NEW YORK — Most people would not consider a mere five years to be an “era,” that term generally being reserved for far longer spans of time.
And yet, as is evident from Ben Shephard’s masterful book, “The Long Road Home, The Aftermath of the Second World War,” published this month in the United States, the five years following the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and the end of World War II in the spring of 1945, when hundreds of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors as well as non-Jewish erstwhile forced laborers from various parts of Eastern Europe languished in Displaced Persons (DP) camps, indeed constituted an era.
“The concept of the ‘displaced persons,’ ” writes Shephard, “determined the shape of the Allied humanitarian effort after the war . . . because, as it turned out, the war’s most important legacy was a refugee crisis. When the dust had settled and all those who wished to had returned home, there remained in Germany, Austria and Italy a residue of some 1 million people who were mot inclined to go back to their own countries — Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, and Yugoslavs.”
By way of full disclosure, my father, Josef Rosensaft, who headed both the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the British Zone of Germany and the Jewish Committee that administered the Bergen-Belsen DP camp, is featured in “The Long Road Home,” and Shephard graciously refers to me in his acknowledgments.
The complex, often-haphazard efforts by the Americans and British military to regulate humanitarian relief efforts in the context of rapidly changing geopolitical challenges are laid forth in comprehensive detail in “The Long Road Home.” So is the inability of the victorious Allies and different relief agencies to adequately deal with the physical and psychological human condition of the men, women and children who found themselves stranded in a political, cultural and economic no man’s land. The public anti-Semitic utterances of Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan, the decorated British Army officer who served as chief of operations of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, proved to be a major distraction until he was eventually fired from his post.
It took the Americans and the British quite some time to figure out that Jews who had emerged from death camps and whose families, homes, and communities had been completely destroyed had radically different needs and aspirations than Polish or Ukrainian Christians who had endured a far different plight. While the Jewish DPs strove to rebuild their shattered lives and played a critical role in the struggle to establish the State of Israel, the non-Jewish DPs had no clear ideological or other mission other than to exist while waiting, mostly passively, for the next chapter of their lives to unfurl.
Shephard’s discussion of the critical rehabilitative function of Zionism for the Jewish DPs is especially instructive. David Ben-Gurion, who visited some of the DP camps in the fall of 1945, intuitively understood the public relations value of Jewish survivors of the death camps clamoring for a homeland. When Bartley Crum, an American member of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine, urged a young Jewish DP to have patience, the latter replied, “How can you talk to us of patience? After six years of this war, after all our parents have been burned in the gas ovens, you talk to us of patience?”
At the same time, Shephard neither idealizes the prevailing conditions nor ignores the obstacles faced by Jewish Holocaust survivors in their efforts to forge a destiny for themselves. When many of them ultimately decided to go to the United States, Canada and elsewhere, Rabbi Abraham Klausner, a Jewish chaplain in the American Zone of Germany who had played a pivotal role in organizing the survivors there into a political force, argued that the DPs “should be forced to go to Palestine . . . They are not to be asked but told what to do.”
In sharp contrast, Shephard vividly describes my father’s disillusionment during an April 1949 visit to the newly independent State of Israel where he had been “received at the highest levels.” “His presence,” Shephard writes, “happened to coincide with the arrival of a transport of Jews from Belsen, and he was shocked by the living conditions in the transit camp they were sent to. A previous transport, forced to live in waterlogged huts, had even asked the Israeli authorities to send them back to Belsen.” Upon his return to Belsen, Shephard continues, my father “gave a powerful speech to the Jews in the camp, telling them that Israel was a wonderful but difficult country. He urged them to go there as long as they were prepared for the harsh conditions they would encounter there. He also warned them that they would be on their own. ‘Ben-Gurion will not meet you at the boat,’ he said, ‘and Eliezer Kaplan [Israel ’s first finance minister] will not present you with a check.’ ”
With its thorough and compassionate depiction of the DP era as a whole, “The Long Road Home” establishes beyond question the period’s pivotal importance as an integral element of, rather than a mere postscript to, the respective, intertwined histories of both World War II and the Holocaust. It is also a book that should be required reading for anyone who seeks to obtain an insight into the capacity of ordinary individuals to confront and, for the most part, overcome the consequences of persecution and dire devastation.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft, an adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School, distinguished visiting lecturer at the Syracuse University College of Law, and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)