“People Displaced,” by Cynthia Nash
March 3, 1947
Some time before the armed conflict of the War of Liberation ended, a good deal of thought and planning was devoted to the problems connected with groups of non-Germans who would be, upon the fall of Germany, within the borders of the Reich and who would require care and repatriation to their own homelands. At an early point in this planning, the powers that be decreed that these persons of civilian status should be referred to not as “refugees,” but as “displaced persons,” shortened after the custom of our century to “D.P.” A quantity of written material was produced concerning these terms, these groups of people, and the varying psychologies involved; some small part of this literature, largely intra-mural within the Army, UNRRA, and private relief agencies, was sound and informative; the greater part was wordy and involved the multiple restatement of facts and generalizations apparent to anyone who had observed the small daily society in which he himself was living.
The idea of displacement is nothing new, for example to the teacher or psychiatrist dealing with a child from a broken home, albeit that displacement on an international scale becomes entangled with nationality status, national pride, and national aims. At bottom it coincides with the problem of security which we are facing today, and looked at broadly it presents one phase of the question of a stable society with which we are attempting to deal. From the psychologist’s viewpoint, Germany today would make a superb laboratory for the production of new theories and tests, the sum total of which might be the not very astounding conclusion that to remove human beings from their homes and, in the majority of instances, their families often results in the destruction of accepted social standards, an increase in social immorality, and a general decrease in initiative and the recognition of a purpose in existence.
The unnerving factor in the German situation today seems to me that such a large percentage of the population in the British and American Zones has, in one form or another, undergone such displacement. There are always groups and individuals in any society suffering from this ailment—the Dust Bowl farmers of our own country, the victims of economic instability at any time. The numbers of such people in Germany just now are unusually high. The reasons for their geographical and environmental displacement are varied, but they are all suffering from the same disease.
The only communities which are openly called “displaced” are the several hundred thousand Jews, Poles, Balts, and Ukrainians, who were induced by force or other means to enter Germany during the war to provide additional labor for the German war effort. Considerable pressure, most of it unskillfully applied, has been brought to bear upon these groups that they might return to their own homes. A few may, even in the future, do so, but there is little doubt that a great many will remain. Of this remnant, some have been, are now being, and will be declared ineligible, by reason of their past activities, for assistance as displaced persons. They will, presumably, become part of the German community and will, to a large extent, lose the psychology of the D.P. The groups who have a genuine claim to persecution, such as the Jews, or who refuse to accept the changes brought about in their former homelands, such as the Poles and Balts, will retain the characteristics of the displaced person until they are given the opportunity to become part of a larger group with another status.
These national groups differ among themselves. The standard comment of the relief workers is that the Balts are industrious and cooperative, the Poles lazy and truculent, and the Jews and Ukrainians more difficult to work with than either of the others. The truth of the matter goes far deeper, in that all these people are living in an artificial pattern, and that each of them, allowing for the differences in his education and previous mode of life, is reacting as would be expected. The astonishing thing about the whole tragic situation is the number among them who retain poise, integrity, and the desire to live constructively. They live, for the most part, in buildings which were once military barracks or labor camps. They are an excrescence and a parasite, existing as they do within German society yet not a part of it. In the months immediately following the entrance of the Allied armies, they were wined and dined and urged to sit in the sun; now, a year and a half later, the term “D.P.” is used by most of the military with the same inflection that “Ausländer” has always been spoken by the German. They get no more to eat than the German population, and they are requested, with a hint of threat, to go out and work, often under German supervision. It is not to be wondered at, it seems to me, that the rate of demoralization is high, but rather that it, and the suicide rate, are not higher.
We in America are worried about the reorientation which our young men and women must accomplish in this difficult post-war period and attach small blame to those who cannot make the change. How much more respect then we should have for people like the young Estonian widow whose husband, impressed into the German army, fell on the Russian front, who saw her fifteen-year-old brother taken from home by the Soviet authorities, who dares not write to her relatives still in Estonia, who sees her father and mother, educated, intelligent school-teachers, eking out a wretched existence in a sordid environment, and who yet concerns herself strenuously with the welfare of her camp and its people. How much indulgence can we spare some of our young parents if we are prepared to criticize the Polish parents struggling to raise their three children with dignity, honesty, and grace in a community whose potentialities for crime and immorality are far greater than any city slum?
