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Section: Survival and legacy

Survivors and the Displaced Persons era

Two women photographed with a baby inside the DP camp at Bergen-Belsen in 1947, which was formally the SS officers’ barracks.
Marianne Heitlerova, a nurse working for the Jewish Relief Unit (JRU) in the Displaced Persons (DP) camps, explains the difficult situation facing DPs in a letter to her employers at the Jewish Committee for Relief Abroad (JCRA) dated 11 April 1947.
To receive aid, all Displaced Persons were registered by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRAA), the international organisation in charge of administering relief and aid. This card was issued to Magda Aarts, a 33-year-old Jew from Holland on 12 February 1948.
The cover of the 1946 issue 9 of Unzer Szlyme (Our Voice), the Zionist camp newspaper produced in Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp. The paper was extremely popular and became the main newspaper read by Jewish DPs in the British zone of occupied Germany.

Although liberation, brought freedom to those persecuted and imprisoned by the Nazis, it was also a time of confusion and difficulty. Those who had survived the Holocaust had to come to terms with the loss of their family, home, friends, businesses and belongings. For many, there was nowhere and no one to return to. On top of this, camp survivors in particular also suffered from poor health due to years of malnutrition and poor sanitation. In Bergen-Belsen alone, 13,000 people died following liberation as a result of the conditions in the camp. Liberation marked the beginning of a complex and difficult journey for survivors to reconstruct their lives.

Many survivors wished to emigrate and start a new life abroad. For the majority, this new life was either in Palestine or the United States of America. However, in the immediate post-war period, both of these options were, for the most part, closed to survivors.

Palestine was still under British control until November 1947 (at which time the United Nations voted to split Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state). It was not until 14 May 1948 that the Jewish Agency declared Israel an independent state and mass immigration was permitted. The United States of America continued to operate a restrictive immigration policy in the initial post-war years, which made mass emigration to the country impossible. Between 1945-1948 survivors’ options, then, were limited.

To care for survivors and the many other people uprooted by the war, the Allies created Displaced Persons (DP) camps as temporary accommodation. In addition to those housed in DP camps, some survivors lived in external accommodation in towns or cities across post-war Germany. All survivors were supported by gemeinden (Jewish communities).

Displaced Persons camps

By the spring of 1945, approximately eight million people had been displaced from their homes by the war. By autumn 1945, the Allies had repatriated six to seven million of these people. The one million or so people who remained (approximately 250,000 of which were Jewish) became a somewhat more permanent problem in postwar Europe (primarily in Germany). To care and provide a temporary residence for these people, Displaced Persons’ (DP) camps were created.

Many of the DP camps were set up on the sites of former concentration camps or military barracks. Conditions inside were often unsanitary due to severe overcrowding and a lack of supplies in the post-war period. Initially, all displaced persons (which included military personnel, concentration camp survivors, prisoners of war and slave labourers) were grouped together in the camps according to nationality. This meant that some Jewish survivors found themselves in camps alongside their former oppressors, simply because they both happened to be from the same country.

US President Truman sent Earl G. Harrison, former US Commissioner for Immigration and Representative of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, to investigate. Harrison conducted  a tour of the DP camps in July 1945, paying special attention to the situation of Jewish DPs. Harrison recommended the creation of separate camps for Jewish DPs to cater for their specific needs. In December 1945, the British zone of Germany also created separate camps for Jewish DPs, recognising their special needs as a result of their traumatic experiences.

Challenges

The DP camps were plagued by various difficulties throughout their existence including: a lack of professionally trained staff, shortages in medical supplies, food, and clothing in relation to the number of camp inhabitants, the difficulty of dealing with the psychological effects of persecution on survivors, rising antisemitism on local and international fronts, the number of orphans and new children born within the camps.

These issues were extremely frustrating for the survivors, who had experienced significant trauma throughout the war years and were desperate to restart their lives.

Culture

Cultural activities in the DP camps thrived. With the support of relief organisations, DPs opened schools, celebrated religious holidays, founded camp newspapers and publications, created new literature, music, and theatre and formed sports teams. Zionism also enjoyed particular popularity in this period and setting, and as such there were various Zionist-orientated groups, publications, performances, protests and rallies.

Weddings and births were also commonplace in the DP camps.

Closure

The creation of Israel, in combination with the United States Displaced Persons Act of June 1948 (which allowed the admission of 200,000 European refugees into the United States of America), allowed mass emigration out of Europe and dramatically altered situation for DPs in Germany. By 1951, 177,109 Jews had left Europe for Palestine (through legal or illegal methods) – leaving just 20,000 Jews in Germany [Margarete Myers Feinstein, Holocaust Survivors in Postwar Germany, 1945-1957 (United States of America: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 294]. The DP camps in Germany closed one after the other, until, by 1952, only one DP camp, Föhrenwald, remained (it eventually shut in 1957).

