The Last Million:
Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War
By David Nasaw
“Is this – is this necessary?”
That was the question a harried Vito Corleone asked consigliere Tom Hagen in Godfather I when prevailed upon to grant Luca Brasi an audience and it’s what I ask myself whenever another Holocaust book is put on the market.
It transpires that David Nasaw’s The Last Million is necessary.
Nasaw recently retired as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Professor of History at the CUNY Graduate Center. He’s written critically acclaimed biographies of Joseph P. Kennedy and William Randolph Hearst.
The late British Jewish historian David Cesarani showed us in Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949 that WWII did not suddenly end for Europe’s Jews on May 7, 1945 when Nazi Germany surrendered. Moreover, as Tony Judt showed in Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, WWII bled into another conflict, the Cold War, which Nasaw explains, affected the Last Million’s fate.
It never occurred to me to ask my Pater or my Tanta Golda how come they did not reach New York City from their displaced person camp in Germany until 1949 – four torturous years after liberation. From Nasaw’s book, I infer that there was nothing left for them back in Spinka, Romania. Jews did try to go home initially, if for no other reason than to see if anyone else had survived. Too often, they were greeted by hatred and pogroms and forced back to Germany, writes Nasaw. British Mandate authorities refused to let Holocaust survivors into Palestine. The US Congress forbade them from entering America. No place else would have them.
The Last Million
When hostilities ended, there were 8-10 million displaced persons in Germany – prisoners, forced laborers, and POWs. Most went home to USSR and Western Europe, but there remained behind in DP camps overseen by the UN – 1 million Eastern Europeans, mostly non-Jews, who refused to go home or had no home, writes Nasaw.
Among the trapped were 250,000 Jewish refugees. Between 1945-1952, the US was loath to grant most of them asylum.
Nasaw reports that in 1945 at Potsdam, Germany, US President Harry S Truman appealed to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to admit 100,000 Jewish DPs to Eretz Israel. Churchill implied he’d think about it, but then lost the July 1945 elections to the Labor Party’s Clement Attlee. He and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin were implacable foes of the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the idea of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.
Not only did the US and UK not lift a finger to help the Jews during the Shoah, but they did not help them when the war ended – for as long as help could be delayed, explaines Nasaw.
How DPs got to Germany
Three different streams of displaced persons found themselves in Germany after the war. (1) Slave laborers kidnapped from Poland, among other places, who replaced Germans sent to the Wehrmacht. These DPs didn’t want to return to their homelands, which had become Soviet satellites. (2) Collaborators, including Waffen SS members, from Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania (the Baltic states) and Ukraine, fled to Germany to avoid falling into Red Army hands. And (3) Jewish survivors, many of whom had been marched to Germany to be worked to death in underground armament factories.
Stuck in Europe
The Soviets defeated the Nazis from the East and the Allies from the West. After WWII, Germany was divided into four zones: American, Soviet, British, and French. Berlin, located deep in the Soviet zone, was nonetheless also divided into Allied and Soviet zones.
The DPs were rounded up and sorted out by nationality into camps administered by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) founded in 1943.
Baltic and Ukrainian DPs anticipated that Western pressure would compel Stalin to pullback from the Soviet-occupied Baltic states and Ukraine.
Stalin had other ideas. He wanted the Allies to ship the East European DPs back to their countries of origin firstly to address acute labor shortages, secondly so that war criminals could be punished, and lastly to prevent this population from reinforcing any US-led anti-communist front.
Meanwhile, in the first few months after the war, Jewish survivors were herded together with their non-Jewish compatriots, including those who had collaborated with the Nazis or had been concentration camp guards. The Allies found it convenient not recognize Jewish peoplehood. A Polish Jew was a Pole. A Romanian Jew a Romanian.
Unlike the Balts and Ukrainians, Jews had no illusions about a European haven. Some like Sheah Stark, a disillusioned communist who had found sanctuary in the USSR during Hitler’s drive into Poland, escaped from under the Iron Curtain and reunited with his wife Kreisel, my mother’s cousin in a German DP camp.
