Like all Jewish kids of my generation, I grew up with the Holocaust. As a child, I was introduced to Grete Hirsch, a kind, somewhat frail, quiet grandmotherly woman whom — my parents told me in whispers — had survived the camps. They then tried to explain, as gently as possible, what that meant. As a teenager, I played Anne Frank’s boyfriend in a high school production and imagined myself into the attic hideaway. In college, I read Primo Levi, Eli Wiesel, and the standard Holocaust literature. As a Ph. D. student in history, I delved more deeply into the debates about precedents, guilt, reparations, and redemption in Israel and argued with my father about whether FDR, whom he worshipped, could have done more to rescue the Jews. As a young father, I spent a year teaching on a Fulbright fellowship at Hebrew University and, with my wife, learned from our twins’ second-grade teacher how Israeli educators had put together a Holocaust curriculum designed to teach the Holocaust to the young without traumatizing them.
All along, I assumed — for nowhere had I heard anything to the contrary — that the suffering of the minority of European Jews who had survived the killing fields and gas chambers, the concentration and labor and death camps, had ended with their liberation on Victory in Europe Day (May 8, 1945); that with the defeat and unconditional surrender of the Nazis, the sun came out again, the camp gates were opened, the sequestered came out of hiding, and the people of the world, of the United States in particular — who had done so little to save the six million — opened their hearts to welcome the survivors. Anything less than this was unimaginable. I should have known better. The suffering, displacement, death, and destruction of the innocent that are a byproduct of war do not magically vanish with the cessation of hostilities.
The suffering, displacement, death, and destruction of the innocent that are a byproduct of war do not magically vanish with the cessation of hostilities.
On liberation, the Jewish survivors who were strong enough to leave the camps, on stretchers or on foot, were separated out by nationality and transported by American and British troops to assembly centers and displaced persons camps in Germany. The Polish Jews were moved into facilities with non-Jewish Poles, the Lithuanian Jews with non-Jewish Lithuanians, sometimes with those who families had stolen from them, tortured them, or served over them as kapos, or guards, in the camps. Only after a special advisor dispatched by U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Morgenthau, the State Department, and President Truman reported back to Washington that it appeared to him — and to others — that the Jewish survivors were being treated “As the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them” where they relocated to their own displaced persons camps, where they would remain, in the land of their murderers, for the next three to five years.
The White House, Congress, the American public, and, with some exceptions, the American Jewish community did little, if anything, to resettle the Jewish survivors. The She’erit Hapletah,or surviving remnant as they called themselves, did not despair. They buried and mourned and remembered the dead, and simultaneously vowed to one another that they would — they must — rebuild a Jewish community in Palestine and the Diaspora.
They buried and mourned and remembered the dead, and simultaneously vowed to one another that they would — they must — rebuild a Jewish community.
As I did the research for my book, The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War, as I read hundreds of oral histories, testimonies, witness accounts, memoranda and correspondence from the military occupation forces in Germany to and from Washington and London and Moscow and the United Nations, I marveled at the fortitude of the survivors, the inhumane callousness of those who might have rescued them from their purgatory but did not, and the absolute refusal of the British Labour government to open the gates of Palestine to the survivors. I was rattled, dismayed, hurt, and angered by the American congressmen and State Department officials who resurrected the hoary myth of a Jewish/Bolshevik conspiracy to argue that the Jewish survivors must not be admitted to our nation because they were subversives, incendiaries, Communist sympathizers, if not clandestine operatives, whose goal it was to undermine American values and destroy our democracy.
Congress did eventually pass, and President Truman signed into law, a Displaced Persons Act in June 1948, three years after VE Day. But this act, as a handful of Jewish activists argued at the time — and were ignored — made matters worse, as it rendered ineligible for visas ninety percent of the Jewish survivors, while giving precedence to agricultural workers and Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian displaced persons. While the Jews were banned because of security concerns, the law did nothing to block the entrance of the significant number of war criminals and Nazi collaborators who, disguising their pasts, had sought and been granted refuge in the displaced persons camps.
I was astounded by what I found, but more than that, I was bewildered and embarrassed that, as a Jew and an American historian, I had known nothing of this until I began my research.
David Nasaw is the author of The Patriarch, selected by the New York Times as one of the 10 Best Books of the Year and a 2013 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Biography; Andrew Carnegie, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, the recipient of the New-York Historical Society’s American History Book Prize, and a 2007 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Biography; and The Chief, which was awarded the Bancroft Prize for History and the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize for Nonfiction. He is a past president of the Society of American Historians, and until 2019 he served as the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Professor of History at the CUNY Graduate Center.