Moving from the Allied zones of postwar Germany to New York City, an astonishing novel of grief and anger, memory and survival witnessed through the experiences of "displaced persons" struggling to remake their lives in the decades after World War II
In May 1945, Pavel Mandl, a Polish Jew recently liberated from a concentration camp, lands near a displaced persons camp in the British occupation zone of newly defeated Germany. Alone, possessing nothing but a map, a few tins of food, a toothbrush, and his identity papers, he must scrape together a new life in a chaotic community of refugees, civilians, and soldiers.
Gifted with a talent for black-market trading, Pavel soon procures clothing, false documents, and a modest house, where he installs himself and a pair of fellow refugees – Fela, a young widow who fled Poland for Russia at the outset of the war, and Chaim, a resourceful teenage boy whose smuggling skills have brought him to the Western zones. The trio soon form a makeshift family, searching for surviving relatives, railing against their circumscribed existence, and dreaming of visas to America.
Fifteen years later, haunted by decisions they made as "DPs," Pavel and Fela are married and living in Queens with their young son and daughter, and Chaim has recently emigrated from Israel with his wife, Sima. Pavel opens a small tailoring shop with his scheming brother-in-law while Fela struggles to establish peace in a loosely traditional household; Chaim and Sima adapt cheerfully to American life and its promise of freedom from a brutal past. Their lives are no longer dominated by the need to endure, fight, hide, or escape. Instead, they grapple with past trauma in everyday moments: taking the children to the municipal pool, shopping for liquor, arguing with landlords.
For decades, Pavel, Fela, and Chaim battle over memory and identity on the sly, within private groups of survivors. But as the Iron Curtain falls in the 1990s, American society starts to embrace the tragedy as a cultural commodity, and survivor politics go public. Clever and stubborn, tyrannical and generous, Pavel, Fela, and Chaim articulate the self-conscious strivings of an immigrant community determined to write its own history, on its own terms.
In Displaced Persons, Ghita Schwarz reveals the interior despairs and joys of immigrants shaped by war – ordinary men and women who have lived through cataclysmic times – and illuminates changing cultural understandings of trauma and remembrance.