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The Indifference of Nations to the Plight of Trapped Jews

The Novemberpogrom was the object of indignation and strong protests in many Western democracies, but immigration policies were not changed.

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"The world seems to be divided into two parts — those places where the Jews cannot live and those where they cannot enter," said Chaim Weizmann, leader of the Zionist movement, in 1936. True enough, in 1938 the borders were shutting down more tightly than before.

The Evian Conference

Cartoon published in the New York Times.
Cartoon published in the New York Times.

On March 23, 1938 US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the initiative of convening an international conference on the problem of refugees from the German Reich.

Before the conference Roosevelt was careful to assure the 32 states who were invited that the subject at hand was not increasing the immigration quotas nor financing refugee asylum. Germany was not invited, which meant that no agreement could be reached to improve the fate of refugees. Portugal's presence was not considered useful. The USSR and Czechoslovakia did not send any representatives. Italy, an ally of Germany, refused the invitation. Hungary, Romania, Poland, and South Africa sent observers.

The United Kingdom accepted the invitation but took the precaution of making sure that the United States would not try to get it to increase the number of Jewish immigrants to territories under British rule. The United States government suggested that the conference take place in Switzerland, but the Swiss government expressed polite refusal as they did not want to risk annoying their German neighbour and did not want to draw attention to their restrictive immigration policy.

The representatives of the 32 countries who finally attended the conference at the Hotel Royal in Evian (France) expressed their regard for President Roosevelt's initiative and their sympathy for the victims of persecution, while making it clear that the economic and social situation in their respective countries did not allow them to increase the immigration quotas. Countries on other continents, in particular Latin America where the Europeans would have liked to find a convenient place to take the problem off their hands, declared that they were not in a position to absorb huge quantities of immigrants unless they were farm workers.

In the space of a single afternoon, a sub-committee interviewed the representatives of 40 refugee organisations and Jewish organisations — including those from the German Reich. The conference did not arrive at any concrete results, except the creation of an Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees working in London and tasked with the followup to the Evian conference.

The failure of the Evian conference had disastrous consequences. It meant that the international community was not prepared to join forces to help the Jews, or refugees in general, and it left free rein to Hitler. German and Austrian Jews were in despair to see all their hopes collapse. "Nobody Wants Them" read the headlines in all the German papers after the conference. The Nazis, certain that the Western governments would not stand in the way of their policies, intensified the measures taken to force the Jews into emigrating. But the lack of somewhere to go prevented them from leaving Germany.

[from ' Kristallnacht ': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.63]

In Germany

The terror reigning during the Novemberpogrom , vast numbers of arrests and wave after wave of new restrictive laws, reinforced the migratory flow which became an exodus of massive proportions.

Jewish men arrested on 9 November 1938 in Oldenburg.
Jewish men arrested on 9 November 1938 in Oldenburg.

On January 24, 1939 Hermann Goering instructed Wilhelm Frick, Minister of the Interior, to achieve "by all available means the emigration of Jews from Germany."

In that same month of January the Zentralstelle für jüdische Auswanderung [Central Office for Jewish Emigration] was created in Berlin under the direction of Reinhard Heydrich.

Within the country anti-Jewish regulations proliferated. They had been decided at the meeting of the principal Nazi leaders on November 12, 1938 presided by Goering who — as the official in charge of the Four-Year Plan to gear up the German economy for war — took over from Goebbels the organisation of the follow-up to the pogroms.

Jewish organisations were dissolved except the Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland [Reich Deputation of Jews in Germany] (1933-35), renamed Reichsverband der Juden in Deutschland [Reich Federation of Jews in Germany] (1935-39) and Reichsvereinigung der Juden in Deutschland [Reich Association of Jews in Germany] (1939-43); and the Jüdische Kulturbund . The Jewish press was suppressed (except the Jüdisches Nachrichtenblatt ). Jews were barred from public places, driven out of their homes and concentrated in "Jewish Houses."

[from ' Kristallnacht ': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.97]

In Italy

Antisemitism was not included in the fascist doctrine when Mussolini [the " Duce "] took power in October 1922. On several occasions the fascist leader condemned the National Socialist racist stance and stated that Italy was not antisemitic. After 1933 German Jewish exiles took refuge in Italy. The adoption of discriminatory laws in 1938 therefore came as a very great shock for Italy's 45,000 Jews.

On July 14, 1938 the Manifesto della Razza [Manifesto on race] was published. It was a document inspired by Mussolini and signed by ten Italian academics. It proclaimed the existence of human races, that Italians were of the "Aryan race" and that the Jews were excluded from the "Italian race." The fortnightly review La difesa della razza [Defence of the race] was launched in 1938. A propaganda campaign suffused with hatred spread throughout the press. That autumn several new laws were adopted. As the months went by they were supplemented with ever worsening additions and they were zealously enforced. Foreign Jews had to leave Italy. Italian Jews kept their nationality but were excluded from the army, public and semi-public institutions and driven out of the fascist party. Jewish teachers and pupils were expelled from schools and were forced to attend separate places of learning. A list of work prohibitions closed the door to the professions, cultural activities and so on. Measures were adopted to confiscate Jewish property.

