Journey from Slave Laborers to Displaced Persons

The online Virtual Jewish Library states with an encyclopedia-like certainty that the last day of the Holocaust was May 8, 1945. You might recognize the date as the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allies. This is inaccurate.

We’re not just splitting hairs here. The British liberated Bergen-Belsen, for example, on April 15, 1945. But 13,000 people died after that, some succumbing to typhus, others to malnutrition or related problems.

To varied degrees, the scene was similar across the newly liberated camps. Conditions had deteriorated even from the earlier horrific norm. For months in late 1944 into 1945, the populations of these camps had continued to swell ahead of the advancing Russian army coming from the East. Survivors were forced on death marches, often without food or water, to be used as labor or just left to die.

Eventually, the prisoners who made it to liberation and then clung to life in the aftermath began to regain some strength. Still, was there any hope of a normal life in the future?

They went from being prisoners or slave laborers to something new: “Displaced Persons.” Yes, they were refugees, but that doesn’t quite explain it. They had been not merely ripped from their homes. Nothing remained but memories. Communities were shattered, cultures obliterated. Even in places that had not been physically destroyed, different people now occupied their houses — and intended to keep them.

The authorities recognized that this growing number of people needed somewhere to stay. Camps for displaced persons were created, some on the very ground where a Nazi concentration camp had stood. Much like the Nazi system there were hundreds of locations, some large, others in small buildings such as schools. The larger DP camps became, more or less, permanent homes.

Some had to wait a long time for true freedom. The last DP camp did not close until the early 1950s. The majority of those kept in confinement went to Israel, after the state was created. Many came to the United States, while others went to the United Kingdom, South America and elsewhere.

Even with the continued hardship, while displaced persons camps existed, the lives of the survivors slowly revived. Marriages were conducted, babies were born. Life in them was never normal, and often difficult, but it allowed a little space to dream of the future. For the most part they went on to lead successful, valuable lives. Perhaps for them it was a way station on life’s journey.

Jeremy Kay is executive director of the Library of the Holocaust and a member of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s Holocaust Commission.

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