Displaced persons camps in post–World War II Europe were established in Germany, Austria, and Italy, primarily for refugees from Eastern Europe and for the former inmates of the Nazi German concentration camps. A "displaced persons camp" is a temporary facility for displaced persons, whether refugees or internally displaced persons. Two years after the end of World War II in Europe, some 850,000 people lived in displaced persons camps across Europe, among them Armenians, Czechoslovaks, Estonians, Greeks, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Yugoslavs, Jews, Russians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and Belarusians.
At the end of the Second World War, at least 40 million people had been displaced from their home countries, with about eleven million in Allied-occupied Germany. These included former prisoners of war, released slave laborers, and both non-Jewish and Jewish concentration-camp survivors. The Allies categorized the refugees as “displaced persons” (DPs) and assigned the responsibility for their care to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).
Combat operations, ethnic cleansing, and the fear of genocide uprooted millions of people from their homes over the course of World War II. Between 40 million and 60 million people were displaced. A large number were inmates of Nazi concentration camps, labor camps and prisoner-of-war camps that were freed by the Allied armies. In portions of Eastern Europe, both civilians and military personnel fled their home countries in fear of advancing Soviet armies, who were preceded by widespread reports of mass rape, pillaging, looting, and murder.
As the war ended, these people found themselves facing an uncertain future. Allied military and civilian authorities faced considerable challenges resettling them. Since the reasons for displacement varied considerably, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force classified individuals into a number of categories: evacuees, war or political refugees, political prisoners, forced or voluntary workers, Organisation Todt workers, former forces under German command, deportees, intruded persons, extruded persons, civilian internees, ex-prisoners of war, and stateless persons.
In addition, displaced persons came from every country that had been invaded and/or occupied by German forces. Although the situation of many of the DPs could be resolved by simply moving them to their original homes, this could not be done, for example, where borders changed to place the location in a new country. Additionally, many could not return home for fear of political persecution or retribution for perceived (or actual) collaboration with Axis powers.
Establishing a system for resolving displacement
The original plan for those displaced as a result of World War II was to repatriate them to their countries of origin as quickly as possible. Throughout Austria and Germany, American, French, British, or Soviet forces tended to the immediate needs of the refugees located within their particular Allied Occupation Zone and set in motion repatriation plans.
Nearly all of the displaced persons were malnourished, a great number were ill, and some were dying. Shelter was often improvised, and there were many instances of military personnel sharing from their own supplies of food, medicine, clothing, etc. to help the refugees.
Initially, military missions of the various Allied nations attached to the British, French and U.S. army commands assisted in the sorting and classifying the DPs of their own nationality. For example, during 1945 and 1946 there were several dozen Polish liaison officers attached to individual occupation army units. On October 1, 1945, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), which had already been running many of the camps, took responsibility for the administration of displaced persons in Europe, though military authorities continued to play a role for several years to come, in providing transportation, supplies and security.
Those who were easily classified and were willing to be repatriated were rapidly sent back to their country of origin. By the end of 1945, over six million refugees had been repatriated by the military forces and UNRRA. (The term displaced persons does not typically refer to the several million ethnic Germans in Europe (Poland, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands etc.) who were expelled and repatriated in Germany.) British authorities made June 30, 1946 the cutoff for accepting further displaced persons in their sector of occupation, and the American sector set it at August 1, with the exception of those persecuted for race or religion, or who entered the zone in "an organized manner." The American sector ceased receiving new arrivals on April 21, 1947. An unknown number of displaced persons rejected by authorities were left to find their own means of survival.
Displaced persons began to appear in substantial numbers in the spring of 1945. Allied forces took them into their care by improvising shelter wherever it could be found. Accommodation primarily included former military barracks, but also included summer camps for children, airports, hotels, castles, hospitals, private homes, and even partly destroyed structures. Although there were continuous efforts to sort and consolidate populations, there were hundreds of DP facilities in Germany, Austria, Italy, and other European countries by the end of 1945. One camp was even set up in Guanajuato in Mexico. Many American-run DP camps kept Holocaust survivors in horrific conditions, with insufficient food and inmates living under armed guard, as revealed in the Harrison Report.
The UNRRA moved quickly to field teams to take over administration of the camps from the military forces.
A number of DP camps became more or less permanent homes for these individuals. Conditions were varied and sometimes harsh. Rations were restricted, and curfews were frequently imposed. Camps were shut down as refugees found new homes and there was continuous consolidation of remaining refugees into fewer camps.
