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The War’s Lost Souls—and the Birth of a Nation

By Gene Santoro
8/4/2011 • Interviews, World War II Conversations

In 1945, tens of millions of displaced persons, DPs, filled Germany and Western Europe. Many came from France, the Low Countries, and Italy, but most were Eastern Europeans. In The Long Road Home, historian Ben Shephard, who produced the documentary The World At War, painstakingly reconstructs this epic humanitarian crisis and how the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration faced the challenge. “Preparations for the war’s end were being made around the time of Dunkirk, when there was no rational expectation the Allies would win,” he explains. “This fascinated me. Did they get the aftermath they prepared for? It also sharply contrasts with the Iraq War, where no one planned and the aftermath was a disaster.” Here, Shephard focuses on one strand of his story: Jewish DPs and Israel’s creation.

Relief planners didn’t have a concept of the Holocaust in 1945. Why?
Let’s be absolutely clear: Six million Jews were killed, there was a process called the Final Solution. The Allies were aware of this in various ways from at least the end of 1942, but it didn’t really become part of the relief policy process. Historians still argue about the reasons. Remember, lots of things are going on simultaneously. There’s an immense displacement of people during the Second World War alongside what we now call the Holocaust. So the Allies see slave laborers being brought into Germany to work—some 7 million in Germany itself, countless millions more in German-occupied territory. As early as 1942–43, Allied planners had in place a bureaucratic terminology based on the concept of the DP. They tended to place what they knew of the Holocaust within that context. DPs included those slave laborers, POWs, and Jews. When Allied soldiers went into Bergen-Belsen in 1945, they referred to Jewish prisoners as DPs—not Holocaust survivors, as we’d now call them. So did the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and other aid workers.

How many DPs were there?
Between 10 and 20 million, though some estimates run higher. Between 1945 and 1946 there’s an elaborate process of people moving to and fro as they try to go home. If they’re from Western Europe, they’re likely to succeed. If they’re from Eastern Europe, they’re more likely to realize they’re unwelcome there and stick around Germany. At the same time, large numbers of Jews who had escaped the Nazis by going to the Soviet Union or by living underground in Poland surface; they tend to move westward as well. When the camps are liberated in April–May 1945, there are around 100,000 Jewish survivors. With all the DP movement, by the end of 1946 you have something like 250,000 Jews in the Allied zones of Germany. The bulk are not concentration camp survivors in the narrow sense, but the ones who escaped. They become part of the process of putting pressure on the British about Palestine, which Britain rules by mandate, because that’s where most of them want to go.

Why do they want to create their own state?
Jews from Lithuania end up near Dachau and survive, because they’ve learned the necessary skills during the war. They quickly become the Jewish leaders in the American zone. They tend to be intellectuals and Zionists with a clear ideology: the war has shown we have nowhere to go in Europe, so where else should we go? Part of their appeal is that they have a coherent sense of the future, which few others have. One key leader is a man named Dr. Zalman Grinberg in Bavaria. He is convinced this path offers hope to people who have lost it. It combats the apathy that claims them when they find their families and friends dead and their homes gone. During this period, a lot of energy goes into finding survivors; people are going back to Lithuania and Poland to see if anyone or anything is there. By 1946, Grinberg and others like him are convinced the only way to give renewed purpose and meaning to these people’s lives is to get them to Palestine.

Why Palestine?
People who had worked on kibbutzim (agricultural communities) there before and during the war became more purposeful again—through a kind of collective psychotherapy. Grinberg and his associates believe nationalism is the key component making this transition work. Then David Ben-Gurion, a central figure among Palestinian Jews, comes to the camps and puts theory into practice.

How?
He sees the tragedy of what happened in Europe, but at the same time, as a consummate political tactician he is very aware the situation opens up opportunities—to create a Jewish state in Palestine, and ease out Chaim Weizmann, the longtime leader of the Zionist movement, who had been far more accommodating to the British than many new Zionists were willing to tolerate. (Note: Ben-Gurion later became Israel’s first prime minister, Weizmann its first president.) Ben-Gurion, who had worked with Weizmann in negotiations with the British from before the war, comes to feel Weizmann just doesn’t have the stuff. He reminds me of Churchill: he has a deep poetic sense of the destiny of the people he’s leading, yet is a politician well aware of how to maneuver to achieve his ends.

How does Ben-Gurion maneuver the British mandate?
He is convinced that under the right sort of pressure the British will not want to hold onto Palestine. During the war, he devises a three-prong strategy: the use of terrorism in Palestine, mobilizing public opinion in the United States, and doing something in Europe. When he sees the DPs in the autumn of 1945, he realizes these Jewish survivors can be used with great effect on the U.S. Army and American public opinion.

Why does he think this will work?
President Truman was very influenced by the 1945 Harrison Report about how the U.S. Army was treating Jewish survivors. It was made public and had a huge effect. The phrase that stuck in everybody’s mind was, “We appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them.” That was quite unfair, actually. But Eisenhower is ordered to investigate, conditions are improved, and it gives Truman an emotional commitment to doing something for these Jews, which persists all the way through to the founding of Israel.

What do the British want?
On the one hand, they don’t want any more trouble in their mandate. They don’t want any more Jews there, that would undermine them, especially with the Arabs. They’ve been dealing with terrorism for years while trying to keep the Arabs and Jews living in the same country. Respectably, key British policy makers say clearly, “We do not accept what the Germans say, that Jews all belong to one nation. There are German Jews, Austrian Jews, Polish Jews, and so on, and there is a future for them in Europe.” But it rapidly becomes apparent that this view isn’t shared by many Jews.

How does Ben-Gurion finesse this?
Besides Grinberg, there are some quite charismatic people among the Jewish survivors. They were sent to the U.S. in late 1945 and early 1946, after the Harrison Report, to make appearances to raise money and awareness on behalf of the United Jewish Appeal. Americans, Jewish and not, felt guilty over what had happened during the war, and this guilt was exploited to produce an enormous flow of money. That meant the Jewish DPs in Europe were much more effectively aided than any others.

How many went to Israel?
In 1948, the British left Palestine and the UN Partition Plan divided it into Arab and Israeli states. From then until 1950, some 200,000 survivors went. But none of Israel’s three main institutions—the army, the kibbutz movement, and the trade unions—had made serious plans to accommodate them. Zionist propaganda had aroused exaggerated hopes in them, so disappointment and bitterness were common at first. They were largely left to rebuild their lives in their own ways. But on the whole, they did.

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