Jakub Leipzig Interview: Jewish Displacement in Italy through ITS Documents


The following report is one of approximately 30 million documents held in the Archives of the International Tracing Service (ITS) – an extensive and unique collection that provides information about the fates of millions of refugees uprooted during World War II.

In addition to the economic, political and social damages, World War II drastically altered the geographic, as well as demographic structure of Europe. The overall death toll was staggering (about 36.5 million European citizens died during the conflict), leading to an increase in the number of the orphans and a large imbalance in the numbers of men and women. Nevertheless, the most pressing legacy of the war was an endless movement of refugees across the changed borders of Europe.

Europe had never seen so many refugees until that time. Between 1939 and 1945, around 30 million people were transplanted, expelled, and deported from their towns, villages, countrysides and cities. When the Allied Army arrived in Europe, the number of the refugees continued to grow constantly. After V-E Day in May 1945, this humanitarian crisis was managed by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), which established specialized military sub-commissions in each of the occupation zones to deal with the large numbers of refugees. Nonetheless, the challenging task of handling the civilian movements in post-war Europe required the intervention of other agencies and institutions that began to operate – supervised by SHAEF – some months after the end of the war.


Leipzig Jakub Interview

The document below is a May 1949 interview between a UN official and Jakub Leipzig conducted at the Field Intake & Eligibility office in Milan. The document is one of several contained within the ITS Personal File of Jakub Leipzig and made available as part of the International Tracing Service Archive (more details in the ITS section below).  In the interview, he was once again asked to tell his life story in order to validate his right to international assistance (although there is no record of past interviews in ITS, it can be assumed he had already been interviewed prior to 1949). Since his interview demonstrated he was a victim of persecution during the war, he was declared eligible for resettlement as well as for legal and political protection by the UN.

Between 1939 and 1945, Jakub underwent forced migration, internment in the ghetto and various concentration camps, as well as a death march. His experience was similar to those of other Jewish survivors who after liberation found themselves displaced in Europe, without a home to return to.

Like many other Polish Jews, Jakub refused repatriation, wandering from one DP camp to another in search of a final resettlement. Jakub Leipzig’s personal documents at the ITS Archives show that when he applied for international assistance in January 1948, he declared his wish to be resettled in Palestine. Nevertheless, from the interview dated May 1949, we learn that Jakub Leipzig asked for UN assistance to reach the United States or to stay in Italy. The ITS records do not tell us where Jakub eventually resettled, but – according to a notification of the Italian Ministry of Interior – we know that he was still living as a refugee in Italy in 1953.

The visualisation below makes it possible to explore the places and dates mentioned in the interview using an interactive map and timeline. Click on one of the highlighted place name in the text to see where Jakub was at a specific time in his life. Places on the map are approximate; when unable to find the exact coordinates of a camp, the town in which it was located has been pinned instead. European borders from December 1941 have been added to give historical context. Several key terms are also highlighted, such as DP and AC – click on these terms to read a short definition. The interview text below has been transcribed directly from the original document, retaining all spelling and grammatical errors.

See fullscreen visualisation of Jakub Leipzig Interview

Mapping the documents was made possible by Neatline (an Omeka plugin).


Historical Background

Already in June 1944, the SHAEF – headed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower – prepared an outline plan for the control, care, repatriation and resettlement of refugees. According to the plan’s provisions – put forth in a practical handbook distributed throughout the Allied military zones of occupation – the exiled Europeans were divided between “refugees” and “displaced persons”. The category of “refugees” referred to civilians uprooted within their own countries because of the conflict who wished to come back home. People who were outside the boundaries of their home countries due to the war and required repatriation or resettlement were termed displaced persons, commonly referred to as DPs.

