Life after Survival. The History of Displaced Persons as a Subject for Education in Schools and Other Educational Contexts

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Dr. Akim Jah, a political scientist, is a Research Associate in the Research and Education Department of the Arolsen Archives Elisabeth Schwabauer studied Education and German Language and Literature and is an Educational Consultant in the Research and Education Department of the Arolsen Archives

By Akim Jah and Elisabeth Schwabauer

Liberation from National Socialism and the period which followed immediately afterwards hardly have any role to play in historical education at present. However, the situation of Holocaust survivors, liberated concentration camp inmates, and former forced laborers provides many points of reference and a wide range of issues which can be explored in history lessons and other educational contexts. These include the state (of health) of the Displaced Persons (DPs) – this is the term used to refer to those people who had been deported primarily to Germany and liberated there – as well as their subsequent movements and the activities of the Allies and international aid organizations. 

The Arolsen Archives (known as the International Tracing Service, ITS, up until May 2019) are closely connected with the history of the DPs in many different ways. Not least because the Arolsen Archives have millions of documents on the subject, which can be used in a wide variety of ways in connection with historical education. This article is intended to serve as an introduction to the subject and, as such, will provide an overview of the history of the DPs. 

The situation after liberation. Who were the Displaced Persons?

During the liberation of Europe, as they advanced through Germany and the territories occupied by Germany, the Allies found about 10 million people from nearly every country in Europe who had been displaced and uprooted. About 7.7 million of them were found in Germany alone. They included large numbers of children and young people. The DPs comprised many different groups. Many of them had previously been deported from various European countries to perform forced labor in Germany, where they were obliged to work – often in inhumane conditions – in factories, small companies, and municipal enterprises as well as on farms, in private households, and in church communities. 

The liberated foreign concentration camp inmates constituted a second group. Many of them had been imprisoned for years in concentration camps where they were subjected to life-threatening conditions. The prisoners who were liberated in the concentration camps were joined by those liberated in the numerous sub-camps and "Außenkommandos" and by those who had survived the so-called death marches. 

The liberated concentration camp prisoners also included a large number of Jews who, as survivors of the Holocaust, constituted a distinct group. They had been deported from the Reich or from occupied and allied countries and had been brought to ghettos or the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp. From there, they had been moved on again to perform forced labor or had been sent on so-called evacuation transports to camps further to the west. In most cases, they were the only surviving members of their families. 

In addition to these groups, all of whom were victims of National Socialist politics, the DPs also included people who had fled from the various Soviet republics and other countries for political reasons and who found themselves on the territory of the former German Reich after the end of the war. The Jewish "infiltrees" who started arriving in Germany in 1946, and who will be dealt with in greater detail below, were also registered as DPs by the Allies, as were the German Jews who had survived the Holocaust and saw no future for themselves in Germany. 

The support provided by the Allies, the repatriation and emigration of Displaced Persons

The former forced laborers, the liberated concentration camp prisoners from the various European countries and the survivors of the Holocaust were in urgent need of support when they were liberated, especially as far as medical care and supplies of food and clothing were concerned. This assistance was provided by the Allies and by Allied aid organizations – initially by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and later by the International Refugee Organization (IRO). The support provided by the Allies included registering the DPs and tracing their relatives. From 1948 onwards, tracing activities were concentrated at the then ITS in Arolsen [Link auf Beitrag Borggräfe/Panek]. Hospitals were built to treat the sick, and children's centers were set up to look after and care for unaccompanied children and adolescents. The Allies also organized repatriation. However, this was not always easy to implement when it came down to individual cases. Many of the DPs could not or would not return to the countries they had come from. In addition to the antisemitism rife in their native countries, which was touched upon previously and made it impossible for Jews to live safely and be treated as equal members of society, there were also political reasons for this. Many DPs saw no future for themselves in East Central Europe, dominated as it was by Stalin, or they feared that they would suffer political disadvantages on their return. For forced laborers, liberated concentration camp prisoners, and prisoners of war from the former Soviet Union, repatriation also had serious consequences because they were under general suspicion of having been collaborators. They were often detained and interrogated in so-called filtration camps for months on end on their return. Some of them were taken to Soviet forced labor camps. Nonetheless, the Soviet Union had not recognized the status of the DPs and insisted on their being returned to their countries of origin as quickly as possible. During the months that followed the liberation, the western Allies, on the other hand, came to the conclusion that no one could be forced to return to their country of origin if they raised valid objections.

