Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Book review: Displaced Persons by Ghita Schwarz

Displaced Persons by Ghita Schwarz

Publisher: Harper Collins
Published Date: 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-188177-0
Pages: 340
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.


  1. This was a beautiful review. I agree that this is not a book to be read quickly, but to be savored and considered slowly. It's interesting to me the way that the survivors seemed to always carry around the same mindsets and behaviors around with them, no matter where they were living, and one can argue that it was definitely the result of the horrible trauma that played out in their lives in Germany during the war. A very interesting review. I thank you for sharing it!

  2. I can't imagine starting over if I lost everything and everyone I loved. You've made this book sound amazing.

  3. ZIBILEE: Thank you! You make a great point about the mindset of the survivors. Pavel has that terrible rage and he is concerned about being respected..All of the survivors mindsets relate back to before they were freed. It must have to do with how traumatic their experiencewas during the war. I think there's a lot for discussion in this book and it would be good for book clubs.

  4. BERMUDAONION: Thank you! I can't imagine that either. Ghita Schwarz, the author, is the daughter of a camp survivor. In the back of the book she comments that her father was in a permanent state of grief. I'm surprised so many of the survivors were able ro form new lives and move on. I guess in some respects you have to numb yourself against what happened to you and just keep going. The inner strength of Holocaust survivors is amazing and inspiring.

  5. You certainly have a way with words. I saw this one the other day somewhere and it caught my eye. It looks like the type of book I'd pick up.

  6. This sounds like such a sad but compelling story. You made me want to read this one Amy.

  7. Like you, I've read alot of books set in and around the time of the Holocaust, but your review makes this one sound so unique -- the fact that the author saw that gap in the literature and sought to fill it is very interesting.

  8. Ti: Thank you. This is not the review I wanted to do but I got the dates all mixed up and thought I had another week to write the review! I thought this book was astonishing and so well done. I have read some negative reviews but what puzzles me is almost everyone one of those reviews I feel like the reviewer missed huge sections of the book, even pages or didn't read the book with enough attention and focus while reading....weird!
    I'd love to know what you think of this book.

  9. (Diane) BIBLIOPHILE by the SEA: It's very sad in places but there are uplifting parts of the story, too. The characters are very real, very human and most of them have extreme difficulty leaving the trauma of the past behind them, something I thought was easy to understand.

  10. THEBOOKGIRL: Exactly. The different bent of this book is what attracted me to it. And I was shocked when I realized and focused on what happened to the people who were imprisoned in the concentration camps when WW II ended.
    I'm very curious to see if the author writes anymore fiction (I hope so!) and what kind of story she chooses to write.

  11. Great review! I am reading this book now, and it's great so far. I've linked to your review on War Through the Generations.

  12. So often Holocaust stories stop after the war ends. Like you, I've often wondered what happens next. Sounds like this would be the perfect book for me!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour.

  13. It's an awful thing, to be a displaced person. I hadn't heard of the book before but it would certainly be a good choice for my Literature and War Readalong. Thanks for the review.