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The Hell of Victory

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Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos
Soviet and Ukrainian refugees at a displaced persons camp, Dessau, Germany, April 1945; photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Tadeusz Borowski, a wartime poet writing for the Polish underground press, was twenty-one in 1943 when he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz. The English title of his horrifyingly clear-eyed account of Auschwitz and Birkenau is This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.1 Less well known is his book about life just after the war, in a “displaced persons” (DP) camp near Munich. He was kept there after being freed by the US Army from the Dachau concentration camp. Entitled World of Stone, this short book is perhaps the most brilliant and harrowing piece of writing to have come from that squalid world in limbo.2

One of Borowski’s sketches begins with the capture by concentration camp survivors of a German kapo who tried to get away. No sooner is the culprit nabbed than their barrack room is inspected by a nice young American soldier, crisply turned out in his spotless uniform, who informs the men, through an interpreter, that the Americans will make sure that German war criminals will be punished. The men smile, to demonstrate their goodwill, and applaud the soldier’s fine intentions. Under no circumstances should they take justice into their own hands. Please trust the US Army. Again the men smile and thank the kind American. The soldier wishes them a good evening, turns around, and leaves the barrack. The moment the door closes, the German is dragged out from under a pile of blankets and kicked to death on the concrete floor.

Borowski was one of roughly eleven million foreigners stranded in Germany, often in ghastly conditions, after surviving years of hard labor and imprisonment in labor camps, concentration camps, death camps, and POW camps. This human detritus of war, slavery, forced labor, and genocide included Jews from all over Europe and the Soviet Union. But many more were non-Jewish Yugoslavs, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Balts, Italians, Dutch, Belgians, French, and others.

Some wanted to go back to their home countries as quickly as possible. Others wanted to go anywhere but their old homes. Others had no homes to go back to. Some were too dazed by recent experience to know quite what they wanted. And this does not include the millions of Germans who had been brutally expelled from parts of Czechoslovakia, Silesia, and East Prussia, where in many cases their families had lived for centuries. Nor does it include Germans who were bombed out of their homes. Borowski, as it happens, did go back to Poland, where he committed suicide in 1951.

The Allied armies, chiefly the Americans, Soviets, and British, were faced with the kind of catastrophe left in the wake of most wars, but the scale in 1945 was unprecedented. And despite many wartime Allied conferences about what to do with refugees, survivors, and destitute populations, they were almost wholly unprepared. As Ben Shephard, author of the splendid book The Long Way Home, explains, “much of the planning was based on past experience which turned out not to be relevant or which put into place, well before the end of the war, men and mechanisms unsuited to the task.”

Even if the bare facts were known, almost no one understood the full implications of the Nazi attempt to exterminate all Jews. It was simply beyond the power of most people’s imaginations. Well-meaning if sometimes prejudiced officials, such as the British foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, expressed sentiments such as this: “Jews, with all their sufferings, want to get too much to the head of the queue.” Considerably less well-meaning, General George S. Patton, who came upon the half-dead victims of Dachau and Buchenwald, wrote in his diary that the Jews were “lower than animals.”

And so it was, in the chaos, callousness, and ignorance of the immediate postwar period, that Jews sometimes found themselves incarcerated in former concentration camps with Nazi war criminals. Other failures came from good intentions, like the idea, conceived by senior officers in the British army, that a dance party for British soldiers and female survivors in Bergen-Belsen would be just the thing. Organizing this fell to the young Richard Wollheim, later a distinguished philosopher and contributor to these pages. The party ended in mayhem, with panicking women expecting nothing but more torment from uniformed men.3

However, in an earlier book on the liberation of Bergen-Belsen,4 Shephard describes another party there, which might have taken place a bit later, during which the chance to dress up as best they could, use makeup, and dance with healthy young men was seen by female survivors as a godsend. For the first time in years, it made them feel like human beings, like women who might one day be desirable again.

Shephard describes very well the shocking confrontation of well-fed people from a relatively secure world with human beings who had indeed been reduced to a state that seemed lower than animals. What does one say at the first sight of whimpering corpse-like figures lying in their own excrement? No wonder a rabbi, newly arrived in liberated Belsen, “turned with relief from the half-naked ‘animals’ to ‘two young girls from good families in Prague’ who were ‘still normal and human.’”

But even the behavior of “displaced persons” who were in better shape often baffled their liberators. Instead of being grateful and docile, many DPs were very hard to handle, and afflicted with something known then as the “Liberation Complex,” which was summed up in one account as “revenge, hunger, and exultation.” Revenge took many forms. The first victims were usually not German ex-Nazis but traitors of one kind or another: Jewish ghetto police, kapos, collaborators, women who had had German boyfriends, and so on. Hunger led to the vast network of black markets; one of the major hubs was Bergen-Belsen. Exultation, too, came in different ways, frequently misunderstood.

