Displaced persons camp

Map of Föhrenwald DP camp in Bavaria
Class portrait of school children at Schauenstein DP camp, about 1946

A displaced persons camp or DP camp is a temporary facility for displaced persons. The term is mainly used for camps established after World War II in Germany, Austria, and Italy, primarily for refugees from Eastern Europe and for the former inmates of the Nazi German concentration camps. Two years after the end of World War II in Europe, some 850,000 people lived in DP camps across Europe, among them Armenians, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Yugoslavs, Jews, Greeks, Russians, Ukrainians and Czechoslovaks.[1]

In recent times, camps have existed in many parts of the world for groups of displaced people including for refugees in the Darfur region of Sudan, and for Palestinians in Lebanon and Jordan, as well as for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Such camps are now generally known as refugee camps.

DP camps following World War II


Combat operations, ethnic cleansing, and the fear of genocide resulted in millions of people being uprooted from their homes in the course of World War II. Between 11 million and 20 million people were displaced. The majority were inmates of Nazi concentration camps, Labor camps and prisoner-of-war camps that were freed by the Allied armies.[2] In portions of Eastern Europe, both civilians and military personnel fled their home countries in fear of advancing Soviet armies, who were preceded by widespread reports of mass rape, pillaging, looting, and murder.[3]

As the war ended, these people found themselves facing an uncertain future. Allied military and civilian authorities faced considerable challenges resettling them. Since the reasons for displacement varied considerably, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force classified individuals into a number of categories: evacuees, war or political refugees, political prisoners, forced or voluntary workers, Organisation Todt workers, former forces under German command, deportees, intruded persons, extruded persons, civilian internees, ex-prisoners of war, and stateless persons.

In addition, displaced persons came from every country that had been invaded and/or occupied by German forces. Although the situation of many of the DPs could be resolved by simply moving them to their original homes, this could not be done, for example, where borders changed to place the location in a new country. Additionally, many could not return home for fear of political persecution or retribution for perceived (or actual) collaboration with Axis powers.

Establishing a system for resolving displacement

A DP Camp football team; Hirsch Schwartzberg, Berlin DP Camps Central Committee president, is second from right

The original plan for those displaced as a result of World War II was to repatriate them to their countries of origin as quickly as possible. Depending on sectors occupied in Austria and Germany, American, French, British, or Soviet forces tended to the immediate needs of the refugees and set in motion plans for repatriation. (Estimates for displaced persons do not typically include several million ethnic Germans in Europe (Poland, the Netherlands etc.) who were expelled and repatriated in Germany. See Flight and expulsion of Germans (1944–1950).)

In the months and sometimes years following the end of the war, displaced persons typically reported to military personnel who attended to their immediate needs. Nearly all of them were malnourished, a great number were ill, and some were dying. Shelter was often improvised, and there were many instances of military personnel sharing from their own supplies of food, medicine, clothing, etc., to help the refugees. In a matter of weeks, there was a more or less formalized infrastructure for taking in, registering, treating, classifying, sorting, and transporting displaced persons.

Initially, military missions of the various Allied nations attached to the British, French and U.S. army commands assisted in the sorting and classifying the DPs of their own nationality. For example, during 1945 and 1946 there were several dozen Polish liaison officers attached to individual occupation army units.[4] On October 1, 1945, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), which had already been running many of the camps, took responsibility for the administration of displaced persons in Europe,[5] though military authorities continued to play a role for several years to come, in providing transportation, supplies and security.

Those who were easily classified and were willing to be repatriated were rapidly sent back to their country of origin. By the end of 1945, over six million refugees were repatriated by the military forces and UNRRA. British authorities made June 30, 1946 the cutoff for accepting further displaced persons in their sector of occupation, and the American sector set it at August 1, with the exception of those persecuted for race or religion, or who entered the zone in "an organized manner." The American sector ceased receiving new arrivals on April 21, 1947. An unknown number of displaced persons rejected by authorities were left to find their own means of survival.


Displaced persons began to appear in substantial numbers in the spring of 1945. Allied forces took them into their care by improvising shelter wherever it could be found. Accommodation primarily included former military barracks, but also included summer camps for children, airports, hotels, castles, hospitals, private homes, and even partly destroyed structures. Although there were continuous efforts to sort and consolidate populations, there were hundreds of DP facilities in Germany, Austria, Italy, and other European countries by the end of 1945. One camp was even set up in Guanajuato in Mexico.

