By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
Two and a half million Ukrainians have fled since Russia’s invasion. Many have been welcomed by countries historically slow to accept refugees. World War II ended in refugee crises, as well.
In just three weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, more than 2.5 million Ukrainians have fled their homes to find refuge in other nations. Some of those nations, including Greece and Denmark, have welcomed them with open arms—which stands in stark contrast to how they’ve treated other refugees and immigrants in the past. For whatever reasons, displaced citizens of Ukraine are finding hospitality in surprising locations.
It isn’t the first time war has caused refugee crises in Eastern Europe. In his video series A History of Eastern Europe, Dr. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Lindsay Young Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, details the displacement of 30 million people in Europe at the end of World War II.
After the War
When World War II ended, peace and normality were relatively restored in the United States, England, and a liberated France. However, elsewhere, life was anything but normal. All throughout Eastern Europe, deportations and flight from various nations had raged on during the war and nothing went back to the way it was.
“Adding to the confusion was another factor: so-called displaced persons, or DPs, in the bureaucratic parlance of the new United Nations organization,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “An estimated 30 million displaced persons milled about in the center of Europe, confined to refugee camps, and desperately uncertain of what the future might hold.”
Many of these people, he said, were Eastern Europeans who had fled the advance of the Red Army. Others had been slave laborers who had been forced to work in Germany’s military industrial complex. After the war, Joseph Stalin demanded the repatriation of people from areas under his control, leading the Allies to discover how many refused to return home. It became apparent that Stalin demanded his people back to punish them, even if they were Soviet prisoners of war. This extended to non-Russians as well.
“In May 1945, the British in Austria forcibly returned to the Soviets tens of thousands of Cossacks who had fought for the German side, along with Georgians and others from the Caucasus, and many of them were accompanied by their families,” Dr. Liulevicius said. “Some killed themselves before they could be turned over.”
An Unspeakable Struggle Continues
According to Dr. Liulevicius, countries like the United States and Britain began accepting displaced persons permanently by the late 1940s. Many of them were Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, whose new lives often experienced continued turbulence.
“Bitterly, many of them discovered that returning home was doubly impossible now,” he said. “First, the communities they had come from often no longer existed; they’d been destroyed outright. Second, it became tragically obvious that anti-Semitism had not burned itself out even in the murderous years just past, but continued after the war. Postwar attacks against Jews were reported in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Romania.”
The deadliest outbreak of anti-Semitism came to a head on July 4, 1946, in Kielce, Poland. An old myth used against the Jews was that they would sacrifice a Christian child for ritual purposes. In Kielce, a young Polish boy claimed he had been kept in the basement of a Jewish community center for just such a purpose, despite the building having no basement at all. Angry mobs stormed the center. Things only worsened with the oncoming of law enforcement.
“Troops sent to quell the growing threat, instead, now joined the crowd, which rampaged for hours until 42 Jews had been killed and many more wounded,” Dr. Liulevicius said.
We can only hope the Ukrainian refugee crisis ends more peaceably.