SUPPLEMENTARY READING MATERIALS
REFUGEES FROM THE GERMAN REICH, 1933-1939
UNITED STATES AND THE REFUGEE CRISIS
JEWISH REFUGEES FROM THE GERMAN REICH, 1933-1939
Between 1933 and 1939, Jews in Germany
progressively were subjected to economic boycott; the loss of civil
rights, citizenship, and jobs; incarceration in concentration camps;
and random violence.
Forcibly segregated from German society,
some Jews turned to and expanded their own institutions and social
organizations, but many chose to flee Germany. At first, the German
government encouraged Jews to emigrate and placed few restrictions
on what possessions they could take. Gradually, however, the Nazis
sought to deprive Jews fleeing Germany of their property by levying
an increasingly heavy emigration tax and by restricting the amount
of money that could be transferred abroad from German banks.
By March 1938, Germany had annexed
Austria (Anschluss) incorporating it into the German Reich.
Nazi treatment of Jews in Austria immediately following the Anschluss
was particularly brutal, and an office soon was established to facilitate
the swift emigration of Austria’s Jews.
Following Kristallnacht ("Night
of Broken Glass"), the state-organized pogrom of November 9-11,
1938, the German government confiscated most of the remaining Jewish-owned
property and entirely excluded Jews from the German economy. Emigration
increased dramatically as most Jews decided that there was no longer
a future for them in Germany; thus, individuals and entire families
In 1933, close to 600,000 Jews were
living in Germany and 185,000 were in Austria. By 1940, close to half
of these Jews had fled to other countries. More than 100,000 German-Jewish
émigrés traveled to western European countries, especially
France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Approximately 8,000 entered
Switzerland and 48,000 went to Great Britain and other European countries.
About 90,000 German-Jewish refugees
were able to immigrate to the United States and 60,000 to Palestine,
which was then under British Mandate. An additional 84,000 German-Jewish
refugees immigrated to Central and South America, and because the
Japanese-controlled city of Shanghai in China did not require visas
or certificates of good conduct from Jewish immigrants, 15,000-18,000
Jews found refuge there.
As the number of people fleeing Nazi
persecution increased, more and more countries refused to accept refugees,
and by 1939 the number of havens available to Jewish refugees dwindled.
Switzerland feared that massive numbers of German Jews would cross
their border, and the British government continued to restrict Jewish
immigration to Palestine. Unfortunately, by 1940, emigration from
Nazi Germany became virtually impossible, and in October 1941 it was
officially forbidden by the German government.
THE UNITED STATES AND THE
Between 1933 and 1939, more than 300,000
Germans, perhaps 90 percent of them Jews, had applied for immigration
visas to the United States, and by 1940 about 90,000 German Jews had
found sanctuary in America. Despite the sincere intent of some American
activists to assist refugees fleeing Nazism, strict immigration quotas,
public opposition to immigration during a time of economic depression,
and antisemitism in the general public and among some key government
officials were serious obstacles to any relaxation of U.S. immigration
A strict quota system limited the immigration
of German and Austrian nationals to the United States. The quota set
specific limits on the number of people who could emigrate in any
given year from any foreign country, and eligibility was based on
one’s country of birth.
The quotas, which were set by the immigration
laws of 1921
and 1924, were discriminatory and were aimed at reducing emigration
from "undesirable" areas of Europe, especially eastern Europe
and the Balkans. American policy makers wanted to prevent thousands
of penniless Jews from southern and eastern Europe from entering the
United States. While antisemitism was certainly a factor in formulating
this aim, fear of communism and a general fear of poor people in a
time of depression were equally influential.
The Immigration Act of 1924, which
reduced the annual quota from 358,000 to 164,000, intensified an already
severe anti-immigration law that was passed in 1921. In addition,
the act reduced the immigration limit from 3 percent to 2 percent
of each foreign-born group living in the United
States in 1890. Using 1890 figures, rather than those from 1910
or 1920, the new wave of foreign-born from southern and eastern Europe
were excluded from quotas truly proportionate to their true numbers
in the population. Finally, the act provided for a future reduction
of the total quota to 154,000, with visa allocation based on each
nationality’s proportional representation in the 1920 U.S. population.
In 1929, the new quota went into effect. Of the 154,000 people allowed
into the United States each year, almost 84,000 were British and Irish,
people who did not need to flee from the Nazis. While the new law
cut the quota for northern and western European countries by 29 percent,
it slashed the numbers for southern and eastern Europe by 87 percent.
Italy’s quota, for example, was reduced from 42,057 to 3,845 persons.