The first step in order to control civilian movement – thus, facilitating the military operation – was estimating, mapping and tracing the post-war displacement. Already in early 1943, the Allies managed to create a central tracing office, with the task of registering missing persons and gathering detailed information on the situation of the prisoners, forced laborers and refugees in Europe. Since 1944, this office – which took the name of Central Tracing Office – was coordinated by SHAEF and moved with the Allied troops advancing in Germany. The Central Tracing Office had its temporary headquarters in Frankfurt am Main until 1946, when it was moved to Bad Arolsen. Besides monitoring the DPs, the main goal of the Tracing Office (and its branches scattered throughout the other Allied-occupied zones in Europe) was to accelerate the process of repatriation and resettlement of the refugees.

International assistance was guaranteed according to the nationality line. Only those who were allied nationals were recognized as displaced persons “eligible” for help and protection as well as those who were persecuted for religious, racial or political reasons. This criteria prevented international aid to all those civilians originating from the so-called “enemy countries” as well as those persecuted in the territories then annexed to the Soviet Union or governed by communist regimes. The policy through which the Allies and the refugee agencies managed the refugee crisis evolved between 1944 and 1945 and was influenced by agreements among the Allies and by the process of reconstruction of Europe immediately following WWII. In general, as of 1944, the British and American Allies began to repatriate displaced Soviet nationals. Those who were declared “ineligible” became a responsibility of the national governments to which they belonged.

The eligibility or ineligibility of the European refugees was determined by the military authorities through direct interviews with the refugees; the purpose was to trace their nationality and their personal experiences during the war. The interviews took place across Allied-occupied Europe in the Field Intake & Eligibility Offices. There, the refugees were called to present themselves in order to be registered and eventually to be instructed about the bureaucratic procedure they should have been following in order to be repatriated or resettled.

The ITS Archive represents interesting and unique resources for the study of the post-war displacement in Europe. In particular, the personal files related to the story of millions of DPs in Germany, Austria and Italy are essential sources in this field of investigation.


The Post-War Jewish Displacement

During the war, approximately 9 million Jews came under German control. Of Polish Jewry – the largest Jewish community in pre-war Europe numbering about 3.3 million – only about 82,500 (2.5%) survived; in Germany, only 50,000 of 221,000 Jews were still alive at the end of the war in 1945 (not including Polish Jews who survived in the Soviet Union). After liberation, the Allies found only a few hundred thousand Jews alive in the concentration camps, many of whom died tragically of sickness and malnutrition immediately after liberation.

Of the large and vibrant Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe there remained only fragments, scattered throughout the ruins of the countries liberated by the allied armies. Thus, in spring 1945, the Jews were remarkably few within the great number of refugees, making up only 5 to 8% of the total displaced population. Though the Jews remained constantly a small percentage of the post-war refugees, many of them became part of that second wave of displacement in Europe after the Allies’ victory. In fact, many refugees – for different reasons – failed in their attempts to come back home, thus being exiled once again. For instance, many Polish Jews who survived in the Soviet Union returned to Poland, only to emigrate once again. The Jewish DPs who found refuge in Italy were mostly of Polish descent – they arrived both at the end of the war and after the Kielce Pogrom in  Poland in 1946.

According to the report of Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry (AAC) – established in order to find a solution to the question of the Jewish DPs – out of the total Jewish population of 9,946,200, only 391,000 had remained in post-war Europe. Between the end of 1945 and early 1946, the AAC estimated that there were 98,000 Jews in Germany, Austria and Italy living in assembly centres, refugee camps and towns.

Even at their reduced number, the Jewish displacement posed a special problem at an international level. The question revolved mainly around the Jews’ demand to be recognized not according to their former nationality, but as Jews and survivors. They asked to be identified as a separate group requiring special consideration since many of them strongly opposed the repatriation imposed by the SHAEF policy. They wished for resettlement, longing to leave Europe; many of them hoped to reach any relative in the US, South America, Australia, Canada, etc., while others wished to set sail for Palestine, motivated by a more or less solid affiliation to Zionism.


