President Truman and the Jewish DPs, 1945-46: The Untold Story

By Schiff, Mel | American Jewish History, October 2015 | Go to article overview

President Truman and the Jewish DPs, 1945-46: The Untold Story


Schiff, Mel, American Jewish History


Accounts of how the administration of President Harry S. Truman treated Jewish displaced persons (DPs) at the close of World War II allude to "operational support" of the clandestine Jewish exodus from Europe to British Mandate Palestine. While the recognition of the State of Israel in 1948 is a well-known legacy of Truman's, did he participate in the formation years of modern Israel prior to that time? And, particularly, did he support what became known as the 20th-century Jewish exodus from Europe to British Mandate Palestine? If so, why has this not been part of the American history dialogue of the post-World War II and Holocaust eras?

For decades, Americans have heard their presidents, and even presidential candidates, support the State of Israel with ubiquitous phrases such as calling Israel "the only democracy in the Middle East" and "America's ally" and noting that Israel's population has turned deserts into farmland and developed high tech industries. Regardless of international and domestic setbacks, the expected phrases pour forth consistently from the major political parties. Is this phenomenon simply a quest for political advantage, or is there a historic, raison d'etre underlying the American connection to Israel?

When he was a presidential candidate in 1960, John F. Kennedy stated that "Israel was not created in order for it to disappear--Israel will endure and flourish." (1) Twenty-two years later, President Ronald Reagan remarked, "Back in 1948, when Israel was founded, pundits claimed the new country could never survive." (2) Rather than refer to Truman's "recognition of the State of Israel in 1948," which is usually the touchstone of American support for Israel, they utilized the words "created" and "founded," which naturally preceded Truman's historic recognition.

Truman's behind-the-scene role is still not yet part of the American recollection of mid-20th-century history because Truman wanted it to be kept secret for many years, as this paper notes, and all of the participating entities, governmental and civilian, cooperated in that effort. Soon after Truman became president, his humanitarian concern for the people who had suffered most under the Nazi regime led him to become not only a primary motivator and facilitator in the major rehabilitation programs for Jewish displaced persons, but also, most significantly, a moving force in the clandestine exodus of thousands of Jews from Europe to British Mandate Palestine during several years prior to 1948.

Search and Uncover: "The Untold Story" Revealed

Truman's actions regarding the Jewish DPs has remained a truly untold story, primarily because of a cryptic statement that appears in both of Truman's memoirs:

"For reasons of national security and out of consideration for some people still alive, I have omitted certain material. Some of this material cannot be made available for many years, perhaps for many generations." (3)

Documents now available shed light on Truman's actions and their rationale. The implementation of Truman's policy supported Gen. Mark Clark, commander of the American Zone of Austria, in cooperating with refugee aid organizations. Those organizations included the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the Joint, or the JDC); the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA); and agents of the clandestine Mossad LeAliyah Bet, defined as "the Committee for Illegal Immigration." (4) While all participated to improve the lives of thousands of Jewish DPs encamped in Austria's American Zone, they also partnered with the United States in underground operations to facilitate the transit of Jews through Austria in their quest to reach British Palestine.

The Jewish Non-repatriables

Millions of refugees were spread throughout Europe when, on May 5, 1945, Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower directed all DPs to remain in place and await orders. …

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