One of the greatest handicaps under which this group of displaced persons suffers is the tendency of those who work with them and talk and write about them to think of them in the mass. They think of themselves in terms of their total lives, remembering the house which was once owned, the street or village where once they were individuals, and they regard this abortive camp existence as a phase which will pass, since few human beings are prepared to think of themselves permanently as one of a homogeneous crowd. The longer these people live this standardized existence, the longer it remains impossible for them to pursue their normal occupations, the more difficult it becomes for the relief worker, for the military, and for the outside world, when it gives the matter any thought, to retain any but a generalized impression of the whole. And naturally, as time passes under such conditions, the individuality does become in fact repressed, apathetic, indifferent, and sees itself only as part of a pattern repeated over and over again.
During the last months of my work in Germany, I helped with the establishment and operation of a center to provide training for D.P.s along welfare lines. Our original intention was to supply aides for the over-burdened welfare workers in the camps, but the courses developed into a combination welfare training-political discussion-personality booster period. We could do comparatively little along any of these lines, for we were short of time and materials, but the groups were small and our interest in them genuine, and we succeeded in one thing at least, in letting our “students” realize that we were concerned about them personally. The reaction was one of friendliness and gratitude; over and over again, members of the courses would say to us upon their departure, “This is the first time in three (or four or five or six) years that I have been treated like a human being.” This type of action on the part of the relief worker is a palliative, however, and not a cure. There is, disguise it as one will, nothing that can solve the problem of these people outside of repatriation, absorption into the German community, or emigration. To date, the Western Allies have refused, and I think rightly, to sanction compulsory repatriation, and the new regimes in the East are by no means eager for the return of some of these people. The Germans do not want to add these groups to an already over-strained economy, nor, for the most part, have the D.P.s themselves any desire to become citizens of the nation which is most directly responsible for their present position.
The remaining possibility, that of emigration, is that which naturally appeals to the greatest number of the displaced. It will be, I expect, a shock to some Americans and a relief to many to know that the United States is no longer the Mecca of the refugee, at least as I knew these latest in an age-old line. The British Dominions and the strong South American nations, such as Brazil, occupy an equal, if not a dominating position in the minds of those who feel they must begin life anew and who have gathered by some telepathy across three thousand miles of land and water that the bulk of the American people is averse to a further influx of foreign nationals.
The difficulties of removing these groups to other healthier climates are naturally tremendous. Nevertheless, it is a job which can and must be done, not only for its worth as human salvage, but also because, while these people remain as they are, they constitute a drain on the sorely taxed resources of Germany, a problem which cannot be correlated with any other faced by the occupying powers, and an unhealed wound, a danger spot, in the center of Europe. The nations, quest for peace, and the cry goes up that the problems are so complex that the answers are beyond our grasp or even comprehension. Here, it seems to me, is one which, by comparison with others, is simple in its scope and obvious in its solution. I should add that the Jewish group must be partially excepted from this simplicity of outline, involved as it is with the Palestine question and suffering as it does from a very special set of pressures.
In the other two sections of Germany’s population afflicted by the malady of displacement, in a less clear-cut way, are large numbers of the Germans themselves and the occupational forces. They have less to endure for obvious reasons: the civilians are, though often far from their former homes, still in their own land among fellow-countrymen; and the military have a favored station in the community and no problems where the maintenance of daily life is concerned.
Nevertheless, there are today several millions of Germans, formerly resident in Czechoslovakia or the border-country between Poland and the Reich, who feel themselves strangers in their own country. The native population of western Germany tends to regard them also in the mass, “Flüchtlinge” as opposed to themselves, and in the small villages through which they have been scattered, they are not always welcome. The housing shortage has created neighbors who would previously have lived very different kinds of lives. If one can picture a combination of the crisis in American war-industries centers and the problems created by the evacuation of Britain’s large cities during the war and add to it the fact that literally not one important town in western Germany remains intact—one can begin to visualize the upheaval which is still shaking Germany today. Schools are overcrowded, churches serve double congregations. Many of the older people, those who were already middle-aged at the time of Hitler’s installation, shake their heads over the behavior of the youth; they and officials of military government make efforts to counteract the effects of mass migration added to war. Oddly enough, the difficulties of maintaining daily life, incomprehensible to anyone who has not seen some part of the aftermath in Europe, seem to act in a negative way as an allaying factor to a violent break in morale. It is simply a question of time. When the procurement or the earning of the sheer necessities of existence takes most of one’s waking hours, and when the margin is so slim that one must conserve all energy for these two tasks, there is little opportunity left for active viciousness. The more universal symptoms are the same dearth of vitality and initiative which one can observe among the D.P. population proper.
