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Collection Guide: Displaced Person Camps

Group portraits (YIVO RG 294.5, Folder 17).

History of Displaced Persons after WWII

DP camps provided care to thousands of former inmates of Nazi concentration camps and forced labor units. Camp residents also included Holocaust survivors who did not wish to return to their country of origin such as Polish Jews who fled Poland after the pogrom in Kielce in 1946. The camps, which existed from 1945 until 1953, provided temporary shelter, health, cultural, educational and financial programs, and immigration services. They were administered by the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration). In 1947 the International Refugee Organization (IRO) took over the task of caring for the DPs and assisting them with the emigration process. The primary financial support for the camps came from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC), universally known as "the Joint." Other Jewish international organizations, such as ORT (Organization for Rehabilitation through Training), the Jewish Agency and the World Jewish Congress also assisted the refugees. 


After the liberation of Vienna in April 1945, there were 17,000 Jews in the city, most of whom were Hungarian. Between 1945 and 1952, their numbers were augmented by other Jewish displaced persons, whose needs were met by the displaced persons (DP) camps administered by the U.S. Army, Central Committee of Liberated Jews, United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA), and later the International Refugee Organization (IRO).

Austria and Vienna were divided into American, British, French, and Russian zones. Vienna had an international sector as well. As elsewhere in liberated Europe, Jewish refugees gravitated towards the U.S. Zone, regarding it as a more desirable haven than the territories of the other occupation forces. A transient population, the Jewish DPs looked towards the American Army for services and protection, rather than towards the Austrian government.

Until 1948, when the occupation forces turned over camp administration to the PCIRO, the international agency that filled the gap between the demise of the UNRRA in 1947 and the resumption of aid by the IRO in 1948, the Jewish DP camps in Austria operated largely under the aegis of the U.S. military. The Austrian DP camps were also administered by the Central Committee of Liberated Jews. Affiliated with the World Jewish Congress, the Central Committee had its headquarters in Salzburg, and by 1948, represented approximately 25,000 Jewish DPs concentrated in twelve camps in Salzburg, Linz, Ebelsberg, Saafelden, Puch, Hallein, Wegscheid, Wels and Enns. Consisting of a secretariat and ten departments (Economic, Cultural, Educational, Financial, Emigration, Religious, Medical, Social Welfare, and Political and Legal, which included Press and Information), the Central Committee also published the most widely-read periodical in the U.S. Zone, the Bulletin.

From the start, the Jewish DPs in Austria, and the agencies that provided for their needs, were beset with challenges and problems. There were constant wrangles between the camp administrators and the Austrian authorities over facilities which the government sought to requisition for needy Austrians. There were also recurrent tensions with the local Austrians.1 The resources of the DP camps themselves, intended only as short-term housing, were continually strained as famine and anti-Jewish persecution in Poland, Romania, and Hungary caused new influxes of Jewish refugees to pour into Austria’s U.S. Zone. One of the challenges facing many DPs was the lack of identity documents that would allow them to emigrate. The DP camps took on the responsibility for producing and certifying documents attesting to DPs' identities, marriages, and births. By the end of May 1946, there were 15,000 Jewish DPs in Austria, many of whom had fled Hungary and Romania, and then had been allowed by the Soviets to cross the Russian Zone to reach the American sector in Vienna. Most of these were temporarily placed in assembly centers, rather than regular DP camps, and soon sent on to longer-term accommodations in the American zones in Austria and Germany. When pogroms in Kielce and other cities in Poland in the summer of 1946 caused a rise in the number of refugees, the commander of the U.S. forces in Austria raised the quota of Jewish DPs in the U.S. Zone from 5,000 to 30,000.

The U.S. “Freeze Order” of April 21, 1947 left the frontiers open, but prevented DPs who entered the U.S. zones after that from receiving assistance from the Army or the IRO. Hit particularly hard were 19,434 Romanian Jews who had fled Russian-annexed Bukovina and Bessarabia to enter the U.S. Zone in Vienna. Bound for Israel, some of the Romanian DPs passed quickly through to Vienna to DP camps in Germany. Others were provided for in Austrian U.S. Zone camps. The burden for their care fell entirely upon the shoulders of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, until August 17, 1947, when the Austrian government took over the task of provided them with the basic food ration. By the end of 1947, there were 20,133 Jewish DPs in the U.S. Zone in Austria.

