Australia's first immigration minister, Arthur Calwell, scoured post-war Europe for refugees, Displaced Persons he characterised as 'Beautiful Balts'. Amid the hierarchies of the White Australia Policy, the tensions of the Cold War and the national need for labour, these people would transform not only Australia's immigration policy, but the country itself.
Beautiful Balts tells the extraordinary story of these Displaced Persons. It traces their journey from the chaotic camps of Europe after World War II to a new life in a land of opportunity where prejudice, parochialism, and strident anti-communism were rife. Drawing from archives, oral history interviews and literature generated by the Displaced Persons themselves, Persian investigates who they really were, why Australia wanted them and what they experienced.
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Several human silhouettes emerge on the corner of each street. They begin to shout with joy. Then, men and women, as if responding to a signal, spring forth from all over the place. Poles, Russians, Czechs, and French as well, all welcome us in their own language, greeting us after the fashion of their homeland. We thought we were entering an enemy town, but it is Babel that receives us as liberators. This war is rich in paradoxes.
– JD Couquet, Nous sommes les occupants, 1945, on the French liberation of a German town
Ten million displaced persons in Europe are stateless, homeless, and hopeless.
– YMCA, 1946.
Ivan and Nastasia, as part of the ragtag Cossack Army, were technically British prisoners. But after evading repatriation to the Soviet Union, they were transferred to a DP camp where they transitioned to political refugees and became potential migrant settlers to countries including Australia.
Displaced persons include disparate people (and stories): Ukrainian forced labourer Katherina, was taken by the Nazis at the age of 18 to work on a German farm; Russian– Estonian merchant banker Arved who moved his young family to Germany during the war because he feared the Soviets; Hungarian lawyer-turned-soldier Frank, was part of a defeated force that surrendered in Austria; and Jewish socialist Leo, was deported from Poland into the Soviet Union during the war and fled Soviet-controlled Poland in 1947. Jan, a (non-Jewish) Pole, was taken from his middle-class family at the age of 14 to work as a 'slave labourer' in a box factory in Germany; his older brother died in Auschwitz. Jan says: 'I was stubborn, I wanted to live.' In contrast, Hungarian student Joseph chose to leave Hungary in 1945 because: 'I didn't see myself fitting into the Communist system, so I packed up and left.' He initially saw the journey as an 'adventure: the world was sort of wide open'.
The term 'displaced persons' is now a generic name for everyone resettled by the International Refugee Organization after the Second World War. How did such a varied grouping – politically, culturally and socially – become, in contemporary representations, an 'anonymous mass', their individual stories erased in Cold War posturing. How did the displaced escape repatriation to become political refugees and then end up in such faraway places as Canada and Australia?
The term 'displaced persons' entered international parlance in 1944 via the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), commanded by the United States general, Dwight D Eisenhower. SHAEF sought to categorise people displaced by the war, while avoiding the term 'refugee', which could imply a permanent rather than a temporary state. So Operation Overlord, the SHAEF Plan for the Allied invasion of Western Europe, separated displaced persons from refugees. Displaced persons specifically referred to people outside their national boundaries (refugees were displaced within their country) and who were either 'desirous' but 'unable to return to their home [...] without assistance' or who were to be returned to 'enemy or exenemy territory'. Displaced persons included 'evacuees, war or political fugitives, political prisoners, forced or voluntary workers, Todt workers [forced labourers], and former members of forces under German command, deportees, intruded persons, extruded persons, civilian internees, exprisoners of war, and stateless persons'.
The definition of displaced persons that emerged before the war ended predominantly related to people in Germany and Austria. They included concentration camp inmates, forced agricultural and factory workers, (non-German) soldiers in military units withdrawing westwards and civilian evacuees fleeing west from the oncoming Soviet Army. Voluntary workers and university students living in the Reich at the end of the war could also claim DP status. These disparate groups, both Jewish and non-Jewish, included Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusians, Balts (Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians), Hungarians, Yugoslavs, and nationals of Romania, Bulgaria and Albania. Displaced ethnic Germans outside their state borders were the only group not included in the official category of displaced persons; they were collectively excluded from the group of deserving victims.
Notwithstanding the exclusion of ethnic Germans, the official numbers of displaced persons were staggering. In August 1944 there were 7.6 million foreign civilian labourers and prisoners-of-war working in Germany itself, comprising around 29 per cent of the Reich's industrial labour force and 20 per cent of its total labour force. Towards the end of the war an estimated 13.5 million foreigners worked in the German economy. At least 12 million were forced labourers; around 11 million survived the war (Germany's population in mid-1946 was around 66 million). In addition several hundred thousand foreigners had been imported into German-controlled territories and the Todt Organisation (a Third Reich civil and military engineering group) had more than a million forced labourers constructing coastal fortifications throughout Northern Europe and Southern France. In May 1945 up to 10 per cent of the 7.8 million troops wearing German uniforms were not in fact German.
