He had been Mayor of New York for three terms and, before that, a Congressman for a decade; his was one of the most recognised faces in America. But, out of office for three months and away from the limelight, Fiorello LaGuardia was not a contented man. At sixty-three, still full of energy, he was impatient for something significant to do. On 31 March President Truman named him director of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). Though he was hoping for something perhaps more known and with a bigger profile at home, he grabbed the opportunity, telling his supporters that it was one of the most important jobs there could be. And so it was. The world had never seen a bigger refugee crisis, and LaGuardia was the man appointed to deal with it. Soon after accepting the post, ebullient as always, he explained to reporters who were wondering why he had taken the job: ‘Go to the library and ask for a book called the Bible, New Testament, and that will tell you what UNRRA is about.’
UNRRA had been established well before the end of the war. Its aid workers set up camps and hospitals close behind the Allied lines where, as they tried to feed a desperate mass of people, they saw clearly the unprecedented scale of the crisis. They worked with dedication and skill and, considering the chaos and dislocation in post-war Europe, they saved a vast number of lives. Nobody knew for sure until long after the war was over, but UNRRA officials estimated that they would have to deal with around seven million refugees. By the time the camps closed in 1949 it was considerably more than that – around eleven and a half million. And in the spring of 1946 there were still around four million refugees, or displaced persons (DPs), in Europe, the difference being that a displaced person had a home to go to (if it could be found), whereas a refugee was actually homeless. Inevitably, perhaps, the question was one of semantics or nuance: did a survivor of Auschwitz or a slave labourer whose village had been destroyed still have a home?
The DPs included Jews who had survived the concentration camps, prisoners of war from a dozen countries, and – by far the majority throughout 1946 – slave labourers whom the Nazis had transported to Germany. By the end of 1944 Germany’s entire effort, including all industrial output, was dependent on forced labour. Around 18 per cent of the workforce were, effectively, slaves. Most came from the Soviet Union (1.7 million) and Poland (700,000) and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. But at least half a million were French and many thousands were from Norway, Holland and Belgium. Technically, those from Western Europe weren’t ‘enforced’ labourers, but more often than not they were made to sign employment papers at gunpoint. After the war, feeding them, keeping them safe and sending them home was an immense task. UNRRA was doing its best, but it was becoming bogged down; hence the need to appoint someone with the flair and drive of Fiorello LaGuardia.
LaGuardia’s predecessor was Herbert Lehman, scion of the banking firm Lehman Brothers, and a great friend of Franklin Roosevelt, whom he had succeeded as Governor of New York when Roosevelt was elected President in 1932. According to one of his officials, Lehman delivered ‘a mini New Deal in New York State, which combined welfare provisions generous by American standards with financial orthodoxy’. He was a major philanthropist and organiser of various Jewish charities, which is partly why Roosevelt appointed him. ‘I want to see some of those goddamned fascists begging for subsistence from a Jew,’ the President said, while also saying that Lehman was able, decent, and full of integrity.
A friend described Lehman as a ‘very nice, comfortable man, like a brown bear, swinging his little legs from the chair. Honest, brave, but slow . . . somewhat lacking in charisma’. Others were less charitable. British officials concluded that he was ‘ineffective’, according to a report to the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, that he was ‘an indifferent organiser, lacking in guts or common sense.’ Dean Acheson, the Under-Secretary of State, liked Lehman personally, but would not have appointed him to a big job: ‘Governor Lehman has never shown any understanding of what is required. The simplest executive task was beyond him.’ The dynamic and colourful LaGuardia could not have been more different. A ‘Roosevelt Republican’ who supported the New Deal, he was also a legendary campaigner against Tammany Hall corruption. Only five foot two, heavily overweight and, on the face of it, unprepossessing, on the stump he was an attractive crowd-pleasing showman and, in his prime, a brilliantly effective organiser. His was a classic American Dream story. He knew a great deal about refugees from personal experience. The son of an Italian musician father and a Jewish mother, he grew up on various military bases in the American West and Midwest before returning to Europe in his early teens with his parents. His family established themselves in Trieste, then the principal port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. LaGuardia was a gifted linguist, fluent in Italian, German, Hungarian, Serbo-Croat, Yiddish, and Romanian, as well as English.
