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Postwar refugees: nowhere to go for Christmas

Millions of men, women and children across Europe spent Christmas 1946 in a Displaced Persons camp – far from the homes they had been forced to leave during the Second World War. Fiona Reid relates how Quaker relief workers in the camps hatched a plan for a spiritual celebration to unite refugees of all nationalities.

Party For Orphans
Published: December 23, 2010 at 5:00 am
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This article was first published in the Christmas 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine


It was Christmas 1946 and the congregation had filled the old Marktkirche in Goslar, south-east of Hannover. As the bells began to peal, 50 small children waited anxiously in the transept. When the bells stopped, the lights were dimmed, the organ music began and the children started to sing the German carol Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen (A Rose has Blossomed). Behind them there were three tall angels, looking for Bethlehem. “Here is the place where the sign shall be raised,” announced the first angel, in Ukrainian. “Here is the place where the sign shall be raised,” repeated the second, in Polish. “Here is the place where the sign shall be raised,” repeated the third angel, this time in German. The Quaker nativity play had begun.

Why were the Quakers staging a multilingual nativity play in the British zone of Germany, well over a year after the war had ended? Quite simply, it was because the Displaced Persons’ (DP) camps were still full. In May 1945 there were about seven million displaced people in Europe. Among them were forced labourers from the occupied territories, concentration camp survivors, ‘racially pure’ children who had been kidnapped as breeding material, and women who had been brought in to work in German brothels. There were also the Volksdeutsche – German-speaking peoples from eastern Europe who had initially been welcomed into the Reich – plus Cossacks, Ukrainians and Balts, some of whom had been so oppressed by Stalin that they had chosen to serve under Hitler. By the spring of 1945 it was clear that they had made the wrong choice.

‘Displaced Person’ was a newly coined phrase. It implied that the displaced just had to be replaced – that is, returned to their country of origin, and then all would be well. Yet it was not so simple. A large number of people did want to go home, and did so rapidly. Others did not. Citizens from the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia refused to return to countries now controlled by the Soviet Union. Ukrainians felt much the same. Poles were initially keen to go home but their enthusiasm waned rapidly as rumours of Soviet oppression began to reach the camps. Yugoslavs loyal to the king were similarly reluctant to go back to Tito’s socialist Yugoslavia.

Party For Orphans
Children whose parents perished in Nazi concentration camps have a Christmas party at Berlin. Various Berlin handicraft guilds made the children's presents - stuffed animals, motor cars, trains, and so on - and 100 orphans were chosen to receive them. (Getty Images)

Nowhere to go

Many surviving Jews thought that Europe was completely unsafe and could never again be considered as home. According to the Yalta accords, those who had been Soviet citizens in September 1939 could be forced to return to the USSR but others could not. These ‘others’ remained in DP camps. Some hoped for political change in their home countries; others aspired to new lives in faraway countries like the USA, Canada, Palestine or Australia. Yet moving to a new country was difficult. Governments across the world were reluctant to take in immigrants, and they only wanted those who were young and fit. By 1946 people had started talking about the ‘hard core’ of DPs: those who were ill, or who were too old or too young, or had too many dependants. They could not move because no government wanted them. In Punch’s words, the DPs were now ‘Displeased People’.

It had all seemed so hopeful in 1945. After previous wars displaced civilians had been left to fend for themselves or had relied on a patchwork of private charities. This time it was to be different, and in 1943 the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was established to ensure swift, well-coordinated aid to the distressed civilians of the postwar world. Smaller voluntary organisations played an important role too. Quaker-organised groups – the Friends’ Relief Service (FRS) and the American Friends’ Service Committee – were especially significant because of their universal approach. UNRRA had been formed to help exclusively “the victims of German and Japanese aggression” but Friends were committed to helping all in distress, believing that this was the only way to promote peace.