The needs of displaced persons
All displaced persons had experienced trauma, and many had serious health conditions as a result of what they had endured.
The immediate concern was to provide shelter, nutrition and basic health care. Most DPs had subsisted on diets of far less than 1,500 calories a day. Sanitary conditions had been improvised at best, and there had been minimal medical care. As a result, they suffered from malnutrition, a variety of diseases, and were often unclean, lice-ridden, and prone to illness.
In addition, most of the refugees suffered from psychological difficulties. They were often distrustful and apprehensive around authorities, and many were depressed and traumatized.
Displaced persons were anxious to be reunited with families they had been separated from in the course of the war. Improvised efforts to identify survivors became formalized through the UNRRA's Central Tracking Bureau and facilities of the International Red Cross. The organization collected over one million names in the course of the DP era and eventually became the International Tracing Service.
Displaced persons often moved from camp to camp, looking for family, countrymen, or better food and accommodation. Over time, ethnic and religious groups concentrated in certain camps.
Camp residents quickly set up churches, synagogues, newspapers, sports events, schools, and even universities. Among these were the Technical University in Esslingen set up by the Polish Mission, the Free Ukrainian University, the Ukrainian Technical-Agricultural Institute of Prodebrady, the Baltic University and the short-lived UNRRA University. German universities were required to accept a quota of DP students.
The Allies were faced with the repatriation of displaced persons. The initial expectation of the Allies was that the prisoners of concentration camps would simply be sent back to their countries of origin, but in the aftermath of the war, this soon became impossible (Berger, 2008). In February 1945, near the end of the war, the heads of the Allied powers, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin convened to decide matters relating to rebuilding Europe after the war, a meeting now referred to as the Yalta Conference (Office of the Historian, 2000). This meeting resulted in a series of decisions, but a specifically important decision made resulted in forced repatriation, where displaced persons were forced back to their countries of origin, and this use of force resulted in acts of antisemitic violence against the survivors of the war. Studies conducted years after the closure of these camps found that forced displacement has a direct link to “elevated risk for PTSD and somatoform symptoms and lowered health related quality of life” (Freitag et al., 2012). To overcome the disastrous nature of the Yalta Conference, Displaced Persons Camps were established, and quickly it was understood that the conditions in these camps were a result of the improvised manner of their establishment. Commissioned by the US government, Earl G. Harrison documented the conditions of these camps. The Harrison Report documents crowded living spaces, a lack of necessary medical supplies, “pathetic malnutrition” of concentration camp prisoners, and a general lack of proper care for displaced persons (Berger, 2008). Another revelation to come from this report was that Jewish refugees were forced to intermingle with others who had collaborated with the Nazis in the murder of Jews (Yad Vashem, 2020). The information detailed in this report resulted in President Truman appointing military advisors to oversee the camps and restore humanity and sanitation to them as well. Food rations were increased, and conditions soon improved.
A number of charitable organizations provided significant humanitarian relief and services among displaced persons - these include the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, American Friends Service Committee, Friends Relief Service, the Lutheran World Federation, Catholic Charities, several national Red Cross organizations, Polish American Congress and Ukrainian American Relief Committee.
The difficulties of repatriation
Over one million refugees could not be repatriated to their original countries and were left homeless as a result of fear of persecution. These included:
- Ethnic or religious groups that were likely to be persecuted in their countries of origin. These included many Jews (see Sh'erit ha-Pletah), and others.
- Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians and some Czechs - who feared persecution by the communist regimes installed in their home countries by the Soviet Army, in particular those from provinces (Galicia, West Belarus etc.) that had been recently incorporated into the Soviet Union.
- Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians whose homelands had been invaded by the Soviet Union (1940) and remained occupied after the war.
- Croats, Serbs and Slovenes who feared persecution by the communist government set up by Josip Broz Tito.
- Citizens of Free City of Danzig, annexed by Poland (1945).
- In a portent of the Cold War, individuals who simply wanted to avoid living under a communist regime.
The agreement reached at the Yalta Conference required in principle that all citizens of the allied powers be repatriated to their home country. The Soviet Union insisted that refugees in the American, British, and French sectors who were or at some point had been Soviet citizens be sent back to the Soviet Union. Many refugees resisted this, fearing that their fleeing Soviet rule had condemned them as traitors.
