Postwar Europe: A Haunting Horror (1946)

In January 1946, Eleanor Roosevelt traveled to Great Britain as a delegate to the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.  Assigned to Committee Three (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Committee), she quickly became embroiled in the most controversial issue of the session: the repatriation of the thousands of displaced persons languishing in refugee camps. Some of these refugees had come from areas controlled by the Soviets and feared reprisals and death if they returned home; others were Jewish survivors of the Nazi concentration camps who could not or did not want to return to their homes. Still others had been displaced because the boundaries of their countries had shifted or because they were now considered politically or ethnically undesirable. Among this latter group were ethnic Germans who had been expelled from their homes in the east.  Foreign workers, most of whom had been forced to leave their homes to work in Germany, were also among the displaced, as were some prisoners of war.  All these people were pouring into the western sectors of Germany where the Allies had organized facilities to house and feed them. By December 1945, a million displaced persons had reached the western zones, and that number would continue to grow as the Soviets tightened their grip on Eastern Europe and as anti-Semitism in Poland, southeastern Europe and the Soviet Union increased.

At the United Nations, the Soviet Union favored forcible repatriation of all displaced people while the United States and its allies argued for voluntary repatriation.  As the principal American delegate assigned to the issue, ER successfully argued the Allied position on voluntary reparation twice: once in Committee Three and again when the issue came up in the General Assembly. Ultimately, the General Assembly rejected an amendment to a resolution on refugees that would have called for the “immediate” return of “any war criminals disguised as refugees.” The documents in this section describe ER’s work at the UN as well as her reactions to a whirlwind trip to Germany she made toward the end of the first session of the General Assembly.

ER had predicted that her German trip would be a “haunting horror.” What she actually found, however, “appalled” her. The country was in ruins. “I was stunned…when the pilot…circled the ruins of Cologne and Frankfurt and other places that I remembered as great and crowded cities,” she wrote in her memoir, On My Own.  “Later when we circled Munich and then looked down on the rubble of Berlin I felt that nobody could have imagined such utter, horrible destruction.”  

Conditions were even grimmer on the ground.  At the end of the war Nazi Germany had been divided into four zones each administered by one of the victorious governments: the US, Great Britain, France or the Soviet Union. After a brief period of cooperation, the political situation had begun to deteriorate.  By the time ER arrived in February 1946, a stalemate was emerging with Soviets controlling East Germany and the Allies combining their zones to create what eventually would become the Federal Republic of Germany.

The political strains paled however, before the difficulties of daily life everywhere in the country.  Food was scarce. A report produced in August 1945 estimated that more than half the German population subsisted on a substandard diet. In addition, homelessness was rampant as many towns and cities had been destroyed by Allied bombs. Transportation and communication systems had been disrupted as well.

ER spent roughly two days in the US sector of Germany. During that time she visited two DP camps: Zeilsheim, which housed Jewish DPs, and Wiesbaden, which had a population of DPs from Hungary, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. At Zeilsheim she found overcrowded conditions---camp residents, some of them recent arrivals from Poland and the Soviet Union, were sleeping on concrete floors in damp barracks. Still she described Zeilsheim as one of the “best” DP camps because some residents lived in houses requisitioned from the defeated Germans. While at Zeilsheim, ER also had her first encounter with the Jewish refugees’ determination to go to Palestine. Years later she recalled meeting an old woman “whose family had been driven from home…” [who] “knelt in the muddy road and threw her arms around my knees. ‘Israel,’ she murmured, over and over…. As I looked at her…I knew for the first time what that small land meant to so many, many people.” Despite the determination of its occupants and the relatively good conditions at Zeilsheim, ER found “a feeling of desperation and sorrow which seems beyond expression” in the camp.  In contrast, the mood at Wiesbaden was more upbeat although conditions---a monotonous diet (soup and bread) and poor living conditions (residents lived in barracks with little or no privacy) ---were difficult.  

Moving on to Berlin, ER toured an old air raid shelter that had been turned into an overnight shelter for displaced German refugees from the East. There she found mostly “women and children, with a few men” and apathy so great that families members were indifferent to one another’s fates. Mothers, she wrote, “let their children wander,” [because] they’ve lost so many.”

Besides visiting Displaced Persons facilities, ER held two press conferences (one with female German journalists), met with US military and civil authorities and United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) personnel, and visited with US occupation troops. More poignantly she also saw a former schoolmate, Carola von Schaeffer-Bernstein, a woman with strong religious convictions, who looked “tired and worn by the strain of life in an occupied country.” When ER asked her why, given her beliefs, she did not question the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews, von Schaeffer-Bernstein replied, “Sometimes it is wiser not to look over the hill.”

While ER’s prediction that her German trip would be “a haunting horror,” came true, she nevertheless felt that her time there and in London had “matured” her and made her more confident. Her encounters with those who doubted that the fledgling United Nations would succeed and the displaced people in war-torn Germany would fuel her efforts to alert her countrymen to the challenges they faced in the postwar world.



Crossing the Atlantic:

ER's travel diary

Photo of the RMS Queen Mary

London, England

ER's Diary on the first meeting of the UN General Assembly

ER at UN meeting

Zeilsheim, Germany (Frankfurt)

ER's description of her visit to a Jewish DP camp

Photo of ER at Zeilsheim

Wiesbaden, Germany

British report describing Eastern European Displaced Persons

A Letter to ER

Hochst, Germany

ER's Schedule for her trip to Germany

Maxine Rude photo of ruins from Allied bombings

Berlin, Germany

ER's unpublished piece about German women

Maxine Rude photo of postwar Berlin



Tony Judt, Postwar (New York: Penguin, 2005); Richard S. Kirkendall, ed., The Harry S. Truman Encyclopedia, (Boston: G.K. Hall and Co., 1989); William I. Hitchcock, The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe (New York: Free Press, 2008); Allida M. Black et al, The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, vol. 1 The Human Rights Years, (Detroit, Thomson-Gale 2007);William I. Hitchcock, The Struggle for Europe: The Turbulent History of a Divided Continent 1945-2002 (New York: Doubleday, 2002); Eleanor Roosevelt, On My Own (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958); The Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt, New York: Harper & Row, 1961; My Day, 16 February and 18 February 1946;“UNO Votes Down Red Proposal To Curb Refugees,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 13 February 1946 and “Mrs. Roosevelt Visits Refugees,” New York Times, 15 February 1946, 4.