His first job, at age seventeen, was as an interpreter in the US Consulate in Trieste. Six years later, in 1906, he returned to America to attend law school, financing himself by acting as a translator on Ellis Island. After graduation, he built up a busy law practice in a poor neighbourhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Relentlessly ambitious, he became a Republican politician at a time when the Democratic Party machine ran both New York State and its greatest city amidst a stew of graft and corruption. Nonetheless, during the First World War, he rose to become New York’s Attorney-General.
LaGuardia could be charming and witty, and was patently sincere about cleaning up politics in New York. From 1934 until 1945 he was one of the most effective mayors in the city’s modern history, but he could also be a bully, rude and difficult to work with; even one of his great admirers, Averell Harriman, described his style as ‘ranting, fist waving, screaming, and . . . irresponsible’. He was generally liked, at times loved, by the public, who recognised his guts and authenticity, but disliked by his peers. Robert Caro, an early biographer, commented: ‘Men who distrusted excess distrusted him . . . he did not hesitate to play melting-pot politics, to wave the bloody flag, to appeal in one of the . . . languages in which he could harangue an audience to the insecurities, resentments and prejudices of the ethnic groups in immigrant communities . . . His naked ambition for high office, his cockiness, truculence and violent temper . . . repelled.’
He spoke out loudly against fascism and communism, but was disappointed to be given only a minor role in the wartime administration, as head of civil defence. Roosevelt had supported him, despite his Republican ticket, as Mayor of New York, but did not trust him with a high-profile post of the kind he coveted. Truman, when he became President, could see LaGuardia’s merits, but he wanted to back a Democrat for what looked like being a tight mayoral race in 1945. LaGuardia thought that without cross-party support he would lose, and so he retired, frustrated.
Whatever he thought about the UNRRA post when Truman offered it, once installed he put his massive energy behind the job, and above all his flair for publicity. The organisation badly needed both. He toured camps tirelessly, inspiring aid workers, as well as ensuring good photo-ops; towards the end of July 1946 he was pictured, famously, in Milan with the great conductor Toscanini. At home, he was a master of the political hard sell, understanding voters’ concerns about rampant spending abroad. But when LaGuardia spoke about the responsibility of Americans to help in an unprecedented humanitarian disaster, people listened. Asked what he could do for the needy, he replied, ‘Provide fast-moving ships, not slow-moving promises.’
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Aid has always gone hand in hand with politics and so it was in 1946. The bigger and more expensive the problem, the more the politicians are involved. UNRRA had been set up by Roosevelt and Churchill at the start of 1944 with a huge budget of $10 billion. The Americans contributed three-quarters of the money, Britain and Canada the rest. The US had learned some lessons from American Relief Administration, established after the First World War, which had been deemed a failure both at home and abroad. That was partly through no fault of its own; the ARA had been overwhelmed by the problems arising from the 1919 influenza epidemic, which killed more than twelve million people in Europe alone, and rather more in Asia. But after 1918, aid had arrived too slowly – and had come with too many strings attached. The relief effort was soon bogged down in domestic politics, too. Some American states refused to give any money if it was allocated for foreign aid, and the US refused to coordinate relief efforts even with its allies. As a result America lost much of the goodwill in Europe that it had earned during the First World War.
This time it would be different. Relief was a key part of the Allies’ post-war plans and America was determined to work collaboratively with other countries. Roosevelt was aware of the pitfalls, however. At the end of 1943, a report from relief experts and State Department officials had warned, ‘Even if all the supplies came from the United States we ought not to play “Lady Bountiful” and expect the world to thank us for being so rich. It would make much better sense to take part in an international body which will decide where and how supplies would go.’
