In early May and early August, we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of VE and VJ Days. Images of jubilant crowds in Times Square, joyous faces wreathed with smiles, banners proclaiming victory, the sailor leaning forward and the nurse bending back for a passionate kiss, will all be exhibited for us to admire. And we will, viewing them, share the celebrants’ joy.
But we should also remember those in Europe for whom the horrors of war did not vanish with the end of organized hostilities: the millions left homeless, stateless, destitute, near starvation; the numberless, often anonymous victims of rape, their bodies the spoils of war, occupation, and revenge; the troops returning to devastated villages, cities of rubble, and families torn apart.
In Germany alone, at war’s end, there were 8 million to 10 million prisoners of war, forced and slave laborers, and death-camp and concentration-camp inmates who, on liberation, took to the roads, the fields, the forests, and the highways in search of the food and shelter they required to survive. Those who were healthy enough to walk, ride, or board transports for home did so as soon as they were able. “Half the nationalities of Europe were on the march,” wrote war correspondent and author Alan Moorehead. “At every bend of the road you came on another group, bundles on their shoulders, trudging along the ditches in order to avoid the passing military traffic.”
It fell, by default, to the Allied armies to protect these people from the elements and from the anarchy descending on Germany. American and British troops gathered them up, marched or loaded them into military vehicles, and transported them to assembly centers and camps, where—the Jewish survivors discovered to their horror—they were to be grouped and housed by nationality, Ukrainians with Ukrainians, Poles with Poles, inmates and torturers side by side. Such inhumane forced gatherings of victim and victimizer would not be remedied until the fall of 1945, and then only after a scathing report by Earl Harrison, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a special adviser to President Truman, who charged that the Jews in the refugee camps were being treated “as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them.” Harrison was exaggerating for effect, but not by much. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, commander of the Allied forces in Europe, took immediate action upon receiving the report to transfer them to separate facilities, increase their food rations, and, over time, remove from leadership positions those who looked upon the Jews as “lower than animals,” as Gen. George Patton put it.
For tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors, liberation would prove to be a dead end, a detour into a maze with no paths leading out of it. The civilized world, forced to take notice, had gazed in horror at the photographs, the newsreels, the eyewitness testimony of the troops and officers who had liberated the death camps. But the horror subsided and, with it, any attempt to bring justice to the suffering. In 1945, there was little effort, in the United States or elsewhere, to open borders, grant visas, enlarge quotas, and let in these victims of war. The Jewish survivors—now labeled “displaced persons” or, more simply, “DPs”—would be shut away in their refugee camps for the next three to five years, imprisoned a second time in a land whose leaders had nearly succeeded in annihilating them.