As a veteran, I would like to take this day as an opportunity to remember that one of the worst things about a war is the suffering that continues after its end. In the stereotypical versions of the end of World War Two in Europe one sees in America and Britain, the symbol of V-E Day was the great joyous crowd doing the Lambeth Walk in Piccadilly Circus. But on the Continent, the end of the war merely opened a time of displacement, disruption, and slow, painful reconstruction.
Four fine neglected books, all written by women, remind us of one of the greatest tragedies to follow the war in Europe — namely, the plight of the millions of prisoners, forced laborers, and refugees who were displaced from their homes and stranded in foreign countries, often without the means to return.
- • Aftermath, by Francesca M. Wilson (1948)
- Wilson, an English academic who had already worked with refugees from the First World War, Russia, and the Spanish Civil War, joined the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in early 1945, and was one of its first staff members to arrive in Germany to begin to deal with the enormity of the problem created with the liberation of concentration camps by the Allies. The first DP (Displaced Persons) camp she worked at was Feldafing in Bavaria, which the U.S. Army set up to house a trainload of Hungarian Jews one of its units found near Mühldorf , a satellite camp of Dachau. In these early days, those organizing relief quickly realized that they were dealing with people who had been subjected to a dehumanization more extreme than anything that even an experienced worker like Wilson had ever experienced:
They had the furtive look and gestures of hunted animals. By years of brutal treatment, by the murder of relatives, by the constant fear of death, all that was human had been taken away from them. We went into the dormitories where they were eating — the collected their food from the kitchen and brought it back to devour in relative privacy: nothing would persuade them to eat in communal dining-rooms. I noticed a man who was trying to eat but was too weak to finish his food. Three boys were staring at his plate. I had once seen the same look of burning yet cautious intentness on the Russian steppes. When the sick man pushed his plate away a thin arm shot out and seized the lump of meat left on it. The lad who had secured it slid out of the room, like a starving dog with a bone.
Despite the challenges of woefully inadequate supplies and staff, an oncoming winter, and a population devastated by malnutrition, disease, and depression, UNRRA and other relief organizations gradually established some degree of sanitation and comfort in the camps. But none of them was quite prepared to delete with the special challenge presented by the former residents of lands now incorporated into the Soviet Union. And their responses were not always something to be proud of:
They are now in exile because they do not wish to become Soviet citizens. Only they can decide about this. Soviet citizenship should be accepted voluntarily, and the policy not to compel their return is a right one: but the policy of leaving them to rot in DP camps is utterly wrong. Poland will not accept her former Ukrainian citizens — those who tried to go back there were turned back from her frontiers. Military authorities in Austria were trying last September to make a temporary solution. They reduced their rations, which had been kept to the 2,000 calorie level, to the 1,200 of the surrounding population, saying at the same time that all those who were physically able must pay for their board and lodging in the camps…. But unless these uprooted peoples are to be permanently absorbed in the German or Austrian economy — and this neither they nor their hosts desire — this is only a temporary solution. When all have gone home who will or can, there will still be three-quarters of a million irrepatriable DPs….
- • The Wild Place, by Kathryn Hulme (1952)
- In 1945, Kathryn Hulme arrived as UNRRA director of the Wildflecken DP camp in northern Bavaria. Like Wilson, she encountered a desperate situation and struggled in the first months to establish conditions fit for the people in the camp. Her first impressions, she wrote “entered with such sharp shock that never again would I be able to look on a refugee mass, even in pictures, and see it collectively, see it as a homogeneous stream of unfortunate humanity that could be handled with the impersonal science of the engineer who does not even think of the drops of water when he is controlling the flood.” At Wildflecken, she also met Marie Louise Habets, a Belgian nurse and former nun. The two became close friends and were to remain together as companions when they left the camp. Hulme would later fictionalize Habets’ experiences as a nun in the 1958 best-seller, The Nun’s Story. The Wild Place won the Atlantic Monthly award as best non-fiction book of 1953. Although not rare (AddAll.com lists over 50 copies for sale), it’s become something of a collector’s item, with prices starting at $35 and running to over $400 a copy.
- • The Walls Came Tumbling Down, by Henriette Roosenburg (1956)
- Roosenburg was a young Dutch woman imprisoned in 1944 by the Nazis as a Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) inmate for her activities as a member of the Dutch Resistance organization. When the war ended, she and four other Dutch women were inmates of a prison near Waldheim in Saxony, in the Russian zone of occupation. Because one of the women was too ill to walk, they were left behind in the initial evacuation, and after turning their friend over for medical care, they had to work their way back over four hundred miles of territory that was still in chaos. It required an extraordinary amount of strength, ingenuity, and persuasiveness, and reading The Walls Came Tumbling Down serves as another illustration of the fact that a group of women is usually ten times smarter, better organized, and more practical than any equivalent group of men. Roosenburg, who worked as a journalist after the war, first wrote about these experiences in a four-part series in The New Yorker titled, “Annals of Liberation — The Journey Home.”
- • The Children, by Charity Blackstock (1966)
- The Children was the only book of non-fiction published by Ursula Torday under the pen-name of Charity Blackstock that she used mostly for murder mysteries and light thrillers. In it, she recounted her five years’ work as director of a scheme organized by an association of British Jews organized to help locate and reunite family members who had survived the Holocaust. The scheme involved arranging for displaced Jewish children being kept in group homes in France to be placed — only temporarily at first — with Jewish families in England. The Children provides a vivid demonstration of the paradoxes of memory: how quickly people in France and England could forget their own troubles during the war and grow callous to the plight of children orphaned and displaced in its wake; and how long these children remained scarred and disturbed by their experiences. Even for herself, Torday admits, “This business of going back is dangerous: by doing it one virtually stands still, and tomorrow is surely more interesting than today.” And she is able, writing nearly fifteen years later, to recognize that for the children, “The Scheme, the families, the Homes, are all part of a black and stinking past, to be remembered by all of us, but to be forgotten as far as it is possible by them. Even I myself, even the best of hostesses, must be unwilling reminders of a time when they were dependent on charity, deprived children, pathetic victims.”