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Lessons of the 20th Century’s Most Famous Refugee Crisis

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In 1944 it was estimated that there were over 11.5 million displaced people in Europe as a result of the Second World War. That’s the equivalent of today’s population of New York City and Chicago combined; people forced out of their homes, moved hundreds of miles to do hard labor in a country they didn’t know or rounded up into concentration camps, separated from their families, their loved ones, their freedom. Those who suffer the most in any war are always the civilians. We have seen it time and time again, from the ancient Goths migrating into the Roman Empire as they fled from rampaging Huns right up to today’s Syrian refugee crisis. The humanitarian disaster that emerged as the Second World War drew to a close in Europe might be the most famous example of mass displacement but it is by no means the only one. According to UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), in 2015 over 65 million people across the world were displaced from their homes by war and persecution. That’s not the equivalent of emptying the whole of New York and Chicago combined. That’s more than the entire current population of the U.K.

During World War II, the crisis was expected. As the racial, ideological and economic ambitions of the Third Reich uprooted millions, the Allies knew that when the war ended the scale of humanitarian aid required would be of an unprecedented scale. This issue was brought to the forefront by the Allies’ advance into Northern Europe in 1944, when 60,000 Russians, Poles, Czechs and Yugoslavs displaced in France needed to be fed, housed and provided with medical care, as well as to be moved out of the combat area. Everyone knew that this was a drop in the ocean compared to what was to come.

In November of 1943, the Allies, led by President Roosevelt, had created the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA) to oversee relief for such war victims through the provision of food, fuel, clothing, shelter and medicine. Repatriation back to their homelands would fall primarily under the responsibility of the military but UNRRA was asked to support military efforts in Germany, where the large majority of displaced persons (DPs) were to be found. Fearing that the sudden release of so many from the camps would obstruct military movements and spread disease, a system was devised whereby barriers were established at water obstacles such as the Rhine and Elbe, where refugees would be held and collected by the military before being transported to assembly centers and camps. There they would be fed, fumigated and kept in order by special UNRRA teams.

As the concentration camps were slowly liberated, many were turned into DP camps where inmates could be fed and cared for before transport was organized to take them back to their homelands. The largest was the infamous Bergen-Belsen whose most famous victim was 15-year-old Anne Frank. When the British 11th Armored Division liberated the camp in April 1945 they found 60,000 inmates, many of them suffering from typhus, as well as 13,000 bodies lying where they had fallen. The barracks of a nearby Panzer training school was turned into a hospital with 14,000 beds crammed in, and many thousands more were saved from starvation, although 13,000 lives were subsequently lost when the hungry were allowed to literally gorge themselves to death. It was one of many blunders accidentally made as those with good intentions tried desperately to deal with the crisis.

It was no accident that UNRRA was nicknamed “UNRRA the Unready.” Across Germany the crisis was bigger than anything UNRRA could handle, even with the help of the military and charitable organizations such as the Red Cross. Of the 200 UNRRA teams requested by the military to help control, aid and assist with the refugees flooding across Germany, only eight had been produced by early 1945. In March of that year, Lieutenant Marcus J. Smith, a young U.S. army doctor, learned that he was to be transferred to a small Displaced Persons combat team. The next day he was sent to a DP camp where a makeshift classroom had been set up. A colonel strode in, pointed to a map of Germany tacked to the blackboard and told the team there were 10 million DPs there for them to take care of. A soldier in the audience whispered that this meant that every one of them in the room would have to look after half a million DPs each. When the doctor eventually set out with his very small convoy, he noted in his diary (retold in his book, Dachua: The Harrowing of Hell, 1972) that the only medical supplies he had were his own personal bottle of aspirin and a tube of penicillin eye ointment.

Despite that, as with today’s aid workers across the world, determination somehow saw them through. UNRRA’s Centralized Tracking Bureau was established to help trace survivors. More and more volunteers joined, women mainly, from the U.S., England and across Europe, all eager to help. Small but numerous acts of kindness began to rebuild humanity and hope.

Some DP camps remained open long after the war, becoming more or less permanent homes for the residents, the last not closing until 1957. Whilst most who were displaced had been desperate to get back home, others had no intention of returning. Many from Eastern Europe feared their homelands now fell under the shadow of an increasingly aggressive Russia. Others, including many Jews, saw this as an opportunity to form a homeland they’d never had before. Many emigrated to the U.S., the U.K. and elsewhere in Europe in search of hope, peace and security. As a result those societies became a more complex weave of races, religions, languages and cultures.

More recently though, atrocities in Manchester, London, Paris or Orlando have made some wary of these new immigrants. We forget that many of us ourselves are the children and grandchildren of migrants, people, who like those today, were forced from their homes through war and persecution. In 1945 many nations and individuals pulled together to deal with a humanitarian crisis. Today, there are more displaced people in the world than ever. And yet how short our memories have become.

Jason Hewitt is a novelist, playwright and actor. He was born in Oxford, and lives in London. His debut novel, The Dynamite Room, was long-listed for the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Authors’ Club First Novel Award. His latest novel, Devastation Road, will be published by Little, Brown and Company on July 5.

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