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Background information on Displaced Persons documents

Many documents relating to Displaced Persons (DPs) are stored in the Arolsen Archives. They come from various DP camps and different organizations that cared for the DPs after the end of World War II. This introduction will describe aspects that apply to many of these cards and forms. The issues addressed here include the definition of a DP, the role played by organizations such as the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and the International Refugee Organization (IRO), and how the DPs were dealt with differently in the four occupation zones. The trajectories typically followed by the DPs – from returning to their countries of origin (repatriation) to starting new lives in foreign countries (emigration) – are also explained. Finally, this introduction looks at the DP documents stored in the Arolsen Archives and points out the special aspects to take into consideration, particularly when it comes to information about nationality.

When the Allies liberated Germany and the countries occupied by it, they encountered between 10 and 12 million people who were no longer in their countries of origin on account of Nazi persecution. They were referred to as Displaced Persons (or personnes déplacées – DPs for short), a term that covered a group of people with very different backgrounds and experiences of persecution. DPs – or United Nations DPs, to be precise – were defined as all non-German civilians who had been deported by the Nazis or who, for some other reason related to the war, found themselves outside of their home countries when the war ended. The Allies helped them either return home or emigrate to start fresh in a different country. Germans were only given DP status if they could prove that they had been persecuted by the Nazis. The decisive factors, therefore, were a person’s nationality and – in most cases – their racial, political or religious persecution by the National Socialists. With this definition, the Allies distinguished the DPs from other groups. Germans from the Eastern territories (expellees), soldiers of so-called enemy and ex-enemy states (such as Austrians and Italians) and non-Germans who had collaborated with the Nazis or cooperated with another government sympathetic to them were not to be given DP status.

The largest group among the DPs comprised liberated forced laborers. Most of them had been deported from all over Europe by the Nazis as so-called “civilian workers.” A second group was made up of survivors of the concentration camps and ghettos, including Jewish Holocaust survivors. Other groups joined them at the end of 1945 and start of 1946, including Eastern European Jews who had fled further east to escape Nazi persecution. Some of these “infiltrees,” as they were called, had survived in the Soviet Union or countries in the Middle East, while others had initially returned to their home countries after being liberated from concentration camps. Following antisemitic pogroms such as the one in Kielce in Poland, where the local population murdered more than 40 Jewish men and women in July 1946, many Jews fled to Germany. In the US occupation zone, these people were also considered DPs. Non-Germans who had only arrived in Germany in the last months of the war, or even after May 1945, could receive DP status as well. For example, many Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians had fled from the advancing Red Army either because they did not want to live under communist rule or they feared being accused of collaboration – justifiably or not.

DPs were not only found in Germany. Since the Nazis had deported people to various European countries, DPs were also registered in Austria, Italy, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands. And the task of caring for the DPs was not limited to Europe. In fact, aid organizations looked after DPs worldwide. For example, the IRO was responsible for people in 25 countries on five continents who had survived the war outside of Europe, in places such as East Asia, the Middle East and the British colonies in East Africa.

It is difficult to determine exactly how many DPs there were. One reason for this is that many people who were liberated tried to return to their countries of origin on their own and were not registered. Researchers estimate that there were between 10 and 12 million DPs in May 1945. By September 1945, six million of them had already returned to their home countries. The DPs who remained behind in Germany from the winter of 1945/1946 were mainly from Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states; there were also around 60,000 to 70,000 Jews mostly from Central and Eastern Europe. Added to this were more than 100,000 infiltrees, most of whom were waiting in US occupation zone to continue their journey. In July 1947, when responsibility for the DPs passed from UNRRA to the IRO, there were still around 704,000 registered DPs. Their number continued to decline due to emigration, and by 1948 there were only 598,000 DPs left, one in four of whom were Jewish. On January 1, 1952, when the IRO ended its work in Europe, there were still around 177,000 DPs living in Germany. This “hard core” was made up mostly of physically and mentally ill individuals and their family members as well as elderly DPs and those who were unable to work and thus were not wanted by any country. These “homeless foreigners” became the responsibility of the Federal Republic of Germany; the same procedure took place in Austria.