The antisemitic turning point of fascism came after the Ethiopian war and was true to the totalitarian fascist logic: by designating the Jews as enemies within and as a counter model for the "new fascist man," the Duce relaunched the fascist revolution in a climate of fascination for Nazi totalitarianism. After the autumn of 1943, once the Repubblica Sociale Italiana ( RSI ) [Italian Social Republic], known as the Repubblica di Salò [Republic of Salò ], was proclaimed in the centre and the north of the country, the Jews were described as "enemy aliens in time of war." Hunted down by the Nazi occupiers with the assistance of the Italian authorities, the Jews were arrested and deported. Of the Jews living in Italy 7,656 died in the death camps.

[from ' Kristallnacht ': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.98]

In Poland

Waiting at a soup kitchen.
Waiting at a soup kitchen.

A new era began in Poland after the death in 1935 of Jozef Pilsudski, who had tried to maintain an authoritarian democracy. The authorities adopted an ultra-nationalist and antisemitic policy with the slogan: "No room for Jews in Poland!", although there were 3,400,000 Jews out of a total of 32 million inhabitants. Power was mainly in the hands of the National Democrats [ND: Endecja ] and their members, the Endeks.

From May 1936 to September 1939 General Felician Slawoj Skladkowski was in power during the worst years of the "colonels' regime" as it was called — most of whom were Endeks — and pursued quasi fascist policies. The colonels, in particular Colonel Beck, the Foreign Minister, were much more concerned with gradually turning the Jews into outcasts than with protecting themselves from the growing danger represented by their Nazi German neighbours.

The Endeks, who were allowed to give free rein to their antisemitic excesses, deployed an arsenal of discriminatory measures against the Jews whose lives were made even more difficult by a series of direct and indirect taxes. According to estimates by an economist, the Jews were paying 40% of the country's taxes whereas they represented only 10% of its population. The authorities also conducted a systematic policy of "Aryanisation", supporting anti-Jewish economic boycotts and encouraging pogroms in Radom, Częstochowa, Brest-Litovsk and Vilno [now Vilnius].

During the third quarter of 1937 there were 92 individual and 105 collective attacks, 571 people were injured and 26 were killed. From 1935 to 1937 there were some 50 bomb attacks on Jewish shops and sometimes against synagogues. The worst took place during a pogrom in the small township of Przytyk on March 9, 1936, which made a great impression throughout the country. The Jewish left formed self-defence groups with the support of a few Polish socialists. A general protest strike on March 17 brought the country to a standstill. Between 1927 and 1939 Gdynia on the Baltic Sea became an important port for trading and for military operations. Thousands of Jews fleeing Poland used this maritime route to emigrate abroad via a direct passage from Gdynia to Le Havre. In the last few days before war broke out, in the face of the Nazi threat the Polish government toned down some anti-Jewish measures in an attempt to create a degree of national unity to stand up to the future invasion by Germany. In parallel, manifestations of Jewish loyalty to Polish authority were expressed with growing frequency. The Jewish press, ranging from the Bundist left to the Zionist right [ Agoudat Israel, Haynt, Moment , or the Folkstaytung ] forgot their dissensions and reacted as one bloc. They tried to be reassuring but the storm clouds were gathering and Polish Judaism vanished into extinction during the Holocaust.

[from ' Kristallnacht ': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.99]

In Switzerland

Walter Goldstein's German passport, issued January 23, 1939.
Walter Goldstein's German passport, issued January 23, 1939.

After the Anschluss Switzerland repeatedly approached the Nazis to try to prevent Jewish refugees from crossing their borders.

In September 1938 Dr. Heinrich Rothmund, Chief of the Federal Police, negotiated an agreement to the effect that the German authorities would prevent German Jews from leaving the Reich unless they were in possession of residence or transit permits for Switzerland. To avoid extending this restriction to all Reich citizens, the Chief of the Swiss Police suggested to his Nazi counterpart that they could identify the Jews by adding some distinctive sign to their passports.

The suggestion was accepted and a decree dated October 7, 1938 ordered that ordinary passports in the possession of the Reich's Jews be withdrawn and replaced by a document bearing a three centimetre red letter "J" stamped on the left of the first page in indelible ink. In December 1940, Paul Grüninger, Chief of Police in the St. Gallen canton, was dismissed for having issued several hundred false identity documents to refugees to protect them from expulsion.

[from ' Kristallnacht ': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.101]

In France

In France, while the press was forceful in its condemnation of the Novemberpogrom , the Daladier government kept silent to avoid compromising the ongoing rapprochement with Nazi Germany (the Ribbentrop-Bonnet agreements). From 1933 to 1937 France granted admission to several thousand refugees coming mainly from Germany and Austria. However the Front Populaire government appointed an Under-Secretary for Immigration in 1937, and the right to asylum was restricted in 1938.

