Relocation to the United States

DP Family Happily Disembarking at Ellis Island

A Displaced family happily disembarking from their ship at Ellis Island

After the immediate threat of famine had been staved off, the UN turned its attention to finding permanent homes for the refugees. They could not stay in West Germany, where many cities lay in ruins, and there was barely enough food for the native population. In fact, as Kathryn Hulme notes, the displaced persons were far better fed than most Germans, causing a great deal of envy: “Centered in a continent of hunger, Wildflecken rose up before German eyes like a magic mountain made of sugar and Spam, of margarine and jam. . . .The eyes of a people whose ration in February had been reduced to a daily eighteen hundred calories looked at their former slaves, who were getting twenty-three hundred calories.”[1] Hulme calls the DPs “former slaves” of the Germans because many of them, even children, had been forcibly transported into Germany from Eastern Europe during the war to work on German war materials in factories.

Neither could the DPs return to their countries of origin, since the small nations of Eastern Europe had fallen under Soviet control at the end of the war. If the predominantly Catholic DPs had repatriated, or returned to their home countries, they would have faced persecution for their religious beliefs there. Despite their relative freedom from material want, however, the DPs’ lack of permanent homes and fulfilling occupations was causing them to gradually lose morale. Their goal was not merely to survive, but to pursue their careers, occupations, and interests, and to generally be able to lead a well-rounded life as regular members of society. As the US bishops note in documents like the minutes of a 1951 meeting of the National Catholic Resettlement Council, it was important to relocate the DPs to real homes and less crowded conditions before their sense of self-worth was permanently eroded. In addition, the longer the US government and private organizations put off relocating the DPs, the more they would lose faith in the promises of democracy and be attracted to the Communist system. Many documents in this collection characterize the DPs as valuable allies of democracy, since they had chosen exile from their home countries over living under Communism, and note that it would be a shame to alienate such allies.

 

Bishop Edward E. Swanstrom

With the emblem of War Relief Services-NCWC on the wall behind him, Bishop Edward E. Swanstrom, Executive Director of Catholic Relief Services, seated at the desk, examines several Catholic diocesan newspapers. At right is Msgr. Joseph C. Whalen; at left is Msgr. Andrew P. Landi, director of CRS operations in Europe and the Middle East. Photo taken approx. 1960s, used courtesy of Catholic Relief Services.

The US government and American Catholics embarked on this mission with a cooperative spirit. The President’s Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid, formed July 10, 1946, accredited nine American agencies to carry out the actual work of finding homes, jobs, and friendly American communities for the DPs: Church World Service, Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society, International Rescue Committee, Mennonite Central Committee, National Lutheran Council, National American Federation of International Institutes, United Service for New Americans, United Ukrainian American Relief Committee, and the US bishops’ National Catholic Welfare Conference.[2] The NCWC and the other accredited agencies assured the US government not only that they would find good placements for DP families initially, but that they would continue to keep an eye on the DPs in their new homes. Much of the writing in these documents emphasizes the importance of DPs maintaining steady employment and being able to interact comfortably with American society. As a farewell gift to the DPs, to be handed to them when they first stepped from their ships onto American soil, the US government prepared an orientation packet and a welcome statement. The statement read, in part, “We hope that all of you will find happiness in your new home in the United States of America.”[3] For the Displaced Persons, who exchanged the cramped quarters and wire fences of the camps in Europe for the farms and quiet suburbs of America, it was a welcome end to a traumatizing chapter in their lives. Although they might miss the familiar villages, landmarks, and traditional culture of their homelands, they had resigned themselves to being separated from these comforts in order to avoid the restrictions of life under Communism. Yet, even as “the DP story” was drawing to an end, a new set of challenges awaited them in a Cold-War era American society.



[1]Hulme, 125. 

[2]Memo to America: The DP Story. The Final Report of the United States Displaced Persons Commission. (Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1952), 269.

[3]The DP Story, 204.

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