A Pol­ish fam­i­ly reg­is­ter­ing at No. 17 Dis­placed Per­sons Assem­bly Cen­tre in Ham­burg Zoo­log­i­cal Gar­dens, 18 May 1945, No. 5 Army Film & Pho­to­graph­ic Unit, Mapham J (Sgt). War Office Sec­ond World War Offi­cial Col­lec­tion, Impe­r­i­al War Museums

Like all Jew­ish kids of my gen­er­a­tion, I grew up with the Holo­caust. As a child, I was intro­duced to Grete Hirsch, a kind, some­what frail, qui­et grand­moth­er­ly woman whom — my par­ents told me in whis­pers — had sur­vived the camps. They then tried to explain, as gen­tly as pos­si­ble, what that meant. As a teenag­er, I played Anne Frank’s boyfriend in a high school pro­duc­tion and imag­ined myself into the attic hide­away. In col­lege, I read Pri­mo Levi, Eli Wiesel, and the stan­dard Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture. As a Ph. D. stu­dent in his­to­ry, I delved more deeply into the debates about prece­dents, guilt, repa­ra­tions, and redemp­tion in Israel and argued with my father about whether FDR, whom he wor­shipped, could have done more to res­cue the Jews. As a young father, I spent a year teach­ing on a Ful­bright fel­low­ship at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty and, with my wife, learned from our twins’ sec­ond-grade teacher how Israeli edu­ca­tors had put togeth­er a Holo­caust cur­ricu­lum designed to teach the Holo­caust to the young with­out trau­ma­tiz­ing them.

All along, I assumed — for nowhere had I heard any­thing to the con­trary — that the suf­fer­ing of the minor­i­ty of Euro­pean Jews who had sur­vived the killing fields and gas cham­bers, the con­cen­tra­tion and labor and death camps, had end­ed with their lib­er­a­tion on Vic­to­ry in Europe Day (May 8, 1945); that with the defeat and uncon­di­tion­al sur­ren­der of the Nazis, the sun came out again, the camp gates were opened, the sequestered came out of hid­ing, and the peo­ple of the world, of the Unit­ed States in par­tic­u­lar — who had done so lit­tle to save the six mil­lion — opened their hearts to wel­come the sur­vivors. Any­thing less than this was unimag­in­able. I should have known bet­ter. The suf­fer­ing, dis­place­ment, death, and destruc­tion of the inno­cent that are a byprod­uct of war do not mag­i­cal­ly van­ish with the ces­sa­tion of hostilities.

The suf­fer­ing, dis­place­ment, death, and destruc­tion of the inno­cent that are a byprod­uct of war do not mag­i­cal­ly van­ish with the ces­sa­tion of hostilities.

On lib­er­a­tion, the Jew­ish sur­vivors who were strong enough to leave the camps, on stretch­ers or on foot, were sep­a­rat­ed out by nation­al­i­ty and trans­port­ed by Amer­i­can and British troops to assem­bly cen­ters and dis­placed per­sons camps in Ger­many. The Pol­ish Jews were moved into facil­i­ties with non-Jew­ish Poles, the Lithuan­ian Jews with non-Jew­ish Lithua­ni­ans, some­times with those who fam­i­lies had stolen from them, tor­tured them, or served over them as kapos, or guards, in the camps. Only after a spe­cial advi­sor dis­patched by U.S. Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Robert Mor­gen­thau, the State Depart­ment, and Pres­i­dent Tru­man report­ed back to Wash­ing­ton that it appeared to him — and to oth­ers — that the Jew­ish sur­vivors were being treat­ed As the Nazis treat­ed them except that we do not exter­mi­nate them” where they relo­cat­ed to their own dis­placed per­sons camps, where they would remain, in the land of their mur­der­ers, for the next three to five years.

The White House, Con­gress, the Amer­i­can pub­lic, and, with some excep­tions, the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty did lit­tle, if any­thing, to reset­tle the Jew­ish sur­vivors. The She’erit Hap­le­tah,or sur­viv­ing rem­nant as they called them­selves, did not despair. They buried and mourned and remem­bered the dead, and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly vowed to one anoth­er that they would — they must — rebuild a Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Pales­tine and the Diaspora.

They buried and mourned and remem­bered the dead, and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly vowed to one anoth­er that they would — they must — rebuild a Jew­ish community.

As I did the research for my book, The Last Mil­lion: Europe’s Dis­placed Per­sons from World War to Cold War, as I read hun­dreds of oral his­to­ries, tes­ti­monies, wit­ness accounts, mem­o­ran­da and cor­re­spon­dence from the mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion forces in Ger­many to and from Wash­ing­ton and Lon­don and Moscow and the Unit­ed Nations, I mar­veled at the for­ti­tude of the sur­vivors, the inhu­mane cal­lous­ness of those who might have res­cued them from their pur­ga­to­ry but did not, and the absolute refusal of the British Labour gov­ern­ment to open the gates of Pales­tine to the sur­vivors. I was rat­tled, dis­mayed, hurt, and angered by the Amer­i­can con­gress­men and State Depart­ment offi­cials who res­ur­rect­ed the hoary myth of a Jewish/​Bolshevik con­spir­a­cy to argue that the Jew­ish sur­vivors must not be admit­ted to our nation because they were sub­ver­sives, incen­di­aries, Com­mu­nist sym­pa­thiz­ers, if not clan­des­tine oper­a­tives, whose goal it was to under­mine Amer­i­can val­ues and destroy our democracy.

Con­gress did even­tu­al­ly pass, and Pres­i­dent Tru­man signed into law, a Dis­placed Per­sons Act in June 1948, three years after VE Day. But this act, as a hand­ful of Jew­ish activists argued at the time — and were ignored — made mat­ters worse, as it ren­dered inel­i­gi­ble for visas nine­ty per­cent of the Jew­ish sur­vivors, while giv­ing prece­dence to agri­cul­tur­al work­ers and Ukrain­ian, Lithuan­ian, Lat­vian, and Eston­ian dis­placed per­sons. While the Jews were banned because of secu­ri­ty con­cerns, the law did noth­ing to block the entrance of the sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of war crim­i­nals and Nazi col­lab­o­ra­tors who, dis­guis­ing their pasts, had sought and been grant­ed refuge in the dis­placed per­sons camps.

I was astound­ed by what I found, but more than that, I was bewil­dered and embar­rassed that, as a Jew and an Amer­i­can his­to­ri­an, I had known noth­ing of this until I began my research.

David Nasaw is the author of The Patri­arch, select­ed by the New York Times as one of the 10 Best Books of the Year and a 2013 Pulitzer Prize Final­ist in Biog­ra­phy; Andrew Carnegie, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, the recip­i­ent of the New-York His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety’s Amer­i­can His­to­ry Book Prize, and a 2007 Pulitzer Prize Final­ist in Biog­ra­phy; and The Chief, which was award­ed the Ban­croft Prize for His­to­ry and the J. Antho­ny Lukas Book Prize for Non­fic­tion. He is a past pres­i­dent of the Soci­ety of Amer­i­can His­to­ri­ans, and until 2019 he served as the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Center.