How political rivalries led to victimizing WWII refugees who had suffered most

In The Last Million, David Nasaw reveals the fate of people, “living, moving, pallid wreckage” in 1945, who refused to go home or had no home to return to.

BRITAIN’S THEN-PRINCESS ELIZABETH joins US president Harry Truman in Washington in 1951. The book says the Truman administration supported displaced Jews going to Palestine, but limited immigration to the US.  (photo credit: REUTERS VIA US NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION)
BRITAIN’S THEN-PRINCESS ELIZABETH joins US president Harry Truman in Washington in 1951. The book says the Truman administration supported displaced Jews going to Palestine, but limited immigration to the US.
(photo credit: REUTERS VIA US NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION)
As Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Displaced Persons” (published in 1954) begins, a priest brings a Polish family of four to work on a farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. These folks, Mrs. Shortly, the foreman’s wife explains, “ain’t where they were born at and there’s nowhere for them to go – like if you was run out of here and wouldn’t nobody have you.”
Without really knowing the details, Mrs. Shortly was referring to millions of people – prisoners of war; forced laborers; Eastern Europeans who fled their countries when the Soviet Union attacked, annexed or dominated them; Nazi collaborators; and Jewish survivors who were placed in camps in Germany until the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency could repatriate them.
In The Last Million, David Nasaw, a professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and the author, among other books, of biographies of Andrew Carnegie, William Randolph Hearst, and Joseph P. Kennedy, reveals the fate of people, “living, moving, pallid wreckage” in 1945, who refused to go home or had no home to return to. Allowed by the International Refugee Organization (the successor of UNRRA) to declare themselves “stateless” (unable or unwilling to repatriate), many displaced persons, Nasaw indicates, would be “warehoused” until 1950 before they were resettled in the US, Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and Israel.
Based on an avalanche of research, sweeping, searching, and filled with intimate details, The Last Million tells the enduringly relevant and not well-known story of how political differences between the United States and the United Kingdom, Cold War calculations, ethnic and religious conflicts, and antisemitism trumped humanitarian considerations, “turning what should have been the primary mission upside down and victimizing those who had suffered the most.”
Faced with a severe labor shortage, Nasaw indicates, the Soviet Union pressed, with some success, for the return of Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, and Ukrainian DPs. Some Eastern Europeans, however, had reason to fear that they would be prosecuted if they returned home for anti-communist activities or collaborating with the Nazis. Others were persuaded by Catholic clergy that they should not repatriate to a godless Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Eager for laborers as well, Nasaw suggests, the English, Australians, and Canadians (who, along with Americans, refused to accept Soviet assistance in screening for Nazi collaborators) accepted Balts, Ukrainians and Poles even when they had tattoos identifying them as members of the Waffen-SS.
From the outset, Nasaw emphasizes, Jewish DPs encountered antisemitism. At Dachau, on May 5, 1945, Rabbi David Eichhorn held the first Shabbat services after liberation. When Polish inmates threatened violence, the US Army delayed services for a day, before approving a brief gathering in which Eichhorn told his “brothers” they “are not and will not be forgotten.” Nonetheless, Nasaw adds, like all DPs, Jews were sorted by nationality and dispatched to camps with non-Jews, some of whom were openly antisemitic.
Although Jewish DPs lobbied for educational and vocational programs, hospitals, newspapers, theaters, sports teams, a registry of survivors, and collection of evidence to help bring Nazis to trial, General George Patton, we learn, ridiculed anyone who believed “that the Displaced Person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly, to the Jews who are lower than animals.” Jewish DPs, Patton insisted, “decline to use latrines, preferring to relieve themselves on the floor.”
Little wonder then,that Earl Harrison, chair of a commission sent by president Harry Truman to investigate DP camps, reported, “As it stands now, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them [behind barbed wire in filthy camps], except that we do not exterminate them.”
By all accounts, the vast majority of Jewish DPs, whose numbers vastly increased in 1946, when tens of thousands of Polish Jews fled their homeland following the Kielce Pogrom and other atrocities, wanted to move to Palestine. Zionism, Nasaw suggests, was for many of them born of the conviction that there was no viable future for Jews in Europe.
Facing pressure from Arabs in the Middle East, the British, who would soon relinquish their mandate over Palestine, refused to allow them to emigrate, intercepted vessels holding DPs the Mossad was smuggling into the region, and returned them to the camps in Germany. In 1948, however, 22,000 DPs took part in the War of Independence, comprising one-third of Israel’s combat soldiers and one-third of its casualties. By 1951, about 250,000 DPs had resettled in Israel.
The Truman administration, Nasaw demonstrates, supported the emigration of Jewish DPs to Palestine because most Americans, members of Congress and State Department officials did not want them to come to the United States. Displaced Persons legislation, according to Anne O’Hare McCormick of The New York Times, “was hedged around with as many restrictions and priorities as if this little group of homeless people – exactly the same human material of which this nation is made – were cargoes of dynamite.”
Although Congressional fact-finding investigators found “no overt” communist activity in DP camps, they insisted the [Jewish] Reds remain in “a dormant state,” since agitation would begin when they reached America. As passed and signed by president Truman, the DP bill mandated that 40% of immigrants come from “annexed nations” and that 30% have agricultural experience. To exclude Polish Jews, the legislation barred anyone who entered a camp after December 1945 from applying.
And the McCarran Internal Security Act, also known as the Subversive Activities Control Act of 1950, made it possible for Nazi collaborators to enter as DPs.
In the end, the United States accepted about 330,000 DPs, 57,000 of them Jews. It was, Truman implied, the best that could have been done under the circumstances. As The Last Million reminds us, however, people in positions of power did not use it to alter those circumstances.
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
THE LAST MILLION
By David Nasaw
Penguin Press
672 pages; $ 35