The Last Mil­lion: Europe’s Dis­placed Per­sons from World War to Cold War

  • Review
By – December 7, 2020

When does a war end – when the mil­i­tary stops fight­ing, when the gov­ern­ments agree on a treaty, when the gen­er­als begin to write their mem­oirs? Accord­ing to David Nasaw, the author of The Last Mil­lion, a thought­ful, panoram­ic study of the peo­ple who had no home to return to fol­low­ing World War II, none of these events marks the final end to a war. To these refugees with no place of refuge, the so-called end of the war was just the begin­ning of a process that would take years to play out; years in which more than a mil­lion dis­placed peo­ple strug­gled to find room for them­selves in a world that was too tired and bro­ken to help them.

The Last Mil­lion is not an easy read, filled as it is with pathos and pain, but it pro­vides the frame­work, through it’s extra­or­di­nary sweep of his­to­ry, to begin under­stand­ing one of the most mon­u­men­tal con­se­quences of war: a group of peo­ple from whom every­thing was stolen.

In 1945, while the rest of the world was begin­ning to forge a peace, the con­cen­tra­tion camp sur­vivors, POWs, polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, and slave labor­ers who had become entan­gled in the con­flict were all des­per­ate­ly search­ing for a way for­ward with­in the chaos of Ger­many. No one was keep­ing order or stop­ping vio­lence from occur­ring, and there were few resources avail­able to help the lost, mal­nour­ished, and home­less find their way.

While repa­tri­a­tion was a solu­tion for many, even after every last accept­able soul was reset­tled by the British and Amer­i­can author­i­ties, more than a mil­lion dis­placed per­sons remained, this group being made up pri­mar­i­ly of Jews. The glob­al ques­tion became what to do with this diverse group of peo­ple who had no fixed nation­al iden­ti­ty or sense of belong­ing. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, no one had the answer.

Nasaw probes deeply into the rea­sons why the U.S., one of the last coun­tries to grant reset­tle­ment rights to the refugees, offered thou­sands of visas to Nazi col­lab­o­ra­tors and war crim­i­nals, but few to Jews. He delves into how Cold War fears led the gov­ern­ment to reject Jew­ish refugees sus­pect­ed of being Com­mu­nist sym­pa­thiz­ers, allow­ing them, instead, to lan­guish for years in dis­placed per­sons camps, yearn­ing for sta­bil­i­ty, a coun­try to call home, and a begin­ning to their future.

The Last Mil­lion is a grip­ping account, with over twen­ty images, maps and pho­tos dis­persed through­out adding depth and col­or to a nar­ra­tive already brim­ming with lit­er­ary tex­ture. A pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter, Nasaw guides the read­er along the jour­ney of the refugees with a beau­ti­ful­ly craft­ed touch. The last hun­dred pages con­tain care­ful­ly curat­ed notes and a detailed index that will be use­ful to schol­ars and lay read­ers alike in grasp­ing the enor­mi­ty of the prob­lem and the com­plex­i­ty of the few solu­tions set forth to resolve it.

Lin­da F. Burghardt is a New York-based jour­nal­ist and author who has con­tributed com­men­tary, break­ing news, and fea­tures to major news­pa­pers across the U.S., in addi­tion to hav­ing three non-fic­tion books pub­lished. She writes fre­quent­ly on Jew­ish top­ics and is now serv­ing as Schol­ar-in-Res­i­dence at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al & Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau County.

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