In the documents stored in the Arolsen Archives, the terms “DP” and “refugee” are both used. This is because the Allied forces (SHAEF) made a formal distinction between DPs and refugees. Refugees were defined as people who had left their countries of origin of their own accord under pressure from the Nazis. A German Jew who had fled to the Netherlands in 1935 and survived in hiding there was therefore considered a refugee. Displaced Persons, by contrast, were usually people who had been deported by the Nazis from their countries of origin, such as Ukrainian forced laborers who had been made to work for companies in Germany. However, in most cases this distinction was nothing more than a formality. The historical sources tend to differentiate more between people who received DP status and those who did not fulfill the criteria and were therefore referred to as refugees. For example, Jewish infiltrees were considered DPs in the US zone, but in the British zone they only had the status of refugees. In the research being conducted today – and thus in the e-Guide – both groups are generally referred to as DPs, as UNRRA and the IRO were ultimately responsible for both.

After World War II, Germany was divided into four occupation zones: a British zone in northern Germany, a US zone in southern and central Germany (with the Bremen Enclave), a French zone in western Germany, and a Russian zone in eastern Germany – which would later become the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or East Germany. Berlin and Austria were also each divided into four zones. The four governments had different ideas about what should happen with the DPs.

The Soviet Union followed the strictest DP policy. After the death of millions during World War II, people in the Soviet Union and the countries now under its control were in urgent need of laborers. The DPs were therefore to be repatriated quickly and without exception in order to help rebuild their countries of origin. Their repatriation thus began immediately; early in the summer of 1945, tens of thousands of Soviet DPs returned home every day via repatriation camps. The liberated prisoners of war and forced laborers were therefore not referred to as DPs by the Soviets, but rather as repatriates. Instead of DP camps, the Soviet People’s Commissariat (NKVD) set up filtration camps to check whether the returnees had cooperated with the Nazis – that is, whether they were collaborators. Many people were suspected of collaboration: 42 percent of the repatriates were not allowed to return home, but were instead sent to gulags for forced labor. Thousands of returnees died in these camps as a result of the terrible living conditions.

The French military government also aimed to return the DPs quickly, but it took a less repressive approach to doing so. However, it did threaten to withdraw DP status from DPs who refused repatriation, for example. But the DPs in the French occupation zone were not a mass phenomenon like they were in the British and US zones. From 1946, the French military government only had to look after about 40,000 DPs. The DPs in this zone therefore tended to live in smaller settlements or houses instead of large camps.

For a long time, the British were also insistent on repatriating the DPs. The situation between the DPs and British Allies was therefore often strained and prone to conflict. There were also stricter rules in the British zone regarding the cutoff date for DP status. A person had to be living in the British zone before June 30, 1946, in order to be recognized as a DP. This mainly affected infiltrees, i.e., Jews who had survived the war in Soviet Union, for example, and only came to Germany later. The British military government also rejected the idea of giving Jews their own status. It justified this by saying that it did not want to continue using Nazi categories.

In the US occupation zone, the responsible authorities – influenced by the intensifying conflict with the Soviet Union – were the first to abandon forced repatriation. The situation was also different for the Jewish DPs in the US zone. A report by the lawyer Earl G. Harrison raised awareness of the fact that Jewish DPs required special care. As a result, they were no longer separated by nationality and were instead housed together in special Jewish DP camps. The better provisions in these camps prompted many Jewish survivors and infiltrees to try to enter the US zone. They also had a longer time to be recognized as DPs in the US zone, where the cutoff date – unlike in the British zone – was April 21, 1947. The US and British authorities were in disagreement above all on the question of Jewish emigration to Palestine/Israel. While the US authorities tried to enable such emigration, the British attempted to prevent it. At the same time, however, the US adhered to its lower quotas for emigration to the United States itself. US borders were only opened after many DPs had already started a new life elsewhere.

The process of caring for the DPs started even as the Allies were still advancing. To prevent DPs from being caught up in combat, the military housed them in provisional camps, registered them and provided food, clothing and medical care. After the war ended in May 1945, caring for the DPs was still officially the responsibility of SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force), with its G-5 Division (Displaced Persons, Refugees and Welfare Branch), and later of the military governments of the western occupation zones. They also deployed soldiers to guard the camps and intervene in the event of unrest. The military promptly began sending the DPs back to their countries of origin. Up to 80,000 DPs were repatriated each day from the western occupation zones in May and June 1945; a total of over four million DPs had returned home by July 31, 1945.

