The Long Road Home

In 1946, a young Polish man who had been kidnapped at16 and forced to work in Germany throughout World War II wrote movingly abouthis postwar experience in a camp for displaced persons. “Is there reallymuch difference between ‘now’ and ‘before’?” he asked. “I was anumber. I am a number. I was called ‘Polish Dog.’ [Now] I am called ‘WretchedPole.’ Despised by the Master Race Germans—rejected by the Master Race English.I hated the Germans before—I hate the English now.”

For many, the end of the war meant the beginning ofa different kind of hell. In The Long Road Home, historian Ben Shephard tells the neglected storyof the refugee crisis the Allies faced when, at war’s end, millions ofdisplaced persons—among them prisoners of war, slave laborers, and survivors ofconcentration camps—had to be repatriated to their homelands or resettledsomewhere else. Much of the work was done by the United Nations Relief andRehabilitation Administration, which, despite poor management, numbingbureaucracy, and rampant corruption, managed to work with the military and achievea measure of success.

Shephard’s primary focus is the million-plus peoplewith “diverse and complicated wartime histories” who spent years inGerman Displaced Persons (DP) camps, refusing to return to their homecountries. The author is particularly adept at describing the brutal politicalcalculations of the period. Russian POWs who’d been forced to fight for Germanydidn’t want to be handed back to their own government—”Stalin himself haddeclared, ‘We have no prisoners, only traitors'”—but early on the Alliesforcibly repatriated them in order to ensure that the Soviets would return the50,000 British and American POWs that the Red Army had liberated from Germancamps. Russia also demanded the repatriation of Estonians, Latvians,Lithuanians, Poles, and Ukrainians who had not been Soviets before the war butwho now were, according to the redrawn borders. With the Cold War escalating,the Allies began to “quietly ignore” Soviet demands that theyrepatriate those who were, in the words of one general, “violently opposedto returning to Russia.”

While the concept of the Holocaust did not yet exist, itwas immediately clear that the Jews constituted a special case. Surviving Jewsrefused repatriation to the countries whose populations had participated intheir extermination, demanding to be placed in their own camps. Most Jewish DPsdeclared that they wanted to go to Palestine, and militant Zionists used theremaining Jews of Europe as symbolic support for their cause, even going so faras to try to prevent their resettlement elsewhere so as not to dilute pressureto establish a Jewish state.

In addition to addressing the politics of theperiod, Shephard, a scrupulous researcher, creates a feel for everyday life inthe camps. Camp economies were run by the black market, with the cigarette the “dominantunit of economic exchange.” DPs had to learn to work the undergroundsystem in order to get by; as Shephard observes, “anyone who adhered tothe old prewar moral code would not survive long in a DP camp.” Manyescaped the monotony of camp life through drinking and sex. An UNRRA workerstationed at the Wildflecken DP Camp in Bavaria noted ruefully that even thegirl who played the Virgin Mary in the camp’s “Holy Manger” Christmasshow had tested positive for gonorrhea.

By the early 1950s, most remaining DPs wereresettled in Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and SouthAmerica as other nations began to see them as a ready labor pool. Countriesjockeyed to get the “best” immigrant types, with the Baltic DPs beingparticularly sought after. Shephard argues that the story of this refugeecrisis has been largely untold because it’s seen as an interlude, overshadowedby such massive historical events as World War II, the Cold War, and the Holocaust.This fascinating book elevates it to its proper significance, making aconvincing case that by touching on immigration policy, nationalism, andhumanitarian aid, the “postwar refugee crisis rehearsed many issues whichstill confront us today.”