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Föhrenwald

Föhrenwald was a large DP camp converted from slave labourer’s accommodation. It was opened in June 1945 and was situated south-west of Munich in the American zone of occupied Germany. It held approximately 4000 residents. Following the Harrison Report it became a Jewish-only DP camp on 3 October 1945.

After the mass closures of the DP camps between 1948-1950, the last group of DPs who were unable to emigrate – either because they were too ill or elderly – were transferred to Föhrenwald. This group became known as the ‘hard core’.

With the most desperate DPs concentrated there, Föhrenwald continued to exist until the last DPs were rehoused in newly built apartments on 28 February 1957. With Föhrenwald’s closure, the post-Second World War DP era was, officially at least, closed.

Föhrenwald

The laundrette at Föhrenwald Displaced Persons Camp in 1946. Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

German-Jewish communities outside of camps

Not all Jewish Displaced Persons (DPs) lived in camps, some chose to live outside of the DP camp framework with the help of Gemeinden (Jewish Communities).

The Gemeinden were supported in their activities by large relief agencies, such as the Jewish Relief Unit (JRU) and American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

The Gemeinden helped Jewish DPs with issues such as housing, food, medical care, proof of wartime persecution, and property claims. As well as this, the Gemeinden also often served as a community centre, organising cultural, educational and social events. The Gemeinden also defended Jewish DPs interests when they were threatened, such as in the case of the rising vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and rising antisemitism from 1947.

Many DPs also worked for their local gemeinden, helping with administration, translation or educational activities.

Landsberg Displaced Persons Camp

The Landsberg Displaced Persons (DP) Camp was established in the summer of 1945. It was situated west of Munich in the American zone of occupation and was adapted from a former Wehrmacht barracks. Around five thousand DPs lived there, making it the second largest camp in that zone.

Cultural life in the camp flourished, with democratic internal elections, a weekly newspaper (which was extremely popular across the whole of the American zone), several schools, a hospital, a radio, a theatre and a choir. The camp also had several schemes to help DPs prepare for life beyond the camp, such as the trade school, ran by the relief organisation ORT (Association for the Promotion of Skilled Trades).

Religious life was quickly re-established and there were celebrations of religious holidays, celebrations, weddings, study groups and schools. As with most DP camps, Zionism thrived and enjoyed popular support.

Following the establishment of Israel in 1948, and the United States Displaced Persons Act, the camps’ population quickly reduced. It closed on 15 October 1950, and shortly afterwards all remaining inhabitants were relocated.

Jewish Relief Unit

The Jewish Relief Unit (JRU) was the operational arm of the Jewish Committee for Relief Abroad (JCRA), a British charity formed in 1943 that focussed on relief work abroad, and in particular on providing assistance to Jews in Europe.

JRU field workers worked in the Displaced Persons (DP) camps and communities across Germany from August 1945 – September 1950. Although the JRU was a small relief organisation with a short life, it had an extraordinary impact. The JRU helped DPs in the acquisition of identity documents and tracing missing family members, in the provision of child welfare clinics, and with medical, educational, and cultural services.

The JRU officially stopped its activities in Germany, Austria and Italy in the summer of 1950. In their termination letter, J. Donald Kingsley, the Director-General of the International Refugee Organisation, noted the exceptional contribution that the JRU had made to the DPs, stating ‘this record has been so consistent in the tributes paid to your work by all of our field offices that I cannot fail to mention it’ [J. Donald Kingsley to Leonard Cohen, 13 September 1950, Lady Rose Henriques Archive, 52/53, HA19/1-3/6, The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections].

The JCRA held its last meeting on 11 October 1950, whereby it was formally disbanded.

The International Tracing Service

The International Tracing Service (ITS), now known as the Arolsen Archives, is an archive based in Bad Arolsen, Germany, containing over 30 million pages of Holocaust-era documents relating to the fate of over 17.5 million people. The ITS was originally founded to centralise postwar efforts to trace missing persons and help survivors discover the fate of family and friends caught up in the Holocaust and Nazi persecution during the Second World War. The creation of the ITS was disjointed and messy: it emerged out of several, separate (and sometimes competing) efforts by numerous organisations at various points, during and in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

One of the primary strands of the archive was created by the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) in Versailles, France, in 1944, as Allied forces liberated Europe and discovered thousands of people who had been displaced by the war (Displaced Persons – DPs). In order to begin helping, organising and repatriating these people, SHAEF requested that all DPs be registered and issued with an identification card.

As the Allies’ war effort progressed further into Europe, the documentation and tracing efforts of the Allies’ military forces followed and they moved to Frankfurt am Main, Germany. After SHAEF was dissolved in July 1945, the tracing efforts were temporarily taken over by the Combined Displaced Persons Executive of the Allied Control (CDPX) before being handed over to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRAA) in September 1945. Shortly after, the archive moved to Bad Arolsen.

UNRRA was put in charge of uniting the efforts of the various organisations, including indexing for names and organising Nazi documents that had been gathered during liberation, such as concentration camp and ghetto records, transport lists, Gestapo and police documents, and records of forced labour. This resulted in the creation of the Central Tracing Bureau (CTB), an archive that encompassed available documentation and centralised the search for missing people and Displaced Persons.