But in the DP camps themselves, UNRRA – together with numerous aid organizations from around the world – was the central organization that looked after the DPs. UNRRA negotiated with the military governments in the individual occupation zones to establish the terms of its work in the camps. Therefore, although UNRRA was a key United Nations organization, the care provided to DPs differed in the three western zones of occupation.

UNRRA had been founded on November 9, 1943, in Washington, D.C., by 44 subsequent member states of the United Nations. From 1946, 6,000 men and 5,000 women worked as UNRRA employees caring for the DPs in Germany, Austria and Italy. They were divided into teams, each of which was responsible for one or more DP camps. In August 1945, there were 349 UNRRA teams with an average of eight employees each. Most of the employees were young, and the majority came from English-speaking countries, particularly the UK and USA. They had volunteered to take a course lasting just a few weeks to prepare them for their work. The employees had different degrees of experience; some had actively fought the Nazis in the Résistance, others only knew about the war from what they heard in the news. They also had different ideas about how they should interact with the DPs, meaning whether they should maintain a professional distance or show a great deal of compassion. But their central mission was UNRRA’s goal to “help the people to help themselves.” Together with various aid organizations and the cooperation of many DPs, the UNRRA employees registered the DPs, provided food and care locally and arranged for them to return to their countries of origin. They also tried to create some form of normality through social, cultural, religious and educational programs. These activities gave rise to many of the documents now stored in the Arolsen Archives.

UNRRA ended its work in June 1947, when there were still more than 700,000 DPs in need of care. These DPs became the responsibility of the successor to UNRRA: the IRO, also founded by the United Nations. For formal reasons (signatures were still needed from 15 financing member states), a Preparatory Commission of the International Refugee Organization (PCIRO) provisionally took responsibility for the DPs from July 1947 to August 1948. The IRO then took over from August 20, 1948, until it ceased work in Europe on January 1, 1952. Today the PCIRO and IRO are usually equated because the difference between them was essentially just a formality. For this reason, when the IRO is mentioned in the e-Guide, the PCIRO is usually being referred to as well. The IRO was an international organization that operated worldwide. It did not only look after Displaced Persons in Europe, but also looked after people overseas, for example in Shanghai, Africa, India, or Iran. This is why the Arolsen Archives also hold documents on people who were outside of Europe after the end of the war. The IRO office in London was the central collection point for applications for support that were made in the British colonies.

During the peak phase in December 1949, around 2,800 people from 36 countries were working for the IRO; this figure does not even include the DPs who supported the IRO employees in the camps. The IRO was divided into two departments which illustrate the organization’s two basic tasks: the Department of Health, Care and Maintenance, for providing care to the DPs locally, and the Department of Repatriation and Resettlement (or the Resettlement Division), for arranging the DPs’ return or emigration. The latter department negotiated with countries and organizations worldwide to arrange for DPs to be admitted. But it also gathered information about the situation in the DPs’ countries of origin to help them make decisions about their future. Furthermore, the IRO had its own transportation network, which included 25 ships sailing under the IRO flag. With 30 trains and hundreds of seats in planes, the organization arranged for DPs to journey onwards. The IRO thus represents a change in how the DPs were dealt with, as the organization not only enabled DPs to return to their countries of origin, it also helped them to emigrate.

Numerous other aid organizations were active in the camps alongside UNRRA and the IRO. Most of these organizations cared for specific groups of DPs. For example, the American Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC) looked after Jewish DPs in particular, while the Belgian Comité Estonien and the American National Committee for Aid to Homeless Armenians took care of Estonian and Armenian DPs, respectively. In 1948 alone, 25 organizations were officially associated with the IRO and supported the DPs in every area. But the DPs organized themselves as well. In many camps, they established committees that served as their spokespersons, helped shape their cultural life, published newspapers and advocated for them.

