Eric Lichtblau’s News Analysis, “Surviving the Nazis, Only to be Jailed by America” (Sunday Review, Feb. 7, 2015) provides, unfortunately, a distorted, confusing, and only very partial account of an important story that remains – despite numerous comprehensive historical studies – too little known and understood: the postwar experience of Jewish Displaced Persons in Allied occupied Europe between 1945 and 1949. Earl Harrison’s August 1945 Report to President Truman did indeed contain the oft-cited hyperbolic, deliberately sensational statement about American victors “treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except [sic] that we do not exterminate them.” More importantly, however, it insisted, in dramatic contrast to general Allied policy, that since Jews had experienced a “more barbaric persecution” than other initially more numerous non-Jewish DPs they had become “ as they themselves argued, "a separate group with greater needs.” Harrison thereby set the groundwork for the rapid establishment of separate all-Jewish DP camps where the quite remarkable efforts of U.S. Military Government (without Patton who had been removed from his command by Eisenhower and was killed in an automobile accident already in December 1945), the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), Jewish relief organizations (especially the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee), and not least, the DPs themselves, supported a vibrant social, cultural, and political life, marked by Zionist activism and the formation of new families.
These c. 250,000 Jewish DPs did not, alas, comprise “hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors discovered barely alive in the Nazi camps” but rather a diverse “surviving remnant” of East European Jewry: only some 60,000 Jews who had survived liberation on German soil as well as former partisans, hidden Jews, and – the largest and least recognized group – Polish Jews who had managed to survive in the Soviet Union, were repatriated to Poland, and then fled again to the American zone of Germany, where US policy, initiated by Harrison and supported by Truman assured them a temporary safe if frustrating transitional haven in which to begin new lives. This is a complicated story, not easily captured in a brief dramatic news piece but survivors, their families, and all Americans concerned with the treatment of refugees deserve fuller more accurate reporting than this ill-informed article.
Professor of History, Cooper Union; currently Fellow, Davis Center for Historical Studies, Princeton University. Author of Jews, Germans, and Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied Germany (Princeton University Press, 2007)
I would also add to Harold Marcuse’s post that this NYT article -- with its inevitable photo of the striped pajama Buchenwald survivors -- demonstrates once again that there are at least two major historical confusions that are continually rehearsed and need clarification:
1). There is a huge difference between US immigration policy, which was indeed restrictive and in effect discriminated against Jews, and US policy toward Jewish DPs in Germany, which was actually, after the very first chaotic months, remarkably supportive, especially in its willingness to accept "infiltrees" from Eastern Europe, enable semi-autonomous internal self-government, and cooperate with Zionist activists. The latter of course fit all too well with the other piece, namely the restrictive immigration policy, because support for emigration to Palestine obviously took the pressure off demands for opening the doors to the United States.
2) The incredibly misinformed reference in the article to "hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors" who were liberated "barely alive" by the Americans and the link to the photo once again demonstrates the continuing confusion about who the "survivors" actually were (a confusion that remains inscribed in virtually all public memory and commemoration of “survivors”): that only a very small minority (as I try to point out quickly in the letter) of the Jewish DPs were "direct" survivors while by 1946/47 as the numbers did approach "hundreds of thousands," most were Polish Jews who had been repatriated to Poland from their harsh but life-saving exile in the Soviet Union and then, confronted with the "vast graveyard" of post-Holocaust Poland, Sovietization, and violent antisemitism, fled again, to the American zone of occupied Germany where they became the "DPs" referenced in the article.