American, British, and French military officials, as well as UNRRA officials, reluctantly complied with this directive, and a number of Soviet citizens were repatriated. Many of these met with the hardship they feared, including death and confinement in the Gulags. There were also cases of kidnapping and coercion to return these refugees. Many avoided such repatriation by misrepresenting their origins, fleeing, or simply resisting. Rejecting claimed Soviet sovereignty over the Baltic states, allied officials also refused to repatriate Lithuanian, Estonian, and Latvian refugees against their will.
Similarly, many refugees who were repatriated to Yugoslavia were subjected to summary executions and torture.
Many Poles, who later agreed to be repatriated, did in fact suffer arrest and some were executed, particularly those that had served in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, or in the Polish Resistance against the Nazis.
Jewish survivors of the death camps and various work camps refused to return to their countries of origin, starting instead an extensive underground movement to migrate to the British Mandate of Palestine. Jewish Holocaust survivors typically could not return to their former homes because these no longer existed or had been expropriated by former neighbors; the few Eastern European Jews who returned often experienced renewed antisemitism. In 1945, most Jewish Holocaust survivors had little choice but to stay in the DP camps; most Jews who wanted to could not leave Europe because Britain had severely limited legal Jewish immigration to Palestine and illegal immigration was strongly curtailed. Jewish refugees hoping to reach other countries, including the United States, were also met with restrictions and quotas.
Many Hungarians in Austria, fearing communist repression or war crimes charges, were reluctant to be repatriated. Relief workers were resistant to pressuring the Hungarians, and invoked recent UN and government statements against forced repatriation.
Resettlement of DPs
Once it became obvious that repatriation plans left many DPs who needed new homes, it took time for countries to commit to accepting refugees. Existing refugee quotas were completely inadequate, and by the fall of 1946, it was not clear whether the remaining DPs would ever find a home.
Between 1947 and 1953, the vast majority of the "non-repatriables" would find new homes around the world, particularly among these countries:
- Belgium was the first country to adopt a large-scale immigration program when it called for 20,000 coal mine workers from the DP ranks, bringing in a total of 22,000 DPs near the end of 1947. The program met with some controversy, as critics viewed it as a cynical ploy to get cheap labor.
- The United Kingdom accepted 86,000 DPs as European Voluntary Workers as part of various labor import programs, the largest being "Operation Westward Ho". These came in addition to 115,000 Polish army veterans who had joined the Polish Resettlement Corps and 12,000 former members of the Waffen SS Ukrainian Halychyna Division.
- Canada first accepted a number of refugees through Orders in Council and then implemented a bulk-labor program to accept qualified labor and a close-relatives plan, that ultimately took the form of a sponsorship plan. By the end of 1951, Canada had accepted 157,687 refugees.
- Australia had initially launched an immigration program targeting refugees of British stock, but expanded this in late 1947 to include other refugees. Australia accepted a total of 182,159 refugees, principally of Polish and Baltic origins.
- By the time Israel was established in 1948, as many as 50,000 refugees had entered the country legally or illegally. Completely opening its doors to all Jewish refugees regardless of age, work ability, health, etc., Israel accepted more than 652,000 refugees by 1950.
- France accepted 38,157 displaced persons.
- In Latin America, Venezuela accepted 17,000 DPs; Brazil 29,000; and Argentina 33,000.
- French Morocco accepted 1,500 immigrants; Iraq extended an invitation to ten unmarried medical doctors.
- Norway accepted about 492 Jewish refugees, largely based on their ability to perform manual labor. These were scattered throughout the country, and most left as soon as they could, primarily to Israel.
- The United States was late to accept displaced persons, which led to considerable activism for a change in policy. Earl G. Harrison, who had previously reported on conditions in the camps to President Harry S. Truman led the Citizens Committee on Displaced Persons that attracted dignitaries such as Eleanor Roosevelt, David Dubinsky, Marshall Field, A. Philip Randolph, and others. Meeting considerable opposition in the United States Congress with a bias against Central and Eastern European intellectuals and Jews, The American program was the most idealistic and expansive of the Allied programs but also the most notoriously bureaucratic.