After UNRRA ceased to exist in 1947, it passed the CTB onto its successor, the International Refugee Organisation (IRO). In 1948, the IRO renamed the CTB the International Tracing Service (ITS). During this initial period of its existence between 1945 and 1955, the ITS primarily focused on helping people discover the fate of their relatives and other missing persons, registering and interviewing DPs, as well as conducting research projects, such as the ‘graves re-check’, which attempted to map the routes of the death marches and establish who died and where.

In 1955, an International Commission (IC) for the ITS was established to permanently govern the archive. The IC was originally composed of nine countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, United Kingdom and the United States of America), although this was later expanded to eleven with the inclusion of Poland and Greece. The IC oversaw the archive, but between 1955 and 2012, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) managed its administration and general running.

Under the supervision of the Red Cross, the ITS functioned as a closed archive, meaning only those who worked there could access the documents. On request, it continued to help people trace their relatives and friends, although the process was often inefficient and extremely slow. It also aided the German Government and helped provide documents for restitution claims.

In 2006, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) led efforts to lobby the ITS to open its doors to the rest of the world and become an open archive for research. After significant initial opposition, the IC voted unanimously to open the archive and allow each IC member a digital copy for its citizens to access in their own country. Following this vote, the Red Cross felt it was no longer an appropriate organisation to lead an active research archive, rather than a tracing organisation, and withdrew its guardianship. It was replaced by the German Federal Archives, who continue its maintenance today.

In December 2011, the United Kingdom’s digital copy of the archive was deposited at The Wiener Holocaust Library, where it is still used to help historians and relatives of victims uncover what happened to hundreds of victims of Nazi persecution each year. In 2020, for example, ITS researchers at the Library investigated the experiences of over 326 victims of the Holocaust.

The ITS remains a crucial archive to understanding the history and long-lasting effects of the Holocaust and those who survived. As historian Dan Stone writes, the documents preserved in Bad Arolsen, ‘speak first and foremost to the ongoing suffering of Holocaust victims; [that] there was no ‘happy ending’ in 1945’ but, equally as important, these documents can also be used ‘to write a history of Nazi persecution focused on the victims that does not neglect the perpetrators’ [Dan Stone, “The Memory of the Archive: The International Tracing Service and the Construction of the Past as History”, Dapim: Studies on the Holocaust 31:2, (2017), 69-88, 87]. Using perpetrator and postwar documents, the ITS continues to help historians to reinstate the voices of the victims and survivors, without ignoring those that inflicted their conditions.

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The United Kingdom Search Bureau

One strand of early tracing efforts prior to the creation of the ITS was the United Kingdom Search Bureau (UKSB).

In November 1943, the Jewish Refugees Committee convened a meeting of various organisations in Britain to establish a Central Search Bureau (which then came to be known as the United Kingdom Search Bureau – UKSB – in 1944), chaired by Otto Schiff and initially administered by Joan Stiebel followed by Anita Wolf-Warburg.

The aim of the UKSB was to centralise and increase the efficiency of early tracing efforts among the many organisations in Britain, including the Women’s Voluntary Services, the Association of Jewish Refugees and the Quakers, which had all begun to receive enquiries from refugees in Britain about the fate of their families abroad. As tracing efforts were dependant on good international communication, the British Red Cross was the natural organisation to lead the newly created bureau, and, in 1944, the UKSB was incorporated into its Foreign Relations department under the leadership of Sydney Jeanetta Warner.  Despite having extremely limited resources and funding, between 1944 and 1947, the UKSB received 88,000 enquiries, and determined the fate of 49,000 persons, which, as historian Christine Schmidt asserts, was ‘no small accomplishment for a relatively short-lived operation’ [Christine Schmidt, “Those Left Behind, Early Search Efforts in Wartime and Post-War Britain”, in Henning Borggräfe, Christian Höschler, and Isabel Panek (eds), Tracing and Documenting Nazi Victims Past and Present (De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2020), 111].

Although it intended to continue for as long as was necessary, ultimately, the UKSB and the British Red Cross were side-lined from the centralisation of tracing services by the Allied military tracing efforts which culminated in the establishment of the ITS in 1947. This marginalisation was primarily due to contrasting priorities; whereas the Red Cross, of which the UKSB was part, were ‘ready to respond to all enquiries, no matter the nationality of those submitting them […] this inclusivity did not reflect the goals of UNRRA and the military’ [Schmidt, 112]. In light of the developing Cold War and resettlement and immigration policies, the priorities of UNRRA and the Allied military forces – and therefore the ITS – were shaped not only by humanitarian aims, but also political considerations, too.

By 31 October 1947, the UKSB had concluded the majority of its activities, and the ITS became the centralised tracing organisation for survivors of the Holocaust and Displaced Persons in Europe.

The United Kingdom Search Bureau

A pamphlet documenting the efforts of the UK Search Bureau between June 1944 – April 1946. Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

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