There was real cause for celebration in the first Christmas after the war. Kathryn Hulme, an UNRRA welfare worker, described the excitement at Wildflecken DP camps as 12,000 Poles prepared to celebrate “six Christmases rolled into one”. UNRRA staff opened thousands of Red Cross parcels and distributed chocolate to all the women and children, and cigarettes to all the men. The DPs threw parties, feasting on hoarded rations and black market supplies. Everyone was making schnapps and there were frequent cases of facial burns when people “peered into their homemade stills too early”.

Celebrations were more sedate at the DP hospital in Bad Harzburg. Patients were outside enjoying the unseasonal sunshine when the Quakers arrived to give them gifts of soap, cigarettes, chocolate, hairpins, powder puffs, tooth brushes and boot polish. All were hard to find in postwar Germany, even on the black market.

It was not only the DPs who were excited about the first peacetime Christmas. Elizabeth Bayley, a young FRS worker based in Schleswig, revelled in the food and the festivities. She had wine, sweet cakes, oranges, stewed apples, eggs, duck, pudding, mince pies and fruit jelly. “How piggish that sounds” she wrote, aware of strict rationing at home in England. Elizabeth Bayley also loved celebrating in Germany after all the dreadful war years: “The Germans know how to catch the spirit of Christmas. There is none of the horrid commercialism and artificiality of English preparations and yet the custom of Christmas trees etc are observed by absolutely everyone. It is simpler but more genuine.”

Christmas spirit

By Christmas 1946 there were fewer parties in the camps and some Quakers seized the opportunity to restore the spiritual element to Christmas and to bind all the different nationalities together, overcoming the petty quarrels of DP life. Elizabeth Bayley had first become alarmed when she found a fairly new, beautifully illustrated book of carols.

“It was a perfect example of the best in German art for children, every page with delightful little pictures of Christmas trees, Father Christmases, candles and gnomes. For some hours I was entranced by it. Then I began to feel something was missing. Where for example was Stille Nacht and O du Fröhliche? Gradually I realised it – it was a completely pagan book. Not a single picture of the Christkind or of an angel, not a single mention of the first Christmas.”

“Hateful book!” she concluded. Her friend and co-worker Margaret McNeil was equally committed to reinvigorating a properly Christian celebration of Christmas, and had some tussles with the DP schoolteachers over the 1946 nativity play. The little girls were excited about dressing-up and the teachers were encouraging them to think “in terms of bare arms and stars in the hair”. McNeil, a Presbyterian within the FRS, was forthright with them and delivered an impassioned speech, “emphasising the profound difference between angels and fairies”.

Quakers hoped that the DPs, the occupying powers and the local German population could all be united at Christmas: Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christians could surely celebrate the birth of Christ together? An Orthodox priest at first protested. Orthodox Christians use the Julian calendar, and his children would be confused if they were forced to celebrate Christmas two weeks early. An FRS worker persuaded him that timing did not matter and that the Quakers would happily “celebrate Christmas on every day of the year”. She had won her moral point and the Orthodox Christians joined in with the rest.

Postwar Europe was racked with all sorts of shortages in food, fuel and basic supplies. So celebrating Christmas in the DP camps really stretched all the essential skills that were needed to survive in the DP world: namely scrounging, stealing and making-do. DPs made stage curtains from British army blankets; in Goslar they borrowed musical instruments from the local mine workers’ band; at the Marktkirche the Virgin Mary looked ethereal in a blue cloak only because the pastor’s wife had donated her sitting-room curtains. At Mojtinny in Poland the children were dressed in a magnificent array of costumes, the result of a Quaker assault on at a least a dozen different clothing bales. These improvisations were not always successful. One of the DPs initially complained that the men kitted out in surgical gowns looked more like butchers than angels. Yet they carried on undaunted, and in dreadful conditions. The winter of 1946–7 was severe and power cuts were common: when rehearsing for the Marktkirche nativity play, the organist had to practise in a church so cold that someone had to hold a lamp over her hands.

