Santa Maria di Leuca Displaced Persons Camp

For the Jews who survived the Holocaust, the end of World War II brought new challenges. Many could not or would not return to their former homelands, and options for legal immigration were limited. In spite of these difficulties, these Jewish survivors sought to rebuild their shattered lives by creating flourishing communities in displaced persons camps in Germany, Austria, and Italy. In an unparalleled six-year period between 1945 and 1951, European Jewish life was reborn in camps such as Santa Maria di Leuca.  

The only mixed (Jewish and non-Jewish) displaced persons (DP) camp in Italy was located in the fishing and resort town of Santa Maria di Leuca. The camp included refugees from Albania, Greece, and Yugoslavia.

Although the Joint (The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) estimated the capacity of the camp to be 1,800 DPs, the population regularly exceeded that figure. The camp residents included approximately 400 non-Jews, while the Jewish refugees themselves were split: half were unaffiliated DPs and half were members of the camp's kibbutzim, principally the separate community of Kibbutz Aviv.

Life in the Camp

All of the DPs lived in requisitioned villas that had been the summer homes of wealthy Italians. As in the nearby DP camp of Santa Maria di Bagni, di Leuca boasted an exceptional theater troupe and a children's school. Though vocational training was frequently criticized at di Leuca for lagging behind other Italian DP camps, the camp’s soccer squad attained a reputation as the most successful team in the southern Italian camps.

Documentary

In 2015, a film about Santa Maria di Leuca DP camp, entitled Shores of Light, was released. The  documentary presents the story of three Israeli women, born in the camp, who decide to return to learn about the experiences of their parents. Director Yael Katzir states, “The film weaves rare historical footage with unique current testimonials capturing a ray of light after great darkness.”

Critical Thinking Questions

  • What challenges did survivors face in the DP camps?
  • What challenges did the Allies face in establishing and supervising DP camps?
  • What responsibilities do (or should) other nations have regarding refugees from war and genocide?

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