Friends Relief Service Overseas

In April 1945, Friends Relief Service workers entered Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, which had been recently liberated by the British Army; the team remained in the camp for five weeks to assist in the emergency relief effort before moving to work with Displaced Persons (DPs). The category of Displaced Persons included any non-German people who had been displaced by the war; this included voluntary and forced labourers, prisoners of war, deserters, concentration camp victims and Eastern Europeans fleeing the Russians. There were approximately eleven million Displaced Persons in Europe when the war ended. Problems in Germany were intensified by the arrival of twelve million ethnic German men, women and children who had been driven out of Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere largely as a consequence of decisions reached by the Allies about the political future of Europe at the Potsdam conference in August 1945.

Displaced Persons originating from countries that had been taken over by the Soviet Union were often reluctant to return to their homelands. Under the terms of the Yalta Agreement, February 1945, the British agreed to repatriate all nationals, against their will if necessary. In 1946, Quaker relief teams working in Germany and Austria successfully campaigned against the forcible return of populations by the British forces.

Believing that all DPs would want to return home after the war, the Allied armies established camps based on nationality to ensure ease of transportation after the fighting had ceased. Whilst FRS members worried that the division of nationalities in refugee camps could create competitive nationalism, they believed that the revival of national religions, languages, crafts and cultural festivals was essential for the rehabilitation and rebirth of displaced communities after their de-humanizing experience under Nazi rule. FRS workers encouraged the DPs to think for themselves: they promoted participation in councils and committees in an effort to create independence, and supported workshops and co-operative societies to enable them to become self-supporting. This did not necessarily make for ‘tidy’ administration by the military authorities.

During and after the war FRS teams worked with displaced populations across Europe, in Palestine, and North and East Africa. In Europe, teams containing twelve members could have responsibility for up to forty camps in a region, covering up to 35,000 Displaced Persons.