What Americans Thought of Jewish Refugees on the Eve of World War II

What Americans thought about Jewish refugees on the eve of World War II

In July 1938 fewer than 5% of Americans surveyed believed the United States should raise its immigration quotas

Young Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria arrive at Liverpool Street Station to spend Christmas with various foster parents, 23rd December 1938

Young Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria arrive at Liverpool Street Station to spend Christmas with various foster parents, 23rd December 1938 ( Getty )

The results of the poll illustrated below by the useful Twitter account @HistOpinion were published in the pages of Fortune magazine in July 1938. Fewer than 5 percent of Americans surveyed at the time believed that the United States should raise its immigration quotas or encourage political refugees fleeing fascist states in Europe — the vast majority of whom were Jewish — to voyage across the Atlantic. Two-thirds of the respondents agreed with the proposition that “we should try to keep them out.”


To be sure, the United States was emerging from the Great Depression, hardly a climate in which ordinary folks would welcome immigrants and economic competition. The events of Kristallnacht — a wave of anti-Jewish pogroms in areas controlled by the Nazis — had yet to take place. And the poll’s use of the term “political refugees” could have conjured in the minds of the American public images of communists, anarchists and other perceived ideological threats.

But look at the next chart, also tweeted by @HistOpinion. Two-thirds of Americans polled in January 1939 — well after the events of Kristallnacht — said they would not take in 10,000 German Jewish refugee children.

https://d-26592110453569804787.ampproject.net/1902271810270/frame.htmlAs WorldViews detailed earlier this year, most Western countries regarded the plight of Jewish refugees with skepticism or unveiled bigotry (and sympathy followed only wider knowledge of the monstrous slaughters of the Holocaust):

No matter the alarming rhetoric of [Adolf] Hitler’s fascist state — and the growing acts of violence against Jews and others — popular sentiment in Western Europe and the United States was largely indifferent to the plight of German Jews.

“Of all the groups in the 20th century,” write the authors of the 1999 book, “Refugees in the Age of Genocide,” “refugees from Nazism are now widely and popularly perceived as ‘genuine’, but at the time German, Austrian and Czechoslovakian Jews were treated with ambivalence and outright hostility as well as sympathy.”


Europe marks 70 years since end of World War II

It’s worth remembering this mood when thinking about the current moment, in which the United States is once more in the throes of a debate over letting in refugees. Ever since Friday’s terror attacks in Paris, the Republicans, led by their presidential candidates, have sounded the alarmover the threat of jihadist infiltration from Syria — even though it nowappears that every single identified assailant in the Paris siege was a European national.

A group of 7,000 Jewish people expelled from Germany by the German Nazi authorities and living in Zbaszyn on the Polish-German border, 3rd November 1938

The Republicans have signaled their intent to stop Syrian refugee arrivals, or at least accept only non-Muslim Syrians.

GOP presidential candidate Chris Christie of New Jersey was one of the many governors who on Monday said they would oppose settling Syrian refugees in their states; Christie insisted that he would not permit even “3-year-old orphans” entry.

Today’s 3-year-old Syrian orphan, it seems, is 1939’s German Jewish child.

Of course, there are huge historical and contextual differences between then and now. But, as Post columnist Dana Milbank notes, it’s hard to ignore the echoes of the past when faced with the “xenophobic bidding war” of the present:

“This growing cry to turn away people fleeing for their lives brings to mind the SS St. Louis, the ship of Jewish refugees turned away from Florida in 1939,” Milbank writes. “It’s perhaps the ugliest moment in a primary fight that has been sullied by bigotry from the start. It’s no exaggeration to call this un-American.”

© Washington Post

Japanese Diplomats and Jewish Refugees: A World War II Dilemma (Events of the Twentieth Century)

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, European Jews traveled east to seek refuge in the West. Three thousand refugees transited Japan and China, and more than 21,000 spent the war in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Japanese diplomats in Europe were caught off guard by the flood of visa applicants, and the Foreign Ministry belatedly confronted a refugee problem. Unexpected visitors became uninvited guests. Vice Consul Sugihara Chiune might have faded into history as a minor diplomat in Lithuania had he not issued thousands of transit visas to refugees, including those who fulfilled few visa requirements. Sakamoto demonstrates how he helped thousands escape Europe; in the end, as she points out, a number of Japanese diplomats saved Jews by issuing visas, but very few issued visas to save Jews.

Sakamoto focuses on the extensive archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which have not been treated at length before. By examining the cable traffic between diplomats and the ministry headquarters, she reveals the uncensored reactions of Japanese diplomats to Jewish refugees. Through the files of Jewish organizations and the American government, she presents the dimensions of the crisis as Germany’s emphasis on emigration changed to extermination. Interviews with former diplomats, refugees, and those who knew Sugihara give human dimensions to a fascinating and little-known episode of the war.

ISBN-13: 978-0275961992

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