Some 6 million Jews — 2/3s of Europe’s Jewish population — were murdered by the Nazis and their allies and collaborators during World War II. In some countries, such as Poland and Lithuania, over 90 percent of the Jewish population was murdered in a span of just six short years. To this day, population-wise, Jews have not recovered from our pre-Holocaust numbers.
The Nazis and their allies established a network of over 44,000 death, transit, and concentration camps. At least 1.8 million Jews were gassed to death immediately upon arrival. The most notorious of these concentration camps is Auschwitz-Birkenau, where nearly one million Jews were murdered. Of the 1.3 million people deported to Auschwitz, 1.1 million were killed.
It’s worth noting that concentration camps were not limited to Nazi-occupied Europe but actually extended to North Africa. For example, some 2000 Algerian Jews were placed in concentration camps in Bedeau and Djelfa, sentenced to hard labor, working on a plan for a trans-Saharan railroad. Many died from hunger, disease, exhaustion, and beatings. Many North African Jews were also deported to concentration camps in Europe, such as Bergen-Belsen.
Something most people don’t know, however, is that, after the end of the Holocaust, Jews were simply left to die by the non-Jewish world. The allies held Jews, against their will, in detention camps and displaced persons camps under horrific conditions. The nightmare was far from over in 1945, and it was only due to the unbelievable perseverance of the Jewish People and the Jewish resistance that Jews were able to move forward with Jewish life.
Following the end of World War II, Europe experienced the largest refugee crisis in history up until that point in time.
Between 1945 and 1952, some 250,000 Jews (including my grandfather!) were held in refugee camps known as Displaced Persons camps, or DP camps for short. Some of these camps were just repurposed concentration camps. For example, the largest DP camp was Bergen-Belsen, which had previously been a Nazi concentration camp. In other words, many Holocaust survivors, having just survived the worst of humanity, were then held against their will in the place where they experienced this horrific trauma.
Visas to emigrate outside of Europe were nearly impossible to get. The United States discriminated severely against Jewish refugees, while permitting non-Jewish refugee immigration. In Mandatory Palestine, the British all but banned Jewish immigration, in accordance with the 1939 White Paper and at the behest of the Arab Higher Committee, the Palestinian Arab leadership in Mandatory Palestine. Jews who attempted to return to their old homes in Europe were often massacred by squatters.
Conditions in DP camps were terrible. Some main issues were the lack of professionally trained staff, as well as lack of medical supplies, food, and clothing. Disease spread quickly. As one representative for the US government stated: “As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them.”
Even so, Jews in DP camps tried their best to move on with life. They married. They had children. And they fought tooth and nail to emigrate to Palestine. In a poll of 19,000 Jewish DPs, 97 percent of them stated they wanted to go to Palestine. When asked for a second choice, many said “crematorium.”
The last DP camp closed in 1957, over a decade after the end of the war.
As stated in the previous slide, a large number of Jewish Holocaust survivors tried to emigrate to Palestine after the end of the war. Because the British had severely limited Jewish immigration quotas, many tried to reach Palestine via illegal means. The British detained most and held them in prisons and interment camps. The largest of the camps were located in Cyprus, which was a British colony at the time.
Between 1946 and 1949, some 53,510 Jews were held prisoner in these camps. The majority had arrived from the Balkans and Eastern Europe, though a small number of Moroccan Jews were imprisoned as well. 80 percent of the prisoners were between the ages of 13-35, and 6,000 of them were orphans. Some 2,000 Jewish children were born in the camps. In 1949, after Israel established its independence and the end of the 1947-1949 Arab-Israeli War, Israel evacuated the last 10,200 prisoners into Israel.
The conditions at the camps were atrocious. Jews had to face obstacles such as poor sanitation, overcrowding, lack of privacy, and a shortage of drinkable water. The American Joint Distribution Committee, which provided medical aid, extra food rations, and more, stated that the British treated Jewish refugees in Cyprus worse than they treated Nazi prisoners of war in adjacent camps.
Some 400 Jews died in the internment camps in Cyprus.
Atlit was a British concentration camp near Haifa (then Mandatory Palestine) used to hold Arab and Jews under administrative detention (i.e. without a trial) during the period of the British Mandate. It was built in the 1930s and was primarily used to imprison Jewish refugees who arrived in Palestine without the legal paperwork. Some 10,000 Jewish refugees were held there.
Men and women were separated upon arrival and sent to showers to be deloused with dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. Since many of the prisoners were Nazi concentration camp survivors, the showers were especially frightening and traumatic. Barbed wire formed a barrier between the men and women in the camp and the perimeter was surrounded by watchtowers eerily reminiscent of the Nazi camps. Children were separated from their parents.
In late 1945, the Haganah (the precursor to the IDF), under the leadership of future Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, broke into the camp and released 208 prisoners, escaping in the darkness of the night, many of them carrying babies on their backs. None of them were caught.
After Israel’s independence, the camp was used to hold Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian POWs from the 1948 and 1967 wars. The camp is now a museum.
Between the early 1940s and the 1970s, some 850,000 Jews were forcibly displaced from Arab and Muslim-majority countries. Thousands were murdered, tortured, arrested, and more. Their properties were seized and assets stolen. Now stateless, the majority of these refugees migrated to Israel.
Within a period of just 3 years (1948-1951), Israel had to absorb nearly a million Jewish refugees from Europe and Arab and Muslim-majority countries. This, coupled with the 1948 Arab invasion of the new Israeli state, had the country on the verge of economic collapse.
The rapid absorption of refugees resulted in a major housing crisis for the economically-fledgling nation. As such, by 1951, 250,000 refugees were housed in transit camps known as “ma’abarot.”
The conditions were abysmal. There were fly infestations and inadequate water supply, which resulted in disease. At first, the refugees were housed in tents, though later tin and wooden shacks were constructed. Infants were separated from their mothers and placed in children’s housing. Infant mortality rate was high. One Israeli politician described the conditions in the ma’abarot as a “holy horror.”
Inequality was also a problem. While 58 percent of Mizrahi refugees were placed in ma’abarot, only 18 percent of Ashkenazi refugees were. Ma’abarot with larger Ashkenazi populations were usually less dense and had better employment opportunities.
By the early 1950s, one out of every six Israelis lived in a refugee camp.
During and after World War II, the Soviet Union issued Order No. 270, which prohibited Soviet soldiers from surrendering. Under this law, Soviet POWs were accused of treason and “collaborating with the enemy.” Once released from Axis camps at the end of the war, Stalin put his own POWs through “filtration camps.” Around 233,400 Soviet POWs — many of them Jewish — were charged with treason and deported to gulags after the end of the war.
After Germany and the Soviet Union partitioned Poland in 1939, Stalin deported some 200,000 Jews to gulags in Siberia. Though these deportations were cruel, they coincidentally saved these Jews from a worse fate in the Holocaust. Of the 300,000 Polish Jews that survived the Holocaust, some 80 percent did so because they had been deported to a gulag.
In the early 1950s, Stalin planned a mass deportation of Jews to the Ural Mountains. Four large concentration camps had been built in Siberia prior to Stalin’s death in 1953. According to Nikolay Poliakov, the secretary of the “Deportation Commission,” the mass deportation of Jews was to start in February of 1953, though the Soviet state had not yet been able to compile lists of Jews. According to Poliakov, “pure-blooded” Jews would be deported first, followed by “half-breeds.”
Thankfully, because of Stalin’s sudden death in early 1953, no such plan ever came to fruition.
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