After World War II ended in 1945, there were 7 to 11 million displaced people, or refugees, still living in Germany, Austria and Italy. To have some of these refugees come to the United States, Truman asked Congress to enact legislation. Truman’s administration, along with a lobbying group for refugees, Citizens Committee on Displaced Persons, favored allowing European refugees from World War II to enter the United States. Truman signed the first Displaced Persons Act on June 25, 1948. It allowed 200,000 displaced persons to enter the country within the next two years. However, they exceeded the quota by extending the act for another two years, which doubled the admission of refugees into the United States to 415,000. From 1949 to 1952, about half the 900,000 immigrants that entered the United States were displaced persons. In order to qualify for American visas, only those that were in internment camps by the end of 1945 were eligible. The displaced persons that were trying to come to America had to have a sponsor and a place to live before their arrival, a guarantee that they would not displace American workers and, even more preferable, was that they had a relative that is an American citizen. Voluntary social service agencies, created by religious and ethnic groups, helped the refugees settle into American life. Of the DPs the US admitted from eastern Europe between 1941 and 1957, 137,450 were European Jews.
By 1953, over 250,000 refugees were still in Europe, most of them old, infirm, crippled, or otherwise disabled. Some European countries accepted these refugees on a humanitarian basis. Norway accepted 200 refugees who were blind or had tuberculosis, and Sweden also accepted a limited number. In the end most of them were accepted by Germany and Austria for their care and ultimately full resettlement as citizens.
Reappraisal of DP history
The building of the former mikvah in camp Föhrenwald now houses the museum Erinnerungsort Badehaus. It provides detailed information about the history of the camp, including interviews with contemporary witnesses. The association that runs the museum offers guided tours of the museum and the former camp in English.
- Refugee camp
- Scouting in displaced persons camps
- Internally displaced person
- Tent city
- The Truce, an autobiographical story by Primo Levi, depicts the life of displaced persons in Central and Eastern Europe after World War II.
- Hirsch Schwartzberg
- Erinnerungsort Badehaus
- Internment of refugees in the Soviet Union during World War II
- Наталля Гардзіенка. Беларускія перамешчаныя асобы (DP) у Вялікай Брытаніі Natallia Hardzijenka. [Belarusian Displaced Persons in the United Kingdom] - Belarusian Historical Review, 2006
- DP Camps in Europe Intro, from: DPs Europe's Displaced Persons, 1945-1951 by Mark Wyman
- The State of The World’s Refugees 2000: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action. Oxford University Press. 2000. p. 13.
- Reporting on Migrants and Refugees: Handbook for Journalism Educators. France: UNESCO. 2021. p. 21. ISBN 978-92-3-100456-8.
- Carlin, James (1982). "Significant Refugee Crises Since World War II and the Response of the International Community". Michigan Journal of International Law. 3.
- Bundy, Colin (2016). "Migrants, refugees, history and precedents | Forced Migration Review". www.fmreview.org. Retrieved 2022-03-08.
- Orchard, Phil (2014). A Right to Flee: Refugees, States, and the Construction of International Cooperation. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. p. 3. ISBN 9781139923293.
- Frank, Matthew; Reinisch, Jessica (2017). Refugees in Europe, 1919–1959: A Forty Years’ Crisis?. Bloomsbury Academic. pp. 147, 153. ISBN 978-1-4742-9573-4.
- Gatrell, Peter (2017). "The Question of Refugees: Past and Present". Origins. Retrieved 2022-03-09.
- ISBN O-8014-8542-8 "Dps: Europe's Displaced Persons, 1945-1951" by Mark Wyman ; reprinted 1998 Cornell University Press
- Antony Beevor, Berlin: The Downfall 1945, Penguin Books, 2002, ISBN 0-670-88695-5
- ISBN 1-57087-204-X "Thirteen is My Lucky Number" Chapters 7 and 8
- ibid - p.47 and subsequent
- Report of Earl G. Harrison. As cited in United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, "Resources," Life Reborn: Jewish Displaced Persons, 1945-1951
- New York Times, 30 Sept. 1945, "President Orders Eisenhower to End New Abuse of Jews, He Acts on Harrison Report, Which Likens Our Treatment to That of the Nazis,"
- Robert L. Hilliard, "Surviving the Americans: The Continued Struggle of the Jews After Liberation" (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1997) p. 214
- Harran, Marilyn, ed. (2000). "1945: Liberation and Rebuilding". The Holocaust Chronicle (1st ed.). Publications International. pp. 580-581. ISBN 978-0785329633.
- Kelly, Luke (2016). "Humanitarian Sentiment and Forced Repatriation: The Administration of Hungarians in a Post-War Displaced Persons Camp". Journal of Refugee Studies: few009. doi:10.1093/jrs/few009. Retrieved 2019-09-15.
- "Michigan Family History Network report". Dpcamps.org. Retrieved 2012-05-14.
