An Enormous Problem and an Enormous Response


Red Cross cookstove similar to those used in post-World War II refugee camps to prepare food for thousands of refugees

It is useful to remember the sheer scale of the refugee problem in postwar Europe. While the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina each displaced over a million people from their homes, [1] the number of Eastern Europeans, of various nationalities, transported into Germany by the Nazis for forced labor during the war is conservatively estimated to be around 7.6 million.[2] These Eastern European DPs, liberated by the Allies at the end of World War II, would form the focus of the NCWC’s efforts, but this number does not take into account other mass movements of refugees during the war. One of the quotes at the beginning of this article, for example, describes how Russian civilians fled the Nazi army’s invasion of Russia during Operation Barbarossa. Later, at the end of the war, 7.5 million Germans would flee before the Soviet army’s advance into eastern Germany, as the Soviets, determined to exact blood-for-blood revenge, engaged in widespread rape and atrocities.  Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, best known for The Gulag Archipelago, described his wartime experiences as a Russian soldier in eastern Germany in the poem Prussian Nights:

 “And now in various covered wagons

Lumbering on with squeaks and groans

Come disoriented Germans, Somewhere northward intercepted

By our terrible advance


And their blood runs ever colder

At the might out of the East.

The will to defend themselves is lost:

They hide their faces down in their shoulder.”[3]

The overall situation that faced the Allies after the war was a continent in ruins, flooded with an ocean of suffering humanity. Pope Pius XII addressed this massive and urgent problem in a radio address on April 4, 1946:

We speed a cry of appeal today . . . to all who are able to rise above conflicting opinions to impose silence on the rancor begotten by the war, and have left their minds and hearts open to the holy voice of human brotherhood. . . . As the experts bend over their statistics and the columns of figures slowly lengthen out under their eyes, they see forced on them the insistent and bitter certainty that the sinister shadow of famine rests on at least a quarter of the entire population of the globe. . . . The human race is threatened by famine. And famine, itself, is the cause of incalculable unrest in the midst of which the future peace, yet only in germ, would run the risk of being suffocated before being born. And yet how necessary is peace for every people of this earth. . . .[4]

 Pius XII does not make Catholic doctrine the center of his appeal, but rather the “holy voice of human brotherhood.” He also appeals to people’s self-interest and sense of self-preservation, warning that unchecked famine could overwhelm the fragile peace and lead to yet another world conflict.



Nobel Prize-winning Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who served as a Russian army officer during World War II and wrote about his experiences while invading Germany. Original photo by Evstafiev via the Wikimedia Commons,

Immediately after the end of the fighting, most of the aid to displaced persons was geared towards relief, not resettlement, since the immediate task was ensuring that people not starve in Europe.  War Relief Services-NCWC was one of 125 private charitable organizations that donated food, supplies, and money to the relief effort. In fact, only the United Palestine Appeal and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee exceeded the NCWC in funds disbursed for foreign war relief in 1945.[5] As well as food and clothing, the NCWC sent “morale goods”—inspirational or entertaining literature—to the refugee camps of Europe. While some of the spiritual literature they sent was specifically intended for Catholics, the remainder of the goods were “presented for the use of all people without regard to creed, color, nationality, or political belief.” Between the spring of 1946 and October 1, 1946, the NCWC sent 1,678,054 pounds of various relief materials to displaced persons in the Western zones of Germany.[6]

These Catholic contributions supplemented the efforts of the UNRRA, which had stepped in to take over responsibility for the refugees from the Allied military forces. Although the UNRRA was composed of over 40 Allied nations, the United States, as one of the few countries of the world relatively unscathed by the war, financed a majority of its activities. Of the total budget of the UNRRA throughout its life, $3,660,948,000, the United States would contribute 73.5%, followed by Britain, which would contribute 16.7%.[7] At its peak, the UNRRA supervised around 10,000 trained employees of many nationalities, up to 45% of whom were women. In the US, UNRRA staff were prepped with a few weeks of training at a center in College Park, Maryland, although this did hardly anything to prepare them for the stories of suffering and sheer amount of work they would find in the refugee camps of Europe. Kathryn Hulme, an American UNRRA worker, was shocked and overwhelmed when she arrived at the enormous refugee camp Wildflecken in Germany, along with eleven colleagues. Rather than the two thousand Polish DPs the UNRRA workers had been expecting, the camp contained twenty thousand DPs! “They bake nine tons of bread a day in this camp,” one of Hulme’s co-workers confided to her in frightened tones.[8]

[2]Hitchcock, 250. 

[3]Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Prussian Nights: A Poem, trans. Robert Conquest (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977), 75-76.

[4]Pope Pius XII, “Radio Message”, Vatican City, April 4, 1946 (NCWC News Service Release), quoted in McMahon, 19.

[5]Hitchcock, 245. 

[6]McMahon, 26. 

[7]Proudfoot, European Refugees 1939-52, 293.

[8]Hulme, 8.