Displaced Persons Camps
Displaced Persons camps – Summary and background:
It is May 1945, the end of World War II. 15 million refugees wander around Europe and North Africa, trying to return to the homes and countries from which they were uprooted and deported during the war.
Among the largest refugee groups are the Jews recently released from the Nazi concentration camps. Their world is in upheaval. Their homes have been demolished, and those not destroyed have been taken by local populations more favored by the Nazis, such as the Poles, Ukrainians, Romanians, etc. These people prevented the Jews’ return to their occupied homes.
Neither Russia nor Britain recognized the Jewish refugees as a population requiring extra protection, and anti-Semitism raged rampant throughout Eastern Europe. In other western countries, however, especially in the United States, leaders were shocked by the images from the concentration camps. They began to see the need to supply housing in their zones of occupation for the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees, even in the newly liberated concentration and death camps. Jewish soldiers serving in the Allied armies, as well as Rabbis from the USA and Britain, volunteered to look after the Jewish population.
In August 1945 the Americans constructed special camps for Jewish DPs, following the recommendation of an American investigative committee that autonomous DP camps be constructed for Jewish refugees in the American Occupation Zone, for the rehabilitation of the surviving Jewish remnants.
Thus, while millions of other refugees headed east to their pre-war countries, the Jews of Eastern Europe headed west to the American Occupation Zones, and south to the Mediterranean shore, headed for the Land of Israel. The Jews of France, Belgium, Denmark and the Netherland were more fortunate, as they could return home and be rehabilitated in their homelands.
The peak of Jewish migration into the Western Occupation Zones in Germany came during July and August 1946. This was due to the preferential treatment given by the Americans to Jewish refugees. In fact, more than 50% of all Jewish Displaced Persons in Europe resided in the American occupation zones of southern Germany and Austria.
The distribution of the Jewish Displaced Persons in the various Occupation Zones in Germany was as follows: 157,000 in the American zone, 15,000 in the British zone, 2,000 in the French zone, 10,000 in Austria and 19,000 in Italy. As time passed thousands of additional Jewish families arrived, and by the spring of 1947 there were 250,000 Jews living in the DP camps.
There were hundreds of DP camps throughout Europe, some comprising no more than two buildings. For more on this topic, please view the following link to a Google map showing most of the DP camps in Germany, Italy and Austria: https://goo.gl/D79X8u
The fate of the Jewish DPs in the camps seemed unclear. Demoralization and apathy began to spread.
Another post-war problem was locating and caring for the Jewish children and youths who remained in convents or monasteries, or wandered the streets without parents or families. This task was taken on by the Zionist youth movements: the Chalutz, Dror, Shomer Tzair, Brit Chaluzim Datiyim, Mizrachi, Pioneer Soldier Partisans, the Joint and the Jewish Agency.
The main mission of these organizations, in addition to finding the children who were scattered throughout Europe, was to provide them with a pioneering Zionist education, teach them Hebrew, train them in agriculture and other crafts and prepare them for Aliyah – homecoming to the Land of Israel.
Children of Lindenfels
In addition, the youth movement camps organized schools, Yeshiva religious learning, theaters and even Rabbinical courts whose main task was to issue marriage licenses and resolve the status of the myriad women whose husbands could not be traced after the war. The youth movements published newspapers, and Jewish political activity reawakened. Many of the residents of the DP camps and other Jews remaining in Europe expressed their desire to immigrate to the Land of Israel.
The following links lead to presentations from the Yad VaShem site describing the day to day life in the DP camps:
In the spring of 1947 the Jewish leadership in the Land of Israel was extremely concerned about the demoralization spreading throughout the DP camps, as well as the dwindling immigration due to the limits on immigration set by the British, who issued merely 1500 immigration certificates per month. The Jewish leadership saw the Holocaust survivors as an important resource for the soon to be founded Jewish state.
With the population explosion in the DP camps in the American Occupation Zones, the situation reached crisis proportions, even among the strongest group of residents, members of the pioneering youth movements. Their cynicism grew, along with their distance from the pioneering ethos. This crisis situation required drastic action by the Jewish leadership in the Land of Israel to rekindle hope in the hearts of camp residents.
The method selected was to flout the British White Paper (decrees against Jewish immigration), with a massive drive to bring Jewish immigrants to the Land of Israel despite the British blockade of its shores. Rumors spread throughout the DP camps of what American journals described as a “Mass Exodus” prepared by the Jewish leadership in the Land of Israel using a giant ship to evacuate the DPs in the camps. These rumors were realized at the end of June 1947. The call went out for thousands of DPs to make their way to the city of Marseilles, on the Mediterranean shores of southern France. At the same time, the American ship “President Warfield” reached the port of Sète, west of Marseilles.