The only place on earth that wanted Jews was the Yishuv. However, the Atlee-Bevin government did all it could to close Palestine. To add insult to injury, it tried to force Jewish survivors to return to their previous countries. The British maintained that many people had suffered during the war, and the Jews had no reason to receive special consideration.
DPs Yes, Jewish DPs, No
President Franklin D. Roosevelt had the foresight in 1943 to anticipate a massive postwar resettlement problem and ordered planning for the eventuality. Hence the Relief and Rehabilitation Administration which became part of the UN in 1945. In the event, straightforward repatriation of war refugees was not in the cards. As the Soviets insisted on return/repatriation, Truman initiated a separate UN International Refugee Organization in 1946 to relocate the DPs.
To help with reconstruction and address labor shortages, IRO member states (the Soviets did not join) began shopping for the model DPs. From Australia and South America to New Zealand and Norway, every country wanted the Latvian DPs. They were Protestant, anti-communist, and in good shape, having arrived in Germany at the end of the war on their own steam. The British needed them as miners – if only they wouldn’t take off their shirts to reveal their Waffen SS tattoos!
The best option for Jews who didn’t want to stay in Germany was Aliya Bet to Palestine; indeed, 20-30,000 refugees tried to evade Britain’s blockade. When caught, the British shipped them back to Europe, but that generated lousy publicity. Later on the intercepted migrants were interned in British-controlled Cyprus.
Good, Bad, and Inept
While Truman, a Democrat, was willing to confront the Atlee-Bevin government by leveraging desperately needed postwar US aid to a bankrupt Britain, he could not begin to sway a Congress that had fallen to the Republicans in 1946 (though xenophobic southern Democrats likewise opposed Jewish immigration).
Atlee-Bevin are unvarnished villains. Nasaw seems ambivalent about the Palestinian Arabs who were aligned with Hitler during the Shoah and on whose behalf the British blocked Jewish entry. State Department Arabists supported the British stance on Palestine. He is perhaps too fair to Truman and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, military governor of the US occupied zone, treating them as flawed heroes in the Last Million saga.
Nasaw presents the US Jewish establishment as initially unprepared to help Europe’s Jewish survivors in the face of US Army red tape, callousness, and foot-dragging.
Every hour mattered to the survivors. For three long months after VE Day, the Jews had to share DP space with their Polish, Ukrainian, and Baltic persecutors. Jewish US Army chaplains pleaded for American Jewish organizations to intervene. In July 1945, responding to this campaigning, Truman sent Earl Harrison, Commissioner for Immigration and Naturalization under Roosevelt, to study the Jewish survivors’ plight. Harrison, a Quaker, reported that the Allies were treating the Jews just as bad as the Germans except for not killing them.
This led Truman to press Eisenhower to improve the Jewish survivors’ conditions – to give them indeed special consideration and separate them from Poles, Ukrainians, and other East European groups who had worked with the Nazis. Eisenhower grudgingly ordered these reforms over the objections of Gen. George Patton.
Life in the DP camps
By August 1945, the Jewish displaced persons were allowed to live as a distinct community, and relief organizations led by the Joint Distribution Committee were authorized by the US army to provide help. Quality of life improved. The survivors founded Sh’erit ha-Pletah (1945-1951) to laisse with the Allied authorities.
Social, political, and cultural life developed. There were sporting competitions between DP camps. A barter economy developed in which cigarettes were a prime currency.
Had the US Congress been confident that Jews would not benefit, the gates of America would have been opened, Nasaw argues. The 1948 Displaced Persons Act allowed 400,000 refugees into the United States above existing quota restrictions. Of these, only 80,000 visas were issued to Jewish persons.
Jewish lobbyists tried to build a pro-immigration coalition with Protestant and Catholic groups, but Jewish DPs remained excluded. Jewish groups resorted to misleading paperwork to bring DPs into the US.
After the establishment of Israel in 1948, those who did not want to go there because, like my father and his sister, they did not want to walk into another war remained behind in DP camps. In September 1950, the anti-Jewish bias in US immigration law was reformed. By 1951, just about all the Jewish DPs in Germany found refuge in Israel or the US and other countries.
