The Last Million: Europe's Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War, with David Nasaw
September 23, 2020
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Good afternoon. Welcome to our Carnegie Council book talk with David Nasaw, author of the new book The Last Million: Europe's Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War. I'm Joel Rosenthal, president of Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
Those of us in the Carnegie family of institutions have a special affection for David. His biography of Andrew Carnegie published in 2006 was a life-changing event for us. Through David's work we have come to know Andrew Carnegie in all of his humanity and complexity. There is one lesson from the book that stayed with me and has animated my work at the Carnegie Council, and that is, as David would put it, Carnegie's "cock-eyed optimism" was not entirely misplaced. For all the madness we see in the world, progress based on reason and a can-do spirit is indeed possible. That idea keeps me going, and this occasion gives me the opportunity to say, thank you, David.
Today we turn to David's latest book, a portrait of not one person but of the over 1 million displaced persons who emerged brutalized yet alive on V-E Day, May 8, 1945. The Last Million is an epic story. It takes us right into the heart of Europe during and after World War II. It describes the movements of millions of people among shifting borders and the chaos of that war and its aftermath. It describes life at the street level and politics in the highest reaches of government.
Millions of people were displaced by World War II. Most known were those sent to concentration camps, yet there were also migrant laborers, forced laborers, collaborators, political prisoners, and prisoners of war (POWs). When the war ended many if not most displaced persons returned home. Yet, as the title suggests, a million did not. This book tells the story of their search for a new home.
David, thanks for joining us. To kick it off, I have a simple question: How did you come to this story? How did you see The Last Million as a singular story to be told?
DAVID NASAW: I think it had a lot to do with Tony Judt's extraordinary book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. I had learned not to take the common-sense view of historical events as necessarily truthful, sometimes it is only partially truthful. When I read Tony Judt's book it became clear to me—much clearer than it had been before—that wars don't end with peace treaties, with the cessation of hostilities, or even with the soldiers going home. War bleeds into postwar, and the suffering for civilians who have been displaced by war continues unabated in the case of The Last Million for three to five years that they remained in Germany, in camps, many behind barbed wire—for three to five years, let me emphasize, after V-E Day.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Let's talk about the million who remain, and you talk about the how the 1 million get into Germany. Can you give us a little bit of information about who these people were and who went willingly and who didn't?
DAVID NASAW: There were three different streams into Germany during the war. The largest was the stream of forced and slave laborers from Eastern Europe, mostly from Poland and Ukraine. These were in large part adolescents and young men and women who were grabbed from their homes, forced onto trucks and trains, and taken into Germany. Hitler and the Third Reich leadership knew from the very beginning that the only possible way to send millions of soldiers to the Eastern Front was to replace them with millions more forced and slave laborers from the East. That was the first group, and they began arriving in 1940–1941 and continued to arrive through the end of the war.
The second stream that made up the "last million" came in 1944–1945 from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and parts of Ukraine, and these were men, women—and their children—who had in one way or another collaborated with the Nazi authorities. Sometimes that collaboration meant simply working in a post office that was overseen by a Nazi official, in other cases it meant serving in the auxiliary police and rounding up Jews, in some cases it meant joining a Waffen-SS division. When it became clear that the Red Army was on its march and would soon arrive in the Baltic States and in Ukraine thousands upon thousands of citizens who had collaborated in some way—and citizens who could not abide the thought of living under Soviet domination—made their way into Germany.
The third group were the Jewish survivors. As the war came to an end Hitler and the German officials realized that: (1) they didn't want the fact of the death camps to be discovered by the Russians and the world, (2) they needed more labor at home than they were getting from the forced laborers and slave laborers, and a decision was made to relocate those who had survived the death camps and labor camps in Poland and in the Balkans, to death-march them into Germany, where they would be not gassed but worked to death, most of them in underground mines, mills, and armament factories. These are the three groups that make up the last million. Their journeys into Germany are different, so too would be their experiences in Germany.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: So it's V-E Day or a little bit after. We're in Europe, 1945. Can you give us a feel for what it's like in these camps? What sort of futures or choices are these people looking at?
