The Long Road Home by Ben Shephard
“An immensely rewarding read” —The Telegraph [UK]
At the end of World War II, long before an Allied victory was assured and before the scope of the atrocities orchestrated by Hitler would come into focus or even assume the name of the Holocaust, Allied forces had begun to prepare for its aftermath. Taking cues from the end of the First World War, planners had begun the futile task of preparing themselves for a civilian health crisis that, due in large part to advances in medical science, would never come. The problem that emerged was not widespread disease among Europe’s population, as anticipated, but massive displacement among those who had been uprooted from home and country during the war.
Displaced Persons, as the refugees would come to be known, were not comprised entirely of Jews. Millions of Latvians, Poles, Ukrainians, and Yugoslavs, in addition to several hundred thousand Germans, were situated in a limbo long overlooked by historians. While many were speedily repatriated, millions of refugees refused to return to countries that were forever changed by the war—a crisis that would take years to resolve and would become the defining legacy of World War II. Indeed many of the postwar questions that haunted the Allied planners still confront us today: How can humanitarian aid be made to work? What levels of immigration can our societies absorb? How can an occupying power restore prosperity to a defeated enemy?
Including new documentation in the form of journals, oral histories, and essays by actual DPs unearthed during his research for this illuminating and radical reassessment of history, Ben Shephard brings to light the extraordinary stories and myriad versions of the war experienced by the refugees and the new United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration that would undertake the responsibility of binding the wounds of an entire continent. Groundbreaking and remarkably relevant to conflicts that continue to plague peacekeeping efforts, The Long Road Home tells the epic story of how millions redefined the notion of home amid painstaking recovery.
Ben Shephard was born in 1948, studied history at Oxford University, and is the author of the critically acclaimed A War of Nerves and After Daybreak. He was producer of the U.K. television series The World at War and The Nuclear Age, and has made numerous historical and scientific documentaries for the BBC and Channel Four. He lives in Bristol, England.
From our Q&A with the author
Q: You write that growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, your father’s closest friends were “a tall, solemn Prussian aristocrat and art historian whose brother had been executed by Hitler; a volatile Belgian painter who had spent time in the Congo; and a wonderful sculptor whose family was of Lithuanian Jewish background.” Did this experience inspire you to write about the refuge crisis that followed WWII?
A: Not directly. My actual starting point was a letter I found in the papers of the London psychoanalyst, John Rickman. Early in 1945, someone from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA)—an organization which when I read the letter I had never heard of—wrote to Rickman, asking whether the techniques of group psychotherapy, which the British Army had developed to help returning Prisoners of War and shell-shocked soldiers to readjust, could be used to help survivors of German concentration camps rehabilitate.
I hadn’t realized that the Allies were planning for the aftermath of the war even as it was going on. That got me into the wider question of why they planned, what they planned for and whether it was effective. The Iraq war made these questions topical.
I soon realized that you also had to go back and look at why there were so many foreigners in Germany in 1945—the whole process of using slave labor—and that the flight of the Germans from the East would also have to be incorporated into the narrative.
By then, distant childhood bells were ringing. Memories, for example, of how my father’s German friend, Jovo von Moltke—whose brother Helmuth von Moltke was executed in 1945—had lost all his family property in East Prussia. Later, when I went to Kaunas (Kovno) in Lithuania and saw the places where the Jews were murdered, I remembered the sculptor, Lippy Lipschitz, whose family (like most South African Jews) came from Lithuania.
I wished then that I had asked these very interesting people about their pasts. But in 1950s Cape Town, you did not talk about the Holocaust; you talked about the Nationalist government’s new policy of apartheid.
(…read the rest)