Ashes of WWII smoldered after peace
European refugees eat at a dispersal point at the former German political prison at Ansalt on March 19, 1945.
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When World War II ended in Europe in May 1945, violence and terror did not.
Still ahead were starvation winters for the defeated and many of the ostensible victors. Jews seeking to return to their homes in Poland and other places in Eastern Europe became the victims of new pogroms.
Determined to maintain good relations with the U.S.S.R.'s Josef Stalin, the British and American governments ordered their soldiers to force Cossacks and Ukrainians to return to Soviet-controlled territory. Tens of thousands were jailed, exiled or shot on arrival.
As many as 12 million ethnic Germans were expelled from communities where they had lived for centuries as national borders were redrawn. An estimated 500,000 of those refugees died.
That is the grim European background to Ben Shephard's "The Long Way Home." In his book he describes efforts of relief agencies that sought to reduce human misery in the still-deadly years after the guns fell mostly silent.
Mr. Shephard was producer of the BBC's excellent documentary series "The World at War." Those programs combined archival film, gathered from Allied and Axis sources, and interviews with civilian and military participants. The result was gripping television.
"The Long Road Home" proves less so. The book is a noble effort that I wanted to like more than I did. Mr. Shephard admits to facing the "goodie-goodie" problems with his subject. "Evil is sexy," he writes. "[G]oodness is dull."
The topic also requires the reader to grapple with a plethora of acronyms. A glossary of abbreviations helps keep straight the differences among UNRRA, OFFRO and IRO, but it doesn't aid the flow of the story.
Among the best parts of the book are the remembrances of participants. They include those who lived in the camps and those who ran them.
In describing life at Camp Wildfleck, in Bavaria, Mr. Shephard quotes extensively from writer Kathryn "Kay" Hulme, who was one of the relief workers there. Her memories provide some of the best writing in the book.
Ms. Hulme later went on to write a best-seller, "A Nun's Story." A fictionalized account of the experiences of her longtime friend, a former Belgian sister named Marie-Louise Habets. It was the basis for a Hollywood movie.
Just as the United States had been unwilling to admit large numbers of Jews fleeing the Nazis before the war, Congress deadlocked for years about what to do after the war about the Balts, Poles, Ukrainians and surviving Jews who wanted to come here.
Mr. Shephard does a good job in describing the lengthy political battles that preceded passage of the Displaced Persons Act in 1950. With the passage of that law, 380,000 immigrants arrived. They were, he writes, 45 percent Catholic, 20 percent Jewish and 34 percent Protestants or Greek Orthodox.
"In the end -- in its own time -- in its own way -- the United States took its fair share," he concludes. Or as Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, "Americans always can be counted on to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all other possibilities."
First Published April 17, 2011 12:00 am