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Plate 4.1 Europe’s exiled millions: the nationality of occupants in a displaced persons camp near Kl agenfurt

In discussing this life – employment, everyday rituals, the re-establishment of communal identity and eventual recruitment as labourers for the Allies – I want to emphasise the particular experiences of young women, to assess the tensions between their burgeoning desire for a greater degree of independence and the unsurprising desire felt by many, especially perhaps the older refugees, to reestablish close familial and community ties in the face of the huge uncertainties of life for displaced people at the end of the war. In this discussion the female body plays a particularly significant part. Camp life was communal, privacy was difficult to attain as young women’s bodily activities – their health, their labour and their social life – were regulated not only by adult relations and friends but also by the camp administrators, guards and employers and, finally, before leaving for England, by British officials and camp doctors, anxious to establish the health and purity of the women whom they recruited as future British workers and, perhaps, as potential mothers of future Britons. Furthermore, as the narratives reveal, hunger and poor diet were constant themes. As Mara noted: ‘there really wasn’t enough to eat for young women who were growing and developing’. The rhetorical construction of these young women as pure, clean, strong, as good stock, by British officials, as I explore below, was countered by their own conception of themselves as unfeminine. Hungry, dirty, with loose teeth, lice, scabies, TB, boils and scabs, and often not menstruating as the food was insufficient, it was hard for these young women to imagine themselves as settled domestic subjects, desirable marriage partners and potential mothers in a country about which they knew next to nothing.