The AJDC also instituted work projects, medical program, and a school systems in the camps. By 1947, there were thirty AJDC elementary schools, and a kindergarten in every Jewish DP camp. The language of instruction was Hebrew, and the educational focus was on Israel. The AJDC also aided 250 Jewish DPs who attended university in the U.S. zone, and served, along with the Jewish Agency, and the Central Committee of Liberated Jews on the Board of Education and Culture for Jewish DPs in Austria. There were also, by mid-1948, thirteen ORT vocational schools in existence in Austria. By October 1947, 2,644 Jewish DPs were employed in AJDC sewing shops, carpentries, bakeries, or as locksmiths, shoemakers, and electricians. A certain number of Jewish DPs were also employed as physicians, schoolteachers, and policemen in camps.

By 1949, stricter border controls in Romania and Hungary resulted in a reduction of the flow of immigrants into the U.S. Zone in Austria. Emigration, mainly to Israel, had also played a role in reducing the number of Jewish DPs there. By mid-year, there were only seven Jewish DP camps in Austria. The number of camps had dropped to six by June 1950. 1950 marked the end of a number of DP activities and institutions in the U.S. Zone. All DP Zionist parties ceased to function, and the number of ORT schools was reduced to three. The Office of the Advisor on Jewish Affairs to the U.S. Military was discontinued on January 30, and the Central Committee of Liberated Jews resolved to cease its activities on October 1, 1950. By mid-1952, only three DP camps were left in Austria. These three camps in Vienna, Salzburg and Linz contained the remaining difficult cases ineligible for emigration because of medical infirmities and lack of skills. At the beginning of 1952, the IRO began to wind down its aid activities, and until their closing, the few remaining camps were supported by the Austrian government with supplementary aid from the AJDC.


The displaced persons camps and centers in Germany came into existence in 1945 as a result of the liberation of masses of inmates from the Nazi concentration camps and forced labor units. The term "Displaced Person" (and its acronym "DP") was used by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and by the Allied military commands to describe those driven by the Nazis from their native countries into Germany and Austria. Of the nearly 6,000,000 DPs who at the end of the war were found in Central Europe, there were only about 50,000 Jewish survivors. But while most of the DPs were being repatriated at a rapid pace, the Jewish survivors from Eastern Europe did not want to return to their countries of origin and demanded that they be allowed to emigrate to Palestine. A report to President Truman by his special envoy Earl G. Harrison submitted on August 1, 1945 supported the assertion that the Jewish DPs were non-repatriable, that they should be considered as Jews rather than nationals of their native countries and that 100,000 immigration certificates to Palestine should be provided for them through the Jewish Agency. These recommendations were accepted by the military government in the American zone where there was the highest concentration of Jewish DPs and as a result, separate camps and centers were set up by UNRRA for the Jews (although the first Jewish DP camp, in Feldafing, was organized prior to the Harrison report).

At the same time the Jewish DP population began to grow quickly as a result of the flight of Jewish survivors from Poland which continued through 1946 and became especially intensive after the pogrom in Kielce (July 4, 1946). Also, in the spring of 1947 some 20,000 Rumanian Jews took refuge in Austria and Germany. This infiltration of refugees from Eastern Europe brought the total number of Jewish DPs to 184,000 in February of 1947.

The American authorities recognized the need to receive the refugees and establish for them a "temporary haven" in the American zone. This policy was in force until April 12, 1947 when any further infiltration by the refugees into the American zone was barred by the military. The British zone was closed off to the refugees much earlier, on December 5, 1945.

The establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, aided by the introduction in the U.S. of the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, brought about the solution to the DP problem. By 1951 a great majority of Jewish DPs had emigrated to Israel and to the U.S. The last of the DP camps was closed in 1953.

