Author Traces What Happened To WWII’s ‘Last Million’ Displaced People

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Refugees stand outside the West Berlin refugee headquarters, waiting for registration, March 3, 1953.

Werner Kreusch/AP Photo


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Werner Kreusch/AP Photo


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«What I discovered for the case of the last million refugees after World War II was that nationalist concerns and political concerns always overruled humanitarian concerns,» he says. «In a funny way, the results for the last million were much more promising than the results for the refugees who came after them.»

Interview Highlights

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The Last Million, by David Nasaw

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The bulk of Polish Jews who survived the war survived it because as soon as the Germans came, they snuck across the borders into the Soviet Union, and the Soviets, who needed laborers to fight the war, moved these Jews into the far reaches of the Asiatic parts of the Soviet Union, where they were put to work and they worked through the war. When the war was over, the Soviets said, OK, you can go home now. And they supplied a quarter million Jews with transportation back to Poland.

When they arrived in Poland, these Jews were horrified at the anti-Semitism they found. They were not the only Polish Jews; large numbers of survivors of the camps who ended the war in Germany, as soon as they were able to walk, walked, tried to get on trains, find rides on trucks to go back to their hometowns to find out if anybody had survived. Other Jews came out of hiding and they returned to their hometowns to try to see if family had survived. And they, too, were horrified at the anti-Semitism. The Jewish Poles who had come out of the Soviet Union, who had returned from Germany when the war was over, the survivors realized that their only hope for the future lay in the American zone of Germany in the displaced persons camps there.

On the difficulty Jews faced when trying to immigrate to the U.S.

It took three years for Congress to accept any displaced persons into the United States. In June of 1948, Congress passes its first displaced persons law, but the law is written in such a way as to restrict visas or to prohibit visas for 90 percent of the quarter million Jews. The law is written that if you’re not in Germany on VE Day, you can’t get a visa. And a large number of the Jews were not there on VE Day, because they were in the Soviet Union or in Poland or in hiding. …


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The law was passed and the law was written in large part by Midwestern Republicans and Southern Democrats who held the power in Congress in 1948 after a Republican victory in 1946. They did not want the Jews to enter the United States and they said it was not simple anti-Semitism. It was a Cold War stratagem. The opponents of Jewish migration said we can’t trust the Jews. Why? Because they’re Polish or they had spent time in the Soviet Union and large numbers of them are probably communist sympathizers or communist operatives, and we can’t let them into this country.

The law that was passed that made it almost impossible for the Jews to come in because they were [alleged] communists, had no such safeguards against Nazi war criminals and Nazi collaborators — many of whom did enter the country under the provisions of the Displaced Persons Act.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

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