The 1952 McCarran–Walter Act
As WWII transitioned into the Cold War, anti-fascist sensibilities were obliterated. Why did so many Nazis and fascists wind up nestled in the West? Because the Allies willfully refused to ask the Soviets or the Jews for help in identifying them.
Indeed, by 1951 US policy was adapted to allow Waffen SS veterans to enter the US, according to Nasaw. The 1952 McCarran–Walter Act (the overdue response to the post-WWII refugee quandary) was crafted to thwart communists from entering while easing the admittance of Nazi collaborators.
With Operation Paperclip and similar programs American intelligence actively sought the services of German and East European Nazis and their partners (such as rocket scientist Wernher von Braun) as tools against the Soviet communism.
Only in the late 1970s and early 1980s was the extent of this immoral collaboration revealed in exposés by an unnamed whistleblower within the Immigration and Naturalization Service, in leaks to Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman and journalists, and through the work of Nazi hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal. Some fascists like John Demjanjuk and Valerian Trifa crept into America, but many others were ushered in by US intelligence.
Nasaw has a theory about why on May 14, 1948 the US under Truman was the first to recognize Israel. The answer lay in Europe. As a bulwark against communist expansion, he wanted to establish a West Germany but could hardly do so with 250,000 Jews still in German DP camps. (The Bonn Republic came into existence in 1949.)
In an otherwise judicious book, Nasaw feels impelled to assert that the displaced European Jews’ problem was solved by not allowing the displaced (or self-displaced) Palestinian Arabs back when Israel when the Arabs states agreed to a temporary armistice in 1949. Of course, had the Palestinian Arab leadership accepted the 1947 UN Partition Plan, there would have been a two-state solution, no nakba, and no Arab refugees.
In the decades to follow, these 750,000 Arab refugees and millions of their descendants were encouraged to think that their return to Palestine was imminent. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees has been for over 70 years forbidden from finding them permanent homes.
Rather than develop the parts of Palestine they control the Palestinian Authority and Hamas have squandered nearly 30 years of autonomy and billions of dollars in Western and Gulf Arab aid. Hamas, which has demonstrated first-rate engineering capabilities, might have transformed the Gaza Strip into a Singapore-on-the-Mediterranean. Instead, they opted for permanent war.
The creation of Israel in 1948 was not Europe’s indemnity for the Holocaust, as Nasaw implies. It was a fulfillment of Jewish aspirations that predated the civilizations of Islam and Christianity, let alone the European nation-state.
Humanity and Displacement
The lesson Jews ought to draw from the Shoah is that their first imperative needs to be a secure homeland whose doors will always be open.
Man is a wolf to man. The Holocaust did not end that, as the victims of Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, and Karadzic might attest. Displacement is a sad feature of many lives. After WWII, there were 11 million displaced people. Today, there are 80 million refugees worldwide. Even taking the imperfections of human nature into account, all enlightened nation-states have a compassionate obligation to provide immediate help to the suffering displaced and, in the longer term, to pursue rational, tolerant, and transparent immigration and naturalization policies.
A Necessary Book
With extensive research and nimble synthesis, David Nasaw has taken a complex story and made it not just comprehensible but accessible.
Naming names Nasaw tells the stories of real people. His narrative moves along at a nice clip. Among the displaced he mentions is the family of New York Times reporter Joseph Berger. We learn that former NYC mayor Fiorello La Guardia was in 1946 put in charge of winding down the DP operations of the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.
Historian Abraham Duker, the unassuming chairman of the Judaic Studies department when I was at Brooklyn College in the 1970s, makes a cameo appearance. He worked for the Office of Strategic Services and prepared material for the Nuremberg Trials. As a columnist for Der Tog English edition, he led the charge against US immigration policy, which excluded Jews but protected fascists. He took Jewish establishment groups to task for their tactical support of immigration legislation supported by church groups that failed to protect Jewish interests.
This book belongs in every serious Shoah history collection, and I don’t say that lightly.
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