Light in the darkness

Christmas festivities were fun and they gave DPs some sense of purpose. The children rehearsing their Christmas dance in shabby surroundings at Mojtinny look lively, enthusiastic and proud. In contrast, a quick glance at their audience – largely tired, worn women and young children – gives us a glimpse into the weariness of everyday DP life. Even more significantly, at Christmas the roles in the camps were reversed and DPs were able to give gifts to the relief workers. These were often in the form of specially prepared national dishes. Latvian DPs gave Quakers an enormous cake and numerous pairs of hand-knitted gloves. Sometimes the presents were substantial. Elizabeth Bayley and her colleague Tim Evens were touched to receive fine, handmade boots from some DPs – although they realised that the boots must have been made from black market leather.

The Christmas story is one of homelessness, fear, oppression and, ultimately, hope. It was an ideal vehicle for the articulation of DP grief. At the Marktkirche nativity play the first king was played by a Cossack. He had fought in the revolution of 1917, had left Russia during the civil war and had been wandering the world ever since. It was impossible for him to return to the Soviet Union, and when he called out, “Alas! We are impoverished!” he did so with genuine anguish. Yet without denying the unhappiness of the DPs, Quakers wanted to stress that Christmas really was a time of hope. At the Marktkirche six children, all dressed as angels, sat around a Christmas tree and recited a speech: “I remember, before our homes were destroyed, before our parents were killed or taken away, before the war made everything so unhappy – I remember that we used to have trees like this little tree and we sang and were happy.”

Each child spoke in turn so that the words were heard in Ukrainian, Polish, German, Lithuanian, Estonian and Latvian. After the last speech the Christmas tree lights were turned on, lighting up the world for the future.

Quakers wanted to use Christmas to promote international co-operation, especially between the DPs and the now-defeated Germans. Before the 1946 nativity play at Mojtinny, the German and the Polish children had never talked to each other. Similarly, at the Marktkirche, the local Germans joined in with the DPs for the first time. According to Margaret McNeil, there was no hint of unpleasantness between the different groups: “Nationalities were forgotten.”

Yet nationalities were not really forgotten. By celebrating national traditions DPs were creating a link with the lost homeland, and reinvigorating cultures that Hitler had tried to destroy. So the Polish children at Vienenburg camp celebrated St Nicholas’s day on 6 December 1946, children in various national costumes sang alongside the angels at the Marktkirche, and the Hungarian Bandura band put on a special Christmas performance. International rivalries did exist and were often evident. Margaret McNeil complained that the Poles would insist on singing for longer than anyone else, and the Virgin Mary had to be played by a Quaker, to avoid “the hysterical jealousy which the choice of a DP or a German would cause”.

When DPs created their own Christmas celebrations they tended to be highly nationalistic. At Christmas 1946 the Lithuanian festival featured national dances, songs and poems. Santa Claus appeared briefly but the production served mainly to mourn the collective loss. In the words of one of the children: “I’m still so little, like a lonely bird. Without my native country, without a home.”

Nationalism was sometimes expressed more forcefully. In 1946, Polish DPs celebrated Christmas with the traditional coffee, cake, schnapps, and long fiery speeches. The guests – Quakers and a British officer – applauded enthusiastically along with everyone else. Only later did the interpreter confess that the speaker had exhorted the DPs to return home soon, with their weapons in their hands, to chase out the Russians. This was not a message the guests wanted to endorse.

These DP Christmas celebrations give us some insight into the postwar world. Hostilities had ended but the problems of war continued and many lives were still blighted by displacement and deprivation. They also give us a foretaste of the Cold War to come: DPs from the east were deeply hostile to the Soviet Union. Christmas gave them a brief respite from it all. In Elizabeth’s Bayley’s words: “Thank goodness they could have some time to be gay in, for I fear the coming year is not going to be a happy one for them.”


Fiona Reid is a senior lecturer in European history at the University of Glamorgan.


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