Washington, D.C. November 9, 1943

On this date in 1943 in Washington, D.C., U.S. President Frank­lin D. Roose­velt added his sig­na­ture to an agree­ment by repre­sen­ta­tives of 44 nations to estab­lish the United Nations Relief and Reha­bil­i­ta­tion Admin­is­tra­tion. UNRRA (pro­nounced un-ruh) was the first U.N. orga­ni­za­tion to be created, estab­lished 1½ years before the United Nations charter itself was agreed to by 50 member states on June 26, 1945.

UNRRA’s operations focused on three humani­ta­rian ser­vice areas on six con­ti­nents: (1) arranging and/­or dis­trib­uting relief sup­plies such as food, shelter, clothing, medi­cine, fuel, farm implements, and other basic neces­si­ties, (2) arranging and­/or pro­viding relief ser­vices through a cadre of trained staff to which all sig­na­tory nations con­trib­uted, and (3) aiding agri­cul­tural and eco­nomic reha­bil­it­ation. The U.S. govern­ment pro­vided nearly three-quar­ters of UNRRA’s funding, or $2.7 bil­lion. Over 125 non­govern­mental and pri­vate cha­ri­table aid societ­ies and civic and relig­ious orga­ni­za­tions assisted UNRRA’s staff of 12,000 peo­ple with dona­tions, auxil­iary person­nel, and a myriad of other social wel­fare ser­vices such as help locating rela­tives who had surviv­ed enemy work, con­cen­tra­tion, and death camps as well as pro­viding resettle­ment and repat­ri­a­tion assis­tance; increa­singly, the orga­ni­za­tions operated independently of UNRRA.

To facilitate their services UNRRA joined with Allied autho­r­ities to establ­ish and main­tain nearly 800 resettle­ment camps housing over 700,000 peo­ple (1947 figure) in Germany, Austria, Poland, Italy, Yugo­sla­via, Greece, and other strife-torn coun­tries, including four coun­tries in Asia. UNRRA camps dis­trib­uted food­stuffs and medi­cines; shel­tered mil­lions upon mil­lions of vul­ner­able men, women, and chil­dren; repa­tri­ated mil­lions of refu­gees; and pro­vided eco­no­mic and voca­tional assis­tance to those who fell under their care even before the global con­flict ended. These at-risk peo­ple fell into two broad cate­gories—dis­placed per­sons (DPs) and refu­gees. Dis­placed per­sons were those beings who fled actual or poten­tial con­flict areas, often by the skin of their teeth, mostly desti­tute, and suf­fering the conse­quences of being uprooted. These included mil­lions of peo­ple con­signed to forced labor in mines and fac­to­ries or on farms in Nazi Germany. Interned in assem­bly cen­ters or dis­placed persons camps, DPs could be expected to return to their na­tive coun­tries when hos­til­ities ceased. Refu­gees on the other hand were invol­un­tary migrants who were rendered home­less, having been evicted, exiled, or deported, un­willing or un­able to return home (“non-repa­tri­ables”) and hence existed out­side the pro­tec­tion of their former govern­ment; these state­less victims were interned in refu­gee camps. Generally speaking, “DP” covered both categories of people.

European Jewry presented a unique and dire pic­ture. It con­sti­tuted 25 per­cent of the DP popu­la­tion. Months after lib­er­a­tion the majori­ty remained under mili­tary guard behind barbed wire in camps where they were found, suf­fering from short­ages of food, clothing, medi­cine, good sani­tation, and all sorts of sup­plies. Death rates remained high. Between 1945 and 1952, more than 250,000 Jewish dis­placed per­sons lived in camps and urban cen­ters in Germany, Austria, and Italy alone.

UNRRA was dissolved in Septem­ber 1948. Its work was taken over by U.N. suc­ces­sor orga­ni­za­tions and spe­cial­ized agen­cies, among them the Inter­na­tional Refu­gee Orga­ni­zat­ion (IRO) working on behalf of 643,000 dis­placed persons and refugees (1948 figure), by the Food and Agri­cult­ural Orga­ni­za­tion (FAO) and the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion (WHO), and by the insti­tu­tional machin­ery later created by the U.S. Mar­shall Plan after 1948. But in the cru­cial years 1943–1948, when many mil­lions of civil­ians were most vul­ner­able, dozens of gener­ous nations and hun­dreds of agen­cies mobi­lized what­ever resources they had or could put their hands on to help feed the hun­gry, clothe the des­ti­tute, nurse the sick and wounded to health, send them on their way, and heal a broken world.

