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Liberation of Concentration Camps

LAURENCE REES: To what extent can we say that the liberation of people from the concentration camps marked the end of their suffering?

WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: Well, as many Jews said who were liberated in the spring of 1945, they had been liberated but not freed. What that meant was that they’d been liberated from one kind of genocidal terror threatening their lives and the very existence of their community, but when the gates of the camps were open and these ill and emaciated individuals contemplated their future they had no immediate plan as to how to go home. The summer of 1945 was a period of incredible numbers of refugee flows moving east, moving west, and moving south. Many of them, perhaps 10 million people, were trying to flee central Germany where they’d been kept captive in labour camps of one kind or another. Others were trying to get away from the Red Army so they’re fleeing west, and in the midst of this is a small, perhaps 50 or 75,000, community of Jewish Holocaust survivors who don’t know where to go. They don’t know if they should go west or south or east and they can’t go home in many cases because their homes no longer exist.

If they were from Poland not only are their homes likely to be destroyed and their villages gone, but they will be unwelcome because the anti-Semitism in Poland that was prominent before and during the war is also still in place in 1945 and 46, and there will be pogroms in Poland in 1946.  So there’s no sense that they can return home, there’s no sense of continuity with their pre-war lives. Many of their family members are dead, where did they go, what options are available to these people who have seen suffering on a scale which is simply unimaginable. A fascinating story unfolds. Many of them stay right where they are because they have no place to go, but they also have no resources. They have no means of getting from A to B. Their health is in grave jeopardy and there’s a period in which the Allied Armies were unprepared to deal with Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. They don’t really understand the problem and they don’t know what the dimensions of the problem are. Indeed it’s not clear to Allied Armies that those survivors are particularly Jewish. Their Jewish identity is not an organising principle for their liberators. So they are perceived as political prisoners, they are perceived as Poles they’re perceived as perhaps Greeks or French or Yugoslavs, but they’re not perceived as Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in the way that we use that term today. We have a very clear notion of what that terms means, but in 1945 the Allied Armies did not know what that term really meant.

So it took a long time for the Americans and the British to decide what to do with these individual sufferers, these survivors. The first great battle was whether to allow them to identify themselves as Jews separate from their national identity. The Allied Armies wanted them to stay within the national identities that they had created so that they could be sent to their home countries. But the Jews said we don’t want to be considered Poles because we don’t want to go back to Poland. We want to be considered Jews because we have a common identity built around suffering but also built around our common religion and common habits and traditions and in many cases some common language. What we really want is to go to Palestine. That was not an available option in 1945 as the British policy did not allow those Jewish survivors or any Jews from Europe to travel to Palestine until 1948. So there’s a long period of 4 years or so, in which small groups of Jewish survivors and other Jews from the East come into occupied Germany and begin to build for themselves a really meaningful communal existence, in some cases right on the very ashes of the camps in which they had been tormented for so many years.

It’s an absolutely astonishing reversal and many of the Jewish survivors are aware of how astonishing it is, and it actually becomes an asset in their political aspirations. Jewish inhabitants of these displaced persons camps publish newspapers, they hold elections, they organise schools and vocational workshops. These are not quiet defeated people, these are people who say we’re Jews and we’re proud of it. We want to go to Palestine and we can’t go to Palestine so we’re going to politically argue and lobby on behalf of our own interests here in these camps in occupied Germany 1945-47.

It’s the last place you would go to look for evidence of a Jewish revival but in fact that’s just what happens. It’s in occupied Germany under American and British occupation that small groups of politically minded Jews begin to make a public, a very visible argument that their suffering entitles them to statehood. So in many ways the origins of Israeli statehood lie right there in those displaced persons camps inside Germany in 1945 and 46.

LAURENCE REES: And there were some cases in Auschwitz where the women that were released from the camp then subsequently ended up being the victims of violence at the hands of the Red Army. So the sense we have of wanting to feel that these people who had suffered so much found redemption immediately is simply....

WILLIAM HITCHCOCK: Simply not there. I mean it’s so important for us to constantly not get ahead of the story when writing history and when studying the past. It’s very difficult to go back to a subject we think we know well and see it afresh, see it anew, and this is an excellent example. We assume that April/May 1945 is the moment when Jewish suffering ends and when the Jewish crisis in Europe is in a sense brought to a close, but it is not. That’s not the way human nature really works. There are always continuities that carry over across these artificial divides that we want to impose on them. And the Holocaust is a good example.

The impact of the Holocaust carries right on through the summer of 1945 in the lives of these Jewish survivors who don’t know quite what to make of themselves, where to go or how to begin the process of creating a new home for themselves in Palestine. Their story is fascinating as it’s one of many political diasporas that are going on all across Europe. There are Poles who don’t want to go home because it’s now under Communist rule. What happens to them? There are collaborators who are worried about returning home because they’re not sure how they’ll be received.

I mean the Second World War is extraordinary. It’s sort of this hurricane of ethnicities and populations that are all mixed together particularly in that last 6 month period of liberation, and the sorting out of these communities will take years before the dust has, in a sense, settled.

LAURENCE REES: Another example, as you mention in your book, is the fact that the British handed over many Soviet citizens to Stalin at the end of the war - people who did not want to be returned and who were often mistreated as a result. That's certainly not a 'happy ending'.  

: Its very frustrating for those of us who are fascinated and drawn to the history of the Second World War that the happy ending is not available to us.  I think it is particularly the public that is so interested in the history of the Second World War and wants to have a storyline that has a beginning, a middle, and a nice clear end. It’s satisfying and it’s meaningful and at the end of the day the Second World War is a good war and the winning powers do the right thing and that’s fine. But that’s not often the way history works. It’s much more messy, much more complicated and where one storyline ends another often begins.

And to see that break between them is sometimes artificial, and we have to be aware of the linkages between the two. The Second World War is a great example that the suffering of Europeans does not end in May of 1945 by any means. As refugee flows, expulsions from the East continue, the borders are yet to be settled and they will be redrawn in ways that will affect millions of people and then there will be 45 years of occupation and division which is a direct result of the Second World War, that will keep half of the continent in a kind of prison or at least a kind of a political limbo. So the Second World War doesn’t end in any meaningful sense in the summer of 1945.