The annual German quota to the United
States was 25,957, but little of that was being used. The main obstacle
was a 1930 U.S. State Department Regulation instructing consular officials
abroad to adopt a new interpretation of regulations barring prospective
immigrants that were likely to become public charges. Instead of judging
an individual’s capacity to do useful work in the United States, the
regulation was interpreted in such a way as to limit immigration because
of the existing labor conditions in the United States. Anyone who
needed to work to support himself or herself (i.e., anyone who was
not independently wealthy) was considered likely to become a public
charge and was rejected.
In 1936, consuls were told to soften
their stance and change their criteria from whether candidates for
immigration were likely to become a public charge to whether
it was probable that they would. This was due to the quality
of immigrants from Germany, the willingness of family in the United
States to support immigrants, and the changed political atmosphere
after the 1936 presidential elections. Immigration more than doubled
between 1936 and 1937, but it was still less than half the permissible
quota for Germany.
After Germany annexed Austria in March
1938 (Anschluss), President Roosevelt himself suggested liberalizing
immigration procedures and combining the German and Austrian quotas
to make it more likely for Jews in Austria to obtain visas to the
United States. That quickly led to the full use of the quota. After
the war began, however, State Department officials instructed consuls
general not to admit anyone to the United States if there was any
doubt about their political reliability. Fear of Axis spies entering
the United States led to a significant reduction in the number of
visas issued in 1940. In June 1941, Congress passed the Bloom-Van
Nuys bill authorizing consuls to withhold any type of visa if they
had reason to believe that the applicant might endanger public safety
in the United States.
Neither the White House nor Congress
was willing to increase the quota. With the exception of adding the
Austrian quota to the German, quotas for immigration from Germany
remained unchanged during the refugee crisis. Many German and Austrian
Jews were prevented from qualifying for visas until 1938, the only
year in the 1930s when the quota was filled. While Roosevelt made
it easier to fill the quotas in 1938 and 1939, in 1940 the State Department
made it more difficult again. Although most of the German quota was
used in 1940, the majority of the visas were given to German Jews
who were already outside of Germany; some even were in the Western
Hemisphere. In June 1941, the State Department issued a regulation
forbidding the granting of a visa to anyone who had relatives in Axis
occupied territory. At that point it became virtually impossible to
get a visa. American consulates in Germany were closed in July 1941,
leaving visas to Latin America as the only legal way out of Germany.
By autumn 1941, the Nazis had closed off emigration from German-controlled
Europe. During World War II, all U.S. immigration was held to about
10 percent of the already small quotas.
The United States Department of
The Department of State was the U.S.
government agency most directly responsible for dealing with the refugees
seeking to escape Nazi persecution. It had the power to grant visas,
formulate refugee policy, and deal with foreign governments and international
Between 1933 and 1941, as increasing
numbers of Jews sought refuge outside of Nazi Germany, American consuls
added severe restrictions to the already stringent U.S. visa regulations.
With these restrictions, and in its opposition to increasing the number
of refugees allowed into the United States under the quota system,
the State Department reflected the prevalent public opinion on immigration
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, the
U.S. State Department interpreted existing immigration regulations
and visa requirements in a highly restrictive manner. Fearing an infiltration
of spies and saboteurs among the refugees, and wishing to protect
the United States from people they perceived as ethnically and politically
undesirable, officials in the State Department raised the barrier
to refugees from Europe at precisely the time that they were desperately
seeking a safe haven. By the time the United States had entered World
War II in December 1941, the State Department had implemented new
procedures that identified refugees in German-occupied countries as
"enemy aliens" and required them to undergo a new, more
extreme examination before being granted a visa. Refugees with "close
relatives" living in German-occupied territory were denied entry
to the U.S., ostensibly out of fear that they could be blackmailed
into working as agents for Germany. By 1941 these policies had effectively
prevented most refugees from immigrating to the United States.
Below is a list of items that were
required by the United States government for all applicants seeking
an entry visa during the 1930s and 1940s. (More specifically, the
criteria represent those for German-Jewish applicants.)
- Visa Application (five copies)
- Birth Certificate (two copies;
quotas were assigned by country of birth)
- The Quota Number must have
been reached (This established the person’s place on the waiting
list to enter the United States.)
- A Certificate of Good Conduct
from German police authorities, including two copies respectively
of the following:
- Police dossier
- Prison record
- Military record
- Other government records about
- Affidavits of Good Conduct
(required after September 1940)
- Proof that the applicant passed
a Physical Examination at the U.S. Consulate
- Proof of Permission To Leave
Germany (imposed September 30, 1939)
- Proof that the prospective immigrant
had Booked Passage to the Western Hemisphere (required after
- Two Sponsors ("affiants");
close relatives of prospective immigrants were preferred. The sponsors
must have been American citizens or have had permanent resident
status, and they must have filled out an Affidavit of Support
and Sponsorship (six copies notarized), as well as provided:
- Certified copy of their most recent
Federal tax return
- Affidavit from a bank regarding
- Affidavit from any other responsible
person regarding other assets (an affidavit from the sponsor’s
employer or a statement of commercial rating)
Popular American Opinion
The American people rejected increasing
immigration. Even before the Great Depression, Americans overwhelmingly
supported restrictive immigration quotas. The 1924 Immigration Act
reflected popular sentiment that the United States had absorbed as
many immigrants as it could and that further immigrants, with their
poverty, their European quarrels, and there pro-labor or even pro-communist
ideas, would only destabilize American society. The Great Depression,
which had led to mass unemployment during the 1930s, exacerbated existing
concerns, and politicians who favored continued restrictions on immigration
built their argument around the high unemployment rates in America
(In 1930, the unemployment rate was 8.9 percent; in 1932, 27 percent;
in 1933, 25.2 percent; in 1935, 20.3 percent; in 1937, 14.5 percent;
and in 1939, 20.1 percent).