Faced with the post-war chaos and uncertain of their future, the Jewish DPs began organizing themselves soon after the liberation. The very first meetings of the representatives of Jewish survivors in the American zone were held as early as June 24, 1945 at the Flak-Kaserne in Munich and on June 1, 1945 in the Feldafing camp. Instrumental in organizing these meetings were Abraham Klausner, a chaplain of the U.S. Army, and the members of the Jewish Brigade who arrived from Italy for the express purpose of contacting survivors. These initial contacts led to the conference in St. Ottilien which opened on July 25 with the participation of 94 delegates from all over Germany. The conference elected the Central Committee of the Liberated Jews in Bavaria, but it did not succeed in establishing one representation for all survivors in Germany. Separate committees of survivors were organized in the British and French zones.

On January 27, 1946 the first Congress of Shearit-Ha-Pleita was opened in Munich. The Congress elected a new Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the American zone of Germany.

In the following years two more congresses of the survivors were held. The second congress took place in Bad Reichenhall on February 25, 1947. The third congress, again in Bad Reichenhall convened on March 30, 1948. Each congress elected a new Central Committee and a Council. The task of the Council was that of determining policy directions. The Central Committee was headed by the chairman, the vice-chairman, and the general secretary. These functionaries, along with four other Central Committee members comprised the Presidium. This group was in charge of all daily operations of the Central Committee. The first chairman of the Central Committee was Zvi Grinberg. Upon his departure for Israel in 1946, David Treger took over the post and remained at it until 1949. Pesakh Piekatch was the last chairman presiding over the period of dissolution of the DP camps and liquidation of the Central Committee. Among other members of the Central Committee were: Jacob Olejski, Abram Blumovitch, Boris Pliskin, J. Ratner, H. Eife, Avram Melamed, M. Chwoinik, C. Fefer, S. Schlamovitch, Rabbi Samuel A. Snieg, Sultanek. The first chairman of the Council was Dr. Samuel Gringauz; he was replaced in 1947 by R. Rubenstein. 


In May 1945, around 10 million refugees inside the borders of Germany, Austria and Italy relied on the Allied Forces for their immediate needs and for assistance in resettlement. At the end of the summer, the 1.5 million refugees who refused to return to their home countries were defined as “Displaced Persons," a term coined by the Russian sociologist Eugene M. Kulisher. Among them there were around 53,000 Jews, mainly survivors of concentration camps. This first group grew larger as refugees escaped from new outbursts of anti-Semitic violence in Poland. By 1947, the Jewish DPs in Germany, Austria and Italy numbered 250,000.

Between 1945 and 1950, around 40,000 Jewish Displaced Persons passed through the Italian peninsula. The precise number is difficult to estimate due to continuous new arrivals and departures, as Italy developed into a major assembly center for refugee emigration (both legal and clandestine) to Palestine.

The majority of refugees entered Italy from the North-East border through the mountain passes (mainly the Brenner pass), where they arrived with the help of the clandestine network Brikhah that connected Eastern Europe to the DP camps in Germany and Italy. The clandestine departures for Palestine were then organized by the Italian section of Mossad le Aliyah Bet. Between 1945 and May 1948, of the 56 boats that brought Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine, 34 sailed from Italian shores. The Italian authorities tacitly approved the flow of refugees; they never openly supported the clandestine emigration of Jewish refugees, but, at the same time, they never implemented a strict opposition to it, relieved by the fact that the refugees did not intend to remain permanently in Italy.

The main refugee resettlement center was located in Via Unione in Milan. This center was created with the support of Raffaele Cantoni, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, and it functioned from 1945 to 1947. From Via Unione, refugees were redirected to the various DP camps in Italy (including Casere, Merano, Pontebba, Chiari, Cremona, Milano, Grugliasco, Rivoli, Genova, Bologna, Modena, Reggio Emilia, Fermo, Jesi, Senigallia, Cinecitta’, Bagnoli, Bari, Barletta, Palese, Santa Cesarea, Santa Maria al Bagno, Santa Maria di Leuca, Tricase, and Trani). There were both “mixed camps”, where Jewish DPs cohabited with refugees from various nationalities, and separate Jewish camps. Many refugees also lived in kibbutzim and hakhsharoth, of which there were more than 60 in Italy. Approximately 5,000 refugees were labeled as “out of camps DPs” and lived in private homes in the main cities. In addition, a few children’s homes were created for orphans, the most well-known being Selvino.