In all, there were approximately 12 million displaced persons at the conclusion of the war in Europe in May 1945. Experiences were varied: survivors of death camps were counted in with so-called 'collaborators'. People who moved voluntarily to the Reich – for employment or to study at German universities – were added to forced labourers, who had been deported from their homes and subjected to grim conditions. Everyone was lumped together with the expectation they would all soon return home.
The displaced were a burden on the land, and on the economy. Some DPs, particularly forced labourers from the Soviet Union, were involved in acts of retribution towards the Germans. With agriculture disrupted, these former enemies, 'angry and hungry', let loose in a landscape of destruction taking farm machinery and livestock, perhaps seeing these as 'slave severance pay'. Representations of DPs in this immediate postwar period were uniformly negative. To the Germans who, in a continuation of National Socialist racial ideology, 'couldn't be bothered to try to accurately ascertain the nationalities of DPs', they were known as schlechte Ausländern (bad or dirty foreigners) and 'held in the greatest contempt'. They were 'adventurers and donothings, who are running the black market'. To Allied military authorities, they were 'surplus population' and 'a nuisance': kriegies (prisoners-of-war), 'goddam DPs' and 'lousy Poles'. Jewish displaced persons (and soon all Jewish survivors were officially categorised as DPs), who made up 20 per cent of the immediate postwar refugee population, were infamously described by US General George S Patton Jr in 1945 as 'lower than animals' and 'locusts'. The Allied authorities were responsible for all of them.
After SHAEF ceased functioning in July 1945, DPs came under the protection and control of American, British and French military authorities who, together with the Soviet Union, had divided Germany into four occupation zones for administrative purposes. Two international organisations were involved on the periphery. The Office of the League of Nations High Commissioner, a merged entity incorporating the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees Coming from Germany and the Nansen International Office, provided legal protection and material aid to refugees from 1938 to 1946. The Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, set up following the 1938 Evian Conference to assist Jewish migration from Germany and Austria, also cared for refugees after 1943. The main international body, however, was the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), formed in late 1943 to prepare and arrange 'for the return of prisoners and exiles to their homes'.
UNRRA was a successor of sorts to earlier refugee relief organisations, such as the American Relief Administration (1919–1923) and various offices under the auspices of the League of Nations. However, instead of relying on charitable and philanthropic bodies, it established an Americanled international relief operation. In November 1943 the 44-nation signatories of UNRRA agreed not only to care for the displaced persons, but also to provide relief to war victims at the request of national governments in countries such as China, Poland and Italy that were unable to do this themselves. UNRRA would provide basic necessities, with a goal towards rehabilitation. UNRRA always operated under military jurisdiction and was largely dependent on military supplies. Their 'first and most urgent' task, however, was to organise the displaced persons. UNRRA's ideological basis for this task was to 'bind up the world's wounds' by, in the words of Frank Boudreau of the League of Nations Health Organization, 'destroy[ing] the seeds of a new war which could otherwise find fertile soil in the terrible living conditions in countries torn and devastated by the war'. UNRRA also wished to propagate an Americanled 'new growth of confidence' in international administration which was seen as 'indispensable for the future system of general security'. This sort of American ideal was tempered with the experience of imperial rule, which perhaps provided a practical model to follow, particularly for French and British authorities.
UNRRA's main aim regarding displaced persons was to assist repatriation. Liaison officers were appointed by national governments to expedite the repatriation of their nationals. However, UNRRA needed to provide rehabilitation and material support until the return home became possible. In effect, this meant providing all displaced persons with food and clothing rations initially sourced within Germany and supplemented by Red Cross parcels, and housing millions of the homeless displaced in around 900 (mostly nationality-specific) camps across Germany, Austria and Italy. According to a description provided by the 21 Army Group of the British Army, this 'gigantic' task involved:
Controlling and transporting [...] men, women and children; the setting up or adaptation of camps for them; disinfestations and organisation of hygiene and sanitation measures [...] feeding, watering and clothing; checking and documentation; the provision of medical attention and supplies, the control of disease, and in the case of those who were not to be speedily repatriated, the initiation of rehabilitation, education and entertainment.
DPs camps were hastily requisitioned. Often they were former concentration or forced labour camps. Julija, ten years old in 1945, had fled with her family from Lithuania, ahead of the Soviet Army, the previous year. They ended up at a German DP camp, an overflow camp from a concentration camp at nearby Lingen. She describes the barracks as 'just wood, rotten wood': 'It was just like a big narrow hall which when all the families arrived were divided into little rooms; first it used to be separated by blankets or whatever, then we built ourselves flimsy walls just to separate one from the other.' Conditions did not always improve much. Australian UNRRA worker Helen Ferber described visiting a Latvian DP camp housed in bombed-out buildings in 1947 as her 'first big DP shock':
Herded as many as seventeen to a room (and one hundred to each latrine), they have to cook and do everything, three and four families together, on one small stove per room. Half of them have only boarded-up or papered-over windows. The partitions within the room, made of papers or threadbare old rugs strung over ropes, provide only scant privacy. In summer they suffocate; in winter they must nearly freeze. They keep their hovels spotless, but a stench of latrines and humanity hits you as you enter the door. Their rations, about 2000 calories a day, are sufficient on paper but ... cheerless.