Thousands of DPs make their way to the city of Marseilles
Exodus Deportee Camps in Germany
4,554 Displaced Persons sailed on the “President Warfield”, renamed “Exodus 1947”, as it approached the Land of Israel. Most of these immigrants came from DP camps in Germany. They were joined by Jewish groups from North Africa, France, and Britain. According to the new policy of refoulement enacted by the British against Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel, the passengers of the Exodus were deported in three internment ships to Port de Bouc, France. When they refused to disembark there, they were taken by the British to Hamburg, Germany. The internment ships reached Hamburg between 7-9 of September, 1947.
The internees were forcefully offloaded from the ships, when their residence holds were flooded with sea water. From there they were taken in trains with barred windows to the Am-Stau and Pöppendorf DP camps (see map above), in the British Occupation Zone north of Lübeck. After over two months en route, on land and at sea, they reached the internment camps with no possessions other than the worn clothes on their backs. The British did not even return the small backpacks (limited to 10 Kg per person) they took with them when they left the DP camps to sail from Sète. Despite British declarations, the internment camps in Germany were not adequately prepared to receive the deportees.
Judging from the DP camp plans, the Am-Stau camp was meant to receive 1,000 internees, and Pöppendorf an additional 3,400. The reality, however, was different, and quite a few of the Exodus internees were sent to the Bergen-Belsen DP camp (previously a Nazi extermination camp), in the British Occupation Zone.
During WW2, Pöppendorf served as a camp for Russian Prisoners Of War taken by the Germans. After the war, the camp served as a POW camp for German/Nazi soldiers held by the Allies. The camp included 56 British Army Nissen huts, raised tunnels of corrugated iron sheets, 10 by 5.5 meters each. In addition, there were 14 larger Nissen huts, and 125 tents, 3 meters each, designed for 5-6 people. Each internee received an iron bed, a straw mattress, and a single blanket. Toilets and showers were improvised for the new arrivals, lacking partitions, compartments or doors, for use by several people at a time. The tents could not be used in the fall weather of Northern Germany, so the 2,717 internees of the ships “Runnymede Park” and “Ocean Vigour” crowded into the 70 Nissen huts. Most people slept two to a bed, and in 3-4 storey bunk beds. The 14 larger huts designed for 60 people housed 130 internees each. The camp was surrounded by barbed wire fences with guard towers.
Conditions in Am-Stau Camp were slightly better. 1,484 internees from the “Empire Rival” were brought to the camp. They were housed in wooden barracks. Each room contained 16 people in 2-storey bunk beds. Before the arrival of the internees the camp served as a transfer point for British soldiers, so living conditions were better than at the Pöppendorf Camp.
The difficulties of travel, organization in the temporary camps in France before boarding the Exodus, the battle against the British on the ship, the united stance against the British at Port de Bouc, and the resistance to disembarkation from the deportation ships at Hamburg, all served as a veritable crucible, forging the passengers of the Exodus in a special way not experienced by other Clandestine Immigrants who did not undergo this unique “obstacle course”.
From the minute of their forced disembarkation at Hamburg the internees of the Exodus emphasized their special status and separated themselves from the other Displaced Persons in Germany. They introduced new definitions for their daily life. Instead of a “Managing committee”, they used a “Secretariat”, with representatives of each of their internal groups. They used the term “Organizers” instead of “Camp Police”. The Exodus internees were committed to the purpose for which they had boarded the Exodus. Their only goal was immigration to the Land of Israel. This goal united them, and they would not compromise on it regardless of their diverse political beliefs. In their separation from the other DPs they emphasized their unity and special status. They were zealous in maintaining their unity, going so far as to accuse the emissaries sent from the Land of Israel by the various Jewish organizations of spreading factionalism which may damage their unity and morale.
When Mordechai Rosman, the representative of the immigrants on the Exodus and on the deportation ship Runnymede Park, returned to Pöppendorf from the British prison to which he was sent after the forced disembarkation from the ship, he said: “The most important thing today is the prevent the dispersion of the Exodus immigrants. We have suffered so much that we feel we are all one family. Political parties and community organizations have almost been forgotten, and we can now act as a single unit”.
Mordechay Rosman at Pöppendorf
The unified leadership of the Exodus immigrants not only acted internally, but also dealt with the British and the various aid organizations, such as the Joint. The Joint supplied aid to the camps in three main subjects – food, clothing and healthcare. In the first few weeks, until the aid from the Joint reached the camps, the shortage of clothing was extreme, and the internees had to take apart mattresses and blankets to sew warm clothing for the cold days. When the Joint representatives reached the Am-Stau and Pöppendorf Camps they were very impressed by the organization and discipline of the Exodus immigrants.
