“In May 1945, Pavel Mandl, a Polish Jew recently liberated from a concentration camp, lands near a displaced persons camp in the British occupation zone of newly defeated Germany. Alone, possessing nothing but a map, a few tins of food, a toothbrush, and his identity papers, he must scrape together a new life in a chaotic community of refugees, civilians, and soldiers.
Gifted with a talent for black-market trading, Pavel soon procures clothing, false documents, and a modest house, where he installs himself and a pair of fellow refugees—Fela, a young widow who fled Poland for Russia at the outset of the war, and Chaim, a resourceful teenage boy whose smuggling skills have brought him to the Western zones. The trio soon form a makeshift family, searching for surviving relatives, railing against their circumscribed existence, and dreaming of visas to America.
Fifteen years later, haunted by decisions they made as “DPs,” Pavel and Fela are married and living in Queens with their young son and daughter, and Chaim has recently emigrated from Israel with his wife, Sima. Pavel opens a small tailoring shop with his scheming brother-in-law while Fela struggles to establish peace in a loosely traditional household; Chaim and Sima adapt cheerfully to American life and its promise of freedom from a brutal past. Their lives are no longer dominated by the need to endure, fight, hide, or escape. Instead, they grapple with past trauma in everyday moments: taking the children to the municipal pool, shopping for liquor, arguing with landlords.
For decades, Pavel, Fela, and Chaim battle over memory and identity on the sly, within private groups of survivors. But as the Iron Curtain falls in the 1990s, American society starts to embrace the tragedy as a cultural commodity, and survivor politics go public. Clever and stubborn, tyrannical and generous, Pavel, Fela, and Chaim articulate the self-conscious strivings of an immigrant community determined to write its own history, on its own terms.”
Thoughts: For many schoolchildren, Holocaust survivors were rescued by the Allies, and they lived happily ever after. This is the extent to which history books discuss the plight of the Jews and other political prisoners deemed unworthy to survive by the Nazi regime. Ghita Schwartz’ Displaced Persons disabuses this notion and showcases just what did happen to the hundreds of thousands of people from whom everything had been taken. It is by turns thrilling, thought-provoking, and always informative, as it shows a people continuing to struggle to survive.
The end of the war was not just devastating to the people of Germany. For those who survived the concentration camps, the end of the war still meant being detained in camps for those without family or home. In other words, nothing really changed. They continued to be at the mercy of soldiers, albeit British or American ones and without the fear of death. There was little money and little food. More importantly, they remained unwanted, not only by Germans and Polish, but also by Americans and the British, both of whom limited the number of refugees they would allow into their borders. Yet, in spite of this ongoing miserable treatment, people like Pavel and Chaim, Fela and Hinda begin to rise and to recover.
Displaced Persons begins to falter once all of the characters make their way to New York. It is at this point in time where their stories become less dramatic and enthralling. What was a fascinating study in sociology and human nature becomes something more mundane as they each struggle to find happiness and overcome the sense of not belonging anywhere. Their stories are told in little vignettes with jumps through time, sometimes spacing several years. There seems to be no continuity to these jumps other than to show how long-lasting the pain of the past really is and how it influences future generations. The details remain murky, as each advance in time comes with the sense of visiting someone you haven’t seen in years but have no time to spend catching up before diving into everyday life. There is an impression of unfamiliarity with each jump that is disconcerting to the reader and interrupting the flow of the narrative.
When you have seen and experienced the worst that one human can do towards another, how do you recover from that? The short answer, based on Pavel’s, Chaim’s, Fela’s, and the others’ experiences, is that you don’t. The long answer, as discovered in Displaced Persons, is that recovery means different things for different people. Some became criminals, some ignored the past, others harbored fear or anger or both, and yet others developed a profound need for family and security. While their stories are interesting, Displaced Persons shines brightest when it tells the stories in the displaced persons camps. These are the stories that show how fragile and yet how very strong these survivors truly were. The rest of the novel tends to drag, ruining the impact of what could have been an amazing novel.