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The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War

What became of 15 million displaced citizens at the end of World War II?

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Another enormous problem was that many refugees, especially those from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, had no desire to be repatriated because they feared – often with good reason – the consequences once they arrived. And at least some of them preferred death to repatriation: “Americans,” notes Shephard, “found it incomprehensible when Soviet refugees targeted for extradition bit each other’s jugular veins rather than submit to repatriation.” Before long, “forced repatriation" was ended – something that exacerbated tensions between the Soviet Union (which wanted all its “citizens” returned immediately) and the West and prolonged the refugee crisis. As late as 1947, there were still more than a million people in the camps.

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A central theme running through the story is the Holocaust. While a refugee crisis was expected, the allies were genuinely unprepared for the industrialized genocide they discovered at the concentration camps. The relatively small number of Jews who survived the camps always had far more complex health and psychological needs than other refugees and the question of resettling them was much more intractable. After much debate and controversy, many would immigrate to Israel. However, Shephard makes clear that their treatment – in the camps, in transit to their new home, and after arrival in Israel – left much to be desired.

Shephard tells the story of this complex and often overlooked aspect of the post-World War II era clearly and effectively. His research is exhaustive and draws equally on official documents and personal accounts such as memoirs and oral histories. The result is a compelling volume that combines the experiences of those who organized and provided the relief efforts and those who received them. This is a complex story, but Sheppard tells it thoroughly and effectively.

Readers will be alternatively amazed, horrified, shocked and, occasionally, inspired.

Given the enormity of the postwar refugee problem, one question that remains is why this important episode is so little recognized or discussed today. The answer is two-fold. First, issues from the immediate postwar period fall into a small space between two of the major tectonic plates of the 20th century: World War II and the Cold War. And second, over time, as the horror and magnitude of the Holocaust grew in public consciousness, attention to the refugee crisis receded from memory. Thanks to Sheppard’s important and valuable book, this important chapter of recent history will now receive more attention and analysis.

Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.

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