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THE LONG ROAD HOME
The Aftermath of the Second World War
By Ben Shephard
Illustrated. 489 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.
Military victory — to adapt Oscar Wilde — is rarely pure and never simple. The Allied triumph in Europe at the end of World War II was a case in point. The war and the Holocaust forced millions of civilians across national frontiers. Afterward, multitudes of ethnic Germans were expelled from Eastern Europe and many of the Jews in Poland fled from a new wave of persecution there. Those lucky enough to survive these migrations faced months and years in limbo as the authorities wrestled with the logistical, political and moral difficulties involved in returning them home — or in finding them a new one.
These, in the terminology of the time, were the “displaced persons,” or D.P.’s. However, as Ben Shephard shows in “The Long Road Home,” his highly readable and moving book of postwar relief efforts, not all those who succeeded in obtaining this coveted official status (which brought an entitlement to food and shelter) were simple victims. Along with concentration camp survivors and former slave workers were many from Ukraine and the Baltic States who had collaborated with the Nazis and fled with them as the Russians advanced. Paradoxically, when Western governments started to take in D.P.’s to help with their own domestic labor shortages, it was these groups that tended to be favored, on racial grounds, at the expense of the Jews. Even Britain’s left-wing Fabian Society emphasized the importance of recruiting “sound stock,” adding that “the eugenics of immigration cannot be overstressed.”
However, it would be wrong to dwell too much on the hypocrisies, injustices and follies that surrounded the relief work. Mass starvation was avoided, and this in itself was no mean feat. Shephard, a historian of modern warfare, explains that much of the credit should be given to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (U.N.R.R.A.). Known to its critics as “You never really rehabilitate anyone,” the agency was beset from the first with bureaucratic problems, but also attracted many dedicated workers who were determined to do their best in appalling conditions. If they occasionally showed impatience with those in their care, and sometimes resorted to racial or national stereotyping, it was hardly surprising. They were dealing with a mass of heavily traumatized ordinary people; it was not easy to come to grips with the suffering, let alone to know how best to help. Some of the quandaries were insoluble.
One heart-rending chapter deals with the efforts to reunite children with their mothers and fathers. On the face of it, this sounds like an incontrovertibly good thing, in particular for those infants who had been stolen from their families by the Nazis on account of their “Aryan” looks and reassigned to German foster parents. Yet was it right to wrench children away from their new families against their will, especially in cases when it was not clear that the true parents could be found or that they wanted their children back? U.N.R.R.A. staffers divided on the issue, some feeling that the effort had to be made by way of atonement for the original wrong, and others skeptical that returning children to their birth countries was necessarily in their best interests.
Shephard is commendably nonjudgmental on such questions, and he also raises an important point about the writing of history, which so often dwells on spectacular evil at the expense of pedestrian virtue. He notes that whereas Hitler had Josef Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl as publicists, U.N.R.R.A. had to make do with a dull official history and the “feeble efforts” of the National Film Board of Canada. With this book, Shephard has made a significant contribution to redressing the balance.