Following Nazi Germany's surrender on May 8, 1945, an estimated 11 million Europeans--specifically non-German and non-Austrian nationals--remained uprooted from their home countries. They were classified as "displaced persons" (DPs) by the Allies and the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), which had been founded on November 9, 1943, to deal with anticipated DP issues.
Seven million of the DPs were in Germany. During the war, the majority of these people had been brought to Germany to work for the Third Reich. About 800,000 Poles alone had been conscripted for labor by the Nazis. Still others, including approximately 200,000 Jews, were recently liberated inmates who had survived Nazi camps and death marches.
By the end of 1945, more than six million DPs had gone back to their native lands, but between 1.5 and two million of them refused repatriation. The non-Jews who did not want to return home were mostly Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and Yugoslavians. In some cases they feared political reprisals for their Nazi collaboration; in other cases they dreaded persecution by Eastern Europe's Communist regimes.
For Jews, returning home was scarcely an option. Their families had been annihilated, their communities destroyed, their property confiscated. If these Jews did try to go home again, their arrival was often greeted with hostility and physical violence from former neighbors.
For the most part, the concept of "home" no longer existed for Jewish DPs. Instead, they found themselves in grim DP camps on German soil (such as the one pictured at Zeilsheim). Most of these places were enclosed by barbed wire, overcrowded, and situated in former labor or concentration camps. Many Jews were harassed or assaulted by former Nazi collaborators. Jews hoped for immigration opportunities that would take them to destinations such as Palestine or the United States, but until then they endured daily drudgery and tension.
Jewish chaplains in the U.S. Army, such as Rabbi Judah Nadich and especially Rabbi Abraham Klausner, worked tirelessly on behalf of Jewish DPs. They successfully encouraged the Allied authorities to establish all-Jewish DP camps, where conditions for the Jewish DPs improved. Feldafing, which housed about 3700 people, was the first of these places. Jewish DP camps at Landsberg and Föhrenwald sheltered another 5000 Jews each. In the American zone of occupation, a dozen DP camps were maintained exclusively for Jews by the end of 1945.
By 1952 most of the Jewish DP camps had closed, although the one at Föhrenwald operated under the supervision of the democratic Federal Republic of Germany until early 1957. Before the Jewish DP camps finally were emptied, nearly 250,000 Jews had lived in them.
Photo: Alice Lev Collection / United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archive