DAVID NASAW: There is no way to comprehend the devastation in Germany that the displaced persons found when they left their workplaces or their concentration camps or their POW camps. They were rounded up by the Allies, put on trucks, gotten out of the way, shipped to assembly centers, and then sorted out by nationality and put into camps behind barbed wire often, camps that were run by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) but supplied by the armies. The armies supplied them with food, medical supplies, and shelter. They built facilities, and then UNRRA took care of them.
What happened was that in Germany in the years following V-E Day in these camps there were little Ukraines, little Latvias, little Jewish settlements. In the beginning UNRRA and the Allies decided that they were going to separate out the last million by nationality. They did not recognize that there was such as thing as a Jew. Lithuanian Jews were sequestered with Lithuanians, Polish Jews with non-Jewish Poles. In many instances the Jewish survivors found themselves in the same camps as those who had been their guards in the concentration and labor camps. That ended in July and August, when the Jews were put into their own camps.
The sense in all of these camps was that this was transitional, that they would soon be allowed to go home. The Latvians and the Estonians believed that World War III was coming rapidly and that the Americans and the British were going to liberate Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania from the Soviets, and the displaced persons could go home again. The same with the Poles.
The Jews knew that they could never go home again, that they had no place in Europe, though some of the Bundists tried in the beginning to convince themselves and others that they could return to Poland and build a new Jewish community. For the Jews the only place on earth they soon recognized where they would be welcome was Palestine, though the British did everything they possibly could under the Mandate to keep the Jews out.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I want to pause here for a second. There were those who could not go home, I understood that. But at one point a decision is made to not force repatriation, that individuals would have a choice whether they would be forced home or not. Could you talk about that?
DAVID NASAW: One of the things I realized as I did my research was that the Cold War begins almost immediately. The ramp from World War to Cold War is a steep one. In the very beginning the Soviets and their allies in the Soviet-dominated lands of Eastern Europe demanded that every displaced person except for the Jews and those who had been displaced by Franco years before should go home. Whether they wanted to or not, they had to go home. The Allies said no. The Americans and the British said no, people have the right to choose their own citizenship and whether they wanted to go home or not.
There was a paranoia that has some basis in reality. After World War I the Allies tried to overthrow the Bolshevik regime, and Stalin and some of his compatriots believed that was a real possibility after World War II and that what the British and Americans were doing was creating an army of anti-Soviet, anti-communist dissidents who would be available to spread anti-Soviet propaganda and/or begin World War III.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: You mentioned in passing the establishment of these international institutions to deal with this problem. First we have UNRRA and later we have the International Refugee Organization (IRO). There is an amazing passage in your book, for those who will look at it, it's on page 258—I'm not going to read it—at the beginning of Chapter 17, where you talk about how these organizations in their names hint at a mission of being humane institutions meant to provide literally relief for this immediate human suffering, and yet they turn into something else. They turn into these utilitarian "employment agencies," if you will. Can you talk about those institutions, how they are set up, and where they eventually go?
DAVID NASAW: Yes. Franklin Roosevelt is in this book and in others something of a hero. He understands in 1943 that there will be an enormous refugee problem, not only in Europe but in Asia as well when the war is over, and the only way to solve a refugee problem is through international cooperation. He is instrumental—again, this is in 1943—in setting up before the United Nations the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, and he gets the nations of the world, including the Soviet Union, to join. The understanding is that it will be an agency that repatriates, that takes care of the immediate needs of the refugees and then provides passage home for them.
For the last million that doesn't happen, and although the Soviets demand that they be sent home—or made to survive on their own in Germany—the Americans and British continue to support these people in camps for a year to a year-and-a-half, until it becomes clear that they are not going home. The Americans and the British spearhead the establishment of a new organization without the Soviets—the Soviets won't join it—and its task is not to repatriate but to resettle the last million.
Beginning in late 1946 and 1947 there is this extraordinary, bizarre "meat market" set up, as one of the UNRRA employees calls it, in the displaced persons camps. All the members of the IRO, dozens of Latin American nations, Canada, Australia, and South Africa, send delegations of recruiters into the camps to find workers to take jobs that they can't find anybody else to take.
