The Uprooted

The Uprooted

A new history of Europe’s postwar world and its displaced persons.


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sessions, the peeling of potatoes and the days of nervous waiting that came after permission to pass through Bulgaria was revoked under pressure from the British, who feared a mass migration to Palestine.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.

The staff of the UNRRA and the IRO were generally young, idealistic and to an unprecedented extent international. Although most of the UNRRA’s personnel were British, American or French, the organization also hired medical specialists and professional workers from several other UN countries, creating what one American social worker described as “small wandering tribes from Babel” tossed into “the wilderness of World War II’s destruction” to “do a work that had never been done.” Many were also enthusiastic internationalists of the left, at least at the outset. One UNRRA worker, remarking on the “pervasive idealism” of the staff, observed that its members “all hoped to see established a true world community with new social systems and international relations.”

But having a staff of globe-trotting lefty idealists did not make the IRO or its mission internationalist. Even among those most sympathetic to the plight of the displaced person, statelessness was pathologized, just as it had been during the war in Axis Europe. (Cohen cites a newspaper article published in Vichy France, in 1940: “The stateless is ill.”) But whereas wartime Fascists and Nazis defined people as stateless in order to expel them from the body politic, postwar international relief organizations saw citizenship as the only viable cure for the condition of statelessness. The UN approach to the refugee problem thus reinforced, rather than marginalized, the nation-state. Although George Bernard Shaw, Albert Einstein, Aldous Huxley and other prominent figures saw in the plight of the DPs a chance to create a new category of belonging, “citizens of the world,” the leadership and staff of the IRO countered that “stateless persons know all too well what they desire: to stop being stateless. Not out of sentimentality, but to obtain asylum, a passport, a work permit or access to a hospital.”

Because postwar legal categories assured that statelessness would continue to be a kind of “civic death,” resolving the DP crisis was a matter of first-order importance. As Harry Truman said in 1952, at stake was the “very outcome of the Cold War, in which the character, scope and sincerity of the free world’s treatment of refugees and…overpopulation may be crucial factors.” European integration, too, was viewed in light of the refugee problem, the solving of which was, in the words of French foreign minister Robert Schuman in 1951, “a precondition to the success of European integration politics.”

* * *

But how to begin solving a refugee crisis of such unprecedented scale? A handbook for IRO field personnel stressed that the first step should be to determine “Who is a genuine, bona fide and deserving refugee.” Initially applicants for aid were vetted, much as were applicants for social benefits under the New Deal, but that model quickly proved ill-suited to addressing the tangle of issues that necessarily influenced the classification of the displaced masses clamoring for aid. In the words of one American expert writing in 1947, postwar DPs were “bristling with political complications.” Many had fled their home country after the war, yet some did so for reasons that warranted detention instead of relief. Among the most infamous (if unsuccessful) applicants for IRO protection and aid was the wartime Regent of Axis-aligned Hungary, Adm. Miklós Horthy. Less well-known aid seekers included a number of Ukrainians and Balts who had served in the German military and rightly feared that returning to the Soviet Union would end badly for them.

In addition to these problem cases, around 12 million ethnic Germans had either fled or been expelled from Eastern Europe. The IRO charter declared their welfare to be the responsibility of the West German government, not of international relief organizations. In disqualifying German refugees from receiving UN aid on the basis of their ethnicity, the UNRRA and later the IRO implicitly endorsed the notion of collective German responsibility for Nazi crimes. And so ethnic Germanness, once a coveted and often flaunted badge of honor, became a mark of Cain to be concealed. IRO staff scrutinized eligibility applications for individuals whose lineage suggested “German ethnic origin,” irrespective of a declared Hungarian or Polish nationality or mother tongue.

During the interview process, few DPs would reveal histories of collaboration with the Nazis, and many took precautionary measures to avoid being exposed or treated with suspicion, disposing of identity papers and giving false or selective accounts of their whereabouts during the war to establish their status as victims. In his memoirs, the British head of UNRRA operations for Germany, Sir Frederick Morgan, noted that the traffic in forged documents revolving around refugees was so intense that “by 1945 the production of false identity papers in Europe had become almost a major industry.” IRO staff were similarly aware that an underground market in information was supplying applicants with “the right answers to the questionnaires used by the IRO to determine eligibility.” Cohen cites the report of a review board from 1948 voicing its concerns about the vetting process, especially the ongoing “uncertainty in the application of the IRO definitions” that had resulted in “a large number of eligibles” who “should never really have been considered to be the concern of the organization.”