The UNRRA moved quickly to field teams to take over administration of the camps from the military forces.

A number of DP camps became more or less permanent homes for these individuals. Conditions were varied and sometimes harsh. Rations were restricted, and curfews were frequently imposed. Camps were shut down as refugees found new homes and there was continuous consolidation of remaining refugees into fewer camps.

By 1952, all but two DP camps were closed. The last two DP camps, Föhrenwald closed in 1957 and Wels in 1959.

The needs of displaced persons

All displaced persons had experienced trauma, and many had serious health conditions as a result of what they had endured.

The immediate concern was to provide shelter, nutrition and basic health care. Most DPs had subsisted on diets of far less than 1,500 calories a day. Sanitary conditions had been improvised at best, and there had been minimal medical care. As a result, they suffered from malnutrition, a variety of diseases, and were often unclean, lice-ridden, and prone to illness.

In addition, most of the refugees suffered from psychological difficulties. They were often distrustful and apprehensive around authorities, and many were depressed and traumatized.

Displaced persons were anxious to be reunited with families they had been separated from in the course of the war. Improvised efforts to identify survivors became formalized through the UNRRA's Central Tracking Bureau and facilities of the International Red Cross. The organization collected over one million names in the course of the DP era and eventually became the International Tracing Service.

Displaced persons often moved from camp to camp, looking for family, countrymen, or better food and accommodation. Over time, ethnic and religious groups concentrated in certain camps.

Camp residents quickly set up churches, synagogues, newspapers, sports events, schools, and even universities. Among these were the Technical University in Esslingen set up by the Polish Mission, the Free Ukrainian University, the Ukrainian Technical-Agricultural Institute of Prodebrady, the Baltic University and the short-lived UNRRA University. German universities were required to accept a quota of DP students.

A number of charitable organizations provided significant humanitarian relief and services among displaced persons - these include the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, American Friends Service Committee, British Friends Relief Service, the Lutheran World Federation, Catholic Charities, several national Red Cross organizations, Polish American Congress and Ukrainian American Relief Committee.

The difficulties of repatriation

Over one million refugees could not be repatriated to their original countries and were left homeless as a result of fear of persecution. These included:

The agreement reached at the Yalta Conference required in principle that all citizens of the allied powers be repatriated to their home country. The Soviet Union insisted that refugees in the American, British, and French sectors who were or at some point had been Soviet citizens be sent back to the Soviet Union. A large number of refugees resisted this, fearing that their fleeing Soviet rule had condemned them as traitors.

American, British, and French military officials, as well as UNRRA officials, reluctantly complied with this directive, and a number of Soviet citizens were repatriated. Many of these met with the hardship they feared, including death and confinement in the Gulags. There were also cases of kidnapping and coercion to return these refugees. Many avoided such repatriation by misrepresenting their origins, fleeing, or simply resisting. Rejecting claimed Soviet sovereignty over the Baltic states, allied officials also refused to repatriate Lithuanian, Estonian, and Latvian refugees against their will.

Similarly, a large number of refugees who were repatriated to Yugoslavia were subjected to summary executions and torture.

A large number of Poles, who later agreed to be repatriated, did in fact suffer arrest and some were executed, particularly those that had served in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, or in the Polish Resistance against the Nazis.

Jewish survivors of the death camps and various work camps similarly refused to return to their countries of origin, starting instead an extensive underground movement to migrate to the British Mandate of Palestine. - see Berihah.

Resettlement of DPs

Once it became obvious that repatriation plans left a large number of DPs who needed new homes, it took time for countries to commit to accepting refugees. Existing refugee quotas were completely inadequate, and by the fall of 1946, it was not clear whether the remaining DPs would ever find a home.

