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How a Million Refugees Became Postwar Pawns of the Allies

How could such an egregious perversion of justice have come to pass? The answer is complicated, and it seems foolish to try to sum up in a sentence or two what Nasaw spends more than 600 pages charting so scrupulously. Suffice it to say that the fog of postwar allowed many collaborators to shed uniforms, destroy papers and slip quietly into D.P. camps. This was hardly a secret. As early as October 1945, in fact, this very newspaper printed an article that quoted a “reliable source” at United States military headquarters in Germany as saying that “at least one-third and probably more of the Balts” in the camps “are former members of the Saulis, a Baltic Fascist Organization. … Almost all of them prefer our enemy, Germany, to our ally, Russia.”

Later, the knotty domestic politics of multiple countries allowed this outrage to persist. So the need for cheap labor and “experienced” army personnel figured centrally in the determination of who would (or wouldn’t) receive immigration papers. Other factors included mounting Western hostility to the Soviet Union, the tired conflation of Jews with Communists and plain old-fashioned anti-Semitism. (Nasaw lets us eavesdrop on Gen. George Patton, no less, fulminating into his diary about those who “believe that the Displaced Person is a human being, which he is not, and this applies particularly to the Jews who are lower than animals.”) The focus on “utilitarian and political over humanitarian rationales for resettlement,” Nasaw writes, didn’t apply only to the situation at hand. It set the “harsh Darwinian” terms for how the “developed world” has dealt with subsequent refugee crises.

Among the longest festering of those crises is, of course, Palestine/Israel’s. Nasaw handles deftly the international aspects of this part of the story, in which the fate of that small, troubled piece of land became a ball kicked between England and the United States. This too was complicated. Harry Truman’s push for the open immigration of Jewish refugees to British-controlled Palestine and eventually for a Jewish state may have derived from his moral sense and lifelong reading of the Bible, though it involved other less lofty matters as well, including his need to secure the proverbial Jewish vote. America’s own immigration policies also played a role. Nasaw quotes the English foreign secretary Ernest Bevin as suggesting in 1946 that “regarding the agitation in the United States, and particularly New York, for 100,000 Jews to be put into Palestine,” he hoped “it will not be misunderstood in America if I say, with the purest of motives, that that was because they did not want too many of them in New York.” “Purity” seems not especially relevant to this conversation, but Bevin had a point. That said, his frank assessment of the situation got him into hot diplomatic water, whose temperature Nasaw does a typically astute job of gauging and putting in context.

The author’s account of the facts on the ground in Palestine/Israel produces the book’s only slight wobble — an uncharacteristic loss of perspective. It’s perhaps inevitable that if one views the violent history of the region so tightly through the lens of the desperate D.P.s, one will perceive the British Mandatory authorities’ strict post-1939 immigration quotas and refusal to simply “open the gates” as nothing but cruel and unusual. The quotas may indeed have been punishing, as Nasaw suggests, but they also derived from Britain’s (admittedly ruinous) attempts to referee an already 50-year-old struggle between two competing national movements whose origins had nothing whatsoever to do with Hitler.

Nasaw acknowledges, if very much in passing, the bitter irony of the fact that many of the Jewish D.P.s who stumbled at last onto Israel’s shores wound up occupying houses, villages and neighborhoods that had recently belonged to Palestinian Arabs, who themselves became refugees in 1948, denied the right to return to their homes. He tries hard to be “evenhanded.” But it’s perplexing that a writer as alert to political and rhetorical nuance as he is would use stock, boosterish terms like “nothing less than miraculous” to refer to the rapid resettlement of Jewish D.P.s in Israel, or employ the word “aliyah,” as though it were perfectly neutral. (It means “ascent” in Hebrew, and colors the notion of Jewish immigration to Israel with a definite ideological tint.)

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