- Jayne Persian, Beautiful Balts: From Displaced Persons to New Australians, (NewSouth, 2017).
- "Displaced Persons Act of 1948". Immigration to the United States.
- "Displaced Persons Act of 1948". Immigration to the United States.
- "United States Policy Toward Jewish Refugees, 1941-1952". Ushmm.org. Retrieved 2012-05-14.
- "A place of remembrance, encounter and learning - BADEHAUS". Erinnerungsort BADEHAUS. Retrieved 2022-10-02.
- Antons, Jan-Hinnerk. Displaced Persons in post-war Germany: parallel societies in a hostile environment, in: Journal of Contemporary History 49/1 (2014), p. 92-114. 
- Boder, David Pablo. Topical Autobiographies of Displaced People Recorded Verbatim in Displaced Persons Camps, with a Psychological and Anthropological Analysis. Chicago: [s.n.], 1950.
- Chubenko, Vladyslav, and I︠A︡ Tumarkin. The Man from DP Camp. Kiev: Pub. House of the Political Literature of Ukraine, 1985.
- Fessak, Borys. Ukrainian DP Camp, POW Camp, Government in Exile, and National Council Issues. Washington, D.C.: Ukrainian Philatelic and Numismatic Society, 2003.
- Grand, Sadja. Sadja Grand Letters and Other Materials Relating to Jewish Displaced Persons in Austria. 1945.
- Gurland, A. R. L. Glimpses of Soviet Jewry 1,000 Letters from the USSR and DP Camps. New York: American Jewish Committee, 1948.
- Heymont, Irving. Among the Survivors of the Holocaust, 1945 The Landsberg DP Camp Letters of Major Irving Heymont, United States Army. Monographs of the American Jewish Archives, no. 10. Cincinnati, Ohio: American Jewish Archives, 1982. ISBN 0-87820-012-6
- Jaroszynska-Kirchmann, Anna D. 2002. "Patriotism, Responsibility, and the Cold War: Polish Schools in DP Camps in Germany, 1945-1951". The Polish Review. 47, no. 1: 35.
- Klein, Arthur G., and Abraham Gordon Duker. 1949. Many Among Dp's in European Camps Are Collaborationists. Congressional Record.
- Nation in Exile Information Materials About Latvian DPs and Their Life in DP Camp Memmingen. S.l: s.n, 1948.
- Narkeliūnaitė, Salomėja, and J. Steponavičius. DP Baltic camp at Seedorf. Hamburg: Published by UNRRA Team 295, B.A.O.R, 1946.
- Persian, Jayne. Beautiful Balts: From Displaced Persons to New Australians. Sydney: NewSouth, 2017.
- Shulman, William L. Aspects of the Holocaust From the Shtetl to the DP Camp. Bayside, NY: QCC Art Gallery, 1987.
- Irene Eber "The Choice – Poland, 1939–1945." ISBN 0-8052-4197-3, 2004. Pub. Schocken Books Inc., NY. 240 p.
- DP Camps
- Russian DP and DEF Camps
- Immigration History Research Center Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries
- Links to national archives regarding DP Camps
- Jewish Virtual Library topic page
- ORT and the DP Camps
- United States Holocaust Museum - The Aftermath and exhibition Life Reborn: Jewish Displaced Persons Project
- Yad Vashem lexical entry on displaced persons
- Simon Wiesenthal Center on the Aftermath
- German language article in shoa.de on displaced persons in Germany
- Lightning and Ashes, blog about Polish DPs
- DP Camp - Rehabilitation for Emigration. Area Vocational Training School. Ingolstadt, Bavaria, Germany 1948
- Guide to the Records of the Displaced Persons Camps and Centers in Germany (RG 294.2), at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York, NY
- Guide to the Records of the Displaced Persons Camps and Centers in Italy (RG 294.3), at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York, NY
- Guide to the Records of the Displaced Persons Camps and Centers in Austria (RG 294.4), at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York, NY
- Guide to the Displaced Persons Camps and Centers Photograph Collection (RG 294.5), at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York, NY
- Guide to the Displaced Persons Camps and Centers Poster Collection (RG 294.6), at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, New York, NY
- Landsberger lager-cajtung (Landsberg am Lech, Germany) is a digitized periodical at the Leo Baeck Institute, New York
- Fraye vorṭ (Feldafing, Germany) is a digitized periodical at the Leo Baeck Institute, New York