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Following World War II, around 250,000 European Jews who had survived the Holocaust made their way to the displaced persons (DP) camps established by the Allied Armed Forces in Germany, Austria and Italy. These overcrowded and bleak environments provided the barest of necessities. Supplementing the relief supplied by the U.S. Army, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and its successor, the International Refugee Organization, JDC provided critical services that nourished both body and soul: food, medicine, clothing, tools, educational and religious materials. JDC placed special attention on the unique needs of the growing population of children in the camps.

In Depth

When World War II ended in Europe, over 53,000 liberated Jews were among the 1½ million refugees in emergency shelters established by the Allied Armed Forces in Germany, Austria and Italy. Harsh conditions, inadequate food, and exposure to disease in these Displaced Persons (DP) camps put the already weakened population of survivors at risk. Jews also found it hard living among often hostile inhabitants, including Nazi collaborators.

JDC sought to help “the surviving remnant” in every way possible, but the Allied military blocked outside involvement. Letters from Jewish soldiers and military chaplains and protests by Jewish leaders about the dire conditions in Germany led to an inspection of U.S.-administered camps by President Truman’s Special Envoy Earl Harrison in the summer of 1945. Dr. Joseph Schwartz, JDC’s Director of Overseas Operations, accompanied him. Harrison’s subsequent report led to significant improvements and separate camps for Jews. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) became the principal provider for survivors in the camps. JDC and other voluntary agencies received permission to contribute supplemental aid. Another significant participant, the Central Committee of Liberated Jews, began representing the needs of residents in German camps. In liaison with the military, UNRRA, and the Central Committee, JDC tried to bring stability to the chaotic camps. It also cooperated with HIAS, ORT, and the Jewish Agency of Palestine on specific programs. In fact, JDC’s presence continually evolved to match the shifting needs of camp residents.

In 1946, Eastern European Jews, including families with children, began arriving. Those who had escaped eastward to Russia during the Nazi era faced much anti-Jewish sentiment on returning to their own countries, especially in Poland, where violent attacks were an ominous reality. The underground network Bricha helped move these refugees across Czechoslovakia to the relative safety of the camps; JDC supplied their food, clothing, shelter and transportation. Meanwhile, a baby boom had begun in the camps. The population in already burdened camps grew to over 250,000 Jews. JDC’s responsibilities expanded still further in July 1947, when the International Refugee Organization (IRO) replaced UNRRA, but with scaled down resources.

Opportunities for Jewish emigration were limited by the British blockade in Palestine and strict U.S. immigration quotas. JDC helped whenever legal emigration was possible, representing refugees at consulates, filling out needed papers, booking passage, advancing transportation costs, and furnishing travel supplies. It also funded illegal transport of Jews entering Palestine through the Bricha escape network. With Israel’s statehood in 1948, and subsequent easing of U.S. immigration laws, JDC helped most Jews resettle.

Throughout this difficult period, JDC provided Jews in the DP camps the resources to rebuild their lives: supplemental food and clothing, medical treatment, schools, training courses, religious and cultural programs, loans, mail services, family tracing, and emigration assistance. In response to the special needs of children, JDC helped all, from infants to adolescents, survive, adapt and even thrive in a shifting and often inhospitable environment.