A Holocaust Survivors Journey Back Home.

Liberation from concentration camp is often seen as the first day of the rest of a survivors life. Their ordeal was over – the Nazis had been defeated and they had been rescued by allied forces. The reality, however, is not as rosy as we would hope. For many, liberation meant the commencing of a new tumultuous and unpredictable period of their life. Obviously, after being liberated their lives became safer and less brutal under allied control, but nevertheless, they were unable to leave the concentration camp and many continued to die. Their homes were gone, their worldly possessions lost, their families killed and there was still the very real threat of anti-semitism if they were able to return home. In truth, many were not able to be repatriated and many chose not to, rebuilding new lives elsewhere. A Key factor in a holocaust survivors experience was based on who liberated them; the soviets or Western allies. The latter being the best case scenario and the route that this post focuses on.

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The moment of liberation from the Farsleben death train for a mother and daughter, Apr 1945

 

As alluded to above, survivors did not instantly leave their concentration camp on liberation. The immediate concern was to provide shelter, nutrition and basic health care and in most cases it was absolutely necessary for the former prisoners to remain there until their health was stabilised by medical staff. Although conditions were obviously improved after their rescue thanks to allied forces being able to bring in the appropriate medical equipment and food supplies, survivors were usually made to remain in the concentration camp for anywhere from a couple of weeks to three months – basically however long it took for them regain any semblance of strength. Of course, there were some Jews that were repatriated quicker than others and some that chose to build new lives close to where they were liberated. For example, after the liberation of the Dachau Concentration Camp, some survivors remained in the local town and would often run into ex-prison guards.

Unfortunately though, the fact of the matter remained that many thousands of survivors continued to die in the weeks following their liberation. The damage the Nazi’s had caused to the prisoners over their prolonged and brutal incarceration frequently proved to be irreversible. This was the case in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp near Celle.

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Bergen- Belson Concentration Camp.

Himmler agreed to hand this camp over to British and Canadian troops on April 11th, 1945. On arrival they found 60,000 prisoners still alive but most were in critical condition due to a typhus epidemic. More than 10,000 of the former prisoners died within a few weeks of their supposed rescue at the hands of malnutrition and/or disease. Those that did survive lived on military rations and treatments provided by the allied doctors. Slowly but surely, those who lived passed the critical first few weeks of liberation had their health restored to a level that enabled them to leave the nightmarish Nazi camps once and for all.

Once the allies had managed to bring the former inmates to health, they then had the truly monumental task of repatriating over 7 million people to various countries throughout Europe. It’s difficult to fully comprehend a number as huge as 7 million but to try and put it into some context, it is the equivalent of  rehousing Bulgaria’s entire population. Although the majority were Jews, this number also included other camp survivors, such as POW and political dissidents, as well as East Germans and refugees who fled from the Third Reich. To repatriate everyone straight away was simply impossible. The allies had to set up ‘Displaced Persons Camps’ (DP camps) all over the continent, housing Jews and refugees until they could move back ‘home’, if they ever could. These camps were usually in army barracks but airports, hotels, castles, schools, private homes and old Nazi concentration camps were used too.

It wasn’t until a few months after the war that the Allied powers were relieved of care for the DP camps. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was given formal control on October 1st, 1945. The program was massively understaffed and the funds needed to properly care for the survivors was simply not there. As a result, rather than improving, camps often got worse and inhabitants experienced a decline in the quality of their living conditions over time.

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When the UNRRA fist took the reigns from the allies, it was a case of business as usual and they continued the Allied approach of once you were healthy enough, you would be sent to a DP camp and in most straight forward cases, survivors were likely to be repatriated to their countries of origin between July and November, 1945. The UNRRA found themselves in a complex and tricky situation when creating their approach and policy towards repatriating displaced people. They had to be extremely cautious in not treating any particular group differently or else they would face accusations of discrimination. They did not adopt any specific policies towards Jewish displaced persons because of this. Eventually, however, this was reversed and holocaust survivors were given a special concession in being able to go to camps specifically for Jews – these were mostly located in US controlled sections of occupied Germany.

The easiest people to repatriate from the camps were those from Germany and Western European countries. This left the large majority of people in DP camps from Eastern European countries like Poland – Poles represented around 80% of the entire population of Displaced Persons. Another factor soon arose after the war which further stretched the UNRRA’s resources deteriorating survivors conditions even more – the Soviets. If you were from a country now under the control of Russia you were unlikely to be forced to go back there due to the hostile and unpleasant conditions that were unfolding.

So, the future remained bleak and unpredictable for survivors in the months and years following the war and they had no option but to resume living in these camps. The accommodation most found themselves in was shoddy and purpose built by the UNRRA or by the US military. Life here was harsh. Residents were underfed and suffered with the effects of overcrowding. What’s more, the situation was not improving thanks to a new wave of refugees seeking asylum from the Eastern Bloc countries that were now under Soviet control. In the immediate years following the war, specifically 1945-1948, the population of Jewish refugees in displacement camps was actually still increasing.

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Memmingen Displaced Persons Camp, 1945.

Life for the residents of these camps was hard and you had to get by through any means necessary. Black market micro-economies soon sprang up which relied on daily rations and markets set up within the camps. Cigarettes and chocolates, for example, became a type of currency here. Refugees who had a particular skill or service that they could sell tended to do better than those that did not because they were able to barter- in a similar vein, prostitution became very common. With limited resources rendering many people incapable of travelling ‘home’ (those without families or employment struggled the most) finding refuge somewhere proved to be immensely difficult and those with nothing would still find themselves in one of these wretched camps in as late as 1948. A large aspect of daily life in DP camps involved finding and reuniting missing family members. The UNRRA established the Central Tracing Bureau for this purpose and they transmitted public radio broadcasts and published newspapers containing lists of survivors and their whereabouts in the hope that they could be sent to live with them, which yielded some success. Teachers from Israel and America were sent over to establish schools and the camps themselves became something of a cultural hub with religious holidays becoming major occasions. A knock-on effect of placing high numbers of Jews in specific DP camps was that many found spouses and weddings became very common in them.

As time went on, people were eventually able to leave the camps to build new lives for themselves with the two biggest catalysts for doing so occurring in May 1948. It was in this month that the US Senate passed the Wiley-Revercomb Displaced Persons Bill. The bill provided approximately 400,000 US immigration visas for displaced persons between January 1, 1949, and December 31, 1952. It was also in this month that the state of Israel was established and although the Return Act was not passed until 1950, Israel’s borders were pretty much open to anyone of Jewish descent that had suffered at the hands of the Nazis.download Within the first 3 months of being granted statehood, over 130,000 displaced persons living in camps traveled to Israel, the majority being assisted with their immigration by Zionist groups.

So by 1948, the Holocaust survivors had 2 options – get your hands on enough money and try to get a US visa and jum on a boat to New York. Your other option was to seek out a Zionist group that could arrange for you to be transported to the newly formed state of Israel.

Between 1948 – 1950 most of the camps had been emptied. The very last DP camp was emptied in 1953.

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