The agreement signed by the Allies at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 stipulated that all DPs were to be returned to their countries of origin as quickly as possible. The Allies therefore organized aid for the DPs with the end goal of their repatriation or return home in mind. Both they and UNRRA assumed that all of the DPs would want to go home quickly. It was also in the interest of the individual governments for their citizens to return soon so they could help rebuild after the war. For many Western Europeans who had been forced laborers, this was actually the case. The figures here are impressive: according to the IRO brochure “The Facts About Refugees” published in 1948, the Allies – with the support of UNRRA – had returned 4.5 million DPs to their countries of origin within three months after the end of the war.

But this process slowed down in the winter of 1945/1946. The slowdown affected two groups above all: Jewish Holocaust survivors and Baltic, Ukrainian and Polish DPs whose countries of origin were now in the Soviet Union’s sphere of power. Many Jewish survivors whose families had been murdered no longer had any connection to their former lives and preferred to start a new life in Palestine or another country. Numerous Polish, Baltic and Ukrainian DPs, by contrast, did not want to live under Soviet rule and feared the repressions that potentially faced them in the Soviet Union. These fears were shared not only by those who had actually fought on the side of the Germans or who had supported the occupiers, but also by former forced laborers who would have been accused of being collaborators on account of their “work for the enemy.”

From October 1945, the Allies essentially stopped their initial compulsory repatriation of this group, meaning that they no longer forced people to return to their countries of origin against their will. This was a response to the many suicides committed out of desperation by DPs who did not want to be repatriated. In February 1946, a UN resolution stipulated that no more DPs could be forced to return home. Instead, UNRRA and the various governments tried to encourage DPs to return by offering them incentives. For example, Polish DPs were given 60 days worth of food rations if they decided to return to Poland by the end of 1946.

The support provided to the DPs gradually changed as well. Instead of repatriation, the focus from 1947 at the latest was often to prepare the DPs for life in a new country and arrange for their emigration. Most DPs wanted to emigrate to English-speaking countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but South America and – for Jewish DPs – Palestine/Israel were also popular destinations. When UNRRA handed over responsibility to the IRO in July 1947, emigration (or “resettlement”) joined repatriation as an option for the DPs. In connection with this, a number of new forms and documents were produced which the DPs had to fill out; these are now stored in the Arolsen Archives. The many steps to be taken before DPs could emigrate were not easy, and for a long time there were clear quotas on how many and, above all, which DPs would be accepted by different countries. More than 700,000 DPs in total emigrated by the end of 1951, when the IRO ceased its work in Europe.

Many of the DP documents were produced in a time full of uncertainty. Although there were actually precise guidelines for registering the DPs, there are two pieces of information in particular that can often differ on documents for the same person: their name and nationality.

When the DPs were registered, there was often a mishmash of languages. The DPs and the people who registered them came from a wide variety of countries and spoke a wide variety of languages. Though DPs themselves increasingly took on the role of translators and center registrars in the camps, names were still often misspelled during registration. Today the alphabetical-phonetic system used to sort the postwar card file of the Arolsen Archives takes into account nearly all of these misspellings.

When the responsible authorities decided that the DPs should be registered according to their nationality, this seemed like a logical step; sorting people into national groups would make it easier to repatriate them. But the differing nationalities given in the DP documents show that the reality was more complicated. There are a number of reasons for these discrepancies. Because national borders had changed as a result of World War I and II, it was often difficult for people to specify their own nationality. For example, the city of Lwów (Lemberg) had belonged to Poland after World War I, but after World War II it was referred to as Lviv and was in the Ukrainian part of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the way the DPs themselves defined their nationality was a decisive factor. Sticking with the example of Lwów/Lviv: even if different individuals had been born in the city at the same time, some would consider themselves Poles, others Ukrainians, and still others either stateless, Soviet citizens or Jews. Many Jewish Holocaust survivors now specified Jewish, Hebrew or Jüdisch as their nationality, thus self-confidently claiming a unique nationality that did not correspond to any actual citizenship. Nonetheless, a few months after the end of the war, the Allies began to recognize this as a nationality.

Many DPs from Eastern Europe gave their nationality as “stateless” or “Nansen,” in reference to a regulation for emigrants originating from after World War I. Inhabitants of the former Russian Empire who had left their country after the revolution of 1917 were stripped of their citizenship by the Soviet Union and were considered stateless. To ensure that they still had valid documents, they – and eventually other refugees as well – could acquire what was known as a Nansen passport, named after Fridtjof Nansen, the High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations at the time. Jews as well as Sinti and Roma who had fled Nazi persecution had also had their citizenship revoked by the Nazis. However, many DPs chose to specify “stateless” or “Nansen” even though they actually had a different nationality – one which they either rejected or did not want to reveal in order to avoid repatriation.