For DPs the advantages of being declared eligible for IRO assistance were many. Not only did successful applicants benefit from better rations and living conditions than many living outside the camps but some also received job training and emigration assistance. Such aid defined the public perception of the IRO as “the largest travel agency” and “mass transportation system in the world.” Soviet and Eastern European officials were none too pleased with the “soft” approach taken by the UNRRA and IRO toward DPs who preferred staying in camps to being repatriated (disagreements over ways of handling the refugee problem had been the basis of the Soviets’ refusal to participate in the IRO since its creation). Andrei Vyshinsky, who had been state prosecutor in the Moscow show trials of the 1930s and prepared the Soviet prosecution team for the Nuremberg trials, vehemently opposed the lenient attitudes of UN relief organizations toward potential collaborators. “We refuse to accept this tolerance. We paid a high price for it, with too much blood and too many lives.” Vyshinsky felt that anyone who feared coming home had something to hide. One Soviet Ukrainian official, advocating for the forcible repatriation of DPs suspected of having served in the Ukrainian Waffen-SS, argued that these men were guilty of “annihilating the Polish population and exterminating the Jewish people.”

Though Eastern Bloc officials promised a “most cordial and diligent welcome” for repatriated refugees returning home, Cohen claims that roughly one-fifth of the 5.5 million nationals repatriated to the Soviet Union faced either execution or long sentences of forced labor. Recent scholarship on returnees suggests that, while high, the proportion of returnees subjected to severe punitive measures was significantly lower than Cohen says, likely hovering somewhere between 6 and 15 percent. Whatever the true figure, there can be no doubt that the classification and treatment of refugees remained a point of friction between the two emerging poles of the cold war well into the 1950s.

The Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in February 1948 was a watershed moment for DPs, because the primary enemy of the Western Allies was now no longer Nazism but Soviet Communism. As war refugees merged with asylum seekers from the Eastern Bloc, some applicants who would have been turned away months earlier were accepted into the DP camp system as anti-Communists. Processing this incoming refugee cohort meant fashioning new definitions of refugee status that stressed persecution and victimization by state authorities back home. “As such,” Cohen writes, “the IRO offered asylum seekers strong incentives to overemphasize the political nature of their flight.” In its dealings with this second wave of postwar refugees, the IRO went a long way toward codifying the very concept of “dissidence.”

* * *

The IRO was a creature of cold war divisions, not only because it wrestled with the East’s and West’s opposing strategies for addressing the refugee question, but above all because it ultimately declared the countries of the Eastern Bloc to be persecuting states, ones from which it was not only possible but desirable to seek refuge elsewhere. The IRO’s declaration triggered a secondary surge in DP numbers and a profound shift in the demographic profile of camp inhabitants, which the new UNHCR field offices and the German Federal Republic had to take on, along with the 140,000 refugees still in DP camps, when the IRO formally ceased operations in 1951. That year alone, around 1,000 new refugees fled to West Germany from the GDR every day, with another 1,500 fleeing the Soviet Bloc into Germany, Austria and the Free Territory of Trieste every month.

In “selling” these new refugees abroad, the IRO described them as “antitotalitarian,” fully inoculated against communism by personal experience. Balts, by which Cohen likely means Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians, some of whom collaborated with Nazis and were objects of suspicion, became “the gentry of the DPs,” the most desirable candidates for immigration, according to Cohen. In comparison with other DP groups—Poles, Ukrainians, Yugoslavs—the Balts were praised by French social workers as “an overall healthy and beautiful race.” One American Congressman declared that Baltic DPs showed “every sign of having come from good stock and good breeding,” and were “unmistakably intelligent, conscientious, industrious and energetic.”

This stock-show terminology was one byproduct of a postwar labor market that couldn’t draw enough workers from local populations for reconstruction projects. Representatives of companies and states regularly toured DP camps, checking DPs’ dossiers and appraising their physiques. The recruiters favored young, healthy, single and skilled manual laborers over older, familied or intellectual types. Even the language used by the staff in processing DPs smacked of the factory floor: “call forward, in processing, final shipment.” One IRO official unapologetically affirmed that “the new language of the Resettlement Center was exciting to hear,” and spoke proudly of “the great emigration mill” the organization had put in place.

These recruitment sessions moved some French journalists to compare the atmosphere in the camps to “a slave market in the heart of Europe,” describing would-be employers as “animal dealers…tearing open the chops of horses in order to check the coating of their teeth.” A group of US advocates for DPs similarly likened the process to shopping from a Sears Roebuck catalog, “where the marked-down price tags feature race, size, family status, age, skill, muscles.” Newspapers in the US regularly advertised DPs in these terms: “Do you want a displaced person as a domestic?… You may make other requests too. You may prefer a Latvian, a Yugoslav, a Pole.”

Once the camps had been “picked over” by recruiters, the remaining DPs either had large families or were sick, old, intellectuals or Jews. UN investigators in Germany lamented that “Without openly declaring their unwillingness to accept Jewish immigrants, the various missions invariably reject all the Jewish candidates.” Nor was it any more likely for Jews to find comfortable refuge in the Eastern Bloc. Anti-Semitic violence and unpleasant encounters with people who had occupied or stolen the property of Jews while they were in concentration camps or doing forced labor left many Jews disinclined to stay in Poland, Romania, Hungary or Czechoslovakia. Despite Communist leaders’ kind words for Jews as victims of fascist oppression, the same officials generally took a much softer line when it came to insisting on their repatriation. Jews became the only group to be practically exempted from repatriation as well as from the Communist regimes’ ban on emigration from the Eastern Bloc. The effects of this kind of official “philosemitism,” Cohen explains, were difficult to distinguish from those of official anti-Semitism.