It begins with the British. The British have a severe labor shortage, and they can't get anybody to work in the tuberculosis sanitarium or in the hospitals. So what do they do? They go into the camps and they recruit thousands of Latvian women in the beginning. Then they decide this has worked so well, we need help in the mines, we're going to bring in Latvian men. And when the Latvians run out, they go to Lithuanians, Estonians, Ukrainians, and Poles. The Belgians need miners, the French need miners, the Canadians need railroad workers and people to work in forestry. So the International Refugee Organization becomes a labor recruitment organization. It tries to lxook after the welfare of those that are sent abroad, but the shots are being called by the governments that are doing the recruiting and not the international organization.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: So there is a hierarchy in terms of desirability in the resettlement process. Is some of that based on race and on perception, or maybe it's just pure utilitarian function, or some combination?
DAVID NASAW: It's a combination. The Latvians are always the first choice. The Australian prime minister makes it clear to the recruiting team going out: "Get the Latvians." Why? Because the Latvians are white, the Latvians are Protestant, the Latvians are reliably anti-communist, and the Latvians had only arrived, unlike the Poles or the Jews, in Germany at the end of the war, and they were relatively healthy. They had not suffered the ravages of the war that the Jewish survivors or the Polish forced laborers had suffered. And it was felt that they were hard workers and that they were assimilable.
No country on earth wanted the Jews, and they didn't want the Jews for a variety of reasons, or rather for a variety of myths and misconceptions. They regarded the Jews as clannish, as unwilling to do hard manual labor, as scoundrels, as rogues, as thieves, and worse yet, as Bolshevik sympathizers or operatives. So from 1947 to 1948 as the Latvians and the Ukrainians and the Estonians were resettled outside of the camps, the Jews were left.
The only way for the Jews to get out of those camps was through illegal immigration to Palestine. The British tried to stop the ships that left from Marseille and from Italian ports and Bulgarian ports bound for Palestine, but they couldn't do it. Twenty to 30,000 displaced Jews made their way to Palestine. Once they arrived in Haifa, the British grabbed them and put them on a second series of ships and sent them to Cyprus and put them behind barbed wire in displaced persons camps, but for the Jews getting out of Germany, even to go into another set of displaced persons camps was far preferable than remaining in the land of their murderers.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: There are so many questions about the story of the Jewish displaced persons. I want to ask you about Truman as it relates to this story. The way I'm reading it in the narrative is that he is willing to confront the British, to say, "You need to open up Palestine." It's a painful process, but he eventually confronts the British and gets there or in that direction. He is not willing to confront the U.S. Congress in terms of opening up the United States. Is that fair, or is that being hard?
DAVID NASAW: That's absolutely fair.
Truman believes in the very beginning with this naïve optimism. The State Department says, "Don't go there," but Truman says, "I'm going there." At Potsdam he confronts Churchill and then Attlee immediately and says, "You have to open up Palestine to the Jewish displaced persons," and he hints that if you want the loans you need to rebuild your nation, you have to help me out here. I have lots of Jewish voters, and I need their support, and it's the humanitarian thing to do, and it's the right thing to do.
Then he lets go this further argument, which is just tragic. He says to the British: "You don't have to worry the way you did before the war. Six million Jews were killed. They're dead. So the European Jews are not going to overwhelm Palestine. We're not talking about millions here, we're talking about a couple hundred thousand."
The British will not budge. The British say to Truman: "Look, if you care this much about the European Jews, take them into the United States." Truman knows—he is much smarter about domestic politics than British politics and international politics—that he can't do that. That is not possible. The hostility to the European Jews, the misunderstanding of what has happened to them, is such that Congress is never going to allow them into the country.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: On Truman too, there was a question I had. There are a few scenes strung together in the book—and this goes back to the camps themselves. Word gets back to Truman that the situation is dire, and people are suffering. He talks to Eisenhower and basically tells him to clean it up. Eisenhower goes back and goes through a tour of the camps, particularly the Jewish camps, and makes it a point that these are under United States authority and United States command, and we're going to clean it up.
Did I read that right? Was that an act of humanity, or was I romanticizing Truman and Eisenhower in light of more recent events where we see the treatment of displaced people under United States authority?
