Survivors in Post-War Europe

Out of eight to ten million Jews living in the territories controlled by the Nazi during the Second World War, between five and six million perished during the Holocaust-   thousands of Jews were transported from the ghettos to the extermination camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec and Majdanek where they were killed on arrival. In addition to these, hundreds of thousands died at the many concentration and slave labour camps that covered the Nazi-occupied Europe.

On 9 May 1945, the unconditional surrender of Germany signified the end of the Second Word War in Europe. In the aftermath, Germany, as was decided at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 and at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, was divided into four occupational zones: northwest Germany was placed under British control, south under American, east under Soviet and southwest under French. Berlin, which was located in the Soviet zone, was divided into West Berlin occupied by the Western powers and East Berlin which became the Soviet section.

One of the greatest challenges met by the Allied Control Commission, the supreme authority of the allied government in Germany was the fate of 9 million forced labourers and 80,000 concentration camp inmates who at the end of the war found themselves in Germany. The Allied forces have starting preparing for this problem already during the war. In November 1944 it was decided on creation of assembly centres for displaced persons, the so called DP camps, which were to be ran by UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration).

 The primary goal of the army administration of the camps was to return DPs to their home countries as quickly as possible. ORT’s report from the time describes DP camps as ‘established and organized amid the ruins of a broken, bombed-out land, for men, women and children who had gone through seven years of hell- people without a country...harbouring one major desire, that of getting away from the scene of their misery and getting on, somewhere, somehow, to a happier land’.[1]  The repatriation of all the DPs was estimated to take about six months and indeed only between May and September 1945 about six million DPs left Germany.The idea that many DPs, may not want to return to their country of origin was not initially taken into account. Yet, two million DPs, including 50.000 Jews, refused to return to their homeland. This group began to grow from September 1945 as the first groups of Jews fleeing from anti-Semitic violence in Poland began illegally entering the American Zone of Germany. Later they were joined by Jewish refugees from Hungary Czechoslovakia and Romania.In consequence, by the end of 1946, two-thirds of Jewish DPs in Germany and Austria were people who were not directly involved in the Shoah, but survived Holocaust in hiding or in the USSR and later decided to flee Eastern Europe. By mid-1947, the Jewish DP population reached about 250,000 people housed in hundreds of DP centres- about 185000 of them in Germany, 45,000 in  Austria and 20,000 in Italy.

The main unresolved problem in the life of the Jewish DPs remained emigration. In the immediate post-war years emigration possibilities emigration opportunities for Jewish DPs remained extremely limited. Describing the situation in the camps at the time, ORT reported: ‘Delay in the opening channel of emigration produced a mood of desperation. Three years after the allied armies had overthrown Nazi rule and the barbed wire fences and searchlights had been removed, many of the inmates remained in the same camps. Conditions in the camps were bad enough. But the enervating effects of idleness and waiting worked a terrible attrition of the spirit.’[2]

Gradually, however situation began to change and the quotas on immigration started to ease, as countries such as Belgium, Great Britain and the United States started admitting Jewish  DPs. Yet, immigration to Palestine,the country of choice of 97 percent of the Jewish DPs remained basically impossible. As a result, Haganah, the semi-official Jewish defence force which led the rebellion against the British in Palestine, started underground work in the DP camps. Their aim was to organize Brichah (Hebrew for flight)- an illegal operation of smuggling survivors from Eastern Europe into Germany and then through sea ports in Italy, into Palestine. In their flight survivors were also helped by the Jewish Brigade, formed by the British Army in 1944 and by the Mosad le-Aliyah Bet. The founds were provided by the JDC.

Brichah is thought to be the largest clandestine movement of people in the history, transferring an estimate of up to 150,000 people from Eastern Europe to Palestine. In order to get to the sea ports, the refugees were forced to journey for miles, most often on foot, over snow covered mountains, often carrying babies and children. The ships on which survivors were fleeing Europe, often overcrowded old cargo and cruise ships, where in ninety percent of cases  intercepted by the British Navy and the survivors sent back to Germany or to the detention camp in Cyprus. The best known of such cases was the Exodus 1947 affair. The ship carrying 4500 passengers was stopped on its way to Palestine by the English and during subsequent fight, three people were killed and many injured. Despite the protests of international public opinion all passengers were sent back to DP camps in Germany.

After the 1947 division of Palestine into the Arab and Jewish territory, in May 1948 the Jewish Agency declared the independence of  Israel . The new state of Israel immediately opened its gates to the European survivors, including the elderly and the disabled, who would have found it impossible to immigrate to other countries. The creation of Israel resulted in emptying and later closing down of the camps..Almost all the camps were closed by the end of 1952, when it is estaimated that as many as 150,000 Jewish refugees had already immigrated to Israel.The last camp to remain open- Fohrenwald was designated to be the camp for Jews who had nowhere to go and as such functioned until 1957.


[1] WOA d505a093a: Franklin J.Keller, ‘Miracle of ORT among the DPs’, in: ORT Economic Review, June-September 1948 (New York: American ORT Federation, 1948) p.3

[2] WOA d07a007: ORT- A Record of Ten years-Rebuilding Jewish Economic Life. Forward by William Haber, President of the American ORT Federation (New York:American ORT Federation,1956) p.4