Publisher: Harper Collins
Published Date: 2011
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Book Summary: In May 1945, Pavel Mandl, a Polish Jew recently liberated from a concentration camp, finds himself among similarly displaced persons gathered in the Allied occupation zones of a defeated Germany. Possessing little besides a map, a few tins of food, and a talent for black-market trading, he must scrape together a new life in a chaotic community of refugees, civilians, and soldiers. With fellow refugees Fela, a young widow, and Chaim, a resourceful teenager with impressive smuggling skills, Pavel establishes a makeshift family, as together they face an uncertain future. Eventually the trio immigrates to the United States, where they grapple with past traumas that arise again in the everyday moments of lives no longer dominated by the need to endure, fight, hide, or escape.
Ghita Schwarz’s Displaced Persons is an astonishing novel of grief, anger, and survival that examines the landscape of liberation and reveals the interior despairs and joys of immigrants shaped by war and trauma.
My Thoughts: Ghita Schwarz has written an engrossing, haunting and evocative novel about several survivors of the Holocaust and the lives they created in the decades following the war. I have read many books about World War II, the horrors and atrocities Hitler and the Nazis visited on people and the touching and remarkable desire of people to survive the Holocaust and be standing when the war is over. I've never thought much about the lives of the survivors after WW II ended: What happened to them? Where did they go? What did they do once the war was over? Many of the people liberated from the concentration camps at the end of the war lost most or all of their family members and loved ones waiting for the war to end. Many of the survivors also lost their homes which were taken over by the Nazis or Germans, some were still occupied, many were rendered uninhabitable. So where do these people go now and what do they do? Displaced Persons is the amazing, breath-taking answer. This is the story Ghita Schwarz, the daughter of a camp survivor, wanted to read. When she couldn't find it, she decided to write it.
This book is divided into three sections, each covering a period of years. The first section is set in Germany beginning in 1945. The survivors have recently been liberated from the concentration camps only to be placed in a different kind of camp. Refugee camps were set up in the Allied occupation zones of defeated Germany. Several characters in Displaced Persons including Pavel, Fela, Chaim, Berel, Dvora and their small daughter Sima, meet in the Bergen-Belsen refugee camp. The camps provide a place for the survivors to go for food, to sleep, to find jobs and hopefully, surviving family members and loved ones. But the refugee camps are not comfortable or clean and not a place where many of the survivors want to stay. Many are over-run with rats, there is no privacy and the bathrooms are rather gross. The slogan in the refugee camps was "Liberated but not free". Ms. Schwarz effectively relates through Pavel, Berel and some of the other characters the mixed feelings the survivors have about staying in the camps. Her clear, honest writing transports us to this area of Germany in 1945 and it's not long before Pavel's anger, Berel's sadness and confusion and Sima's tears are understandable.
The title "Displaced Persons" as well as the term became all too clear to me after reading the first section of the book. I cannot imagine how someone like Chaim must have felt when he was handed an identity card and papers calling him a Displaced Person or "DP" which is what the survivors were soon being called. It's disheartening and shocking. Unfortunately, for Berel, Dvora and little Sima as for many of the survivors, the refugee camps are the only place available for them to stay. They don't have a home to return to, they are, effectively, displaced persons. Berel also displays the inner strength and hope that so many of the survivors have. He sees life in the camps as an opportunity to find a job and get Sima enrolled in school. Then he will bide his time until he can move his family to Israel.
Unlike Berel, Pavel refuses to live in the refugee camps. He uses bribery, trickery and deception to obtain a house for himself, Fela and Chaim, survivors he met while on line for ration cards at the camp. Pavel rationalizes his behavior because of all that he's been through since the start of WW II. Life for Pavel is all about survival and creating a good life for himself and his new family. Pavel will do what he has to do. He is resourceful and ambitious. Pavel makes connections with important people who can help him and learns about black-market trading. His ultimate goal is to get to America, something he's constantly planning for and figuring out. Pavel tries hard to put the past behind him but he has a lot of anger about life and periodically it boils over. Pavel expects to be respected, listened to and obeyed as he once was in his life before the war changed everything. He gets upset when things don't work out as he planned. But once he calms down, he continues on with his plans.
The second and third sections of Displaced Persons take place decades after the war. Many of the survivors are living in America, raising families and working. Pavel, Fela and their children live in Queens. It wasn't easy for Pavel and Fela to get out of Germany but they finally did it. Pavel has a small but successful business with his brother-in-law selling and tailoring suits and is taking care of his family. Fela stays home caring for thei two children. Try as they might, he and Fela cannot let go of the past. Their experiences with the war and the camps has marked them and impacted their behavior. Pavel is still filled with anger and pain while everything scares and worries Fela especially as regards her children. They don't talk about their experiences, their past. They don't want to burden their children. It's obvious Ms. Schwarz understands the struggle for people like Pavel and Fela. Although I couldn't exactly identify with them, I sympathized with Pavel and Fela and was amazed by their strength. Their courage is inspiring but I wonder if their children would relate to them better if they knew what their parents had been through. At the time, nobody talked about their struggles and the pain of their past, you just soldiered on. Pavel and Fela aren't that different from other people of their generation. They keep things close to their vest, unaware of the distance created by secrets kept from spouses and children.
Displaced Persons is an amazing book about strong and inspiring characters who have experienced profound tragedy but survive to build lives they can be proud of. Ms. Schwarz's characters are not mythical creatures but real human beings with major flaws and inspiring characteristics. Despite what they've been through, Pavel, Fela, Chaim and Sima all make mistakes and regret some of the things they do. Their power is in their strength and resilience. They don't give up despite their hardships and struggles they've had to face and overcome. Ghita Schwarz has written a rich, powerful and brilliant novel everyone should take the time to read. This is a book that shouldn't be read quickly. Her characters are complex and real and they come alive through the course of the novel. Like real people they grow and change as their lives move on and we can only fully understand and know them if we pay attention to their lives and experiences every step of the way. This is a poignant, inspiring and evocative novel you don't want to miss.
Ghita Schwarz website
Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read and review this book and to the publisher for a copy of Displaced Persons.