Displaced Persons, May 1945

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 7 million were 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.


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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.

Harrison's Mission, June 1945

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.

Harrison's Report, August 1945

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.

The American Response to Harrison's Report

Harrison personally delivered his report to President Truman on August 24, before its official release. He encouraged Truman to make immediate changes to the care and control of Jewish DPs. Reportedly, when President Truman read Harrison’s report, the conditions it described made him ill. Truman forwarded the report to General Dwight D. Eisenhower and directed Eisenhower to inspect the camps. 

Extensive changes were needed to improve Jewish life in displaced persons centers in the US zone of occupation. Eisenhower had both the authority and commitment to implement such sweeping changes on the ground. Between August and October 1945, the care and housing of Holocaust survivors were transformed under his direction. 

Initially, Eisenhower thought Harrison’s report failed to highlight aid measures already implemented by the US military since liberation. These initial measures included providing medical care, clothing, food, and safe spaces for camp survivors and those who were in hiding, as well as forced laborers and POWs. Nonetheless, Eisenhower immediately began making changes according to Harrison’s recommendations. 

After his initial inspections of all centers housing large Jewish populations, Eisenhower determined the camps were unfit to meet the needs of this abused population. He ordered the immediate creation of Jewish-only centers. The establishment of Jewish-only centers addressed issues of overcrowding. Every DP already received the same amount of floor space allocated to US soldiers: 30 square feet per person. However, the new living facilities allowed DP families to reside together and decreased the number of people sharing a room. Eisenhower also appointed military staff to regularly evaluate these newly designated centers. 

On September 20, following his inspection tour, Eisenhower ordered that Jewish DPs' food rations increase from 2,200 calories a day to 2,500. He also worked to improve the food available to survivors by including fresh vegetables and meat in the rations. These efforts to improve the nutrition of Jewish DPs were supplemented with foodstuffs in Red Cross packages. 

Harrison’s report also identified the need for an intermediary between Jewish DPs and the European command in the US zone of occupation. In response, Eisenhower appointed Rabbi Judah Nadich as the first Advisor on Jewish Affairs to the Commander of the US Forces in Europe.

Eisenhower continued his efforts to improve the lives of Holocaust survivors in the US occupation zone. He worked to secure additional medical services and designate hospitals specifically for Jewish DPs. He also pushed for these DPs to receive preference over Germans when employment opportunities arose inside and outside the centers. While he argued that barbed wire, American military guards, and passes to travel outside of DP centers were necessary to protect survivors, he nonetheless ordered the removal of the barbed wire and replaced American guards with unarmed DP police forces. 

The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) took over administration of the DP camps from Allied military forces in October 1945. UNRRA was assisted by voluntary agencies such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the American Jewish Congress (AJC), and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). 

The Jewish DP camps became centers of social, religious, cultural, and political activity.

The British Response to the Harrison Report

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.

The Truman Directive

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.