Earl G. Harrison was Commissioner for Immigration and Naturalization (1942-1944) under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He is best known for the August 1945 report bearing his name that examined the plight of Holocaust survivors in displaced persons camps in postwar Europe.
In June 1945, the US government sent Earl G. Harrison to examine the plight of Holocaust survivors in the displaced persons (DP) camps in Europe.
The resulting Harrison Report harshly criticized conditions in the DP camps, called for immediate changes in the treatment of Jewish DPs, and recommended allowing them to emigrate to the United States and Palestine.
The Harrison Report resulted in significant changes in the administration of DP camps, led to disagreement between the United States and Great Britain over Palestine, and influenced President Truman to increase opportunity for DPs to immigrate to the United States.
In May 1945, there were millions of displaced persons (DPs) in Germany and Austria who had been brought to the Third Reich as forced laborers or imprisoned in concentration camps. Allied military authorities' first priority was to return DPs as quickly as possible to their native countries, and by the end of July 1945 more than 4 million had repatriated.
British and US military authorities housed most DPs in DP Assembly Centers, separating them according to nationality to facilitate repatriation and segregating them from the general public to prevent the spread of disease and to simplify the task of providing them food and medical care. Some of the DP Assembly Centers were established in former military installations, forced-labor camps, and even concentration camps. Military authorities viewed these as temporary arrangements that would end with repatriation of the DPs.
Officials at the US Departments of State and the Treasury recognized, however, that a significant number of DPs, especially Jewish Holocaust survivors, had no ability or desire to return to their prewar residences. Reports from private organizations providing aid to these “non-repatriable” DPs raised officials' concerns about the conditions the DPs faced and the need to develop a plan for their resettlement.
Acting Secretary of State Joseph Grew asked Earl Harrison, the US representative on the Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees, to undertake a mission to Europe to determine the needs of Jewish and other non-repatriable DPs, the extent to which those needs were being met, and the DPs' views regarding their resettlement. On Grew's recommendation, President Truman signed a letter expressing interest in Harrison's mission and requesting a report of his findings.
Accompanied by Dr. Joseph J. Schwartz, director of European operations of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Harrison visited 30 DP camps in Germany and Austria, focusing on the situation of Jewish DPs. His report, completed in early August 1945, offered scathing criticism of the DPs' treatment. Many were living under armed guard behind barbed wire, sometimes in the very camps where they had been victimized, in crowded and unsanitary accommodations that contrasted markedly with the living conditions of the German population.
The Jewish DPs faced restrictions on their movement, could not obtain information about their relatives, had nothing to occupy their time, and lacked any representative to advocate for them with military authorities. Summing up the conditions faced by Jewish DPs, Harrison wrote
“. . . we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except that we do not exterminate them.”
Harrison argued that because the Jewish DPs had suffered far more and for far longer than the other DPs, their physical and mental condition was much worse and their needs greater. He recommended that the US and British authorities recognize the Jewish DPs as a special group, distinct from the national groups and requiring greater assistance. They should be moved to civilian housing or placed together in unguarded facilities under civilian administration, and occupation authorities should conduct regular inspections to ensure the DPs' needs were being met.
Harrison also urged quick action to resettle the Jewish DPs. Most, he noted, wished to go to Palestine, and he cited the petition of the Jewish Agency of Palestine that the British issue 100,000 additional immigration certificates to Jews. He also recommended that the United States allow DPs to immigrate under existing quotas.
Harrison personally delivered his report to President Truman on August 24. Saying the conditions it described made him ill, Truman forwarded the report to General Eisenhower, directing him to inspect the camps. Having learned earlier of Harrison's findings, Eisenhower had already appointed a special advisor to represent the Jewish DPs and directed that Jewish DPs be housed in special centers with a “high standard of accommodation.”
On September 20, following his inspection tour, Eisenhower ordered that DPs' food rations be increased and that they be given better housing and medical services and provided employment opportunities. He also ordered removal of barbed wire, replacement of military guards by unarmed DPs, and regular inspections. The United Nations Refugee Relief Administration, assisted by voluntary agencies like the JDC, took over administration of the DP camps, and the Jewish DP camps became centers of social, religious, cultural and political activity.
Truman also forwarded the Harrison Report to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, recommending the British allow 100,000 Jewish DPs to emigrate to Palestine. Attlee firmly rejected both Truman's proposal and the recommendations of the Harrison Report and warned of “grievous harm” to US-British relations should the US government publicly advocate Jewish emigration to Palestine.
The White House released the Harrison Report on September 29, and on November 13 also released Truman's message to Attlee. To try to relieve tensions with the United States over the report, the British established an Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry on Palestine to investigate the report's claims. The Committee's April 1946 report confirmed Harrison's findings and recommended allowing 100,000 Jews to emigrate to Palestine. The British rejected the recommendations.
Acting on the report's recommendation to allow DPs to immigrate to the United States, President Truman issued the Truman Directive on December 22, 1945, ordering that displaced persons receive preference under existing US immigration quotas. This led to the immigration in the following two years of 22,950 DPs, about two-thirds of whom were Jewish.