Journey from slave laborers to displaced persons


The online Virtual Jewish Library states with an encyclopedia-like certainty that the last day of the Holocaust was May 8, 1945.

You might recognize the date as the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allies.

This is inaccurate.

We’re not just splitting hairs here. The British liberated Bergen-Belsen, for example, on April 15, 1945. But 13,000 people died after that date, some succumbing to typhus, others to malnutrition or related problems.

To varied degrees, the scene was similar across the newly liberated camps. Conditions had deteriorated even from the earlier horrific norm. For months in late 1944 into 1945, the populations of these camps had continued to swell ahead of the advancing Russian army coming from the East. Survivors were forced on death marches, often without food or water, to be used as labor or just left to die if not strong enough.

Eventually, the prisoners who made it to liberation and then clung to life in the aftermath began to regain some strength. Still, was there any hope of a normal life in the future?

They went from being prisoners or slave laborers to something new and unknown: “Displaced Persons.” Yes, they were refugees, but that doesn’t quite explain it. They had been not merely ripped from their homes. Nothing remained but memories.

Communities were shattered, their culture obliterated. Even in places that had not been physically destroyed, different people now occupied their houses — and intended to keep them.

William Samelson, a survivor of Buchenwald, wrote: “The world itself gave me a new identity; I was a displaced person. I belonged nowhere, lost and uprooted, a victim of war and circumstances.”

The first goal was to connect, to find lost family and friends. Bulletin boards sprung up and a system created of communication between towns. Many found confirmations of the loss they already felt in their hearts, but some did have joyful reunions.

They began to use skills that they already possessed or ones they had forced to acquire.

The authorities recognized that this growing number of people needed somewhere to stay. Camps for displaced persons were created, some on the very ground where a Nazi concentration camp had stood. Much like the Nazi system there were hundreds of locations, some large, others in small buildings such as schools.

The larger DP camps became, more or less, permanent homes. Even if the situation were necessary, it seemed extremely cruel.

Herman Yablokoff, the Yiddish Theater star, recognized this. He traveled in 1947 to Germany to entertain the DPs, the refugees of war, who bombarded him with questions, asking why they had no other place to go. At one concert, he spoke directly to this: “My dear fellow Jews, I have not brought you the liberation you have been waiting for. I have not brought you the food packages and the clothing you so desperately need. I have not brought you any British certifications to get legally to Palestine nor visas to America. In short I have not brought you the freedom you long for.”

Instead he sang them a song, “Nisht Gezogt” with the message, don’t despair.

Some had to wait a long time for true freedom. The last DP camp did not close until the early 1950s. The majority of those kept in confinement went to Israel, after the state was created. Many came to the United States, while others went to the United Kingdom, South America and elsewhere.

Even with the continued hardship, while displaced persons camps existed, the lives of the survivors slowly revived. Marriages were conducted, babies were born. Life in them was never normal, and often difficult, but it allowed a little space to dream of the future. For the most part they went on to lead successful, valuable lives. Perhaps for them it was a way station on the journey of life.

Jeremy Kay is the executive director of Library of the Holocaust and a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s Holocaust Commission.

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