Post-War Humanitarianism

Between 1945 and 1951, several specialized agencies officially undertook their missions on behalf of DPs and refugees in Europe. Indeed, an international program to deal with the consequences of the war in Europe was planned by the Allied nations well before 1945. The result was the creation of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), established through an agreement signed by 44 states in November 1943. Between the end of World War II in 1945 and mid-1947, UNRRA provided immediate relief to the civilian victims of the war as well as long-term programs in order to rehabilitate the economy of several European countries. Despite the large-scale repatriation movement, at the end of 1946 there were still an estimated 1,600,000 refugees throughout the world. In December 1946, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to create an International Refugee Organization (IRO) as a specialized UN refugee agency, replacing several other agencies such as UNRRA and the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (IGCR).

The above-mentioned intergovernmental agencies worked in cooperation with many other organizations, which were essential in the creation of the extraordinary humanitarian network that operated on behalf of the post-war DPs. There were voluntary, governmental or religious organizations which devoted their missions to certain groups of refugees, thus supporting the international institutions.

The support of Jewish survivors arrived immediately from Jewish communities worldwide. They managed both charity collections and direct interventions all over Europe. New organizations were established ad hoc, others were active far-back. Among them there were the Jewish Relief Units (JRU), the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Organization for Rehabilitation through Training (ORT).


The Jewish DPs in Italy

Jewish displacement in Italy is characterized by peculiar features which distinguish it from the German and the Austrian cases, making it a particularly interesting case study. Usually historiography sets the V-Day in Europe as the starting point for any investigation on the postwar period and the Jewish displacement. In Italy, the presence of the Jewish DPs as well as the establishment of the first refugee camp date back to 1943. It followed the Allies’ arrival in the country and the liberation of the southern Italian regions, which became the first safe refuge for those escaping the war. Among them, there were also a group of non-Italian Jewish DPs who, during the 1930s, found a temporary refuge in Italy.

When the Allies landed in Italy, they found almost 2,000 Jews in the concentration camp at Ferramonti (Calabria, southern Italy). They were part of a wave of Jewish exiles who reached Italy in the 1930s in order to find a temporary refuge and escape Nazi persecution. When Italy entered the Second World War, they were identified as “enemy aliens” and gathered in special concentration camps. Indeed, these kind of camps were not intended as extermination camps but instead as internment camps with the purpose of monitoring civilians movements.

This original group of non-Italian Jews continued to grow constantly during the months and years following the war. Thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe managed to reach Italy through the Brichah, (“flight” in Hebrew), a spontaneous escape movement led by Jewish soldiers who served as volunteers in the Allied Army. Thanks to the presence of the Jewish Brigade, the Bricha quickly became an organized movement linked to the Mossad le-‘Aliyah Bet (Institute for the Clandestine Aliyah) known simply as the Mossad. Under the control of the Jewish Agency, the Mossad facilitated the illegal immigration of Jews to Palestine. In fact, this was the only way to enter Palestine. At that time the British Mandate had drastically limited the Jewish migration to Palestine with the 1939 White Paper. Thus, in the course of few years, Italy became a bridge between Europe and Eretz Israel – a sort of ‘Gate to Zion’ for the Jewish DPs who longed to reach Palestine. Besides its geographical position on the far shore of the Mediterranean Sea, it was also the country were Jewish soldiers from British Palestine and then emissaries of the Jewish Agencies managed to organize rescue operations on behalf of the Jewish survivors and to create the underground movement of the Mossad le-Aliyah Bet.

Between 1943 and the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, thousands of Jewish DPs found refuge in more than 30 DP camps throughout Italy. The Jewish survivors passed through Italy on their way to British Palestine and other places including the United States, South America, Canada, and Australia. They remained in the peninsula for a period of time ranging from few weeks to several months or years. There, they established micro-communities linked by a strong sense of identity and revolved around a Zionist feeling of belonging to Eretz Israel. In the DP camps, they managed to recreate the social, cultural and political atmosphere inspired by the ideals of the halutzim, the pioneers of Eretz Israel.

