Patton, Truscott and the secret intrigues of postwar Europe.
On May 8, 1945, the day the Third Reich fell to Allied forces, the devastation in Germany was all but complete. Cities, towns, railroads and ports lay in ruins. Schools, courts, local governments, public services—all had broken down. Reports described residents wandering about in a daze, stooping to collect firewood, idly fingering the splintered remains of their homes, lining up at government offices to ask questions and await answers that would never come. All over Europe, in fact, the scene was much the same. Soon the bomb-pocked roads would swarm with refugees and displaced persons (DPs) heading back to their home countries.
One class of DPs was different: the Jews who had survived the Holocaust. They had suffered horribly in Nazi concentration camps and had no homes or businesses to which they could return. Everything had been taken from them —their possessions, their dignity, their families. Within months, however, these Jewish survivors of the Holocaust would hear of a place that welcomed them, a place of hope, a place they began to call “the promised land.” Strangely, this place they straggled into—many of them shoeless and clad only in the tattered remains of their concentration camp uniforms—was Bavaria, the birthplace of Nazism. But why would Jewish Holocaust survivors believe they could find hope for a new life in the very place that had consigned them and their families to a pyre of murder and destruction?
The short answer is that Bavaria lay within the American zone of occupation, administered at the top by General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man who had commanded the forces that brought Nazism to its knees. In Bavaria the American officer directly in charge, as commander of Third Army, was my grandfather, Lt. Gen. Lucian K. Truscott Jr. The long answer, however, is complicated by some of the usual twists and turns of history— and by some not so usual.
In spring 1997 Professor Emeritus Saul Touster of Brandeis University wrote me a letter, asking me what I knew about my grandfather’s background. Touster explained that he had been cleaning out his attic, sorting through a trunk full of his father’s papers, when a small pamphlet fell onto the floor. His interest was piqued when he saw that it was a Haggadah for a Seder held in the “Munich Enclave” on April 15 and 16, 1946. Above the words “Passover Service” was the distinctive red, white and blue “A” crest of the U.S. Third Army.
“I could tell from the format and graphic works that this was not a standard Haggadah, but a work of the Holocaust from within—in short, a survivor’s Haggadah,” Touster later wrote in his book A Survivors’ Haggadah. On the pamphlet’s inside cover was a dedication from one of his father’s friends, a man who had worked with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), an organization that helped survivors of the Holocaust find their way to Palestine, soon to be reborn as the state of Israel. Touster surmised the man had picked up the document on a postwar trip to European refugee camps and had given it to his father. Touster knew nothing more—about the Haggadah, about the Seder or about the displaced persons camps.
He wasn’t alone. Comparatively little has been written about those terrible months in Europe immediately after the war. As Touster wrote: “One might think that the Holocaust ended when the concentration camps were liberated and the Germans capitulated on May 8, 1945. But that is not the case.” An estimated 12 million to 20 million Europeans were displaced from their homes during the war. Millions fled the war’s various and deadly fronts. Nazi occupiers forcibly removed citizens of some conquered countries, seeking to make them easier to administer. They forced many into labor camps across Europe to slave for the German war effort. Then, of course, there were the estimated 10 million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and political prisoners sent to concentration camps to be worked and starved to death or murdered outright.
By spring 1946 all but some 1.2 million refugees had returned to their countries of origin. Of those, 900,000 remained in DP camps in Germany and Austria, about 200,000 of them Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. All the Jewish DP camps were in Bavaria, under the supervision of Third Army, commanded by my grandfather. Indeed, the first sentence of the survivors’ Haggadah read: “And the khaki-clad sons of Israel commanded by Lt. Gen. Truscott gathered together, as was the custom in Israel, to celebrate the Passover festival.”
I grew up with perhaps a better understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust than most American children. In the summers, when brother Frank and I visited our grandparents in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C., we would sit in his library, leafing through two large photo albums that the Third and Fifth army staffs had presented to our grandfather after the war. The Third Army album contained numerous photos of the Dachau and Kaufering-Landsberg concentration camps, many of which came from Nazi files. The horrors of those camps were on full view in that album, and they were photos my brother and I would never forget.
