“Their synagogues, schools, even cemeteries, have been destroyed, and it is up to us to restore their spiritual, economic and cultural life.” – Dr. Joseph Schwartz, European Director of the Joint Distribution Committee, after his tour of the liberated countries in June 1945.
After the war – by late 1945 – around 75,000 Holocaust survivors had crowded into Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Germany, Austria, and Italy. Conditions were abominable, with many subjected to antisemitism and hostile treatment. Not all inhabitants of these DP Camps were Jewish and not all Displaced Persons were former concentration camp inmates. Some had survived in hiding or in areas of the Soviet Union that were not occupied.
Separate DP camps for Jews were set up and over the next two years the number of Jews in the DP camps more than tripled, with a new influx of refugees from Romania, Hungary, and Poland. They had fled eastward to escape the Nazis. When they returned to their home countries they were again met by antisemitism and fled to the Western occupation zones. These people included many Polish Jews who had returned from their wartime refuge in the Soviet Union, only to flee once again in the face of renewed antisemitism and the July 1946 Kielce pogrom.
By 1947, about 250,000 Jewish refugees found protection and support in Displaced Persons camps. Some passed through these camps quickly, others spent months, but a large proportion lived there for years. For the latter, the camps served as a transitional home that helped prepare them for life in the outside world.
Fano in Italy – pictured in the gallery below (more pictures in the Photo Gallery of the Joint Distribution Commission) – was a fishing school and maritime training center in preparation for emigration to Palestine.
Bergen Belsen was the largest DP camp in Germany, founded by the British Army. The history of this DP camp is particularly interesting because of the conflict between the intention of many Displaced Persons to emigrate to Palestine and the British policy to keep its doors closed.
These Displaced Persons camps were funded by the armies of the Allied forces, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and its successor, the International Refugee Organization and the Joint Distribution Committee. This last one – the JDC – distributed a wide range of supplies and services to the DP camps, from food and medicine to educational books, Torah scrolls and legal and emigration assistance.
Special attention was placed by the JDC on the needs of the growing population of children in the camps. This is also the topic of the online exhibition you can find on their website, Everything Possible: JDC and the Children of the DP Camps.
The online exhibition gives an overview of the life in the DP camps, from the arrival of the refugees, to the different challenges related to the development of the camps and the aftermath. Other resources to explore include an introduction to the topic, movie clips, a photo gallery and a wide range of source materials that can be used to teach about JDC’s role in the Displaced Persons camps.