In practice, though, it did not always work out quite like that. There was muddle and confusion as one UNRRA official, the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, who had been drafted into the civil service during the war, admitted. Like so many others, she joined in a flush of idealism – in her case after her boyfriend, Frank Thompson, a young Special Operations Executive officer, was killed in the Balkans. The London office, according to Murdoch, ‘was rather too full of inept British civil servants (me for instance) uncoordinated foreigners with special ideas and an imperfect command of English . . . the result [was] pretty fair chaos . . . There were very many noble-hearted good-natured . . . people’ drained by ‘the general flood of mediocrity and muddle.’ Murdoch also anticipated potential international tensions – UNRRA was ‘not run by bowler hats from Ealing . . . who behave approximately like gentlemen but by the citizens of Milwaukee and Cincinnati and New Haven, Connecticut, let loose in their myriads to deal a death blow to tottering Europe.’
More to the point, UNRRA’s workload was considerably greater than expected. Originally it was supposed to send 250 teams of aid workers to help 7.7 million people, mainly in Germany. Within three months 450 teams were needed – and despatched. In some camps conditions were very poor, and continued to be so for a long time. F. S. V. Donovan, a senior official in the British military government, wrote to his superiors in Whitehall:
The actuality of conditions in the centres fell sadly short of the hopes and excitement that had filled [the DPs] when they knew the War was over and they had been liberated . . . Accommodation was often damaged and squalidly patched up with salvaged or improvised material. Water, electricity and sanitation were scarce. In the circumstances of the time such conditions were inescapable. They were better than those of many Germans, but in . . . [many] respects displaced persons were frequently worse off than they had been under the Nazis.
There were severe shortages of food, too. Kathryn Hulme, director of the Bavarian DP camps in the American zone, described in a letter home to a friend the ‘scramble for food’ when Red Cross parcels arrived at one camp:
It is hard to believe that some shining tins of meat paste and sardines could almost start a riot. . . that bags of Lipton’s tea and tins of [instant] coffee and bars of vitaminised chocolate could drive men almost insane with desire. But this is so. This is as much a part of the destruction of Europe as are the gaunt ruins of Frankfurt. Only this is the ruin of the human soul. It is a thousand times more painful to see.
There was constant tension between the military and the politicians, and between the soldiers and the aid workers. At first, the task of setting up the camps and feeding the hungry was borne by British and American troops, most of whom had, only a few weeks earlier, been devoted to killing and now had to perform peacetime roles for which they were not trained. They were soon criticised for handling the task with iron discipline, as if it were a military operation.
President Truman wrote to General Eisenhower, saying he had heard the criticisms and asking if there was any truth behind the charges. He wanted a report on conditions in the camps. Eisenhower resented the attacks but replied with a temperate letter, in which he admitted that, ‘In certain instances we have fallen below standards. But I should like to point out that a whole army has been faced with the intricate problem of adjusting from combat to mass repatriation . . . and then to . . . unique welfare problems.’
Most of the camps were staffed by the forces until the end of 1946, when there were enough UNRRA workers in place to take over. Armies were not trained in relief work and soldiers did not always know how to deal with camp inmates. Frequently it was the officers, who were used to issuing orders, who understood the least, ‘The default position was to regard it as a logistical problem rather than a humanitarian one,’ an administrator at one camp concluded. Francesca Wilson, a British nurse at a camp in Bavaria, recalled losing her temper with an officer who had barked out orders to get children moved from one camp to another with no notice. She told him: ‘I hate the army. Why don’t you go and fight someone? Why do you meddle with civilians, with peaceable human beings? They are counters to you. You think you can move mothers and babies and sick people as you can move companies of men and batteries of guns in war. Why don’t you stick with something you understand.’
Another nurse was appalled by an American commanding officer of a camp who issued new hygiene rules ‘by coercive and disciplinary action’, with threats of sanctions if they were disobeyed. Anyone who dropped litter, or left clothing hanging on pegs, was disciplined; men who refused work were arrested, including concentration camp survivors and others who had been slave labourers for the Nazis. Women were forcibly tested for venereal disease. ‘The army’s talent for relief work could hardly be called top-flight,’ she complained. The soldiers were often equally dismissive of the UNRRA teams, with Field Marshal Montgomery alleging that UNRRA was ‘quite unable to do the job’.
