Now sixty-plus years later, more books are appearing to explain those times. The authors include scholars who’ve taken a long time to pull the research together and retirees who are using their leisure to fill in the history. Here are a few books that brought my mind some rest.
DPs: Europe’s Displaced Persons, 1945-1951 by Mark Wyman. 1989 and 1998 editions.
Displaced persons, also known as refugees, are a constant in human history. As long as there is conflict and war, there are people who flee for safety and find it far away in a foreign country. In September 1945 there were 1.8 million displaced in Europe still waiting for a place to go. The politics of their resettlement continued for years after. Among them, 200,000 Baltic people knew that Russians had killed and deported about 130,000 of their kind in 1941 and would resume the persecution, so they refused to return. “Some 75 percent of the university, high school and grade school teachers had fled Lithuania,… as well as 80 percent of the doctors and … writers, painters, musicians, artists, etc.” (p. 119)
Wyman describes the “continent in ruins” right after the war, with up to twenty million bewildered people on the move. There were soldiers returning home; POWs, concentration and labor camp internees; civilians escaping intolerable places or expelled due to political antipathy. Most returned to their former homes. The Allied Forces were busy sorting them out and herding them into organized camps.
His riveting narrative describes the history around the DP camps in detail. Stories of individuals bring the experience to life. A chapter on repatriation explains the politics and logistics addressing stateless people who would not go home. He describes the special problems of orphaned children and surviving Jews. The camps became multi-lingual and -cultural communities, struggling to hang onto national identity, to school children, and to apply for asylum, in a limbo that lasted years after the war.
The hair-raising story must not be forgotten. In 2015, over a million refugees from the Middle East entered Europe, and there were 1.3 million active claims for asylum.
Those of us within a generation of the WWII DP experience know that security and prosperity was found by many DPs from this era. What we might not know is exactly how our parents coped at the time, and what lingered in their lives, good and bad.