Life in Postwar Displaced Persons Camps

UNRRA Nordhausen Holocaust survivorsUNRRA Auschwitz Holocaust child survivors

Left: Two emaciated Jewish survi­vors, cheek­bones promi­nent in their faces, sit out­side a bar­racks in newly liber­ated Dora-Nord­hausen (aka Dora-Mittel­bau) con­cen­tra­tion camp, mid-April 1945. In dis­placed persons camps like the con­verted Dora-Nord­hausen camp Holo­caust sur­vi­vors who had survived years in hiding, or in ghettos, or in con­cen­tra­tion and death fac­tories often lived among anti-Semites and unre­pen­tant and vin­dic­tive Nazi sym­pa­thizers and collabo­ra­tors who had harassed, per­se­cuted, and killed Jews before and during World War II. This was espe­cially true of camps con­taining refu­gees and dis­placed peo­ple from Cen­tral and Eastern Europe (Germany, Austria, Czecho­slo­vakia, Poland, Hungary, and Roma­nia). In the sum­mer of 1945, Earl Harri­son, U.S. President Harry S. Tru­man’s emis­sary to the DP camps, wrote a report on the Jews’ suf­fering in the camps. The result: in the U.S. zone of occu­pied Germany Jewish refu­gees were trans­ferred from camps orga­ni­zed by coun­tries of nation­ality to separate camps where U.S. Jewish relief orga­ni­za­tions and Zionist acti­vists from Jewish Pales­tine could operate. Conditions improved immeasurably.

Right: Child survivors at Auschwitz on liber­a­tion day, Janu­ary 27, 1945. Between 1.1 and 1.3 mil­lion pri­soners (per­haps more), or about 85 per­cent of the peo­ple sent to Auschwitz, were mur­dered at the Auschwitz-Bir­ke­nau com­plex in what is today South­west Poland, the epi­center of one of man­kind’s darkest acts. During the complex’s nearly 5‑year exis­tence an esti­mated 232,000 chil­dren and young peo­ple up to the age of 18 were among the mil­lions killed. The figure includes roughly 216,000 Jews (major­ity Hun­gar­ian), 11,000 Roma (Gypsies), at least 3,000 Poles, and over 1,000 Bela­rus­ians, along with a signif­i­cant num­ber of Rus­sian and Ukrai­nian chil­dren. On a single day in late 1944—Octo­ber 10, 1944—800 chil­dren were gassed to death. The major­ity of the inno­cents were deported to Auschwitz along with their parents in vari­ous cam­paigns directed against whole ethnic, religious, or social groups.

UNRRA Polish DP being regis­tered at Buchen­waldPolish UNRRA worker registers dis­placed man and wife

Left: One of the many respon­si­bili­ties UNRRA workers assumed was assisting mili­tary auth­or­ities in caring for mil­lions of refugees in resettle­ment camps and repa­tri­ating dis­placed persons. This picture shows a Polish dis­placed per­son being regis­tered at Buchen­wald. The U.S. Army con­verted the former German con­cen­tra­tion camp near Wei­mar in Thuerin­gen (Thuringia) state into a recep­tion center for dis­placed persons who surfaced in the neighbor­hood. Photo taken between 1945 and 1947.

Right: A Polish UNRRA worker registers infor­ma­tion from a dis­placed man and his wife, per­haps newly repa­tri­ated. The photo cap­tion says, “He will receive a further cre­dit of up to 10,000 złotych for the pur­chase of live­stock and tools when he is assigned his farm.” The vic­to­ri­ous Allies awarded large areas of Prus­sia, Pome­ra­nia, Saxony, and Sile­sia, former German ter­ri­tories, to Poland at the Potsdam Conference (July 17 to August 2, 1945) as Poland’s pre­war borders in the east and west were forcibly shifted west­ward. That uprooted 13.5 mil­lion ethnic Germans. Upwards of 4 mil­lion Poles were uprooted from areas that became parts of Soviet-annexed Lithu­ania, Belo­russia (Belarus), and Ukraine. Photo taken between 1945 and 1948.

Bad Reichenhall DP camp wedding, Germany, Febru­ary 1948Salzburg, Austria, DP camp Kindergartners

Left: Ibby Neuman and Max Mandel’s wedding day at the Bad Reichen­hall DP camp, Germany, Febru­ary 22, 1948. Dis­placed per­sons trans­formed the camps into active cultural and social centers. Despite the often-bleak cond­it­ions—many of the camps were former German army camps or con­cen­tra­tion camps—social, occu­pa­tional, and voca­tional orga­ni­za­tions abounded. Aca­de­mic, voca­tional, and reli­gious schools were established and teachers came from North Amer­i­ca and Israel to teach chil­dren and adults. Ortho­dox Judaism began its rebirth as yeshi (reli­gious schools). Jewish DPs became an influ­en­tial force in the Zionist cause and in the polit­ical debate about the crea­tion of a Jewish state. Jour­nalism sprang to life with more than 170 pub­li­ca­tions, many in Yiddish. Numer­ous thea­ter and musi­cal troops toured the camps. Athle­tic clubs from various DP centers chal­lenged each other. Reli­gious holi­days and events, births, and wed­dings became major occasions for gatherings and celebrations.

Right: In the first months after the war there were barely any chil­dren under the age of 5 in the DP camps and only 3 per­cent of Jewish survi­vors were chil­dren and teen­agers aged 6–17. Most survivors of Nazi camps had lost their entire fami­lies through gassing, phenol injec­tions, dis­eases like typhus, star­va­tion, and death marches. Dis­placed per­sons, refugees, UNRRA per­son­nel, and relief agen­cies placed a pre­mium on estab­lishing camp schools where food and books from out­side could feed and rebuild the lives of the younger gen­er­a­tion. For Jewish sur­vi­vors espe­cially it was impor­tant to raise a new ge­ner­a­tion of Jews to make up for those who had been wiped out by the Nazis.

Holocaust Survivors–First Steps in the DP Camps and a New Beginning