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 …

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  1. 1

    Penguin, 1976. 

  2. 2

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