Europe at the end of the war contained nearly 8,000,000 displaced persons. Al though more than 6,000,000 refugees were repatriated by the end of 1945, nearly 2,000,000 people refused to return to their pre-war homes. Many people from eastern Europe did not want to live under the communist regimes that had been established after the war. Others had collaborated with the Nazis and feared they would be punished, officially or unofficially, as traitors and war criminals.

Jewish survivors of the concentration camps numbered over 200,000. The Jewish displaced persons, or DPs, were particularly reluctant to return to their homelands. Jews who returned to Poland were treated as strangers and threatened with violence. In July 1946, a mob in the city of Kielce killed forty-two Polish Jews. This incident led to the mass emigration of nearly 50,000 Jews from Poland to the American and British zones of occupation in Germany, where they joined survivors of the concentration camps who were living in compounds for displaced persons.

By the end of 1946, there were 250,000 Jewish DPs: 185,000 in Germany, 45,000 in Austria, and 20,000 in Italy. This homelessness was not just a new tragedy for individual Jews who had been lucky enough to survive. Entire communities had been wiped out. A whole way of life had been destroyed. Like the synagogues across Europe everywhere smashed and deserted, the rich culture of European Jewry lay mostly in ruins.