Many American soldiers and politicians resented paying the bulk of the cost of the camps, particularly when there were well publicised cases of gross wastefulness, farcical mismanagement or misjudgement and, occasionally, straightforward corruption. ‘An international racket . . . whose main purpose was the sustenance of . . . political groups such as Communists’, said a report commissioned by some isolationists in Congress.
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A study by British psychologists of former forced labourers from Eastern Europe in the refugee camps in the summer of 1946 found that, far from being happy to be free, large numbers, perhaps the majority, were ‘bitter and touchy. The gratitude some of the UNRRA administrators and soldiers expected was not there; instead there was increased restlessness, complete apathy, loss of initiative and a great, sullen suspicion towards all authority. Many . . . [are so] cynical that nothing done even by helpful people is regarded as genuine or sincere.’ This reaction seems highly predictable, but both the military and UNRRA soon gave it a name: ‘Liberation Complex’.
The Polish novelist Tadeusz Nowakowski spent more than a year in one of the displaced persons’ camps. He said later that he would be forever grateful to the aid workers who helped to save his life and that of so many others, but he romanticises nothing in his harrowing novel Camp of All Saints. At a crucial moment in the narrative, his hero says, ‘Suffering . . . never unites people. It only separates them; only joy can bring them together. There is no fraternity in defeat . . . the only fraternity is in victory. Nor is there such a thing as a brotherhood of arms or a common feeling based on sharing the same war experiences, the same camps and prisons. Contrary to all clichés about how suffering and injustice ennoble their victims, experiences that originate in moral defeat do not bring people together.’
Post-traumatic stress syndrome was not at the time a recognised condition, but many refugees were clearly suffering from it. Marta Karman, a Polish émigré working in the British sector, discerned a pattern.
A problem a great number of the DPs had was counterbalancing the reality that was always extremely hard and often sordid and horrible for them, by calling up daydreams of their past lives until they were almost certain that, the moment they were liberated, they would find themselves in the same happy, beautiful world they knew before the war. All their past difficulties would be forgotten, freedom would take them back to a world where nothing had gone wrong . . . a paradise in which all people were good, all wives loving, all mothers-in-law charming, all husbands faithful and all homes beautiful. There was no unemployment, poverty, unhappiness. Instead of returning to paradise they found themselves in many cases in worse conditions than they were before. Long periods of inactivity gave them time to reflect . . . seeing their reality . . . and their hopes for a better life destroyed, most seek escape into drink or sex. Can anyone be surprised at the licence found in the camps.
The logistical problems in the camps were exacerbated by the extraordinarily high birth rate. By the middle of 1946, 750 babies a month were born in camps in the American Occupation zone. A third of the Jewish women in the DP camps aged between eighteen and forty-five had already given birth or were pregnant. Many aid workers – often from religious organisations – expressed shock that the camps were sites of feverish sexual activity, even BergenBelsen, where thousands of people had suffered under the Nazis.
The diary of one well-known volunteer, Francesca Wilson, contains a few brief comments about conditions in the camps but pages about how the displaced persons, particularly the women, ‘gave themselves up to debauch without restraint’. A French doctor working for UNRRA explained it partly as a result of boredom – what else was there to do in internment camps? Nevertheless, he went on to say that ‘the moral standards of many of these women is very low . . . sexual irregularity has reached appalling proportions.’ But even so, there were mitigating circumstances. These young women, especially survivors of concentration camps, ‘had lived through hell and are now . . . [overwhelmed] by an irresistible desire for affection and forgetfulness which they seek to satisfy with every means at their disposal.’
There was a more basic biological explanation, too: survival of the race. Most of the Jews in the refugee camps were not survivors of the concentration camps – there were few of those. But somehow or other, they had escaped the Nazis and they had all lost family and loved ones. They craved new ties, a new generation to live for. As one historian of UNRRA’s work put it: ‘Sex was not just a pleasure . . . it was an act of defiance against extinction.’
From 1946: THE MAKING OF THE MODERN WORLD. Used with permission of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2015 by Victor Sebestyen.