Life in Displaced Persons' (DP) camps

​After the end of World War II in Europe in 1945, Germany and German-occupied Austria were divided into four occupation zones by the allied coalition (USA, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union). Among other tasks, the coalition partners had to take care of the refugees in their respective zones. The refugees ('displaced persons') were also looked after by various international refugee organisations and the Red Cross. Estonian refugees mostly gathered in DP camps in the American and British occupation zones in Germany. The largest Estonian camps were in Geislingen, Augsburg and Lübeck, with several thousand Estonian refugees in each.

The circumstances in a DP camp largely depended on the specific military power administering the zone and on the refugee organisation. The living conditions differed considerably. Some refugees were accommodated in well-ordered sanatoriums in pretty natural spots, while others had to make do with unheated sports halls. Some camps housed only Estonians, others had representatives of many nationalities. In order to establish whether the camp inmates qualified for international assistance, screenings were carried out. During such testing, every camp inhabitant had to answer certain questions and pass a health check. Screenings started almost immediately after the camps were set up and occurred repeatedly. The thoroughness of screenings varied, depending among other things on the head of the camp and his political views. The refugees were scared of the screenings as they feared that the information thus acquired would be passed on to the Soviet representatives, and the refugees would be forcefully repatriated. The camp life was on the whole unstable and the inhabitants constantly feared being sent back to the Soviet Union.

Soon after the Estonian refugees were settled in DP camps, they organised Estonian Committees. Their main task was to arrange daily life in a camp (the inhabitants usually had to work in the kitchen, look after the whole territory, secure order, heat the buildings, etc), convey information to people and communicate with other camps. Working with the young was considered essential: kindergartens and schools started in DP camps, and the Baltic University was founded in the British zone. Other activities included scouts and guide groups, handicraft, dance and drama circles, choirs and sport. A newspaper was issued in bigger camps. Every DP was entitled to a regular small amount of ‘pocket money’, although the chances of finding work outside the camp were limited.

DP camps closed after the inhabitants were settled in other countries. Those who refused to resettle or were unable to do so, were integrated into local society, a process which was completed by the early 1950s.

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