In the late 1930s a Hungarian riverboat captain named Nándor Andrásovits made a hobby of filming scenes from the deck of his passenger ship, the Queen Elizabeth. In the earliest footage, well-dressed passengers are dining alfresco on fish stew and champagne as the ship cruises up and down the Danube between Budapest and Austria. In the summer of 1939, after Nazi Germany occupied Czechoslovakia, the Queen Elizabeth was hired by the president of the Bratislava Orthodox Jewish community to transport 608 Jews—including forty pregnant women—from Slovakia to Palestine by way of the Danube and the Black Sea. Against the backdrop of the flowing river, Andrásovits captured scenes of happiness, devotion and anxiety: a wedding, afternoon dances and showers on the deck; prayer sessions, the peeling of potatoes and the days of nervous waiting that came after permission to pass through Bulgaria was revoked under pressure from the British, who feared a mass migration to Palestine. The passengers eventually reached their destination.
A year later, the Queen Elizabeth was again mobilized for civilian resettlement. The Soviet Union, still an ally of Nazi Germany, had annexed Bessarabia, where a small population of ethnic Germans had been living since 1814. They were now being “repatriated” to the Third Reich, which to them was a foreign land. Andrásovits’s camera lingered on the faces of farmers, wearing layered clothing and stern expressions, as they bundled up children, carried crates onboard—occasionally striking a pose for the camera—or nervously fingered the identification cards dangling from their necks. For seven weeks the Queen Elizabeth and twenty-six other ships ferried 93,000 Bessarabian Germans up the Danube to transit camps in Yugoslavia.
The Bratislava Jews and the Bessarabian Germans transported by the Queen Elizabeth were among the 30 to 55 million Europeans uprooted during World War II. “Not since the Middle Ages,” Dean Acheson observed in 1944, “has there been any such movement of population as this war has brought about.” As of 1945 in Germany alone, roughly 8 million were designated as displaced persons (DPs), a category that included, as Gerard Daniel Cohen explains in In War’s Wake, “foreign workers, slave laborers, prisoners of war, and liberated concentration camp inmates.” Most were repatriated or resettled within months, leaving behind what contemporaries referred to as the “last million,” those who preferred statelessness to repatriation.
The populations set adrift by World War II were the most visible signs of what Hannah Arendt called the “age of the uprooted and the century of the homeless man.” After the war Arendt saw a strong parallel between the plight of displaced persons and that of concentration camp inmates. The DP camp was “the only ‘country’ the world had to offer the stateless,” she wrote after her own experience of flight and statelessness. Like Arendt, Cohen argues that the isolation of displaced persons in camps, some of which were converted concentration or POW camps, rested on a fine line “between assistance and incarceration… Between humanitarian aid and political quarantine.” But Cohen does not share Arendt’s dim view of postwar international relief efforts on behalf of displaced persons. Alongside accounts of the hypocrisies of postwar aid initiatives and their prolongation of the moral perversions of the war, Cohen discusses the poignant idealism of those involved in refugee relief. Though it was “Bureaucratic, regimented, and inspired by military planning,” he writes, “postwar refugee humanitarianism nonetheless rescued the ‘last million’ of Jewish and non-Jewish displaced persons from unbearable living conditions.”
Cohen’s book is essentially a history of the International Refugee Organization (IRO). In operation from 1946 through 1951, it was the successor to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and the predecessor to the still-existing United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). These organizations were hardly spontaneous outgrowths of the war in Europe. As Cohen notes of the UNRRA, “the words ‘relief and rehabilitation administration’ echoed the language of New Deal recovery programs and the myriad of ‘alphabet agencies’ created by the Roosevelt administration after 1933.” The introduction of New Deal thinking led to an important innovation in international relief—a shift to public institutions and away from the dependence on private charities favored by the League of Nations after World War I.