. The small community of Jewish DPs in the French zone elected a similar central committee in December 1947.

The two major political leaders elected by the DPs in 1945 were, in the British zone, Josef Rosensaft, a businessman from the Polish town of Bedzin, and, in the American zone, Zalman Grinberg, a physician from the Lithuanian city of Kovno. Most of the prewar Jewish parties of Eastern Europe participated in the elections, including the socialist Bundists and the Orthodox Agudat Israel.

Unlike in prewar Europe, however, Zionists of all shades now clearly dominated the political spectrum. The official line of all organizations representing the she'erit hapletah was Zionist. They repeatedly called on the British government to open emigration to Palestine, and David Ben-Gurion's visit to the DP camps in October 1945 helped to amplify enthusiasm for the Zionist cause.

The Harrison Report

The growing differences between the American and British zones were based on the disparate political interests of the two Western powers. The British, who still controlled Palestine, were anxious to limit the number of Jewish refugees and refused to recognize Jews as a separate nationality, because such a step would have meant a justification for the establishment of a Jewish state.

In the American zone a similar policy was pursued during the first months after liberarion. A turning point was reached, however, after the publication in September 1945 of a Report by an investigative committee set up by President Harry Truman and led by Earl G. Harrison, dean of the faculty of law at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Harrison Report stated in the most dramatic terms that "as matters now stand, 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."

One of the most important results of the Harrison Report was the recognition of the Jewish DPs as a separate national category, followed by the appointment of an "Adviser of Jewish Affairs." The United States, however, did not follow Harrison's urgent advice to receive some of the DPs.

When in June 1948, after long deliberations, Congress finally passed the Displaced Persons Act, it seemed like a mockery to the Jewish survivors. It made only those DPs eligible for admission who had arrived in Germany, Austria, and Italy before 22 December 1945, thereby excluding most of the Eastern European Jewish refugees. In addition, it explicitly preferred ethnic German refugees (Volksdeutsche) over Jewish survivors. Thus, only around 20 percent of the 400,000 DPs who entered the United States between 1945 and 1952 were Jewish.

Similarly, the recommendation of an Anglo-Jewish Commission of Inquiry, which visited the DP camps in February 1946, to open the doors of Palestine immediately to 100,000 Jewish DPs from Germany, was rejected by the British government.

Still in 1945, exclusively Jewish DP camps were created in the American zone, mostly in Bavaria, Wurtremberg, and Northern Hesse, as a response to the Jewish DPs' refusal to share the same camp with those DPs who had collaborated with the Germans. While some of the Jewish camps were relatively comfortable and located in hospitals or hotels, others differed little in their outward appearance from the barracks of the concentration camps.

Most camps were either former military barracks or emptied apartment complexes. In many respects the life in DP camps was based on the traumatic experiences of the war years spent in German concentration camps. The return to "normal life" was extremely difficult after years of physical deprivation and psychological hardship. The camp administration had to restore a feeling of responsibility for their own lives and a sense of self-respect among a population that had been deeply humiliated.

Cleanliness in the DP camps was a major issue during the first months, as was the possibility to return to interim occupations in or outside the camps. What rendered many of those attempts futile was the continued lack of freedom. "We were liberated, but we are not free," was a line often found in the statements of Jewish DPs.
Most of the DP camps had barbed wire around them, all had armed guards, and survivors were often forbidden to leave the camp even to search for surviving family members.

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Michael Brenner

Michael Brenner is Professor of Jewish History and Culture at the University of Munich.