A displaced persons camp or DP camp is a temporary facility for displaced persons coerced into forced migration. The term is mainly used for camps established after World War II in West Germany and in Austria, as well as in the United Kingdom, primarily for refugees from Eastern Europe and for the former inmates of the Nazi German concentration camps. Even two years after the end of World War II in Europe, some 850,000 people still lived in DP camps across Western Europe, among them Armenians, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Yugoslavs, Greeks, Ukrainians and Czechoslovaks.
DP camps following World War II
Combat operations, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and general fear resulted in millions of people being uprooted from their original homes in the course of World War II, becoming displaced. Estimates for the number of displaced persons varies from 11 million to as many as 20 million. The majority 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 in unfamiliar places facing an uncertain future. Allied military and civilian authorities faced considerable challenges in resolving the problem of displaced persons. Since the reasons for individuals' displacement varied considerably, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force classified them into a number of categories: evacuees, war or political refugees, political prisoners, forced or voluntary workers, Todt workers, former forces under German command, deportees, intruded persons, extruded persons, civilian internees, ex-prisoners of war, and stateless persons.
In addition, the origins of these people varied considerably. They 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. Optimal solutions were elusive for a large minority.
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. Depending on sectors occupied in Austria and Germany, American, French, British, or Soviet forces tended to the immediate needs of the refugees and set in motion plans for repatriation. (Estimates for displaced persons do not typically include several million ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe who were expelled and repatriated in Germany. See German exodus from Eastern Europe.)
In the months and sometimes years following the end of the war, displaced persons typically reported to military personnel who attended to their immediate needs. Nearly all of them 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. In a matter of weeks, there was a more or less formalized infrastructure for taking in, registering, treating, classifying, sorting, and transporting displaced persons.
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. Already by the end of 1945, over six million refugees were repatriated by the military forces and UNRRA. British authorities made June 30, 1946 the cutoff for accepting further displaced persons in their sector of occupation, and in 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." A definitive end to further additions also in the American sector was set on April 21, 1947. It is not known how many displaced persons rejected by authorities were left to survive on the German economy.
Displaced persons made themselves known in various ways and under widely differing circumstances in the spring of 1945. Allied forces took them into their care by improvising shelter wherever it could be found. Accommodations 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.
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, frequently curfews were imposed. Camps were shut down as refugees found new homes and there was continuous consolidation of remaining refugees into fewer camps.
By 1952, all but one DP camp was closed. The last DP camp, Föhrenwald, closed in 1957.
The needs of displaced persons
All displaced persons had to varying degrees experienced hardship, including a constant fear for their lives, neglect, abuse, torture, and often attempted murder.
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 were refined to become 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, accommodations, etc. 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.
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, British Friends Relief Service, the Lutheran World Federation, Catholic Charities, several national Red Cross organizations, Polish American Congress, Ukrainian American Relief Committee, and several others.
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 a large number of Jews (see Sh'erit ha-Pletah), and others.
Poles, Ukrainians and some Czechs - who feared persecution by the communist regimes installed in their home countries by the Soviet Army, in particular those from eastern provinces that had been totally incorporated into the Soviet Union.
Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians, whose homelands had been invaded in 1940 by the Soviet Union, and remained occupied after the war.
Croatians and Slovenians, and some Serbs who feared persecution by the communist government set up by Josip Broz Tito.
In a portend to 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. A large number of 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 Gulag archipelago. 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 Soviet sovereignty over the Baltic states, allied officials also refused to repatriate Lithuanian, Estonian, and Latvian refugees against their will.
Similarly, a large number of refugees who were repatriated to Yugoslavia were in fact subjected to summary executions and torture.
A large number of 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 similarly refused to return to their countries of origin, starting instead an extensive underground movement to migrate to the British Mandate of Palestine. - see Berihah.
Resettlement of DPs
Once it became obvious that repatriation plans left a large number of DPs who needed 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 by 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 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 650,000 refugees by 1950.
France accepted 38,000 displaced persons.
In Latin America, Venezuela accepted 17,000 DPs; Brazil 29,000; and Argentina 33,000.
French Morocco accepted 1,500 immigrants; Iraq notably 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 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 Eastern European intellectuals and Jews, Truman signed the first DP act on June 25, 1948, allowing entry by 200,000 DPs; and then followed by the more accommodating second DP act on June 16, 1950, allowing entry for another 200,000. This quota included acceptance of 55,000 Volksdeutschen and required sponsorship of all immigrants. The American program was the most idealistic and expansive of the Allied programs but also the most notoriously bureaucratic. Much of the humanitarian effort was undertaken by charitable organizations, such as the Lutheran World Federation and ethnic groups. Of the 400,000 DP's the US admitted from eastern Europe in 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. Many found resolution through suicide. 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. The last DP camp, Föhrenwald, closed in 1957.
(Note: All profiles are to be added to the individual camp(s) that the survivor lived at.)
American Sector of Germany
- Bad Aibling
- Bad Hersfeld
- Bad Mergentheim
- Bad Reichenhall
- Bad Wörishofen
- K. Indersdorf
- München Neu Freimann
American Sector of Austria
- Bad Gastein
- Braunau am Inn
- Ebensee ·Hallein
- Ried im Innkreis
- Rothschild Hospital
British Sector of Germany
- Hannoversch Münden (Hann. Münden)
- Mülheim an der Ruhr
British Sector of Austria
- Bari Transit
- Santa Maria di Bagni
- Santa Maria di Leuca