Even though I had very strong memories of those days, I knew nothing of Truscott’s time as postwar Third Army commander. His World War II memoir, Command Missions, devotes a single 24-page chapter to that period. It is virtually an afterthought at the end of a 556- page epic that covers everything from his early assignment to Great Britain—when he formed and trained the 1st Ranger Battalion—to his 1946 departure from Germany after suffering a heart attack. According to Command Missions, his tenure with Third Army did not appear to be something of which he was particularly proud. The only other thing I knew about that time came from my grandmother, who after my grandfather’s death in 1965 told me he’d considered his relief of old friend General George Patton as Third Army commander the saddest day in his life. It was not until Touster contacted me that I grew curious about the role Truscott played in the administration of the Bavarian DP camps, particularly those that housed Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.
That story starts with Eisenhower’s battle with Patton over the latter’s policies during the early months of the Allied occupation. As military governor of Germany, Eisenhower had ordered that all areas occupied by American forces were to be thoroughly “denazified,” removing Nazi party members and others affiliated with or sympathetic to Hitler from power in all state and local governments and businesses. Denazification ramped up quickly everywhere in Germany—except Bavaria, where Patton had appointed known Nazi Friedrich Schaeffer as the first minister-president of Bavaria. During a September 1945 press conference Patton said the military government “would get better results if it employed more former members of the Nazi Party in administrative jobs.” In a subsequent interview with The New York Times he dismissed the whole denazification campaign, saying, “The Nazi thing is just like a Democrat and Republican election fight.” The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) also noted Patton’s reluctance to denazify Bavaria.
A second issue concerned conditions within the DP camps under Patton’s control. Jewish-American agencies and the American press reported that conditions in Jewish DP camps were little better than in Nazi concentration camps, with Jewish survivors confined in the same spaces as their former guards. In June 1945, at the insistence of the State Department and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., President Harry S. Truman appointed a commission to investigate the DP camps. The final report of the Harrison Commission—named after its chairman, professor Earl G. Harrison of the University of Pennsylvania Law School—issued that September, described deplorable conditions in the camps and concluded: “As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them.”
Eisenhower quickly ordered acceleration of the denazification campaign and improvement of conditions in all DP camps. He further directed that Jews be removed from confinement in camps with other displaced persons, placed in camps exclusive to themselves, and provided increased rations and greatly improved conditions. Eisenhower had these orders transmitted to Patton on August 27 and again on September 12, along with a command that Patton was personally to inspect the camps and report back. Patton either refused or ignored Eisenhower’s orders that German properties and foodstuffs be seized and turned over to the care and feeding of victims of the concentration camps. He questioned why he should seize, without due process, the businesses and properties of Bavarian bankers and industrialists, regardless of whether they were Nazis or had employed slave labor during the war. Perhaps explaining to himself why he had such a recalcitrant attitude about Eisenhower’s policies, Patton recorded in his diary that the commission appointed by Truman appeared to believe “that the displaced person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to the Jews, who are lower than animals.”
By late September 1945 Eisenhower was sufficiently displeased with Patton’s insubordination that he summoned Truscott to Frankfurt and ordered him to relieve Patton of command of Third Army. Truscott protested that he and Patton had served together for many years and were close friends. His protests fell on deaf ears, and he finally concluded that Patton would probably prefer to be relieved by a friend than by “someone who might be less sympathetic.” On Oct. 7, 1945, in a formal ceremony at Third Army headquarters in Bad Tölz, Truscott took command of Third Army from his old friend, who departed the next day on his private train for Bad Nauheim, where he was to take command of 15th Army, a “paper army” engaged in evaluating the lessons learned from the war and making recommendations for future wars. Within two months Patton would die of injuries suffered when his staff car collided with an Army truck near Mannheim.
The story of Truscott’s time as Third Army commander and his administration of the DP camps is a complex one, but he began his command unambiguously at his first press conference when he issued the following statement: “I have left too many white crosses across North Africa, Italy and France, and I have seen too many young men wounded and maimed not to be in complete sympathy with any policy that designs to eradicate, root and branch, the evil force, Nazism, that loosed this holocaust on the world.” To those survivors who now occupied the camps over which Truscott had command, his words must have come as welcome harbingers of change. But few knew then, as now, what was happening in the Bavarian DP camps the following year.
