Americans tend to think World War II ended cleanly and neatly, with a raucous celebration in Times Square, followed by a pivot to the Cold War. The truth, needless to say, was more complex.
In Europe, the end of the war brought chaos, not closure, with hundreds of thousands of refugees filling the roads, hoping to return to homes that, in many cases, no longer existed.
They were "the displaced, deserters, war criminals, their intended victims who had managed to resist, to escape, all walking as one limping mass through the carnage," writes historian David Nasaw, in his insightful and eye-opening book, The Last Million: Europe's Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War.
These refugees included Lithuanians and Ukrainians who'd been forced to work in Germany and were afraid to go back to live under Soviet rule; ethnic Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia deported after the Nazi defeat; and, of course, some 250,000 Jews who, against all odds, had survived the Holocaust.
They hit the road sick and hungry, clinging to the few possessions they'd managed to salvage, with no idea where the brutal ordeal would take them. Nasaw tells the story of Martin Aaron, who was suddenly awakened one night and forced to leave the Czech work camp where he was interned. "He would spend the next four or five weeks marching west with the clothes he had worn at the labor camp on his back and nothing to eat other than what he could scrounge from the fields the line of march passed through," Nasaw writes.
This pitiful parade descended on the British and American zones of occupied-Germany, where they would live in vast temporary camps, in "living quarters that were crowded but adequate, [with] nurses and doctors to care for them; and the security that came with knowing that hostilities had ceased," Nasaw adds.
What would happen to them next is the story that Nasaw takes on, and his story sheds light on both subsequent Middle East history and more recent failures of refugee policy. Their fate would be determined by concerns that were utilitarian and political, not humanitarian, he writes.
The victorious Soviet Union demanded that refugees from Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states be sent home to help with rebuilding, but Britain and the United States opposed forced repatriation. Instead, the refugee camps were treated like a slave market: Countries such as Australia, Canada and Argentina were invited to pick and choose who they wanted to take home, and they tended to favor strong and healthy workers with needed skills and few dependents, Nasaw writes.
They also preferred Christians. The countries that came shopping "almost invariably" turned down Jews who wanted to emigrate, Nasaw writes. He quotes Rae Kushner from an oral history project for the Kean College of New Jersey Holocaust Resource Center: "Nobody opened their doors to us. Nobody wanted to take us in." Kushner spent three and a half years in a refugee camp in Italy — her grandson Jared would eventually work in the White House.
What appeared as the obvious answer was to allow Jews to emigrate to Palestine, but Britain, which held a mandate over the country, feared doing so would antagonize the Arab world and push it into the Soviet camp. British officials could also be obtuse about Jewish distress. It must not "be forgotten that the Jews are not the only persecuted group and that groups of German Christians have suffered almost as badly," wrote the Foreign Office in a cable, Nasaw notes. The government favored sending Jews back to their home countries, where they'd often faced intense persecution, an idea they rejected out of hand. A homeland in Palestine was what they wanted, and they would ultimately succeed in getting it.
The United States was not much more welcoming. Strict immigration quotas kept refugee admission to a minimum, and efforts by Congress to rectify that quickly became bogged down in Cold War politics: Jews, after all, were suspected of having Communist sympathies. Nativism reared its head as well. It's easy to hear echoes of today's immigration debate in comments like this one that Nasaw notes, by a Texas congressman: "These camps are literally filled with bums, criminals, subversives, revolutionists, crackpots and human wreckage."
The bill ultimately passed by Congress was written in a way that excluded most Jews, whether intentionally or not, and privileged refugees from Soviet republics and client states, such as Poland and Ukraine, who were reliably anti-Communist. That some of them had willingly collaborated with the Nazis and were guilty of easily verifiable war crimes was a fact that U.S. officials didn't spend much time worrying about. Germany, after all, was defeated. It was time to fight the Cold War.
"We exclude the Jews fleeing from the Polish pogroms, but we reach out and extend the tender hand of welcome and sympathy and inclusion to the quislings and the Nazi fifth columnists who... prepared the field for the Nazi aggression.... Is that the solution of the displaced-persons question?" asked Florida Sen. Claude Pepper on the Senate floor.
By the time another law was passed that opened the door a bit wider to refugees, most Jews had already emigrated to what is now Israel. Nasaw is a humane writer with a knowledge of his subject that is broad and deep, and he doesn't lose sight of one of the enduring ironies of the war's aftermath. The victors' unwillingness to provide a haven for the refugees who'd suffered the most led to a second conflict that would displace 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and send them to another set of camps. Some are still there today.
Nasaw also writes that the way the world handled the WWII refugee crisis "paved the path the developed world would follow when confronted by similar refugee crises in the second half of the twentieth and the first quarter of the twenty-first centuries," indicating that many countries, first, take refguees when they need them. "Unintentionally perhaps, it set in motion a harsh Darwinian resettlement calculus that victimized those who had suffered most and rewarded those among the displaced persons populations that suffered least."