In the first few days, Allied military forces improvised relief in the form of shelter, food, and medical care. A large number of refugees were in critical condition as a result of malnutrition, abuse, and disease. Many died, but medical material was requisitioned from military stores and German civilian facilities. Military doctors as well as physicians among the survivors themselves used available resources to help a large number recover their physical health. The first proper funerals of Holocaust victims took place during this period with the assistance of Allied forces and military clergy.
Shelter was also improvised in the beginning, with refugees of various origins being housed in abandoned barracks, hotels, former concentration camps, and private homes.
As Germany and Austria came under Allied military administration, the commanders assumed responsibility for the safety and disposition of all displaced persons. The vast majority of non-Jewish DPs were repatriated in a matter of months. General Patton, who acted as the initial military commander for the DP camps, was intent on repatriating Jewish survivors to the countries from which they had been deported. This plan was abandoned, meeting with resistance both from the refugees themselves and civilian American authorities.
The number of refugees in the Sh'erit ha-Pletah continued to grow as displaced Jews who were in Western Europe at war's end were joined by hundreds of thousands of refugees from Eastern Europe. Many of these had returned to their erstwhile homes to a hostile reception among their non-Jewish neighbors. Vigilantes in Poland held often murderous anti-Jewish riots in Cracow on August 20, 1945, Sosnowiec October 25, Lublin November 19, and most notably in Kielce on July 4, 1946, the Kielce pogrom.
Although hundreds of DP camps were in operation between 1945 and 1948, the refugees were mostly segregated, with several camps being dedicated to Jews. These camps varied in terms of the conditions afforded the refugees, how they were managed, and the composition of their population.
In the American sector, the Jewish community across many camps organized itself rapidly for purposes of representation and advocacy. In the British sector, most refugees were concentrated in the Bergen-Belsen DP camp and were under tighter control.
In addition to military authorities, a number of other organizations played an active role in the emerging Jewish community in the DP camps. The short-lived UNRRA and its successor, the International Refugee Organization took responsibility for much of the humanitarian efforts on behalf of the Allied powers; the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee ("Joint") provided financial support and supplies from American sources; in the British sector, the Jewish Relief Unit acted as the British equivalent to the Joint; and the ORT established numerous vocational and other training. Over time, the political dynamics in the Yishuv in the British Mandate in Palestine found its counterparties in the Sh'erit ha-Pletah.
In July, events involving two prominent American officials profoundly affected the future of the Sh'erit ha-Pletah.
One was General George Patton, who, acting as military governor in the southern area of Germany decided early in July that the entire Munich area was to be cleared of displaced persons with an eye toward repatriating them to their countries of origin. Joseph Dunner, an American officer who in civilian life was a professor of political science, sent a memorandum to military authorities protesting the order. When 90 trucks of the Third Army arrived at Buchberg to transport the refugees there, they refused to move, citing Dunner's memo. Patton's attempt at repatriating Jewish refugees resulted in a resolve within the Sh'erit ha-Pletah to define their own destiny. Based on these efforts and blatant antisemitic remarks, Patton was relieved of this command and died shortly afterwards in a car accident.
The other was that Earl G. Harrison, who had been sent by president Truman to investigate conditions among the "non-repatriables" in the DP camps submitted a report on his findings , stating among other things that:
- Generally speaking...many Jewish displaced persons and other possibly non-repatriables are living under guard behind barbed-wire fences, in camps of several descriptions (built by the Germans for slave-laborers and Jews), including some of the most notorious of the concentration camps, amidst crowded, frequently unsanitary and generally grim conditions, in complete idleness, with no opportunity, except surreptitiously, to communicate with the outside world, waiting, hoping for some word of encouragement and action in their behalf....
- ...While there has been marked improvement in the health of survivors of the Nazi starvation and persecution program, there are many pathetic malnutrition cases both among the hospitalized and in the general population of the camps...at many of the camps and centers including those where serious starvation cases are, there is a marked and serious lack of needed medical supplies...
- ...many of the Jewish displaced persons, late in July, had no clothing other than their concentration camp garb-a rather hideous striped pajama effect-while others, to their chagrin, were obliged to wear German S.S. uniforms. It is questionable which clothing they hate the more...
- ...Most of the very little which has been done (to reunited families) has been informal action by the displaced persons themselves with the aid of devoted Army Chaplains, frequently Rabbis, and the American Joint Distribution Committee...
- ...As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them. They are in concentration camps in large numbers under our military guard instead of S.S. troops...
- ...The first and plainest need of these people is a recognition of their actual status and by this I mean their status as Jews...While admittedly it is not normally desirable to set aside particular racial or religious groups from their nationality categories, the plain truth is that this was done for so long by the Nazis that a group has been created which has special needs...
- ...Their desire to leave Germany is an urgent one....They want to be evacuated to Palestine now, just as other national groups are being repatriated to their homes...Palestine, while clearly the choice of most, is not the only named place of possible emigration. Some, but the number is not large, wish to emigrate to the United States where they have relatives, others to England, the British Dominions, or to South America...