Aviva Halamish, in her book “Exodus – the True Story”, writes:
“The Exodus Clandestine Immigrants were very conscious of their self worth as the flag bearers of the Jewish national struggle, with the halo of heroism shining above them. They organized their lives in the camps with great autonomy, without feeling dependent…”
None could survive the German winter in the Am-Stau and Pöppendorf Camps, considering the living conditions and the improvised accommodations there. The British suggested to the camp secretariats to transfer the residents to alternate camps, much more suited to winter living. These alternate camps were Emden (near Aurich), and Sengwarden (near Wilhelmshaven). After a visit to these alternate camps, and submission of a list of items to be repaired in the accommodations there, the camp secretariats agreed to the transfer. However, they notified the British that this British gesture will not influence the will and ambition of the Exodus immigrants to return to the Land of Israel as soon as possible.
The transfer of the Exodus immigrants to the new camps began on November 2, 1947, two months after their forced deportation to Germany. The transfer was made by train, in three groups.
The Pöppendorf internees (deported on the Runnymede Park and the Ocean Vigour) were transferred to Emden, a semi-closed British camp guarded by British soldiers. It used to be a barracks for the German Communication Corps.
The Am-Stau internees (deported on the Empire Rival) were transferred to Sengwarden.
The internees arrived at the new camps to the extreme cold of the German winter. It immediately became clear that the British did not prepare and repair the accommodations in accordance to the submitted list of items requiring repair. The windows were broken, toilets and room heaters did not function, furniture was missing and the buildings were surrounded by dirt and filth. Delivery rooms were not usable and women in labor had to be rushed to the neighboring towns of Aurich and Wilhelmshaven, 30 kilometers away.
The Emden camp was renamed the "Exodus Camp". The immigrants’ secretariat marked its letters with a round stamp, containing the name of the ship in Hebrew and English and the image of a ship bursting through fortified walls (see illustrations below). The Sengwarden camp published the newspaper "BaDerech" (On the Way) which was originally published on the Exodus, and continued on the Empire Rival.
Stamp of the Exodus Immigrants’ Secretariat, based on a drawing by Hagai Geri, a 12 year old boy who was on the Exodus. On July 17, 1947, while the adults drew posters and painted the name on the newly-renamed ship, the boy drew the ship breaking through the blockade and the fortified walls.
Since the Haganah had promised the deportees of the Exodus, while still at Port de Bouc, that they would be the first to return to the Land of Israel, the search for suitable ships and ports for their return began even while they were still on their way to Hamburg. However, in spite of French sympathy for the Exodus immigrants when they initially embarked from France and upon their return in the deportation ships, French authorities, pressured by the British, tightened port security and embarkation permit checks.
The Jewish leadership in the Land of Israel did all it could to return the Exodus immigrants as soon as possible. At the end of January 1948, 1,000 of the immigrants were evacuated from the Exodus camps, using immigration certificates received from the British. By the end of April 1948 an additional 2,600 residents left the camps, which almost caused their final closure.
The Jewish emissaries sent from the Land of Israel that accompanied the Exodus immigrants to Germany, helping the immigrants’ internal organization and self management and aided by the Joint, felt they were no longer needed and left for other missions throughout Europe. After the UN resolution of November 29, 1947 ending the British Mandate in the Land of Israel, the mission of the Jewish emissaries changed. In view of the disorder and the battles with the Arabs, the emissaries of the Sochnut, the Haganah, and the Clandestine Immigration Foundation concentrated on sending suitable young immigrants to battle and weapons training while still in Europe, as well as acquiring armaments and sending them by sea to the Land of Israel.
Purchase of armaments was also a priority for the Revisionist organizations commanded by the Etzel (National Military Organization). Many of the Exodus immigrants who left the emptying Exodus camps came to the Munich area, to the large DP camps around Sternberg. There, they received weapons training and were put to work in the Etzel’s large weapons and purchasing depot located on a farm near the town of Weilheim (Weilheim Oberbayern, Fischergasse 10), not far from the Austrian border. The DPs working there were promised that they would eventually be returned to the Land of Israel on the ship Altalena (named after Jabotinsky’s pseudonym). On June 20 1948, after the declaration of the State of Israel and the founding of the Israel Defense Force, 940 new immigrants came to Israel aboard the Altalena. (read more about the Altalena Affair)
Altalena on fire after being shelled near Tel-Aviv The Altalena Medal