British soldiers transfer children refugees from the Aliyah Bet ("illegal" immigration) ship "Theodor Herzl" to a vessel for deportation to Cyprus detention camps.

Postwar Refugee Crisis and the Establishment of the State of Israel

More information about this image

During World War II, the Nazis deported between seven and nine million Europeans, mostly to Germany. Within months of Germany's surrender in May 1945, the Allies repatriated to their home countries more than six million displaced persons (DPs; wartime refugees). Between 1.5 million and two million DPs refused repatriation.

Most Jewish survivors, who had survived concentration camps or had been in hiding, were unable or unwilling to return to eastern Europe because of postwar antisemitism and the destruction of their communities during the Holocaust. Many of those who did return feared for their lives. In Poland, for example, locals initiated several violent pogroms. The worst was the one in Kielce in 1946 in which 42 Jews, all survivors of the Holocaust, were killed. These pogroms led to a significant second movement of Jewish refugees from Poland to the west.

Many Holocaust survivors moved westward to territories liberated by the western Allies. They were housed in displaced persons (DP camps and urban displaced persons centers. The Allies established such camps in Allied-occupied Germany, Austria, and Italy for refugees waiting to leave Europe. Most of the Jewish displaced persons were in the British occupation zone in northern Germany and in the American occupation zone in the south. The British established a large displaced persons camp adjacent to the former concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in Germany. Several large camps holding 4,000 to 6,000 displaced persons each—Feldafing, Landsberg, and Foehrenwald—were located in the American zone.

Major camps for Jewish displaced persons, 1945-1946

Major camps for Jewish displaced persons, 1945-1946 - US Holocaust Memorial Museum

At its peak in 1947, the Jewish displaced person population reached approximately 250,000. While the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) administered all of the displaced persons camps and centers, Jewish displaced persons achieved a large measure of internal autonomy.

A variety of Jewish agencies were active in the displaced persons camps. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provided refugees with food and clothing, and the Organization for Rehabilitation through Training (ORT) offered vocational training. Jewish displaced persons also formed self-governing organizations, and many worked toward the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. There were central committees of Jewish displaced persons in the American and British zones which, as their primary goals, pressed for greater immigration opportunities and the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

In the United States, immigration restrictions strictly limited the number of refugees permitted to enter the country. The British, who had received a mandate from the League of Nations to administer Palestine, severely restricted Jewish immigration there largely because of Arab objections. Many countries closed their borders to immigration. Despite these obstacles, many Jewish displaced persons attempted to leave Europe as soon as possible.

The Jewish Brigade Group, formed as a unit within the British army in late 1944, worked with former partisans to help organize the Brihah (literally "escape"), the exodus of 250,000 Jewish refugees across closed borders from inside Europe to the coast in an attempt to sail for Palestine. The Mosad le-Aliyah Bet, an agency established by the Jewish leadership in Palestine, organized "illegal" immigration (Aliyah Bet) by ship. However, the British intercepted most of the ships.

In 1947, for example, the British stopped the Exodus 1947 at the port of Haifa. The ship had 4,500 Holocaust survivors on board, who were returned to Germany on British vessels. In most cases, the British detained the refugees—over 50,000—in detention camps on the island of Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. The British use of detention camps as a deterrent failed, and the flood of immigrants attempting entry into Palestine continued.

Jewish refugees arrive in Haifa and are interned

The internment of Jewish refugees—many of them Holocaust survivors—turned world opinion against British policy in Palestine. The report of the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry in January 1946 led US president Harry Truman to pressure Britain into admitting 100,000 Jewish refugees into Palestine.

As the crisis escalated, the British government decided to submit the problem of Palestine to the United Nations (UN). In a special session, the UN General Assembly voted on November 29, 1947, to partition Palestine into two new states, one Jewish and the other Arab, a recommendation that Jewish leaders accepted and the Arabs rejected.

After the British began the withdrawal of their military forces from Palestine in early April 1948, Zionist leaders moved to establish a modern Jewish state. On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, announced the formation of the state of Israel, declaring,

"The Nazi Holocaust, which engulfed millions of Jews in Europe, proved anew the urgency of the reestablishment of the Jewish State, which would solve the problem of Jewish homelessness by opening the gates to all Jews and lifting the Jewish people to equality in the family of nations."

Holocaust survivors from displaced persons camps in Europe and from detention camps on Cyprus were welcomed into the Jewish homeland. Many of them fought in Israel's War of Independence in 1948 and 1949. In 1953, Yad Vashem (The Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority), the national institution for Holocaust commemoration, was established.

Critical Thinking Questions

  • What responsibilities did the world have for displaced persons after World War II?
  • Did countries change immigration policies after World War II? Why or why not?
  • What responsibilities, if any, does the world community have to persons displaced from, or escaping violence? Is it up to neighboring countries, or international groups? What is your country’s policy and record since 2000?