The diplomatic and political side of this story is marked by monumental incompetence and indecency — Gen. George Patton described Jewish refugees as “lower than animals” — but the survivors simply refused to die or disappear, and demanded that the world deal with them.
In “The Last Million,” Nasaw has done a real service in resurrecting this history, but what’s often missing are the personal narratives of the individuals who lived through this period. One has to turn to other forms — novels, plays, memoirs — to grasp the full human drama. When Nasaw does quote from a short story by Flannery O’Connor, a character is asked to define a “displaced person.” Her reply is memorable: “It means they ain’t where they were born at and there’s nowhere for them to go — like if you was run out of here and wouldn’t nobody have you.”
A primary group with “nowhere to go” was the Jews who survived the Nazis’ extermination efforts. Hadassah Rosensaft describes the reactions in one death camp on May 8, 1945, as people were celebrating the Allied victory around the world: “We in Belsen did not dance that day. We had nothing to be hopeful for. Nobody was waiting for us anywhere. We were alone and abandoned.”
“The last million” included many other groups as well — slave laborers from Poland and Ukraine; Balts who fled advancing Soviet armies in Lithuania and Latvia; German soldiers who buried their uniforms and burned off their tattoos that marked them as Waffen-SS veterans. Still, it was the Jews who had suffered the most. The young and the old were “the first to be killed” because they could not work, reported Judah Nadich, a U.S. Army consultant in 1945. In one camp with 944 registered Jews, only three were over 60, and almost everyone was between 16 and 44. “The absence of children among the survivors was striking — and heartbreaking,” he wrote.
Returning home was out of the question, back to “the nations, and the peoples who had murdered their families.” Europe was “a dead zone” that they yearned to leave. But they couldn’t. The British, who ruled Palestine under a League of Nations mandate, were particularly perfidious. They feared antagonizing Arab nations and jeopardizing their supply of Mideast oil; or even worse, driving the Arabs toward the Soviets, who “coveted” the same energy reserves. So London, with Washington’s backing, opposed virtually all Jewish immigration into the Holy Land. “If this meant the sacrifice of the Jewish dreams of a ‘homeland’ in Palestine, so be it,” writes Nasaw.
The Americans were not much better, maintaining a law from 1924 that imposed harsh limits on virtually all forms of immigration. The new president, Harry Truman, “feared — and rightly” that if he tried to loosen the rigid quotas, the effort would backfire and provoke even “more restrictive legislation.”
Anyone who thinks President Trump’s demonization of foreigners is an aberration should read this history. In Europe anti-Semitism and anti-Communism had long fused into a single fierce hatred — “It was assumed that every Jew was a subversive, a Bolshevik,” writes Nasaw — and congressional opponents of immigration adopted the same vile prejudice.
During one legislative debate in 1948, Rep. Eugene “Goober” Cox of Georgia stated, “These camps are hotbeds of revolutionists who, if they came here, would join those who are gnawing away night and day like termites at the foundation of our constitutional government.” When Congress finally did amend the immigration statute, Truman conceded that the measure “discriminates in callous fashion” against Jewish refugees — but he signed it anyway.
In the end, however, the resilience and resourcefulness of those refugees won out. Zionist organizers started recruiting and training potential fighters back in the German camps and infiltrating them illegally into Palestine. Truman recognized the state of Israel in May 1948; the Israeli army, bolstered by the recent arrivals, repelled an Arab invasion; and within a year, almost 100,000 Jewish displaced persons had fled to the new nation. Many refugees also found ways to evade the “callous” American laws. “We all lied about where we came from,” recalled Ella Schneider Hilton. As one U.S. Army officer observed, “The [displaced persons] are clever; they have lived by their wits for many years, and to detect something that they don’t want you to know, is very difficult.”
There is a dark side to this story. Some exiles who used their wits to enter America were collaborators, even war criminals. Every refugee suffered through the same searing experience, “leaving countrymen behind and entering foreign lands where few understood your language, knew your recent history, or could locate your birthplace on a map of the world.” And they dragged behind them a suitcase full of emotional scars. As the death camp survivor Elie Wiesel wrote, “A tortured person remains tortured. . . . There are wounds that don’t heal.” But it’s also true that a free person remains free. And because these refugees found “a path forward,” their descendants have been able to fulfill the commandment in Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth.”
The Last Million
Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War
By David Nasaw
Penguin Press. 654 pp. $35