DAVID NASAW: Truman and Eisenhower come out as the heroes in this book, flawed heroes, but heroes nonetheless. Truman recognizes from the very beginning the plight of the Jewish displaced persons. His adviser Clark Clifford says it was because he had read the Bible from early on, and he knows that the Jews belong in Israel. I don't know whether that was the case, but he feels the pain.
We have to realize what a mess Europe was right after the war. Nobody knew how many Jews had survived. We knew that millions had been killed, but no one knew what the condition was or how many made it out of the camps.
The State Department and the British had this sense: "The Jews have suffered, but so has everybody else in this war, and we can't single out the Jews."
The Jewish organizations in the United States and in Britain said, "The Jews have suffered more than any other group, and they need special treatment."
The American State Department and the United Nations in the beginning said no. The British said: "Absolutely not. The Jews will be treated like everyone else." Well, the Jews were treated like everyone else, and the suffering was intense.
Finally, in July, two months after the war was over, Truman sends a fact-finding mission led by Dean Earl Harrison of the University of Pennsylvania. Harrison was not a Zionist and was not a Jew, and Truman sends him to visit the camps. And Harrison comes back with a report, and he says: "We are treating the Jews just as badly as the Germans did, except we're not exterminating them."
Truman reads this report and writes a letter immediately to Eisenhower and says: "You got to take care of this. This is inhumane. This is impossible. This is un-American." And Eisenhower goes to work.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: That's great.
I want to move to the Cold War aspect of this. Could you say more about the Soviet interest in this whole situation? How does it look from Moscow as they're looking at this problem, and how does this drift into the beginning stages of the Cold War from the East?
DAVID NASAW: The Soviets know that large numbers of collaborators and war criminals have escaped from the East, have escaped from the Baltic nations, from Belarus and from Ukraine, and made their way into Germany. In the book I tell many stories of war criminals and collaborators who throw away their uniforms and all the papers that they have and invent new histories for themselves and find their way into the displaced persons camps. Once in the displaced persons camps they invent past histories: they had been farmers, they had been factory workers.
The Soviets, the Poles, and the Yugoslavs know: (1) there are these war criminals there, and they want to bring them to justice, (2) there is a cauldron of anti-communism in these camps, and it's going to affect the future direction of Europe and the world. Having these dedicated, un-recalcitrant anti-communists and anti-Soviets let loose in the world is going to cause them hardship, (3) the third and maybe most important reason is that the Soviets, Poles, and Yugoslavs have the extraordinary task of rebuilding their nations, and they need every laborer they can get, including the members of the last million who are idle in Germany rather than returning to Poland to rebuild a devastated country.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I want to turn now to the United States. It takes a while—I don't remember exactly when it happens—but there is a bill passed in the United States Congress signed by President Truman for resettlement of refugees here in the United States. It's a couple of years later, it takes time.
But this is the big question, and I am sure everybody will feel this when they're reading the book: Why doesn't the United States—you could talk about the other countries as well, but I will focus on the United States—do more to sort out the war criminals, the collaborators, the Nazis, and others as they begin to issue visas for resettlement in the United States?
DAVID NASAW: For a long time it was felt that the Americans, British, Canadians, and Australians did not keep the war criminals and the collaborators out because they didn't know how to do it. In doing my research I discovered that wasn't the case. In every displaced persons camp there was a historical commission. In Poland the surviving Jews immediately established a historical commission; in Austria the most famous of the Jewish Nazi hunters, Simon Wiesenthal, sets up a commission. They take testimony from the displaced persons. They have long lists. They know who in the camps are the displaced persons and who among the displaced persons are war criminals or collaborators who should be tried. No one consults them. No one gives a damn.
One of the reasons for this is that the memories of world war are obliterated by the fears of Cold War. Hitler has been defeated, so the sentiment is in the United States. The fascists and the Nazis have been defeated. They are not coming back. The danger moving forward is from the Cold War, and this notion that there is such a thing called "totalitarianism" and that Stalin is a latter-day Hitler, the Soviets are the same as the Germans, and we have to turn from fighting one war to fighting the other almost immediately, and so what if some of these displaced persons were Nazi collaborators or were anti-Soviet and fought against the Red Army? So what if they joined the Waffen-SS? They are anti-communist, and we need them now. Let's forget the past and let's move forward.
