After the Holocaust, survivors faced many struggles in displaced persons camps.
A beat-up, 75-year-old black-and-white photograph hangs over my desk at home. It shows a thin young man in a misshapen suit and a pretty young woman in a Bavarian dirndl outfit holding hands and gazing at each other.
It was taken in 1946 in the Landsberg Displaced Persons camp in Germany.
The couple are my parents, Berek Fiszlinski and Hanka Monczyk, newly freed from Hell.
Berek survived several concentration camps and was finally liberated at Auschwitz, a 70-pound shell of a man. Hanka worked for years in a slave labor factory with hundreds of other Jewish women, making uniforms for the Nazis.
Like thousands of survivors, they met and married at camps like Landsberg; and children, like me, followed quickly. In 1949 we came to the U.S. on a Liberty ship, eventually ending up in Detroit, where my parents built a life, changed their names to Ben and Ann Fisk, and had two more children.
My family is a tiny piece of the diaspora of displaced persons. Growing up, I thought I knew much of the dramatic story.
But a compelling, comprehensive new book, The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War (Penguin Press, 653 pages, $35) by historian David Nasaw, opened my eyes to a world my parents shielded from me.
Much of the saga of the DPs has been written about before by historians, novelists, Jewish organizations and survivors.
But for Jews of my Baby Boom generation, comfortably assimilated in Western nations and Israel, Nasaw’s story of antisemitism, suffering and often-miraculous survival and renewal may open many eyes.
After the Nazis
Last Million starts by exploring the human disaster that greeted the Allied armies with the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Millions whose lives had been upended — concentration and death camp survivors, prisoners of war, civilians enslaved to work in Hitler’s factories and foreigners who fought for the Nazis — went back to their homelands.
But, Nasaw writes, the Jews from Poland and other Eastern European countries who returned home found that their families had been slaughtered and their property often confiscated. Many were greeted by antisemitic pogroms.
The survivors longed to leave the horrors of Europe behind. Yet many of the horrors followed them to the DP camps set up in Germany, Austria and Italy by the Allied powers and United Nations agencies, Nasaw writes.
Initially, many of the camps were crowded and chaotic. The housing and food were poor with little health care for the often desperately ill survivors. Jews and non-Jews were thrown together in many camps — shockingly including former Nazis fleeing arrest by military authorities.
After protests by Jewish organizations, the camps were reorganized and non-Jews separated out, Nasaw writes. Living conditions improved. The Jews set up their own governing councils, schools, orchestras, synagogues, theaters, sports programs, hospitals, newspapers.
But life was hardly perfect, Nasaw makes clear. The black market and crime were rampant, and many Jews who suffered unspeakable trauma could not get adequate care in the new camps. They were still in lands that didn’t want them.
My Polish-born uncle, Irving Monczyk, told of encountering German children near his DP camp. They asked to see his head. “We heard Jews are all devils,” explained one child. “We want to see your horns.”
As they waited to start life elsewhere, especially in Palestine, the Jews desperately searched Red Cross survivor lists for family members. Many married and had children in the camps.
My only surviving aunt, Rose Fiszlinski, married a French POW she met while escaping from a Nazi death march.
Fred Ferber, now a Detroit businessman with many grandchildren, was in the Krakow ghetto in Poland when he was sent to a concentration camp at age 13.
Liberated in 1945, he searched fruitlessly for relatives who survived the Holocaust. In 1947, alone, he was sent to a San Francisco orphanage. In 1949 he was once again reunited with his mother, in Detroit, though 86 family members had perished.
Nasaw tells many heartbreaking personal stories, though much of his book is focused on the world political, social and legal issues that swirled around the DPs.
Survivors who sought to leave Europe quickly became political footballs, Nasaw writes.
The British, who controlled Palestine, severely restricted Jewish immigration to placate the Arab world. In the U.S., antisemitism at the highest levels of the government and Congress, spurred by the canard that Jews were communists, led to harsh laws excluding many survivors.
Despite the hurdles, some 140,000 Holocaust survivors left Europe for the U.S. between 1945 and the early 1950s. As many as 4,000 are believed to have settled in the Detroit area.
There is a second photo of my parents hanging above my desk. They are with a dozen friends at a dinner dance in Detroit in the 1960s. The partiers, all former DPs, are members of the social welfare group Shaarit Haplaytah, the “Remnant of 1945.”
The men are in fine suits, the women in fancy dresses. They are laughing, schmoozing — in a new land. Displaced, as Nasaw might say, no longer.
Alan Fisk is a novelist, journalist and former professor of journalism. He lives in
St. Clair Shores.