He would not, he had not, become what they wanted them to become, animals desperate to live, no, something uglier than animals, for animals did not kill except for food. He had not fallen in war, and he would not fall now. He still had his photographs, and now he had money. It was peace.
(from Displaced Persons, page 13)
Displaced Persons is at times depressing, at times hopeful, and at all times powerful. Ghita Schwarz has written such complex characters that even while I could not put myself in their shoes or understand what they had endured, I was able to feel their sorrows and their joys, however limited the latter were.
Displaced Persons is a novel about what happened to survivors of the Holocaust after the war ended and the Allies liberated the concentration camps. They were free, yet they were not. They became displaced persons, without a home to return to, without most, if not all, of their loved ones, and without the money and resources to pick up and move on. Many were forced to live in the camps that were converted for refugees, where they were given jobs and food, their children were able to attend school, and they could apply for visas to relocate out of Germany. However, the visa process was long, especially for those wanting to go to America, and with Germany divided into zones occupied by the British, the Americans, or the Russians, they needed paperwork giving them permission to travel freely.
The strong and the resourceful are able to get ahead, albeit slowly. Pavel Mandl, who escaped from a concentration camp right before it was liberated, takes advantage of the change in power to steal from two Germans trying to get away with valuables stolen from the Jews. Now he has food, money, and stones (diamonds) that he can use to start a new life. At the refugee camp, he meets a young woman, Fela, and the teenage boy, Chaim, who helped her make her way safely into Germany. Pavel manages to secure them a home, and they become a family of sorts. But everything that they endured during the war and all the losses they suffered have scarred them, and they must learn to put the past behind them and press on into the future.
The novel also covers another family: Berel, who tells a lie in the refugee camp that will haunt him, Dvora, who fights an ongoing battle with typhus, and their young daughter, Sima, whose very presence lights up the eyes of the survivors who haven’t seen a child in ages. How all of the characters’ lives are entwined over years propels the book forward. Schwarz divides the book into three sections: right after the war when everything is chaotic and confusing for the displaced persons; the years when they have cobbled together a new existence in a new land and are raising their families; and the later years when they revisit the hurts of the past and come to terms with how it shaped their lives.
Displaced Persons is a quiet novel about the long-term affects of the Holocaust. It is not a light novel, but there are periods of light when you think the characters will be okay. It’s a book that really gets you thinking about survival — how the Jews survived the horrors of World War II only to face more years of struggle and hardship; how they were threatened and forced to leave when they returned to their former homes hoping to find something left; how they continued to live in overcrowded conditions in the refugee camps; and how those who moved to Israel were called “the weak of the diaspora, Old Jews, the ones who let themselves be slaughtered for fear of fighting” (page 214).
This was a very emotional read, one that made me sad and angry, one that kept me blabbing to my husband about the unfairness of it all. But then I reread the passage I included at the beginning of this review and recognized the beauty of the characters’ survival. Displaced Persons touches upon ordinary people who will never know the paths they would have taken in life had war not taken its toll, and rather than thinking of the survivors as a nameless and faceless group, Schwarz personalizes the survivor experience through characters both brave and haunting. This is a book that will stay with me for a long time.
© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.