Displaced Jews in Europe

Migration Following World War II in Europe - 1945-1951

Jewish Refugee
Kurt Hutton/ Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

Approximately six million European Jews were killed during the Holocaust during World War II. Many of the European Jews who survived the persecution and death camps had nowhere to go after V-E Day, May 8, 1945. Not only had Europe been practically destroyed but many survivors did not want to return to their pre-war homes in Poland or Germany. Jews became Displaced Persons (also known as DPs) and spent time in helter-skelter camps, some of which were located at former concentration camps.

The preferred migration destination for almost all survivors of the genocide was a Jewish homeland in Palestine. That dream eventually came true for many.

As the Allies were taking Europe back from Germany in 1944-1945, the Allied armies "liberated" the Nazi concentration camps. These camps, which housed from a few dozen to thousands of survivors, were complete surprises for most of the liberating armies. The armies were overwhelmed by the misery, by the victims who were so thin and near-death. A dramatic example of what the soldiers found upon liberation of the camps occurred at Dachau where a train load of 50 boxcars of prisoners sat on the railroad for days, as the Germans were escaping. There were about 100 people in each boxcar and of the 5,000 prisoners, about 3,000 were already dead upon the arrival of the army.

Thousands of "survivors" died in the days and weeks following liberation, the military buried the dead in individual and mass graves.

Generally, the Allied armies rounded up concentration camp victims and forced them to remain in the confines of the camp, under armed guard.

Medical personnel were brought into the camps to care for the victims and food supplies were provided but conditions in the camps were dismal. When available, nearby SS living quarters were used as hospitals.

Victims had no method of contacting relatives, as they were not allowed to send or receive mail. Victims slept in their bunkers, wore their camp uniforms, and were not allowed to leave the barbed-wire camps, all whilst the German population outside of the camps was able to try to return to normal life. The military reasoned that the victims (now prisoners) could not roam the countryside in fear that they would attack civilians.

By June, word of poor treatment of Holocaust survivors reached Washington, D.C. President Harry S. Truman, anxious to appease concerns, sent Earl G. Harrison, the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, to Europe to investigate the ramshackle DP camps. Harrison was shocked by the conditions he found,

As things stand now, 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. (Proudfoot, 325)
Harrison found that the DPs overwhelmingly wanted to go to Palestine. In fact, in survey after survey of the DPs, they indicated their first choice of migration was to Palestine and their second choice of destination was also Palestine. In one camp, victims where told to pick a different second location and not to write Palestine a second time. A significant proportion of them wrote "crematoria." (Long Way Home)

Harrison strongly recommended to President Truman that 100,000 Jews, the approximate number of DPs in Europe at the time, be allowed to enter Palestine. As the United Kingdom controlled Palestine, Truman contacted the British Prime Minister, Clement Atlee with the recommendation but Britain demurred, fearing repercussions (especially problems with oil) from Arab nations if Jews were allowed into the Middle East. Britain convened a joint United States-United Kingdom committee, the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, to investigate the status of DPs. Their report, issued in April 1946, concurred with the Harrison report and recommended that 100,000 Jews be allowed into Palestine.

Atlee ignored the recommendation and proclaimed that 1,500 Jews would be allowed to migrate to Palestine each month. This quota of 18,000 a year continued until the British rule in Palestine ended in 1948.

Following the Harrison report, President Truman called for major changes to the treatment of Jews in the DP camps. Jews who were DPs were originally accorded status based on their country of origin and did not have separate status as Jews. General Dwight D. Eisenhower complied with Truman’s request and began to implement changes in the camps, making them more humanitarian. Jews became a separate group in the camps so Polish Jews no longer had to live with other Poles and German Jews no longer had to live with Germans, who, in some cases were operatives or even guards in the concentration camps. DP camps were established throughout Europe and those in Italy served as congregation points for those attempting to flee to Palestine.

Trouble in Eastern Europe in 1946 more than doubled the number of displaced persons. At the beginning of the war, about 150,000 Polish Jews escaped to the Soviet Union. In 1946 these Jews began being repatriated to Poland. There were reasons enough for Jews not to want to remain in Poland but one incident in particular convinced them to emigrate. On July 4, 1946 there was a pogrom against the Jews of Kielce and 41 people were killed and 60 were seriously injured.