This happens everywhere. There is a story I tell that stays with me. A group of miners in England—the miners are left-wing, but it doesn't really matter—discover that the Latvian displaced persons who were working with them in the mines have Waffen-SS tattoos, and they threaten to go on strike unless something is done about it. When this gets back to the Labour government, the government says: "Well, what we'll do is we'll keep all the former Waffen-SS soldiers out of the mines, and we'll put them in jobs where they don't have to take off their shirts, and no one will see their tattoos."
In 1951 the Americans change their immigration regulations to let in former members of the Waffen-SS. It's not a pretty picture, and it's because Congress—I don't know about the people on the street—is beset by this Cold War hysteria.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I understand that in the context of the time, the 1940s and into the early 1950s. Right toward the end of the book there is this wave, maybe in the 1980s, or maybe it's just that time goes by, and it's 30 years later, and maybe Simon Wiesenthal becomes more well known, but there is this wave of these famous cases—"Ivan the Terrible" and all these things—that pop up. I think of it during the Reagan years. Is that just a function of time? I'm curious how you read that, where it bubbles up during the Reagan era.
DAVID NASAW: It bubbles up in the United States, and [inaudible] thing about Simon Wiesenthal is that 50 percent of the time he is wrong; he accuses people who he shouldn't accuse. But 50 percent of the time he is right. There is this residue of Nazi hunters who nobody listens to for 30 years, and beginning in the 1970s, reporters and journalists—some of them Jewish, some of them not—look again at what went on 30 years before. There begin to be leaks from the Immigration and Naturalization Service to reporters and to Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, the news that there are in the records of the Immigration and Naturalization Services lists of Nazi collaborators who were let into the country as displaced persons. Because of the crusade of the journalists and of Liz Holtzman and a couple of other congressmen the question is reopened in the United States.
Once the United States begins to look again at what happened 30 years before—How did these people get into the United States? How many are still here? And what can we do about it?—the Canadians, the Australians, and the Brits start the same process. Regrettably it's too late. Even those who were brought to justice had a good 30 years in the United States, their crimes unpunished.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: I want to alert the audience. I have a couple more questions for David, but I do want to encourage those who are watching that if you have a question or a comment to submit them by the Chat function, and we will try to get to those toward the end of the hour.
David, I can't resist asking this question. I'm sure a lot of people are thinking it, and I do want to avoid simple or facile comparisons. We are living in a world now—I looked this up—last year there were 80 million forcibly displaced people in the world. This is a live issue in a different way.
I have to ask you, having spent all this time telling this story: What does it leave you with now as you look at the world today, lessons learned or thoughts you could connect to the situation we find ourselves in today?
DAVID NASAW: One of the tragedies in the present-day situation—let me start with the most obvious, to me at least. In 1943 Roosevelt establishes an international organization because he understands that this is an international problem that requires international cooperation. Until the present administration the United States believed in international cooperation to do something about the refugees.
Having said that, the obligation of the United Nations and its participating nations has been not to repatriate or resettle the refugees but to shelter and feed and supply them with minimal medical assistance in the camps. In the 70 years since the end of the displaced persons camps in Germany, the sense has been that the limits of the world's responsibility is to make sure none of these people starve, not to allow them to lead meaningful lives through repatriation or through resettlement. And this is a tragedy that is only going to get worse.
In my book at the end the only place for the displaced Jews to resettle is an independent Israel. I make the argument that Truman supports the establishment and the independence of Israel because he knows that in order to establish an independent West Germany, which the West needs as the bulwark of an anti-communist coalition, he has to get the Jews out of Germany. There cannot be a West Germany with 250,000 Jews in camps. And the only place he can get them out—he can't get them into the United States—is Israel, so he supports an independent Israel.
But where do those Jews go? Where do the European Jews go? They are settled in rural communities, on agricultural settlements, and in houses and in apartments that have been cleared of Palestinians by the Israeli Army. Or, in the case of those who had left voluntarily, the Israelis refuse to let the Palestinians return. So the problem of the displaced Jews is solved by the displacement of Palestinians, and while I do not want to diminish the suffering of the Jews who end up in Israel, their displacement lasted five years, the displacement of the Palestinians is now into its third generation with no signs of their ever being repatriated or resettled.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: My last question—and I will then turn it over to Alex Woodson, who can maybe tee it up with this first question.