- ...No other single matter is, therefore, so important from the viewpoint of Jews in Germany and Austria and those elsewhere who have known the horrors of the concentration camps as is the disposition of the Palestine question.
Harrison's report was met with consternation in Washington, and its contrast with Patton's position ultimately contributed to Patton being relieved of his command in Germany in September 1945.
Bolstered by the support from Harrison and Patton's frustrated attempts at forcing a solution upon them, the various camp committees convened a conference for the entire Sh'erit ha-Pletah on July 25 at the St. Ottilien camp. The delegates passed a fourteen-point program that established a broad mandate, including the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine with UN recognition, compensation to victims, participation in the trials against Nazi war criminals, archival of historical records, and full autonomy for the committees.
As it turned out, the American and British sectors developed independent organization structures.
The center for the British sector in Germany was at the Bergen-Belsen DP camp, where Josef Rosensaft had been the primus motor for establishing what became the Central Committee for Displaced Persons in the British zone. In the American sector, Zalman Grinberg and Samuel Gringauz and others led the formation of the The Central Committee of the Liberated Jews, which was to establish offices first in the former Deutsches Museum and then in Siebertstrasse 3 in Munich.
The central organizations for Jewish refugees had an overwhelming number of issues to resolve, among them:
Military authorities were at first reluctant to officially recognize the central committees as the official representatives of the Jewish refugees in DP camps, though cooperation and negotiations carried characteristics of a de facto acceptance of their mandate. But on September 7, 1946, at a meeting in Frankfurt, the American military authorities recognized the Central Committee of the Liberated Jews as a legitimate party to the issue of the Jewish displaced persons in the American sector.
There was lively political debate, involving satire, political campaigns, and the occasional acrimony. The growth of Yiddish newspapers within the camps added fuel to the political culture.
The political environment of the community evolved during its years of existence. In the first year or two, it was predominantly focused on improving the conditions in the camps and asserting the legitimacy of the community as an autonomous entity. Over time, the emphasis shifted to promoting the Zionist goals of allowing immigration into the British Mandate in Palestine; political divisions within the Sh'erit ha-Pletah mirrored those found in the Yishuv itself.
At every turn, the community expressed its opposition and outrage against British restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine. In the British sector, the protests approached a level of civil disobedience; in the American sector, attempts were made to apply political pressure to alleviate these restrictions. The relationship between Sh'erit ha-Pletah and British authorities remained tense until the State of Israel was formed. This came to a head when Lieutenant General Sir Frederick E. Morgan - then UNRRA chief of operations in Germany - claimed that the influx of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe as "nothing short of a skillful campaign of anti-British aggression on the part of Zion aided and abetted by Russia...[meaning] death to the British." (Morgan was allowed to remain in his post after this comment but was fired when making similar comments later).
In late 1945, the UNRRA conducted several surveys among Jewish refugees, asking them to list their preferred destination for emigration. Among one population of 19,000, 18,700 named "Palestine" as their first choice, and 98% also named "Palestine" as their second choice. At the camp in Fürth, respondents were asked not to list Palestine as both their first and second choice, and 25% of the respondents then wrote "crematorium."
All the while, the Sh'erit ha-Pletah retained close relationships with the political leadership of the Yishuv, prompting several visits from David Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders. While officially detached from the committees, there was considerable support for clandestine immigration to Palestine through the Aliya Beth programs among the refugees; and tacit support for these activities also among American, UNRRA, Joint and other organizations. A delegation (consisting of Norbert Wollheim, Samuel Schlumowitz, Boris Pliskin, and Leon Retter flew to the United States to raise funds for the community, appealing to a sense of pride over "schools built for our children, four thousand pioneers on the farms... thousands of youths in trades schools... self-sacrifice of doctors, teachers, writers...democratization... hard-won autonomy," and also met with officials at the US War Department and Sir Raphael Salento over the formation of the International Refugee Organization.
Over time, the Sh'erit ha-Pletah took on the characteristics of a state in its own right. It coordinated efforts with the political leadership in the Yishuv and the United States, forming a transient power triangle within the Jewish world. It sent its own delegation to the Twenty-Second Zionist Congress in Basel.
Although the community established many of the institutions that characterize a durable society, and indeed came to dominate an entire section of Munich, the overriding imperative was to find new homes for the refugees. To make the point, many of the leaders emigrated at the first possible opportunity. Both overt lobbying efforts and underground migration sought to open for unrestricted immigration to Palestine. And the camps largely emptied once the state of Israel was established, many of the refugees immediately joining the newly formed Israel Defense Forces to fight the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
The Central Committee in the American sector declared its dissolution on December 17, 1950 at the Deutsche Museum in Munich. Of the original group that founded the committee, only rabbi Samuel Snieg remained for the dissolution. All the others had already emigrated, most of them to Israel. Rabbi Snieg had remained to complete the first full edition of the Talmud published in Europe after the Holocaust, the so-called Survivors' Talmud.
The last DP camp, Föhrenwald, closed in February 1957, by then populated only by the so-called "hardcore" cases, elderly and those disabled by disease.