The Western Allies subsequently helped DPs who did not want to return to their native countries to emigrate to other countries. The IRO, which assumed responsibility for looking after the DPs in mid-1947, was charged with providing DPs who wished to emigrate with assistance in finding a host country. DPs could apply for assistance with emigration under a resettlement program. A number of countries were eventually willing to accept DPs. These were mainly traditional countries of immigration, such as the USA, Canada and Australia, and other countries that needed workers. Although the immigration regulations of the destination countries were a little more liberal than they had been before the war, there were still restrictions. It was especially difficult for sick people to find a host country willing to take them. Many of the Jewish DPs wanted to emigrate to Palestine. However, this was not easily managed until the state of Israel was founded in 1948.

Sometimes a number of years passed before people were actually able to emigrate. The Allied aid organizations in West Germany, Austria and Italy set up so-called DP camps to provide temporary accommodation. These camps were a transit area for people who saw their future in other countries, far away from Europe. 

The situation of Jewish Displaced Persons

Originally, the camps were structured according to the countries of origin of the respective DPs. However, Jewish survivors in these camps were faced with antisemitism all over again. Once an investigative commission set up by US President Truman had revealed the sometimes catastrophic conditions in the camps and had highlighted the special situation of Jewish DPs in particular, special camps were set up especially for Jews. Supported by various bodies, including Jewish welfare organizations, Jewish DPs were able to make preparations for their emigration there by taking language lessons and attending vocational training courses. The DPs played an active role in organizing camp life. There was a camp administration and a camp police force, children were looked after in kindergartens and were given lessons in the schools. The DPs set up their own newspapers, cinemas, theaters, and synagogues. To commemorate the victims of Nazi persecution, they erected the first monuments and organized memorial ceremonies. 

Starting in the summer of 1946, the camps for Jewish DPs also attracted thousands of Jewish refugees from Central Eastern Europe who could not stay in their former places of residence, such as Poland, because of the antisemitism they faced there. They had survived the Holocaust and had initially returned to their places of origin, but now they entered occupied Germany, most went to the US zone, in order to emigrate from there. Some of them were Polish Jews who had fled to the Soviet Union in 1939 following the German invasion of Poland or who had found themselves there after the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland. Thousands of these people had been sent to Siberia by the Soviet administration and had later come to the Central Asian Soviet republics by various circuitous routes. From there, they returned to Europe after the liberation. The Allies called these refugees "infiltrees." 

Many DP camps were closed as more and more people emigrated, especially after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. The last camp in Föhrenwald, south of Munich, was closed in 1957. Responsibility for the DPs had been transferred to the Federal Republic of Germany in 1951 already, when the IRO had ceased its activities. Those Displaced Persons who were unable or unwilling to emigrate for a variety of reasons remained in Germany and were granted "homeless foreigner" status. 

Documents on Displaced Persons in the Arolsen Archives

The documents on the DPs preserved in Bad Arolsen comprise documents on individual people from nearly all the countries of Europe and include applications to the IRO for support, case files of unaccompanied children, registration cards, and papers which portray the situation in the many DP camps. Other collections contain information about repatriation to countries of origin, emigration to other countries, and about the activities of the ITS and the later Arolsen Archives, which continues to support survivors and the relatives of people who were murdered in tracing family members and documenting their detention in a camp. The documents can be searched in the so-called ITS Digital Archive on site in Bad Arolsen. A vast selection of the documents are also accessible in the Online Archive: https://collections.arolsen-archives.org/en/archive/3/?p=1. Using an online form, it also possible to search for documents on DPs in or from a specific place, for example. 

Further information and carefully prepared educational materials can be found in the educational offerings provided by the Arolsen Archives, which are available free of charge and can be accessed at https://arolsen-archives.org/en/learn-participate/learning-with-documents/

For workshops on the subject of DPs, see "Life after survival. The History of Displaced Persons as a Subjekt for Education in Schools and Other Educational Contextes".


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