It is almost impossible to provide an exact number of Jewish DPs who passed through Italy after the end of the war. An estimation that can be considered realistic is that around 50,000 Jews lived in post-war Italy. Some of them stayed in Italy only a few weeks or months, some others lived as DPs in assembly centers, refugee camps and other facilities for years waiting for resettlement.


The International Tracing Service Archive (ITS)

The collections held in the International Tracing Service Archive (ITS) represent an interesting and still unexplored source for the studies of the Post-Holocaust period in Italy.

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The most relevant ITS collection related to the history of the Jewish DPs in Italy is series nr. 3, titled Registrations and Files of Displaced Persons, Children and Missing Persons. It contains the files produced by the Tracing Bureaus in several European countries in order to trace and control the population movement in the aftermath of World War II. When the refugee agencies of the United Nations began their humanitarian missions in Europe, this task was entrusted in particular to UNRRA (1945-47) and to IRO (1947-1951).

For the documents produced in Italy, I focused on collection nr. 3.2.1 titled Relief Programs of Various Organizations, IRO Care and Maintenance Program; in particular, sub-collection contains the Files Originating in Italy. This sub-collection is digitised and allows research through different keywords. Each file is linked to the name of a displaced person and contains a series of documents that follow a precise protocol. Usually, these files include an application form filled with the DP’s personal details, one (or more than one) interview between the DP and an IRO officer as well as other material that provides further information about the personal story of the DPs during and after World War II. The purpose of these documents was to register the DPs movements, to notice the DPs’ intention to be repatriated or resettled and to establish whether they were eligible/ineligible to receive international assistance while displaced.

International assistance was granted to those people of United Nations nationality and to those who were victim of Nazi persecution. For this reason, the interview between the DPs and the UNRRA/IRO officer was the main means through which verify the DPs’ bona fide. The staff of the Tracing Bureaus were instructed to follow a pre-defined set of questions in order to prove the DPs’ nationality and to drive the interviewee to furnish evidences of his/her personal experience during WWII. These kind of ITS sources are in English and provide information related to the personal story of each refugee and his/her family during and after the war.

These files available at the ITS archive stand out for their originality: they are institutional sources that are also able to provide in-depth insights into the DP’s personal background. Through the analysis of the above-mentioned ITS collection, it is possible to understand the attitude of the international organizations towards the refugees of the war and how this humanitarian crisis was managed at an international level. At the same time, through the individual testimonies that arise from the interviews, it is also possible to trace a more concrete depiction of the migration movements made during WWII, intertwining the general history of the post-war displacement with individual stories of the DPs themselves.

Personal File nr. L-412 included documents related to Jakub Leipzig, a Jewish survivors and DP after WWII. It is part of Series 3 of the ITS Archive, which contains above all individual files of DPs, children and missing persons. In particular, the document analysed in the blog is an interview – held in Milan in 1949 – between Jakub Leipzig and an IRO officer. The interview reported in the blog is part of a digitised collection of the ITS, titled Relief Programs of Various Organizations: IRO Care and Maintenance Program [nr. 3.2.1]. It includes the documentation produced by several Tracing Bureaus in Europe, among them also the Italian one, which is available in Sub Collection nr. Files Originating in Italy:

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Between March and April 2016, I was an EHRI visiting research fellow at The Wiener Library in London. It was an important opportunity that gave me the chance to explore new archival sources for my PhD dissertation about the Jewish displaced persons in Italy between 1943 and 1951. Through the precious and constant help of the archivists and the staff of the library, I spent my fellowship focusing in particular on the International Tracing Service Archives, the Pamphlets and the Photo Archive. Moreover, I analysed the Lady Rose Henriques Archive which contains important material related to the British Army’s management of the refugee crisis during the Allies’ occupation of Italy (1943-47) as well as about the humanitarian intervention by the Jewish volunteers committees from Great Britain in the Italian DP camps. The experience at The Wiener Library offered me also new insights to develop my PhD dissertation.

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