Truscott got right down to business. In Command Missions he wrote: “In one of my first moves, I undertook to inspect all troop installations and displaced persons camps in the Army area.…Full use was made of German kasernes, or permanent military posts, labor camps, hotels, schools, other public buildings and private dwellings. Scores of camps, varying in size from those housing a hundred or so to thousands of persons, were scattered all over Bavaria.…In the weeks that followed, I visited scores of camps, and saw several hundred thousand displaced persons in every part of Bavar ia.” As a result of these inspections, he ordered that Army rabbis be flown from the United States to Germany to establish Sabbath services in Jewish DP camps, that Kosher food be made available, and that all the camps be made habitable. His aide’s diary for Nov. 5, 1945, reads: “Drive to Traunstein, arriving at 1145. Two camps here…one in a Catholic seminary and the other in an old SS hospital. Trouble in the first with the Catholic Church, who want the thing back, and other is disorganized and dirty. Army commander (Truscott) takes time out after the inspection to chew both [camp commanders].”
It’s important to understand that by fall 1945 Truscott had been continuously at war since he accompanied the 1st Ranger Battalion on the Dieppe Raid in August 1942. Over a period of three years he commanded, successively, the 9th Regimental Combat Team in North Africa; the 3rd Infantry Division in Italy; and VI Corps from the Anzio beachhead to the liberation of Rome. Truscott then commanded the amphibious landing at Marseille, driving on —in less than a month—to destroy a German army, take 100,000 prisoners and advance 450 miles to link up near Strasbourg with Allied units advancing east from Normandy. He was then given command of Fifth Army, with which he defeated Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring’s army in northern Italy and took the surrender of a half-million German soldiers on a single day just before the end of the war.
All that time Truscott had no one looking over his shoulder. For more than three years he had allowed only one correspondent, from Life, to accompany his headquarters. As long as Truscott was killing Germans and taking mile after bloody mile of the territory they held, Eisenhower interrupted him only to promote him and assign him to ever-larger commands with ever-larger missions.
But in Bavaria the entire world was watching over not one but both of Truscott’s shoulders. There were continual press conferences, invasions of reporters from newspapers nationwide, visits from congressmen and senators and members of various blue-ribbon commissions and consultations with UNRRA representatives. As he wrote to wife Sarah, “There’s a job to be done here, and someone has to do it, and as I see it, it’s part of my contribution.” A few weeks later he complained, “I’m a fighting man, not a politician.”
He wrote almost daily to Sarah, each letter beginning with the salutation, “Beloved wife,” and his letters—collected at the Virginia Military Institute’s Marshall Library—are full of complaints about scrambled and contradictory policies and the meddling of newly arrived civilians who, as he saw it, simply didn’t know the lay of the land. Once he wrote, “This job is about like trying to squeeze a handful of quicksilver into a ball.”
Above all, in virtually every letter he wrote from Bavaria between October 1945 and summer 1946, he complained about his problems with Jewish DPs. They were a force unto themselves, he noted. Among the hundreds of thousands of DPs still in Bavaria, Jews alone were not required to have identity or travel papers in order to move around the area. They were free to move from one camp to another without official notice or permission, meaning Third Army could not prevent overcrowding if the DPs chose to empty out one camp and fill up another. And shortages occurred when DPs traded, say, beds for blankets, or pillows for shoes or musical instruments or anything else the DPs deemed valuable. But such explanations rarely satisfied visiting congressmen critical of the conditions they witnessed in some camps; someone in authority must be held accountable for overcrowding and shortages. That someone was Truscott, and he resented it.
The biggest problem he faced was continual overcrowding of certain camps such as Landsberg, despite every effort to convince Jewish DPs it was in their interest to stay in less-crowded and better-equipped camps. Truscott repeatedly complained to Sarah that although he, as Third Army commander, could practically order the rain to fall and the snow to melt, he couldn’t order Jewish DPs to stop crowding into the southernmost camps in the region. Such comments in his letters like, “I wish I could tell you what’s really going on here,” and, “There are so many things I wish I could say that I cannot put on paper,” indicate that something big was going on behind the scenes in Bavaria in 1945 and 1946, something secret. But the war was over, the enemy had been defeated and classified battle plans had been filed away. What could that secret be?