Czech novelist Vladímir Lezák-Borin described the DP camp as a 'soul-killing vacuum in the midway-to-nowhere'. Historian Daniel Cohen says the DP camp system functioned 'as an alternative welfare state for stateless people'. Displaced persons received special benefits in postwar Germany, and were placed outside German jurisdiction. Many were employed by the Allied military authorities. Everyone in the American zone received rations of American cigarettes to use as black market currency. This welfare reliance soon resulted in a new characterisation. UNRRA worker Kathryn Hulme talked about the 'professional DP ... sitting pretty under the protection of UNRRA'. Joyce Horner, a fellow UNRRA worker from New Zealand, thought that 'having worked as slave labourers for years, reaction has set in and the majority are unwilling to do anything at all'.
UNRRA's motto, however, seemed to be 'helping others to help themselves', or perhaps helping others until they could help themselves. UNRRA was internationalist in the sense that it had support and workers from many nations. However, it believed that nation states were the fundamental units of a peaceful, postwar society. Its work was temporary and paternalistic: providing a helping hand until the displaced could return to their homelands.
Displaced persons were expected to return home as quickly as they could, and most did. Many from Eastern Europe reportedly had 'great enthusiasm about going home'. The Allied military authorities repatriated about seven million people in less than six months after the end of the war, and UNRRA another million over the following 18 months. But not everyone felt the pull of home. UNRRA soon came up against DPs who felt they had nowhere to return: some who refused repatriation, citing persecution, (old and new) Soviet citizens who refused to return to communist rule in their homeland, and all Jews, who had been classified en masse as stateless. Others who were initially repatriated attempted to readmit themselves back into the DP camps and were classed as uncatalogued refugees. They were no longer official DPs but 'free-livers' outside the DP camp system.
It was generally agreed that displaced persons from areas incorporated into the Soviet Union since September 1939 were to be neither repatriated nor treated as Soviet citizens 'unless they affirmatively claim Soviet citizenship'. This included displaced persons from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and parts of Poland and Ukraine. However, the Allies had definitively promised to assist with the return of everyone else at the 1945 Yalta Conference. This was later clarified to mean any citizen of the Soviet Union on 1 September 1939. Many Soviet citizens had no wish to return home, so Allied military authorities at times carried out forcible repatriation 'regardless of [the DP's] personal wishes'. Like the Cossacks in Drau Valley, Soviet DPs actively resisted repatriation and generally met forced repatriations with 'crying and screaming'. Hunger strikes were common, and several thousand killed themselves in protest, and in fear. An American soldier's description of the forced repatriation of Soviet displaced persons from a camp at Dachau in 1946 is haunting:
When we finally entered the huts we did not encounter human beings, but animals. Most of those who had hanged themselves were cut down by our GIs. Those who were still conscious cried in Russian, pointed at our guns and then at themselves, imploring us to shoot them.
In order to escape forced repatriation, DPs concocted false background stories, and an entire underground industry grew up to provide false identity papers for 'Poles from the Urals' (that is, Soviet citizens attempting to pass as citizens of pre-1939 Poland, who were not subject to repatriation). A British officer noted the difficulties of identification and classification for Allied military authorities, and for UNRRA:
Was [the 'displaced person'] a Jugoslav? Then he might be a Serbian Chetnik who had fought against Tito, but professed undying love for England. Or he might be a Tito Partisan, captured by the Germans but now escaped and trying to make his way back to Jugoslavia. Or again he might be a member of Pavelich's infamous Ustachi, who would no doubt attempt to conceal his identity. Was he a Russian? Then he could be a runaway Cossack, or an escaped Red Army prisoner, or a Latvian who left Latvia before it became part of the Soviet Union, or a displaced Soviet citizen who just did not want to go back home.
Individual entrepreneurs, priests and political groups all contributed to an underground industry for false documents for Soviet citizens in hiding. The Tolstoy Foundation, for example, set up in 1939 in New York by Alexandra Tolstaya, the youngest daughter of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, mediated between those who needed to obscure the truth in order to become DPs, and the International Refugee Organization. German authorities and, on occasion, sympathetic Allied officials, as well as DP employees of UNRRA and the IRO, were also involved.
Excerpted from "Beautiful Balts"
Copyright © 2017 Jayne Persian.
Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
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