Taken as a whole, the flow and redistribution of refugees across the continent after the war tended to reinforce rather than reverse Nazi racial policies. In the case of Poland, Cohen explains, “the murder of nearly three and a half million Polish Jews by the Nazis, the transfer of a half million ethnic Ukrainians to the USSR, and the mass expulsion of Germans from the ‘recovered territories’ radically transformed Poland’s ethnic landscape. In 1946 and 1947, the exodus of Jewish survivors capped off [an] astonishing process of ethnic homogenization.”

* * *

The mass departure of Jews from Europe ultimately involved the IRO in another postwar development of ongoing political significance: the emergence of the State of Israel. In accordance with the 1946 IRO constitution, unique status was afforded to Jews, who could be categorized as refugees even in the countries where they were born and lived as citizens. By virtue of having suffered collective persecution, Jews possessed a semblance of collective status not shared by other refugees and DPs—namely separate DP camps where they were served by private charities created by and for Jews, the “capacity” to count as a refugee anywhere in Europe and eventually their own state in Palestine. As Cohen concludes, “the acknowledgement of Jewish extraterritoriality normalized the idea of Jewish self-determination in international politics.” The IRO’s de facto recognition of Jews as a transnational collective and transformation of them into potential refugees irrespective of where they lived in Europe rendered the creation of the State of Israel much more likely, perhaps even inevitable.

Cohen writes that many Jewish DPs were eager to go to Palestine and had no desire to pursue other options for emigration, with some even turning down other opportunities outright. It helped that the new State of Israel proved willing to take the Jewish DPs passed over by labor recruiters, a policy that left IRO officials feeling delighted and relieved. “Thanks to its acceptance of the most difficult cases (tuberculosis patients and the mentally insane),” wrote Pierre Jacobsen, an IRO official, in 1951, “Israel contributed to a very large measure to solve the Jewish refugee problem faced by the IRO.”

The 1948 Arab-Israeli War precipitated a refugee crisis of its own, as a half-million Palestinian Arabs were forced out of their homes, creating what Cohen refers to as “an internationally mediated scramble over refugee categorizations.” The IRO hesitated in classifying the new DPs as refugees, arguing in 1949 that “Arab refugees were the result of war operations and did not fall within the wording ‘persecution or fear based on reasonable ground of persecution.’” Cohen shows that the IRO was not indifferent to the plight of these refugees, but also did not concern itself with their repatriation and contributed relatively little to their formal relief beyond the donation of 100,000 blankets and several thousand tons of flour. Furthermore, the IRO did not oppose the resettlement of Jewish DPs to areas previously inhabited by Palestinian Arabs, and starting in 1948 it actively facilitated such settlement. The Lebanese representative to the UN General Assembly at the time cried foul: “By supporting a policy of clearing out a whole area, thereby creating displaced persons, in order to settle other persons there, the IRO was partly responsible for the fate of the Arab refugees from Palestine.” Resettlement and expulsion were often two sides of the same coin.

The IRO may have done so little to aid Palestinian Arabs because the universalization of human rights rhetoric, characterized by an emphasis on individual rights, masked what was at its core a European project. The 1951 Geneva Convention on the status of refugees stipulated that the refugee problem and protection provisions were limited to Europe. This narrow definition served to assuage Europeans’ fears that hordes of persecuted people from around the world would pour into their countries seeking refuge; it also protected Europe’s remaining imperial powers from an awkward political bind by preventing opponents of European colonialism from being counted as political refugees. It was in this context that the Welsh theologian Elfan Rees described the definition of refugees put forward by the UN as a “menu at an expensive restaurant, with every course crossed out except the soup—and a footnote to the effect that the soup might not be served in certain circumstances.”

The narrowness of the definition also provided the Soviets with an opening for accusing the West of hypocrisy. Africans, the Soviets claimed, were “refugees in the fullest sense, refugees from the persecution they had suffered for their participation in national liberation movements.” The Soviet position sharpened in the autumn of 1956, when Hungarians fleeing the failed uprising in their country were welcomed as favored refugees into the West. It was not until 1967, in the wake of decolonization, that a new, more geographically inclusive definition of and provisions for refugees emerged.

In 1998 the Hungarian filmmaker Péter Forgács completed a film called The Danube Exodus. The film, and Forgács’s 2002 Getty installation by the same name, incorporated footage shot by Captain Andrásovits aboard the Queen Elizabeth. During an interview, Forgács observed that the juxtaposition of the flight of Jews and the resettlement of Germans in the installation was “not logical, not complementary,” implying that only Captain Andrásovits’s movie camera and the Queen Elizabeth could serve as a framework for making sense of the two episodes together. In War’s Wake brilliantly demonstrates the opposite: that refugee flows possess a logic of their own and are by their very nature complementary.

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