In 1938, as unemployment was again
on the rise, four separate polls indicated that between 71 and 85
percent of all Americans opposed increasing quotas to help refugees.
Sixty-seven percent of Americans favored a halt to all immigration.
During the 1930s, for the first time in U.S. history, those leaving
the United States outnumbered those entering.
The American people rejected increasing
Jewish immigration. Immediately following Kristallnacht
("Night of Broken Glass") in November 1938, 94 percent of
a sample poll by the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago disapproved
of Nazi treatment of Jews, but 72 percent were opposed to admitting
a large number of German Jews into the United States. Even after Kristallnacht,
two-thirds of the American public opposed the Wagner-Rogers bill that
would have permitted 20,000 Jewish children (independent of the German
quota) to enter the United States on an emergency basis. The bill
was allowed to die in the Senate in 1939. Jewish leaders in America
were deeply concerned about the dangers faced by German and Austrian
Jews, but American Jewry, composed of disunited political factions,
was unable to alter United States immigration policy.
Despite this generally gloomy history,
it should be noted that the United States admitted 250,000 Jews between
1933 and 1945, and 115,000 Jewish refugees between 1940 and 1945.
During the 1930s, many German Jews
and other refugees fled from Nazi Germany to France. By 1939, France
imposed restrictions on Jewish immigration and set up internment camps
for refugees. There were more than 300,000 Jews in France when German
troops invaded the country in June 1940.
Under the terms of the armistice between
France and Germany, northern France remained under German occupation.
Southern France, which was not occupied by the Germans, was governed
by an exclusively French administration based in the town of Vichy.
The Vichy regime publicly declared neutrality in the war, but actually
was active in passing antisemitic legislation and cooperated with
Germany in the deportation of Jews from France.
Jews were excluded from public life,
and were removed from the civil service, the army, professions, commerce,
and industry. In July 1941, the Vichy government began an extensive
program of "Aryanization," and confiscated Jewish-owned
property for the French state. Many Jews became destitute and foreign
Jews were particularly vulnerable as thousands were deported to internment
Refugees fleeing southern France had
to maneuver through a bewildering and often insensitive bureaucracy.
The Vichy regime required that a potential emigrant have a valid entry
visa for their destination country, reserved passage on a ship out
of France, or a transit visa for a country bordering France (usually
Spain, through which refugees traveled to Portugal). In order to secure
transit visas, a refugee must have first secured passage on a ship
from his or her point of embarkation. Reservations for passage on
a ship were commonly valid for no more than three weeks. Within that
time, an individual had to secure a transit visa from one or more
foreign consulates. Only when a refugee had completed these steps
would the French consider his or her application for an exit visa.
Often, by the time one set of papers was approved, validation of another
French authorities shared applications
for exit visas with the Gestapo, and Vichy police had authorization
to arrest foreign Jews without cause and place them in internment
camps. Under Article 19 of the Franco-German armistice, French authorities
pledged to "surrender on demand" any refugees that the Nazis
sought for political or racial reasons.
For refugees imprisoned in French internment
camps, it was nearly impossible to navigate the visa application process,
especially within the required time span. Many sought means of illegal
emigration rather than approach the authorities in hope of receiving
visa approval. By the end of 1941, most legal avenues of escape were
closed, and by the summer of 1942, the Nazis began large-scale deportations
of Jews from France to killing centers in occupied-Poland, primarily
Throughout the summer and fall of 1942,
French police rounded up Jews, mainly those without French citizenship,
in both the German-occupied and Vichy-governed zones. Throughout France,
Jews were assembled in camps and then loaded onto cattle cars. They
were deported first to the Drancy transit camp (northeast of Paris),
which became the main center for deportations from France. During
that year over 60 transports (carrying more than 40,000 Jews) left
Drancy, mainly for the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center.
