Many inmates had lost everything--family, home, possessions and health. While political prisoners could return in most cases to home and family, the answers weren't simple for those, broken in body and spirit, who had lost everything in the Holocaust.

Miguel Montesinos describes the liberation of Dachau:

"All they wanted to do was get out and go home. And a lot of them did get out...The gates were wide open then, and a lot of them were confused. They didn't know what to do. Some of them couldn't walk and they were looking for direction, but there was no direction we could give them at all. Our job was to move on." (8)

The liberating soldiers were ill-equipped to do more than take SS guards into captivity and provide emergency food, water and basic medical care at the liberated camps. A concerted relief effort required intervention by the allied governments.

Before the liberation of the first camp, as the enormity of the Holocaust began to appear in the media, efforts were begun to assist the persecuted Jews and other displaced persons in Germany and German-occupied countries.

The Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) issued an administrative memorandum transferring authority for displaced persons to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRAA), an elaboration of the SHAEF-UNRAA agreement of November 25, 1944. This agreement established UNRAA as the primary administrative and relief agency for displaced persons, when the Allies successfully invaded Germany. After the invasion and surrender of Germany, the country was divided into the U.S., French, British and Russian occupation zones, making an umbrella administration for the displaced person camps all the more critical. The chaos in Germany, combined with the fragile health of many liberated inmates, forced the use of some concentration camps, such as Dachau, for displaced person camps.

Conditions in many displaced person camps quickly deteriorated, for a number of reasons. The transition from military management to UNRAA management was slow and poorly organized. The soldiers and relief workers who provided the administration and support for displaced person camps did not, by and large, participate in the liberation. They lacked understanding of the enormity of the cruelties inflicted on prisoners and thus had difficulty understanding and accepting the behavior of former inmates with deep psychological and physical wounds. In the publication Army Talk (no. 151, November 30, 1946), it was noted that:

"The new GIs found it difficult to understand and like people who pushed, screamed, clawed for food, smelled bad, who couldn't and didn't want to obey orders, who sat with dull faces and vacant staring eyes in a cell, or concentration camp barrack, or within a primitive cave, and refused to come out at their command." (9)

Together with his fellow officers, George Patton had been horrified and disgusted by the brutal conditions at Ohrdruf camp. Over time, he reacted harshly to the displaced persons in camps under his command, requiring barbed wire to keep them in and passes to leave the camp, in stark contrast to the treatment of German civilians who by and large lived normally under the American occupation. General Eisenhower ordered the barbed wire and pass system abolished. Rabbi Judah Nadich, who served as an advisor on Jewish affairs to General Eisenhower, reported to him that General Patton had not carried out his orders. As he recounted,

"Eisenhower, he ordered General Patton to report to him the following morning at 8 o'clock, which meant an overnight ride for General Patton from Munich, and I was later told by General W. Smith (General Eisenhower's chief of staff), that Eisenhower said to Patton (and remember, they were close friends from West Point days), "George, why don't you do something for these Jews?" And General Patton replied, "Why the hell should I?" To which Eisenhower got very angry, burst out with the words" "Godammit, if for no other reason but because I ordered you to."…A short time later, General Patton was removed as commander of the 3rd Army." (10)

In late June 1945, Earl G. Harrison, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, was sent by President Truman to Germany as head of a commission to investigate living conditions for displaced persons, particularly Jews. His commission visited over 30 DP camps in July. Harrison issued a report strongly criticizing administration of the camps, saying in part:

"as matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except that we do not exterminate them." (11)

Harrison's reports led to reforms, such as the requisition of the houses of Nazi party members in the lower Hessen area for Jewish displaced persons. Another critical reform was the recognition that many Jews no longer had a country to return to. This was particularly true for those from Poland, Slovakia and other Eastern countries, where repatriated Jews returned to Pogroms and anti-Semitic discrimination. On November 16, 1945, General Eisenhower published a letter of clarification concerning the nationality of displaced persons. Jews were placed in a special category as non-repatriables, important for preventing forced repatriation to the East as well as for opening up more opportunities for emigration. Improvements to DP camps were slow, in part because so many repatriated Jews fled anti-Semitic attacks in the East, overwhelming the already inadequate facilities in the DP camps.

Continue on to The Return to Normal Life