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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.

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Leonard McCombe/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
German refugees in the Berlin train station, October 1945

In view of the horrors Germans had inflicted on others—less horrendous in Czechoslovakia, by the way, than in Poland or the Soviet Union—Allied officials and the general public were not inclined to feel especially sorry for them. And yet, the Allies could not afford to let Germany rot. Somehow, the Germans, whether bomb victims, veterans, or Vertriebenen, had to be fed. The economy had to be revived. The reasons were not sentimental. Shephard quotes an editorial in the British Daily Mirror of October 1945, headed “Feed the Brutes?” The article concludes that it is

not any feeling of compassion which prompts us to emphasise the necessity of dealing with the situation. It is the practical matter which makes action imperative…. The longer Europe is allowed to sink in the bog, the longer it will take to raise up—the longer the occupation will have to go on.

And Britain could ill afford a prolonged occupation of Germany.

Another type of revenge, if given more publicity, would no doubt have provoked a stronger public reaction. A large number of Ukrainians, Balts, Cossacks, White Russians, Yugoslavs, and others from the Soviet bloc had worked for the Germans, either as slaves in German factories or farms, or as soldiers in the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS. Not all were forced. Some volunteered because they wanted to fight against Stalin’s empire, which, given Stalin’s treatment of Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and White Russians, was understandable.

However, neither the Soviet government nor the Communists in Yugoslavia were interested in making fine distinctions. The fact that Soviet citizens had volunteered to fight on the German side was embarrassing. It was better to destroy the human evidence. And from Stalin’s point of view, anyone who had experienced life outside the workers’ paradise, even as a slave in a German camp, was no longer to be trusted. Many former prisoners who returned were arrested, sent to the Gulag, or even executed. This was no secret among the people stranded in the Western Allied zones, and many vowed that they would rather kill themselves than go back.

Still, the British had promised to send Soviet and Yugoslav citizens back home, in Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden’s words, “whether they were willing to return or not.” There were worries that Allied soldiers stuck in Soviet zones might otherwise not be allowed to come back to the West. Washington and London were reluctant to cross Stalin in any case. Tito, the Communist partisan leader in Yugoslavia, threatened to move his forces into parts of Italy, and the Allies had no stomach for a military confrontation. Besides, some of the people concerned had clearly been Nazi collaborators, guilty of serious war crimes. But most were not, and there is still something deeply shocking about the British Foreign Office lawyer’s letter quoted by Shephard:

In due course, all those with whom the Soviet authorities desire to deal must be handed over to them, and we are not concerned with the fact that they may be shot or otherwise more harshly dealt with than they might be under British law.

And so it was that British soldiers, sometimes with tears in their eyes, had to force about 70,000 people who had in many cases already suffered terribly under the Germans to go back to an even more ghastly fate. Sometimes this was done through deception, and sometimes with violence. In one British-run camp full of Cossacks,

One Cossack was hit across the head with the butt of a rifle. It was not until a platoon had advanced with fixed bayonets and administered some further blows that any movement started…. One party attempted to escape across the railway line. A burst of automatic fire was aimed to deflect them; most of them turned back, but several turned towards the firer and two were killed.

The Americans, initially reluctant to use subterfuge, soon thought better of it, when they saw that Soviet refugees, in Shephard’s words, “bit each other’s jugular veins rather than submit to repatriation.”

Clearly, the occupation armies were neither able nor equipped to deal with the vast problem of feeding and repatriating refugees. This required civilian institutions, backed by powerful states, especially the United States, which alone had the wealth to stop Europe from sinking into famine, chaos, and more violence. Much of Shephard’s book is about the formation and workings of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), an often shambolic enterprise, widely distrusted on all sides, yet without which the human disaster would have been far worse.

UNRRA was founded in 1943 to relieve, in President Roosevelt’s words, “the sufferings of the little men and women who have been ground under the Axis heel.” Winston Churchill did not take this entirely seriously, and found it amusing to sing “UNRRA! UNRRA!” while taking his bath. The first director-general was Herbert Lehman, of Lehman Brothers, a liberal Jew who served as governor of New York for four terms. He was not a very effective leader, however. His style was too low-key, but he was an honest man. And his personal background was not insignificant. Roosevelt observed in private: “I want to see some of those Goddamned Fascists begging subsistence from a Jew.”

However, not all UNRRA officials shared Roosevelt’s sentiments. Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan, who was put in charge of UNRRA’s DP operations in Germany and Western Europe, was one of those Englishmen who felt that Jews were always pushing themselves ahead of the queue. He was also given to describing Jews who annoyed him as “of the traditional Shylock aspect” or “one of the most revolting Jews I have ever had the misfortune to meet.” When Zionist organizations began to assert themselves in the DP camps, he became so overwrought that he had to be quietly relieved of his job. Many British and American officials actually found the Baltic DPs, nice Nordic people, not seldom with carefully hidden pro-Nazi views, much more to their taste than the Jews, who were too traumatized to work or follow orders from anyone outside their own circles.

The question of Jews was not the only thing hampering UNRRA, however. Because of its internationalist aims, Republican congressmen suspected UNRRA of Communist sympathies. This suspicion grew as the cold war began, and it became clear in 1946 that Communist governments in Poland and Yugoslavia were distributing UNRRA’s resources on grounds that were politically advantageous—i.e., favoring pro-Communist groups—rather than humanitarian. US support dwindled fast. Still, by then, despite all UNRRA’s problems, a lot of good work had been accomplished, and the basis for the Marshall Plan had been laid. But even that, as Shephard points out, could only pass Congress as a kind of tactic in the cold war. Republicans, who then as now wanted to slash taxes and government expenditures, had to be convinced that saving Europe was the only way to stop Soviet domination, and to use the words of Truman’s undersecretary of state Will Clayton, “preserve for ourselves and our children the glorious heritage of a free America.”