But why was nationality so important in the first place? For one thing, it determined whether someone would be recognized as a DP and, if so, to which camp they would be assigned. For another, it determined where a person would be returned to and whether this would happen against the person’s will. This particularly applied to DPs from the Baltic states as well as people who considered themselves Poles or Ukrainians and whose countries of origin lay in the Soviet Union after the war. The SHAEF Memorandum No. 39 from April 1945 stated: “After identification by Soviet Repatriation Representatives, Soviet displaced persons will be repatriated regardless of their individual wishes” (6.1.1/82495546/ITS Digital Archive, Arolsen Archives). This meant that Soviet DPs were also to be forcibly repatriated. Since many refused to be repatriated, they sometimes “rewrote” their own biography and path of persecution during the war. But many DPs in other groups as well, such as Jewish infiltrees, falsified information about themselves or their experiences during the war in order to be recognized and supported as DPs.

When the Allies established the International Tracing Service (ITS), its focus was to search for survivors of Nazi persecution. As a result, in addition to cards and forms from the liberated concentration camps and registration documents for forced laborers, other documents that had only recently been created for DPs also wound up in Arolsen. For example, there was a rule that duplicates of DP 2 cards or passenger lists for emigration ships should always be sent directly to the tracing service. Most DP documents in the Arolsen Archives are stored together in the postwar card file (Nachkriegszeitkartei, Collection In order to avoid having to search through multiple card files, ITS employees organized the around 3.5 million DP documents in an alphabetical-phonetic way in this card file – regardless of whether the documents came from UNRRA, the IRO or one of the many other aid organizations.

The cards reveal how many offices and organizations registered DPs everywhere after the war. The Arolsen Archives not only received the official documents from UNRRA and the IRO, but also documents from individual DP camps and other aid organizations. Many of these documents came to the ITS after the respective organizations had been dissolved. The fact that there were different documents for DPs in the three western occupation zones explains the variety of documents in the Arolsen Archives. The official documents were printed in various places, including the French national printing office in Paris as well as local printing offices.  However, the Arolsen Archives do not have any documents from DPs in the Soviet occupation zone. Because of the special approach to DPs – i.e. the fast repatriation to their countries of origin – no registration documents were produced there as they were in the Western occupation zones. But scans or microfilms of the so-called filtration files of people who were brought back to the Soviet Union – sometimes against their will – can be viewed in the Arolsen Archives. The Soviet secret service created these files for each person during the screening process they were subjected to on their return.

It is important to note that aid organizations such as the IRO were active worldwide. This means that, while the majority of documents stored in the Arolsen Archives relate to DPs in Germany and Austria, there are also some documents for people who wound up outside of Europe, in places such as the Middle East or Africa, as a result of the war. Additionally, there are documents for people who tried to receive DP status even though they were not actually DPs. For this reason, information about many different kinds of people can be found in the Arolsen Archives. Even “ethnic Germans” (Volksdeutsche) are mentioned in some of the documents; though they were not actually the responsibility of the aid organizations, they sometimes emigrated on the same ships as the DPs, for example.

Most of the DP documents are written and filled out in English or French, the languages of the occupying powers. However, there is also material in Polish, Estonian, Lithuanian, Russian, German and other languages. The archives also hold medical documents relating to exams the DPs had to undergo for illnesses such as tuberculosis before they emigrated. ITS employees used all of these documents to search for survivors of Nazi persecution. But from the early 1950s, the DP documents were also important to German and other authorities for reviewing compensation and pension claims or immigration proceedings. This was often a major reason that the DP documents were preserved and sent to Arolsen in the first place. With the help of these documents, authorities could verify the nationality of individuals and their periods of employment and residence.

Although millions of DP documents are stored in the Arolsen Archives, not all of the documents produced for individual DPs have been preserved. Nonetheless, the DP documents in the Arolsen Archives are a unique source which illustrates the difficult transitional situation in which millions of people found themselves after the end of World War II.