In one of his letters home Truscott wrote that Jewish DPs were continuing to “infiltrate” into Bavaria from Eastern Europe at a rate of about 1,000 per week. I’ve spoken to some of those “infiltrators,” including Samuel Bak, today a distinguished artist. He was a boy of 12 in 1945 when he made the arduous journey hundreds of miles from Poland to Bavaria. He did so because, as he explained, “To us the Third Army had created a promised land in Bavaria, where you would be fed and housed and allowed to worship and be treated like human beings.”
In a Feb. 10, 1946, letter to wife Sarah, Truscott finally dropped his guard: “Then there are the Jews,” he wrote in a burst of frustration. “They are bound and determined to force the Palestine issue and will stop at nothing to keep themselves on the front pages.”
Of course after years of suffering and death at the hands of the Nazis they wanted to be on the front page. Of course these persons displaced from countries across Europe now wanted a homeland. But not until eight years later, when Command Missions was published, was Truscott able to say outright what he’d been hinting. “The Jews carried on a program of clandestine emigration to Palestine, exfiltrating groups from Bavaria to Italy or southern France, where they embarked on ships chartered by some of the Jewish committees.” Characteristically, he noted that for Third Army “this illegal traffic only served to complicate matters.”
The Jewish DP camps were run by committees aided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, all forming a sort of underground railroad. Truscott knew all along why Landsberg and the other DP camps near Munich were overcrowded with Jews who refused to move to camps with far more room. These were among the southernmost camps, closest to the borders with Austria and France, through which the underground railroad ran to the ports of Marseille and Genoa. Why did the Jewish DPs refuse to move? Because the camp committees were busy forming teams of survivors trained and instructed, one after another, that on a specified night they were to travel three kilometers down a certain road, for instance, where they would meet a truck and embark on the first leg of a journey that would end in Palestine. That wouldn’t have been possible for Jewish DPs had they moved as advised to camps in central Germany.
The state of Israel was taking form as much in the overcrowded former SS barracks of southern Germany as in the arid sands of Palestine. Why was this such a big secret that Truscott couldn’t share it in a private letter to his wife? Because it flew in the face of agreements made between the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union at the Yalta Conference regarding the repatriation of foreign nationals to their native lands. The United States and Britain had agreed to limit Jewish emigration to Palestine, and Washington had set its own limits on Jewish immigration. What was the rationale behind these seemingly contradictory policies? Why were some DP camp refugees, such as Poles and Russians, held behind barbed wire and in some cases forcibly repatriated, while Jewish DPs were allowed to travel freely between camps so they could be “exfiltrated” to Palestine?
It’s possible the American high command had simply decided to be kind to the Holocaust survivors, but there is more to it than that. After all, nations typically operate in their own “enlightened self-interest,” not out of some sense of goodness or moral duty to others. An answer surfaces two years later: Truman was the first national leader to recognize the state of Israel, less then 15 minutes after it declared independence in 1948. That’s about as much time as it took for some White House clerk to carry the cable from Tel Aviv down the hall to the Oval Office and call in a few correspondents to make the official announcement.
On the title page of the survivor’s Haggadah, in a kind of artistic code, is graphic evidence of what was transpiring in the DP camps: At the bottom of the page is an etching of a Holocaust victim being loaded into a cart between the grim barracks of a concentration camp. Etchings of barbed wire run up either side of the page toward palm-lined desert roads, which lead farther up the page to a sunrise over Jerusalem. It is an etching of the Exodus—from bondage to the true Promised Land.
In spring 1946 the DP camps launched an effort to print a survivors’ Talmud, following the printing of the survivors’ Haggadah. Two years later they finally ran off 500 copies in Heidelberg on the very presses owned by the publisher of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. This was not happenstance. During his command of Third Army, Truscott occupied a villa on the shores of Lake Tegernsee, just outside Bad Tölz. The Allies had seized the villa from the publisher of Mein Kampf, and Truscott ordered that the presses and the paper used to print Hitler’s two-volume book—the blueprint for the terror he later unleashed on the world—be made available for the printing of the survivors’ Talmud.
For further reading Lucian K. Truscott IV recommends his grandfather Lucian K. Truscott Jr.’s World War II memoir Command Missions: A Personal Story.
Originally published in the July 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.