The effects of this domestic reshuffling are, at the moment, far less clear than those which have declared themselves among foreign groups in Germany and are probably more far-reaching. It seems safe to say that there is no other continental country today which contains so many citizens on home soil who are, to put it crudely, homesick. The people who have undergone this displacement express their feelings by speaking of the material things they have lost; but the seventeen-year-old secretary who shows you photographs of her home in Czechoslovakia, the musician struggling to create a new order in his musical world, the cleaning woman who hates Hannover and longs for the Silesian countryside—these people are experiencing more than the mere aftermath of war. They are part of an uprooting which may have significant results in German politics and German life.
Compared with the less easily definable insecurities of this section of the civilian population, the malaise which has attacked the occupying forces of England and more especially of America is diagnostically a simple problem. The reaction seems to be in direct relation to the distance from home; that is to say that I sensed far less irritability and dissatisfaction among British troops than among American, and the general morale, since one does unquestionably build up an impression of such things, however unjust, seemed better to me in the British Zone. The fact that England is three days distant from Germany by mail and thirty-six hours by train and boat has unquestionably much to do with the greater serenity and less open misbehavior of British troops. It is also well to remember that Britain has behind her a century-old experience of occupation upon which to draw, and the results show up in the greater adaptability of the English soldier. It is amusing to observe that the world-wide reputation of the English for creating a home away from home boils down in Germany to the feasibility of producing cups of tea at all hours of the day and night; whereas the Americans, equally famed for their curiosity and enthusiasm for the new and unknown, require the erection of a cafeteria before they begin to feel at ease. The most courteous, friendly, and cheerful American troops I encountered in Germany were those in the isolated community in Berlin, where every effort has been made to reproduce the atmosphere of a comfortable American suburb.
That many Americans suffer also from a sense of guilt when they compare their comfort and security with the position of both D.P.s and Germans is indisputable. But since the ordinary G.-I. cannot, and is not expected to, do anything about this difference, he reacts like most of us when faced with an unfamiliar and unpleasant situation: he withdraws into his own world, in this case that of the P-X and the Red Cross Club, and curses the United States Government for not sending him home. His excursions into the world beyond these limits are confined to his dealings on the black market and his search for feminine society. It would seem wise to accept and act upon the proposition recently advanced, that only a minimum occupational force should be maintained in Germany by the United States and that government should be in the hands of civilians with, one hopes, experience in administration and a genuine interest in the German community.
Though the disparities in living standards are tremendous, our soldiers in Germany are a group presenting uncomfortable parallels to the genuine D.P. Both have been removed, by force of circumstance, from their native lands to a foreign country whose language is not theirs; both are assured of shelter and food for which their labor is minimum; both are living outside the main current of German life; and both long for their return to a place which they can call home and the day when they can recommence their ordinary lives. For most of the troops, like most of the D.P.s, removal from Germany is the only permanent solution to their restlessness there; and, again alike, they must be ministered unto and helped over the worst hurdles by their priests and chaplains, by social workers, educational programs, and entertainment. The difference lies in the fact that a good many Americans will have to remain in Germany for years to come, whereas no such necessity exists for the D.P.s.
The resolution of Germany’s new population problem is inextricably bound up with the slow rearrangement and rebuilding of her economic and social life; the problem of the D.P. and the American-in-occupation can be tackled quite apart from the question of Germany’s future—the first by the generosity and common sense of the United Nations, the second by America’s recognition of the fact that occupation, even at the lower levels, is a job for people with a one-world outlook and mature judgment, not for nineteen-year-olds who are lost without the corner drugstore.
Cynthia Nash was associated with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) Headquarters in Washington, DC, in the Displaced Persons Division. From May 1945 until November 1946, she worked with the Displaced Persons in the British Zone of Germany, with brief visits to the American Zone.