I did want to make note of this theme of aftermaths, the way that you conclude the book. The coda to the book is titled, "Aftermaths." To me that suggests some idea of regeneration or some growth. I guess the tragedy then leads to some redemption in some way, I don't know, or maybe it just spins off another one. Before I let you go and go to the questions, do you have a sense of redemption here, or do you just feel like the cycle—the way you left it there—just repeats itself?
DAVID NASAW: Let me tell two stories quickly, one Peter Beinart told me. There is a new book about the Holocaust and the [inaudible] and it tells about two displaced persons who when they arrive in Israel are sent to an apartment in Haifa, and as they move in they see that the apartment is fully furnished, and they realize that it is theirs because the Palestinians have left. They look at it, and they think about their suffering, and they turn around and leave. They won't live there.
The second story is about a man named Itzhak Lachmann [phonetic] and his wife Lola, who I talk about. I met Itzhak; he was 98. His wife Lola was much younger; she was 96. They had known each other in Poland. They had met in Dachau and got married in Feldafing. The two of them had lost their entire families, suffered immensely in camp after camp after camp, and through the kindness of cousins, their only remaining relatives in the United States, were resettled and relocated. He was a locksmith. They found work for him. They found a home for the family.
Itzhak and Lola raised three kids. They had a large brood of grandchildren come to visit them in their assisted-living facility. At the end of this discussion, I look at Itzhak, and I try to ask a final question. He looks at me, knowing what I'm going to ask. He says: "It's a good life." He said: "I've had a good life. I love my wife. We've been married for 70 years. I love my children. And I will forever thank my cousins in America for finally letting me in."
JOEL ROSENTHAL: Thank you.
I want to make sure we have time for some questions, so I'm going to turn it over to my colleague, Alex Woodson, and he is going to ask on behalf of those who have been writing in. I see the Chat line is really lighting up.
Alex, over to you.
ALEX WOODSON: Great. Thanks, Joel. Thanks, David.
The first question is from Deborah Rogers: "Can you speak about the survival spirit and how people kept hope alive?"
DAVID NASAW: It's an extraordinary story, especially in the Jewish camps, and I don't want to downplay it. The "surviving remnant," as they call themselves, recognized that mourning was a luxury. They would not forget the 6 million, but their task was to resurrect Judaism, not in Europe. They were all clear about that. In exile the anti-communist Poles believed that it was their job, their task, and their mission to resurrect a cultural nationalism, to keep it alive. So the spirit in these displaced persons camps was not one of defeat or victimization but one of preparation for the next stage in their lives, which they hoped and knew would follow.
ALEX WOODSON: This is from David Kent, kind of a personal question: "My father was a Jewish refugee from Austria who escaped to England in 1938 and was interned in Australia from 1940 to 1942 and then returned to England. He came to the United States in May of 1948 but came as a displaced person because the quota for Austria was too small and already filled. How could he have come as a displaced person when the United States didn't pass the Act until June? He definitely came as a displaced person."
DAVID NASAW: I haven't talked about it in this interview, but there was a Truman directive. In large part because he couldn't get the British to move, Truman said that the German and Austrian quotas would be: (1) combined, and (2) he set up offices in and around the displaced persons camps to provide visas under the quotas for those who could establish German or Austrian citizenship in some way. So a small number of German and Austrian Jews were allowed to enter before the Displaced Persons Act. The Germans and Austrians were not considered displaced persons because the displaced persons the United Nations defined as those who had fought against the Germans, the Germans and the Austrians were not displaced persons, but under the Truman directive some of them were allowed to enter the country.
ALEX WOODSON: The next question is from Carnegie Council's Grady Jacobsen in Massachusetts: "We are often taught as children in the United States that the liberation of European Jews from Nazi Germany was a major reason the Allies fought in World War II, but if the Allies were not immediately concerned with the injustice perpetrated on the Jewish people and indeed mistreated them as well, at what point did the attitude toward them change? Do you think it did, or is this idea more a failure of the historical curriculum?"