By the winter of 1946/1947, there were about a quarter of a million DPs in Europe.

Truman conceded to loosen immigration laws in the United States and brought thousands of DPs into America. The priority immigrants were orphaned children. Over the course of 1946 to 1950, over 100,000 Jews migrated to the United States.

Overwhelmed by international pressures and opinions, Britain placed the matter of Palestine into the hands of the United Nations in February 1947. In the fall of 1947, the General Assembly voted to partition Palestine and create two independent states, one Jewish and the other Arab. Fighting immediately broke out between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Even with the U.N.’s decision, Britain still kept firm control of Palestinian immigration until the very end.

Britain’s refusal to allow DPs into Palestine was plagued with problems. Jews formed an organization called Brichah (flight) for the purpose of smuggling immigrants (Aliya Bet, "illegal immigration") to Palestine.

Jews were moved to Italy, which they often did, on foot. From Italy, ships and crew were rented for the passage across the Mediterranean to Palestine. Some of the ships made it past a British naval blockade of Plalestine but most did not. The passengers of captured ships were forced to disembark in Cyprus, where the British operated DP camps.

The British government began sending DPs to camps on Cyprus in August 1946. DPs shipped to Cyprus were then able to apply for legal immigration to Palestine. The British Royal Army ran the camps on the island. Armed patrols guarded the perimeters to prevent escape. Fifty-two thousand Jews were interned and 2200 babies were born on Cyprus between 1946 and 1949 on the island. Approximately 80% of the internees were between the ages of 13 and 35. Jewish organization was strong in Cyprus and education and job training was internally provided. Leaders on Cyprus often became initial government officials in the new state of Israel.

One shipload of refugees heightened concern for DPs throughout the world. Brichah moved 4,500 refugees from DP camps in Germany to a port near Marseilles, France in July 1947 where they boarded Exodus. The Exodus departed France but was being watched by the British navy. Even before it entered the territorial waters of Palestine, destroyers forced the boat to the port at Haifa. The Jews resisted and the British killed three and wounded will machine guns and teargas. The British ultimately forced the passengers to disembark and they were placed on British vessels, not for deportation to Cyprus, as was the usual policy, but to France.

The British wanted to pressure the French to take responsibility for the 4,500. The Exodus sat in the French port for a month as the French refused to force the refugees to disembark but they did offer asylum to those who wished to voluntarily leave. Not one did. In an attempt to force the Jews off the ship, the British announced that the Jews would be taken back to Germany. Still, no one disembarked. When the ship arrived in Hamburg, Germany in September 1947, soldiers dragged each passenger off of the ship in front of reporters and camera operators. Truman and the much of the world watched and knew that a Jewish state needed to be established.

On May 14, 1948 the British government left Palestine and the State of Israel as proclaimed the same day. The United States was the first country to recognize the new State.

Legal immigration began in earnest, even though the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, did not approve the "Law of Return," which allows any Jew to migrate to Israel and become a citizen, until July 1950.

Immigration to Israel increased rapidly, despite war against Arab neighbors. On May 15, 1948, the first day of Israeli statehood, 1700 immigrants arrived. There was an average of 13,500 immigrants each month from May through December of 1948, far exceeding the prior legal migration approved by the British of 1500 per month.

Ultimately, the survivors of the Holocaust were able to emigrate to Israel, the United States, or a host of other countries. The State of Israel accepted as many that were willing to come. Israel worked with the arriving DPs to teach them job skills, provide employment, and to help the immigrants help build the State that it is today.

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Rosenberg, Matt. "Displaced Jews in Europe." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/displaced-jews-in-europe-1435462. Rosenberg, Matt. (2017, March 3). Displaced Jews in Europe. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/displaced-jews-in-europe-1435462 Rosenberg, Matt. "Displaced Jews in Europe." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/displaced-jews-in-europe-1435462 (accessed December 11, 2017).