One thing to do after years of deprivation is to get blind drunk. In the first two months after the war, about two thousand people died from lethal alcoholic concoctions. In the vaults of the Hanover town hall, a British officer named Brian Urquhart, another contributor to these pages, came upon Russian DPs who were literally drowning in floods of mixed alcohol pouring from vats of wine and spirits they had just cracked open.

Then there was the sex. Borowski describes in one of his sketches how the camp cooks had their pick of the female DPs in exchange for extra rations. He also writes how he squeezed, in a frantic burst of amorousness, the bony thighs of a woman sitting next to him at a camp performance of Fidelio, just as the prisoners on stage emerged into the sunlight from their underground dungeon. Shephard quotes from a sympathetic account of a Polish social worker named Marta Korwin. To her, “the license found in the camps” was the result of boredom and disillusion: confronted by “the ruin which had overtaken the world during the war years, seeing their hopes for a better future destroyed, and with time to reflect on it,” many DPs escaped into drink or sex.

This is a plausible explanation. Also, after the experience of slave or concentration camps, the normal restraints of bourgeois life would cease to have much meaning. Much the same could be said about people thrown together in other peculiar or dangerous circumstances, such as Londoners roaming through the night during the Blitz. There, too, life was on hold, as it were. There is another possible reason why the birthrate, especially in Jewish DP camps, rocketed. A doctor working for a French charity observed that “many young girls give themselves up to debauch without restraint.” This sounds rather prim and disapproving. But he added:

There can be no question of reproaching these poor creatures, who have passed through a hell of suffering, sadistic persecution and systematic demoralisation…they are now seized by an irresistible desire for affection and forgetfulness, which they seek to satisfy with the means at their disposal.

Some, no doubt, having lost all their friends and relatives, also craved the companionship of new families.

In fact, the phase of exultation did not last very long. By the end of 1945, Shephard writes, “order and morality had been restored.” This seems to have been true also of the partying in countries liberated from the Nazis, where many young women enjoyed their new freedom in the arms of the American and British liberators, to the chagrin of local men, who were too tired, poor, or inhibited to take part in the revelry. And what pre-war authority they might have had over the women was gone. There was much talk in the postwar press, sometimes doubtless exaggerated, of orgies and rampant immorality. The birthrate spiked in countries like France and the Netherlands. But then, after Canadians, Yanks, and Tommies went home, it was apparently all over.

The same was mostly true of the orgy of violent revenge. In France, the phase of bloody épuration, of summary executions of collaborators or the bullying of women who had had relations with Germans, only lasted several months, before a more legal form of purging began. Elsewhere, a number of Jewish survivors dreamed of revenge against the Germans. The most famous was Abba Kovner, who had escaped from the Vilna ghetto during the war to join the partisans. He formed an organization called Dam Yehudi Nakam, literally “Jewish Blood Will Be Avenged.” Some former Nazis were assassinated. German prisoners in a POW camp were allegedly poisoned. Plans were made to poison the water supplies of Nuremberg. But such ideas were quickly quashed by the Zionist leadership, which saw this type of activity as counterproductive to the aim of building a new state for the Jews.

Aside from the widespread raping and looting by Soviet troops, who went on a rampage through Poland, eastern Germany, and Berlin (as Stalin said, a soldier is entitled to have his “fun with a woman or [take] some trifle”), the worst cases of revenge were aimed by ordinary Czechs and Poles at the local German populations in Silesia and the Sudetenland. In 1944, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons that “a clean sweep will be made” in Central Europe, and he was “not alarmed” by the “large transferences” of populations. Edvard Beneš, the Czech leader in exile, went even further after returning to his country in 1945, and said in a radio broadcast: “Woe, woe, woe, thrice woe to the Germans, we will liquidate you!”5

Precisely how many Germans were killed during the purges and expulsions in 1945 is unknown. Conservative German historians and spokesmen for the expelled (Vertriebenen) tend to inflate the figures, which they put at over a million. Less biased scholars believe it is more like 600,000, still a staggering number. It seems to be a rule everywhere that when people are given license to torment other human beings, many can be relied upon to do their worst. The savagery, if not the scale, of the purges was comparable to what the Germans had done. Schools and public buildings became torture prisons. One such place was the Strahov soccer stadium in Prague, where up to 15,000 Germans were held. The guards amused themselves by forcing thousands to run for their lives and then machine-gunning them.

  1. 1

    Penguin, 1976. 

  2. 2

    It is available in German translation: Die steinerne Welt (Munich: Piper, 1963). 

  3. 3

    A Bed Out of Leaves,” London Review of Books, December 4, 2003. 

  4. 4

    After Daybreak: The Liberation of Bergen-Belsen, 1945 (Schocken, 2005). 

  5. 5

    Quoted in Giles MacDonogh, After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation (Basic Books, 2007). 

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