While a violently xenophobic campaign raged, in January 1939 the Daladier government opened the first camp for "undesirable aliens" in Rieucros, Lozère. In February 1939 the country had to deal with the arrival of 500,000 Spanish republican refugees. They were interned in woefully inadequate improvised camps, housed in tents. As the risk of global conflict grew day by day the refugees were seen as a "potential fifth column" whose presence was increasingly unpopular.

[from ' Kristallnacht ': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.100]

In the United Kingdom

Frau Krampflecek, a 91-year-old refugee from Vienna, arrives at Croydon airport, 31st March 1939.
Frau Krampflecek, a 91-year-old refugee from Vienna, arrives at Croydon airport, 31st March 1939.

Thanks to the pressure of British public opinion, the United Kingdom was one of the main destinations for Jews from Germany, in particular after the Anschluss and the Novemberpogrom .

Jewish refugee girls passing through UK customs from a Kindertransport, December 1938.
Jewish refugee girls passing through UK customs from a Kindertransport, December 1938.

Some 60,000 refugees including 10,000 children found asylum in England from 1933 to 1944 (in comparison only 120,000 were admitted to the United States over the same time period).

As soon as they arrived, the children, most of whom never saw their parents again, were taken in by foster families. During the war the men, being nationals of an enemy country, were almost all interned or transferred to Canada and Australia.

[from ' Kristallnacht ': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.102]

Palestine Closed by the British "White Paper"

In May 1939 the United Kingdom decided to severely limit immigration into Palestine, which it announced by the publication of a White Paper reducing the number of refugees to be admitted to 75,000 Jews over five years.

Demonstration in the streets of Tel Aviv.
Demonstration in the streets of Tel Aviv.

The White Paper put an end to the policy of partitioning Palestine, which had provoked opposition from neighbouring Arab countries and provoked violence among the local Arab population in this territory, under British mandate since the San Remo treaty signed in 1920.

The British were keen to defend their interests in the region and therefore preferred to maintain the status quo. The British navy did not hesitate to intercept and send back to their ports of departure, generally Constanza in Romania, ships full of Jews for whom Eretz Israel [Palestine] was the last hope; ships such as the Sandru with 269 refugees on March 25, 1939, the Astir with 698 refugees on April 6, 1939 and the Assimi with 250 refugees on April 23, 1939.

[from ' Kristallnacht ': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.103]

In the United States

Roosevelt condemned the Novemberpogrom and recalled the United States Ambassador in Berlin. Nevertheless he maintained strict controls over immigration. American public opinion, just emerging from the economic crisis, was not inclined to accept any more refugees.

Anti-Nazi rally, New York City's Madison Square Garden on 21 November 1938.
Anti-Nazi rally, New York City's Madison Square Garden on 21 November 1938.

There was a strong isolationist current of opinion blocking the way to any policy of refuge to Jews under threat of Nazi persecution.

Some of Roosevelt's advisers were of the opinion that Bolshevism was the greatest threat and that persecution of the Jews was the price to pay for keeping the Red Flag from flying over Capitol Hill.

Others felt that the way the Nazis were treating the Jews was a domestic matter outside the scope of the American government. A strong antisemitic current took root in a marginal section of public opinion and among Roosevelt's advisers.

American Jewish organisations were also divided. Some of them, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars Organisation, declared themselves in favour of halting immigration for ten years. Others like Stephen Wise, leader of an influential Zionist organisation, the American Jewish Congress, or the journalist Dorothy Thompson, were advocating a more open immigration policy.

[from ' Kristallnacht ': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.104]

Colonial Mirages

Projects for Jewish colonies.
Projects for Jewish colonies.

After the failure of the Evian conference, the West, the Evian Committee and Jewish organisations attempted to find other solutions to provide asylum by turning to their colonial territories (Tanganyika and Guyana for the British, Madagascar and New Caledonia for the French).

The Evian Committee also enquired from the Latin American countries and President Roosevelt contacted Portuguese Angola.

While various commissions studied these possibilities interminably, war broke out and put an end to all such options.

[from ' Kristallnacht ': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.105]

In Shanghai

Until October 1939 Shanghai was the only refuge where immigration was unrestricted. As many as 14,000 refugees, most of them from Germany, settled there before the war. Numbers totalled some 17,000 in 1941, with a large majority of Jews. The British and American embassies, worried by the sudden influx of Jews to a town that until then enjoyed a special city status, asked the German authorities to slow down Jewish emigration to Shanghai and to tell German maritime shipping lines to refuse access on board to Jewish refugees. With the help of the small Jewish community in Shanghai and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, life became a little more organised in the five refugee camps.

A number of new arrivals managed to open European-style shops and businesses which had been lacking in Shanghai until then. Religious, cultural and political activities, including German language newspapers, radio and theatrical productions emerged rapidly. In February 1943 fighting in the Pacific brought great changes in the life of these refugees who were all interned in a ghetto by the Japanese invaders. Although their fate was not to be compared with that of Jews in Europe, they did run into serious economic difficulties. At the end of the war they were all repatriated to Europe but a great many of them decided to settle in Palestine.

[from ' Kristallnacht ': the November 1938 Pogrom, Mémorial de la Shoah, 2008, p.108]


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