In 1945, when Allied troops entered the concentration camps, they discovered piles of corpses, bones, and human ashes, as well as thousands of survivors -- Jews and non-Jews -- suffering from starvation and disease.
Within months of Germany's surrender in May 1945, more than six million displaced persons (DPs) had returned to their home countries. However, between 1.5 million and two million DPs, mostly from countries under Soviet occupation, refused repatriation. Among them were more than 250,000 Jews.
Sinaida Grussman holds a name card to help any of her surviving family members locate her at the Kloster Indersdorf DP camp.
Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Museum of Jewish Heritage/Center For Holocaust Studies, courtesy of Lilo Plaschkes Robert Marx
Most Jewish survivors were unable or unwilling to return home because of persistent anti-Semitism and the destruction of their communities during the Holocaust. Many of those who did return feared for their lives. In postwar Poland, for example, there were a number of pogroms (violent riots) that claimed scores of Jewish lives.
In December of that year, President Truman issued a directive that loosened quota restrictions on persons displaced by the Nazi regime, giving preference to DPs, especially widows and orphans. Under this directive, more than 41,000 displaced persons immigrated to the United States from Europe; approximately 28,000 of these were Jews. Still, opportunities for legal immigration to the United States remained extremely limited.
Great Britain continued to strictly limit the number of Jews allowed in Palestine. Jews already living in British-controlled Palestine organized "illegal" immigration by ship (also known as Aliyah Bet). In 1947 the British forced the ship Exodus 1947, which was carrying 4,500 Holocaust survivors headed for Palestine, to return to Germany where the passengers were again imprisoned in camps. The Exodus 1947 attracted worldwide publicity and strengthened support for the DPs' struggle to emigrate from war-devastated Europe. It was not until the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948 that Jewish DPs began freely immigrating to the new sovereign state.
In this context, Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 authorizing 200,000 DPs to enter the United States. On June 25, 1948, President Truman signed the law with “great reluctance,” protesting that the bill used date restrictions designed to limit the number of Jewish refugees eligible for entry. Truman chose to sign what he saw as a deeply flawed bill, rather than further postpone action on the DP crisis. Congress later passed amendments that extended the total allotment of U.S. immigration visas for DPs to approximately 400,000 persons. By 1952, over 80,000 Jewish DPs had immigrated to the United States under the terms of the two Displaced Persons Acts and with the aid of American Jewish charitable groups.
With the majority of Jewish DPs eventually finding refuge in the United States and Israel, as well as other nations, the DP emigration crisis slowly came to an end. Almost all of the European DP camps were closed by 1952, as Jewish survivors of the Holocaust began life anew in their adopted homelands.
-Special thanks to David Klevan, the Education Manager for Technology and Distance Learning at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for writing this post.