Between 1947 and 1953, the vast majority of the "non-repatriables" would find new homes around the world, particularly among these countries:[6]

After World War II ended in 1945, there were 7 to 11 million displaced people, or refugees, still living in Germany, Austria and Italy. To have some of these refugees come to the United States, Truman asked Congress to enact legislation. Truman’s administration, along with a lobbying group for refugees, Citizens Committee on Displaced Persons, favored allowing European refugees from World War II to enter the United States. Truman signed the first Displaced Persons Act on June 25, 1948. It allowed 200,000 displaced persons to enter the country within the next two years. However, they exceeded the quota by extending the act for another two years, which doubled the admission of refugees into the United States to 415,000. From 1949 to 1952, about half the 900,000 immigrants that entered the United States were displaced persons.[7] In order to qualify for American visas, only those that were in internment camps by the end of 1945 were eligible. The displaced persons that were trying to come to America had to have a sponsor and a place to live before their arrival, a guarantee that they would not displace American workers and, even more preferable, was that they had a relative that is an American citizen. Voluntary social service agencies, created by religious and ethnic groups, helped the refugees settle into American life.[8] Of the DPs the US admitted from eastern Europe between 1941 and 1957, 137,450 were European Jews.[9]

By 1953, over 250,000 refugees were still in Europe, most of them old, infirm, crippled, or otherwise disabled. Some found resolution through suicide. Some European countries accepted these refugees on a humanitarian basis. Norway accepted 200 refugees who were blind or had tuberculosis, and Sweden also accepted a limited number. In the end most of them were accepted by Germany and Austria for their care and ultimately full resettlement as citizens.

See also


  1. DP Camps in Europe Intro, from: DPs Europe's Displaced Persons, 1945-1951 by Mark Wyman
  2. ISBN O-8014-8542-8 "Dps: Europe's Displaced Persons, 1945-1951" by Mark Wyman ; reprinted 1998 Cornell University Press
  3. Antony Beevor, Berlin: The Downfall 1945, Penguin Books, 2002, ISBN 0-670-88695-5
  4. ISBN 1-57087-204-X "Thirteen is My Lucky Number" Chapters 7 and 8
  5. ibid - p.47 and subsequent
  6. "Michigan Family History Network report". Dpcamps.org. Retrieved 2012-05-14.
  7. "Displaced Persons Act of 1948". Immigration to the United States.
  8. "Displaced Persons Act of 1948". Immigration to the United States.
  9. "United States Policy Toward Jewish Refugees, 1941-1952". Ushmm.org. Retrieved 2012-05-14.

Further reading

  • Antons, Jan-Hinnerk. Displaced Persons in post-war Germany: parallel societies in a hostile environment, in: Journal of Contemporary History 49/1 (2014), p. 92-114.
  • Boder, David Pablo. Topical Autobiographies of Displaced People Recorded Verbatim in Displaced Persons Camps, with a Psychological and Anthropological Analysis. Chicago: [s.n.], 1950.
  • Chubenko, Vladyslav, and I︠A︡ Tumarkin. The Man from DP Camp. Kiev: Pub. House of the Political Literature of Ukraine, 1985.
  • Fessak, Borys. Ukrainian DP Camp, POW Camp, Government in Exile, and National Council Issues. Washington, D.C.: Ukrainian Philatelic and Numismatic Society, 2003.
  • Grand, Sadja. Sadja Grand Letters and Other Materials Relating to Jewish Displaced Persons in Austria. 1945.
  • Gurland, A. R. L. Glimpses of Soviet Jewry 1,000 Letters from the USSR and DP Camps. New York: American Jewish Committee, 1948.
  • Heymont, Irving. Among the Survivors of the Holocaust, 1945 The Landsberg DP Camp Letters of Major Irving Heymont, United States Army. Monographs of the American Jewish Archives, no. 10. Cincinnati, Ohio: American Jewish Archives, 1982. ISBN 0-87820-012-6
  • Jaroszynska-Kirchmann, Anna D. 2002. "Patriotism, Responsibility, and the Cold War: Polish Schools in DP Camps in Germany, 1945-1951". The Polish Review. 47, no. 1: 35.
  • Klein, Arthur G., and Abraham Gordon Duker. 1949. Many Among Dp's in European Camps Are Collaborationists. Congressional Record.
  • Nation in Exile Information Materials About Latvian DPs and Their Life in DP Camp Memmingen. S.l: s.n, 1948.
  • Narkeliūnaitė, Salomėja, and J. Steponavičius. DP Baltic camp at Seedorf. Hamburg: Published by UNRRA Team 295, B.A.O.R, 1946.
  • Shulman, William L. Aspects of the Holocaust From the Shtetl to the DP Camp. Bayside, NY: QCC Art Gallery, 1987.
  • Irene Eber "The Choice – Poland, 1939–1945." ISBN 0-8052-4197-3, 2004. Pub. Schocken Books Inc., NY. 240 p.
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