DAVID NASAW: It's abundantly clear to me that the war was not fought to save the Jews. There is no evidence whatsoever that it was fought to save the Jews. As a matter of fact, Roosevelt and his cabinet went out of their way to discount any word that American boys were being sent over to save Jews. The war was fought for a variety of reasons, but the rescue of the Jews was never part of that. If that is currently in textbooks, then that's just wrong.
When the war was over the common-sensical view is that Americans opened their arms and pocketbooks to save the Jews, who they had not saved during the war—6 million had died but a quarter million remained—and the common-sense view is that, again, we opened our arms and welcomed them. That was not the case. In the end, of those quarter million displaced Jews only about 50,000 came to the United States as displaced persons. Some of those who went to Israel because there was no place else they could go later came to the United States, but the number of displaced Jews who were allowed into this country was minimal compared to the need.
ALEX WOODSON: This is more of a comment from Phyllis Lee: "Non-refoulement is a tenet of international law set up by the United Nations Human Rights Council: 'Going home' could lead to death. There are obligations for receiving countries. Some Jews were forced to settle in Germany sadly, even Israel didn't take in everyone at first. It wasn't until 1955 that Israel was willing to do so."
DAVID NASAW: Yes and no. In the very beginning, Ben-Gurion said, "We will take all the Jews that can come," and Israel set up an organization to bring to Israel the Jews to who had tuberculosis, who were sick, who were infirm. Large numbers of Jews who remained in Germany were those who had gone to Israel, found that they couldn't live there because it was in a state of war, came back to Germany, and there were groups of Orthodox Jews who remained in Germany. But for the most part the Israelis accepted the Jews. There are questions about whether they could have treated them better once they got to Israel, and there was also some resistance to bringing them into the country, but Israel did open its doors. It felt an obligation to take in as many Jews as wanted to come to Israel.
ALEX WOODSON: This question goes back to one of Joel's but is more specific. It is from Carnegie Council's Billy Pickett: "Are there any lessons we can learn from The Last Million when looking at the U.S. border with Mexico?"
DAVID NASAW: Yes. Let me start with two: One, there has to be a fact-based approach. We can't let—just as the Jews were kept out because of this myth that they were Bolsheviks. All of us have to do everything we can to counter this myth of Mexicans who don't want to work hard or are criminals or all Hondurans and Colombians are gang members. There has to be a fact-based realism.
At the same time, humanitarian interests at some point have to override geopolitical interests and political interests and political differences. We have to open our hearts, our souls, and our minds to the crisis on the southern border. There's no sign that that is being done in the current administration. One would hope that it changes.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: We're coming to the end, and I want to make sure David has a chance to sum up.
David, I have a big question. We may have to have a separate conversation over lunch sometime. I don't want to get into counterfactual history, but I know that a big part of the book was you talking about how the war really doesn't end, and it blends into the Cold War. Did you give any thought to a counterfactual about some things that could have been done differently? Maybe it feeds off the answer you just gave, but were we able to go back there in time, seeing Cold War on the horizon, how this problem might have been addressed in a way that would have been more positive and led to perhaps less confrontation with the Soviets?
DAVID NASAW: Yes. I think it would have been possible to cooperate with the Soviets. The Soviets had a lot of the Nazi records. The Soviets also had eyewitnesses from the Baltic States and Ukraine who knew who the war criminals were, and if the Americans had cooperated with the Soviets, war criminals would have been found and brought to justice.
The Americans didn't cooperate with the Soviets because we didn't trust the Soviets, and we were right to, but we didn't have to trust them entirely to enter into some sort of cooperative relationship with them early on, and that was not done. As a result, the Soviets were convinced that we were keeping these war criminals in the camps because they were anti-communists, which was possibly true, and the hostility between the Soviets and the American coalition increased to the point where it was unmanageable.
JOEL ROSENTHAL: We are at the top of the hour, so we have to adjourn this session.
David, thank you very much for spending this time with us. This is one of those books that is another life-changing experience for me. It makes me look at the end of the war in a completely different way. Thank you so much. We will look forward to continuing the conversation in the future.
DAVID NASAW: Thank you. This has been a terrific conversation.