German and Italian forces occupied
the southern zone of France in November 1942, and having won the cooperation
of Vichy authorities in the deportation of foreign and stateless Jews,
German authorities began deporting Jews with French citizenship. Thousands
of French Jews went into hiding and some joined partisan units to
fight the Germans. Others escaped to nearby neutral countries (such
as Spain or Switzerland), or sought protection in the Italian-occupied
zone. Until the Italian surrender on September 8, 1943, Italian civilian
and military authorities generally assisted Jews wherever they could.
The last deportation from France to
the killing centers in the East occurred in the summer of 1944. By
then, about 75,000 Jews (25 percent of the Jews in France), primarily
refugees from other countries, had been deported. Although several
transports were sent to Majdanek and Sobibor, the majority were deported
to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Most of the deportees were killed.
invaded and occupied Belgium in May 1940. At that time, more than
65,000 Jews lived in Belgium, primarily in Antwerp and Brussels; 90
percent of them were refugees and immigrants. In the summer of 1940,
some German Jews and political refugees in Belgium were deported to
camps in southern France, such as Gurs and St. Cyprien.
military authorities instituted anti-Jewish laws and ordinances in
Belgium that restricted the civil rights of Jews, confiscated their
property and businesses, and banned them from certain professions.
Jews were isolated from their fellow countrymen and were forced to
wear a yellow star on their clothing.
Belgian Jews were rounded up for forced labor. In late July 1942,
the German Security Police and SD officials ordered Jews to report
to the Mechelen camp, ostensibly to be sent to work camps in Germany.
Few Jews voluntarily reported to the camp and the personnel of various
German military and police agencies began arresting Jews throughout
Belgium and interning them in Mechelen. From there they were deported
to killing centers, mostly Auschwitz-Birkenau.
August and December 1942, two transports with about 1,000 Jews each
left the Mechelen camp every week for the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing
center. Between August 1942 and July 1944, 28 trains carrying more
than 25,000 Jews left Belgium, primarily for Auschwitz via Mechelen.
of Jews and the beginning of deportations met with increasing resistance
in Belgium. About 25,000 Jews avoided deportation by hiding from the
German authorities or fleeing to neutral Switzerland, Spain, or Portugal
via the unoccupied zone in southern France. The Belgian civilian administration
refused to cooperate in the deportations, leaving the German military
police to carry out the deportations largely without assistance from
the Jewish underground destroyed the registry of Belgian Jews, hindering
deportations. There were many escapes from deportation trains and
in mid-April 1943, the Jewish underground, together with the Belgian
resistance, derailed a train carrying Jews from the Mechelen camp
to Auschwitz. Most of the Jews on that transport were captured and
1940, Germany invaded and occupied the Netherlands. The Dutch civilian
administration continued to function, under German control, but Queen
Wilhelmina and her government fled to Great Britain. German policy
in the Netherlands was determined by the Reich Commissar for the Occupied
Netherlands, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who actively promoted anti-Jewish
measures and insisted on strict compliance with them. Between 1940
and 1942, Seyss-Inquart instituted anti-Jewish laws and ordinances
that restricted the civil rights of Jews, confiscated their property
and businesses, and banned them from certain professions. Jews were
isolated from their fellow countrymen and were forced to wear a yellow
star on their clothing.
1941, Seyss-Inquart ordered all Jews to report for registration; more
than 140,000 responded. German authorities then required all Dutch
Jews to move to Amsterdam, the country's largest city. Stateless and
foreign Jews who had entered the Netherlands during the 1930s were
sent to the Westerbork transit camp.
1942, the German police sent more than 3,000 Jews to forced labor
camps in the Netherlands, and in late June 1942, German authorities
announced that Jews would be deported to labor camps in Germany. In
reality, they were concentrated in Westerbork and then deported to
the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Sobibor killing centers in occupied Poland.
of Jews sent to Westerbork remained there only a short time before
they were deported. However, Westerbork did have a resident population
of Jews who worked in the camp and were thus exempt from deportation.
Many worked in the camp hospital, which was exceptionally large. Others
worked in the camp administration, workshops, fields and gardens,
and in construction projects around the camp. This population of "privileged"
prisoners was made up primarily of German Jews who were among the
first to be imprisoned in the camp.
police guarded Westerbork, where conditions were relatively good in
comparison to transit camps elsewhere in western Europe. The Dutch
provided the camp with supplies, and the prisoners had adequate food,
clothing, housing, and sanitary facilities. Nonetheless, the barracks
were extremely crowded, and prisoners lived in constant fear of weekly
deportations to killing centers.
churches protested to the German occupation authorities about the
deportations, but the protests had little effect, since the Dutch
civilian administration cooperated with the German SS and police.
The Dutch police, with few exceptions and with assistance from Dutch
Nazis, participated in roundups of Jews. In little more than two years,
more than 100,000 Jews were deported from the Netherlands; only 5,200
survived. Less than 25 percent of the 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands
in 1940 survived the war. Almost all the survivors were hidden by
Dutch neighbors or strangers.