I remember learning about the Holocaust in American history classes when I was a high schooler and through fiction. The story always seemed to end with the liberation of the concentration camps. When I got older, I learned about the Nuremberg Trials. After that, I learned that—as is usual with history—the real story is a lot more complicated. Displaced Persons, by Ghita Schwarz, takes place in the messiness, sorrow, and hardship that followed the end of World War II in Europe. The title comes from the name given to people, mostly Jewish Holocaust survivors, who were now “stateless.” For a variety of reasons, they couldn’t go back to their homes. They had to somehow find the strength and wherewithal to make new lives.
Displaced Persons is told in three acts. In the first act, Pavel Mandl wheels and deals to build capital while at the same time creating a make-shift family with two fellow survivors. Chaim is an angry teenager who will not talk about about what happened to him. Fela Berlinka is mourning her lost husband and child and is too sad to go her own way. This act covers the years immediately after the war before jumping to act two, which covers 1960 to 1973. Pavel, Chaim, and Fela are now in America. In this act, Chaim does his best to completely start over and forget everything that happened between 1939 and 1945. Pavel, however, tries to raise his new family with Fela along the lines of his pre-war Polish family. He is religious. He sends his children to Hebrew School and insists that they always clean their plates. Fela falls somewhere between the two extremes. She remembers, although it causes her pain, but she also moves forward with her life. The last act runs from 1989 to 2000, as other survivors begin to succumb to old age. Their children have questions about their experiences and all three of our main characters have to decide, once and for all, if they will speak of what happened to them or stay silent forever.
The best thing about Displaced Persons is the way it captures a spectrum of emotion—survivor’s guilt, intense grief, implacable anger—without belaboring the root causes of all of those emotions. There’s no need to underline why these characters have so much to cope with, psychologically and physically. I also appreciated the fact that there were so many emotional responses. Displaced Persons stands out from other recent Holocaust fiction in that way. I so often see the Holocaust being used as a setting for inspirational stories about the triumph of the human will and that bothers me a lot. Displaced Persons reminds us that nothing about the Holocaust and its aftermath is simple or homogenous. It’s not an easy read, of course, but one that has important things to say to those of us who were born decades after the liberation of the concentration camps.