Though the legacy of World War II Nazi death camps looms over Europe, a lesser-known camp network arose after the war with a diametrically opposed vision: to give traumatized populations a new lease on life.
Established by the victorious Allies, displaced-persons (DP) camps housed about 250,000 people in the immediate post-war years. Located in Germany, Austria and Italy, these camps served as “temporary homelands in exile, divided by nationality, with their own police forces, churches and synagogues, schools, newspapers, theaters and infirmaries,” writes historian David Nasaw.
Although the DP camps were impermanent by design—their mostly Jewish occupants later settled in the U.S., Israel, and elsewhere—they served as key sites of regeneration in the wake of the Holocaust. From 1946 to 1948, the birth rate at DP camps was among the highest in the world.
“These camps facilitated the Jews returning to health and returning to life,” says David Silberklang, a senior historian at Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research. “For most of them, home is gone—the concept of home is gone—and that’s what they’re trying to put together.” Former DPs and their descendants now return to the sites to pay tribute to communities that thrived there after great loss.
A Rocky Beginning
The chaos of World War II left populations scattered all over Europe. Though Allied officials helped many displaced people return to their home countries, a smaller group—designated “non-repatriable”—remained, made up of people who did not want to return to their former homelands. Many of these “non-repatriables” were Jewish people from Eastern Europe, who knew they faced possible anti-Semitic attacks if they returned home.
When the Allies first created camps to house displaced people, living conditions were grim. Residents received inadequate food rations and often did not have enough clothing or medical supplies. “As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them,” Earl G. Harrison, an American delegate to the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, wrote to U.S. President Harry S. Truman after inspecting the DP camps in 1945.
After Harrison’s jarring inspection tour, Truman, Allied officials, and groups like the International Refugee Organization worked to improve conditions in the camps. Rations grew larger and medical help became more accessible. In addition, rather than housing displaced people from different backgrounds together—a practice that stirred conflict—the Allies started establishing all-Jewish DP camp sites.
Some of the hundreds of DP camps, such as the one at Bergen-Belsen, were former concentration camps. Others, like the camp at Bad Reichenhall, had been Nazi military installations. After Bad Reichenhall became a DP camp, administrators removed a swastika symbol near the camp gate and mounted a large sign bearing the Hebrew word “tikvah,” meaning hope.
Rebuilding in the Wake of Trauma
Once conditions at the sites stabilized, the DP camps proved important incubators for post-war Jewish culture. Teachers set up schools and performers staged theater and comedy events. The camps also nourished the Zionist movement that would help thousands of Jewish survivors start fresh in the nation of Israel.
Throughout the camps’ existence, however, residents grappled with their own demons. Many suffered post-traumatic stress symptoms due to what had happened to them and their families during the Holocaust.
“There is a feeling of desperation and sorrow in this camp which seems beyond expression,” Eleanor Roosevelt reflected after a visit to the DP camp at Zeilsheim, just outside Frankfurt, Germany. “An old woman knelt on the ground, grasping my knees. I lifted her up, but could not speak. What could one say at the end of a life which had brought her such complete despair?”
Yet amid the lingering trauma, residents found ways to strike new sparks of life. Thousands fell in love and married in short order, and DP camp nurseries quickly filled with newborn babies. “It’s an incredible phenomenon of these massive numbers of people meeting, getting married, and right away having children,” Silberklang says. “After all they’ve been through, they don’t despair of the world—they want to bring more life into the world.”
Confronted with the loss of their families and communities, internees also launched projects that gave them a sense of purpose. Some created camp newspapers to keep the population up-to-date on world events, while others created legal committees to bring Nazi criminals to justice.
“You had to do something. You were busy doing things,” survivor Eliezer Adler remembers. These all-consuming pursuits helped residents distance themselves from the trauma they faced, at least temporarily. “In forgetfulness,” Adler says, “lay the ability to create a new life.”
Perhaps because of this, some residents later had fuzzy memories of their time in the camps. When Ze’ev Sharon of Haifa, Israel, asked his mother what life in the Bad Reichenhall DP camp was like, “she said, ‘I don’t know. We just lived there,’” Sharon recalls. “I told her, ‘But you were there two years. Don’t you remember what you did?’ And she said, ‘I don’t remember.’”
A Postwar Diaspora—And an Ongoing Legacy
DP camp populations steadily dropped after the state of Israel was established in 1948. About two-thirds of DP camp residents left for Israel, while the rest settled in other countries starting to admit more refugees, like the U.S., Canada, and Australia. The final remaining DP camp, at Föhrenwald, Germany, shut down in 1957.
More than 60 years after the camps closed, communities of seekers from around the world—many with family connections to the sites—continue to keep their history alive. They visit the camps and share information in online forums to help interested readers plan trips. Among these seekers is Ze’ev Sharon, who was born to Polish Jews in Bad Reichenhall. He traveled there several years ago in hopes of better understanding where he came from.
When Sharon first saw the Bad Reichenhall site as an adult, he was struck by how strongly it resembled old black-and-white pictures he’d seen. The barrack windows were the same, as were the mountain ridges rising up in the background.
“I found it with very little change,” Sharon says. “It’s fascinating to see history still waiting for you.” He found the stable building where his mother and father may have lived, and he tracked down his birth certificate in the town’s archives. He also viewed a German memorial plaque to the thousands of Jews who had passed through the site.
Families like Sharon’s honor DP camp sites as critical launching points—places where people who once hoped just to survive could envision a real future for the first time in years.
“The Allies created spaces where these people could be, and they were looking to facilitate them going on with their lives,” Silberklang says. “There was a willingness to maintain the temporary as a stepping stone to the permanent.”