As in Germany and Austria, the Italian DP camps were administered by the UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration). In 1947 the International Refugee Organization (IRO) took over the task of caring for the DPs and assisting them with the emigration process. The primary financial support for the camps came from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC), universally known as "the Joint." Other Jewish international organizations, such as ORT (Organization for Rehabilitation through Training), the Jewish Agency and the World Jewish Congress, also assisted the refugees.

The Jewish DPs remained in the camps up to five years. In this transitional location, the refugees managed to organize themselves into an active community. Every camp had its own schools, library, radio station, theatre groups and sport teams; newspapers were published in Yiddish and Hebrew and political parties and meetings were organized.

The First Conference of Jewish refugees in Italy took place in Ostia (Rome) between 26 and 28 November 1945. On this occasion, the Organization of Jewish Refugees in Italy (OJRI) received official recognition. 150 delegates from all the DP camps elected a Central Committee, which was headquartered in Rome. Four regional committees were created in Milan, Florence, Rome and Bari. The Central Committee was divided into seven specialized departments (Culture, Art, Religious Affairs, Statistics and Information, Health, Productivity, Supply). The Lithuanian lawyer and Poale Zion activist Leo Garfunkel became the President of OJRI and Leon Bernshteyn its Secretary. Besides providing a structure and administrative supervision for the camps in Italy, OJRI also aimed at enriching the cultural life of refugees, organizing schools for children and professional training for adults. Moreover, OJRI functioned as a mediator between UNRRA and the refugees supporting their claims for emigration and resettlement in Palestine.

Elyezer Yerushalmi, who had been the director of the folkshul in the Shavler ghetto and later a partisan, became director of the Cultural Department. The first urgent issue he addressed was education. Schools and kindergarten were opened in every camp and in many kibbutzim. Seminars for teachers were organized about Hebrew language, Jewish history, the bible and geography of Palestine. Adults could participate in professional training workshops organized by ORT, which started to operate in Italy in 1946; different projects were instituted, including sewing, carpentry, blacksmith, electrician training, typewriting and fishing. Other DPs found employment in the administration of the camps or with IRO, AJDC and other agencies.

Refugees actively participated in theatre groups. Some of these groups (like the Ufboy group in Santa Maria di Bagni, or the group organized in Milan by Yonas Turkov) went on tour in the various camps in Italy. In November 1945, an Artistic Ensemble (Kinstlerisher Kolectiv) was created under the direction of the poet Menakhem Riger. The Ensemble performed in many concerts and other shows all over Italy. In March 1946, the Union of Jewish Writers, Journalists and Artists (Fareyn fun yidishe literatn, zhurnalistn un kinstler in Italye) was established; it organized frequent literary and artistic evenings and a literary contest, which took place in summer 1946.

From August 1945 to February 1949, the Central Committee published its official weekly (and later biweekly) newspaper, Baderekh, which was distributed in every camp and kibbutz. The various political parties and groups also published their own newspapers, bulletins and brochures. A few DP camps (like Rivoli and Santa Maraia di Bagni) had their own newspapers as well. The Union of Jewish Writers, Journalists and Artists published a monthly literary periodical, In gang: khoydesh-zhurnal far literature un kunst, from March 1947 to February 1949. The vast majority of the newspapers were written in Yiddish, with some in Hebrew and a few in Polish and Hungarian.

By the end of 1948, a year in which 20,000 Jews left Italy for Israel, the DP era in Italy was drawing to a close. Only seven Jewish DP camps were still open, and only approximately 5,580 Jewish DPs still remained in Italy. Because many of the leaders of the refugees’ organizations had already emigrated to Israel, the Central Committee of OJRI was renewed and Leon Bernshteyn was appointed the new President. In 1948 IRO and the Italian government requested that the refugees be moved from the Northern camps to the Southern one.1949 saw the number of camps drop to five. By June 1950, there was only one camp left in operation and the DPs numbered 2,177. Only one newspaper, Tsum Tsig, was still being published, and most DP organizations, including the Union of Jewish Writers, Journalists and Artists, Hechalutz, and all the Zionist parties were no longer in existence. The Central Committee of OJRI ceased activity on October 1, 1950. This resolution marked the end of Jewish DP organizational life in Italy.