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 became refugees.

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.



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 quotas.

Immigration Quotas

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 State

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 agencies.

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 restrictions.

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.)

  1. Visa Application (five copies)
  2. Birth Certificate (two copies; quotas were assigned by country of birth)
  3. The Quota Number must have been reached (This established the person's place on the waiting list to enter the United States.)
  4. 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 the individual
  1. Affidavits of Good Conduct (required after September 1940)
  2. Proof that the applicant passed a Physical Examination at the U.S. Consulate
  3. Proof of Permission To Leave Germany (imposed September 30, 1939)
  4. Proof that the prospective immigrant had Booked Passage to the Western Hemisphere (required after September 1939)
  5. 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 their accounts
    • 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 camps.

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 had expired.

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 to Auschwitz.

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.


Germany 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.

German 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.

Initially, 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.

Between 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.

The arrests 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 Belgians.

In 1942, 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 later deported.



In May 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.

In January 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.

In early 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.

The majority 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.

Dutch 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.

Dutch 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.