On Displaced Persons: Then and Now…

I wanted this to be a straight-forward post, a comparison of how refugees (Displaced Persons they were called) were treated after World War II with how refugees are received today. I wanted to say that universally the former group was viewed sympathetically, that countries opened their arms, and hearts, to do what they could so that these people who suffered through the horrors of war could have a better life.

I wanted to say that the world was a better place then, that we heeded our “better angels,” that we appreciated what we had and wanted the same for others.

And, in some cases, we did. While many DPs were “relocated” to camps that had once served as Nazi concentration camps, they were given as adequate food allocations as possible, considering that Europe was enduring near-starvation conditions. Schools were established. They received minimal, if not adequate, healthcare. For those who were displaced were so because of who they happened to be, what their last name happened to be, where they happened to live.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that all were blameless, that none supported the losing cause, that none did their part, however small, to aid the Nazis. Women, children, throughout Europe, their cities, homes destroyed. Ethnic Germans who had lived in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, perhaps for generations, who had the misfortune of having a German last name were deported (relocated was the term used). Many did not even speak German. In the throes of frantic days following the end of the war, laws were enacted that banned them from the countries that they had lived in, for most, the only country they knew. They were deported to Germany, including a number of Jews who had been released from concentration camps and had found their way “home.” In this fever of hatred, because their last names were German, they were once again rounded up and sent, on railway cars, to return to the camps that they survived.

 More than 80 camps were established, with the majority in Germany. But families were kept together; ethnic and national groups were grouped. Repatriation took years to accomplish for the millions affected, for what they once had, where they once lived, for the majority, had been destroyed. There was nothing to go home to. Many chose not to return, especially to those Eastern European countries that were now part of the Soviet bloc. The United States passed The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 which authorized for a limited period of time the admission into the United States of 200,000 certain European (italics my own) displaced persons (DPs) for permanent residence. (It wasn’t until the 1949 Chinese Revolution under Chairman Mao that Congress allowed Chinese immigrants to remain in the country rather than face persecution if they were required to return home.) So you see, we have always favored those who look like us, our color, our religions.

They were not all loved, were not all welcomed. But they were not put in cages; children were not forcibly separated from their parents. Those countries whose citizens accepted them may have done so grudgingly, but they were accepted. They had a home, a place, a refuge.

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As we consider how we welcome refugees to our borders, we must pause, consider, remember. And ponder how we will be remembered, this prosperous country of ours, how we welcome those who come to our doors, whether we called on our better angels.

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