The Marshall Plan changed the course of history. In its long-lasting consequences, however, Zionism was just as important. One reason for the frustration of such figures as Lieutenant General Morgan must have been the extraordinary effectiveness and superior organization of the Zionists, inside and outside the DP camps. Well before the end of the war, David Ben-Gurion was already thinking about the survivors, and where they would go. In his words, “the ability to exploit the disaster and the price that could be extracted from it were wholly dependent on their attitude to Zionism.” Soon after the war, he visited a number of DP camps in Germany, making speeches about Palestine. “What happened in Poland,” he said, “could not happen in Palestine. They would not have slaughtered us in synagogues. Every boy and every girl would have shot every German soldier.”

This was propaganda, of course, and his politicking among the desperate sounds more than a little ruthless. Ben-Gurion’s intention, in the words of his biographer, Shabtai Tveth, quoted by Shephard, was “to see for himself to what extent the power of [the survivors’] adversity could be used in his battle to establish the Jewish state.” And yet his brand of Zionism served as a much-needed tonic, for it offered people whose lives were wrecked a future, a vision of redemption, something to live for.

Kibbutzim were formed in former concentration camps and prisons such as Belsen and Landsberg, where Hitler had written Mein Kampf. Inevitably, Zionist politics were marked by factional squabbles, and also a type of militancy that betrayed, in the view of one American official, “perhaps unconsciously the effects of living for many years under Totalitarian rule.” Yet it also restored a degree of discipline and raised morale among people who now felt they had a place to go.

Ben-Gurion’s aim was to get a million Jews to move to Palestine, by all possible means, legal or illegal. This put the British in a dilemma, largely of their own making. In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the Jews were promised a homeland in Palestine. But Arab goodwill had to be courted to secure Arab support in the war against Germany. And so, the British tried to stem Jewish emigration to Palestine, despite their earlier promises. On the face of it, some of the Foreign Office arguments were not foolish. Was the insistence on sending Jews to Palestine not “by implication to admit that [the] Nazis were right in holding that there was no place for Jews in Europe”? Ernest Bevin even “felt passionately that there had been no point in fighting the Second World War if the Jews could not stay on in Europe where they had a vital role to play in the reconstruction of that continent.”

This was not unreasonable, but it was more than a little self-serving, and probably unrealistic. In fact, for many Jews there was indeed no place in Europe. They faced ostracism and even pogroms in Poland. In July 1946 several dozen Jews were killed after they returned to the Polish town of Kielce. Going back to the killing fields of Ukraine and Belarus was hardly an option either. And neither Britain nor the US was willing to open its borders to a sufficient number of them. If there was more sympathy for the Zionist cause in the US than in Britain, this was no less self-serving than the British position. The British Labour MP Richard Crossman noted in his diary that the Americans had various motives for “shouting for a Jewish state.” Apart from “attacking the Empire and British protectionism,” which would hardly be ignoble,

they are espousing a moral cause, for whose fulfilment they will take no responsibility, and most important of all, they are diverting attention from the fact that their own immigration laws are one of the causes of the problem.

Even when it was possible for Jews to move to Britain or the US, Zionists did what they could to stop this diversion from their plan to populate the Jewish homeland. Shephard shows that in response to a joint British and Swiss offer to take in a number of orphaned Jewish children, much welcomed by the children themselves, the Zionist leadership refused. Only Palestine would do. Something similar happened in the US a year later, when Truman tried to persuade Congress to allow more DPs to settle there. Shephard reports that opposition came not just from nativist congressmen, but also from Zionists who worried that this would weaken the case for Palestine.

In the end, after a great deal of political pressure and congressional horse-trading, a Displaced Persons Act was signed into law in 1948, allowing 200,000 DPs to come to the US, but quotas were loaded against the Jews. Non-Jewish refugees from Communist regimes were favored, as well as agricultural workers. More were allowed in after an amendment in 1950. By 1952, 380,000 people had moved to the US, 79 percent of them Christians, 20 percent Jews. That at least some of these Christians had been pro-Nazi was considered to be less of a risk than the prospect of being “flooded” by Jews.

But history often comes back to haunt us in odd and unpredictable ways. One of the ex-DPs who entered the US in 1952 was a Ukrainian by the name of Ivan Demjanjuk, better known as John Demjanjuk, who proceded to live a quiet life as an auto worker in Cleveland, Ohio. Convinced that he was “Ivan the Terrible,” a notoriously brutal guard in the Treblinka death camp, the Israelis had him extradited in 1986 and put him on trial. When he turned out to be the wrong man, Demjanjuk was released in 1993. Since he was still suspected of having been a death camp guard, not in Treblinka but in Sobibor, he was extradited to Germany, where he was sentenced last May to five years in prison for being an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews.

Very few people survived Sobibor, and most of them are now dead. One survivor who turned up for Demjanjuk’s trial in Germany as a plaintiff was Jules Schelvis, a printer in Amsterdam. His interest in the trial was to find out exactly what had happened in Sobibor to people such as his twenty-year-old wife, Rachel, who was gassed within half an hour of being dumped in the camp. He had already written a book about his own experience in Sobibor and Auschwitz. The trial was one last chance to reveal more of the truth, and see it acknowledged in public. Once Demjanjuk’s guilt had been established, Schelvis saw no reason why the ninety-year-old man should be punished any further. For Schelvis, perhaps, the war is finally over.

  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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