Spartacus Blog

How did governments react to the Jewish Migration Crisis in December, 1938?

Friday, 18th December, 2015

John Simkin

Since war broke out in Syria almost five years ago, 6.5 million people have been internally displaced, almost 4.4 million forced to flee as refugees, and more than 250,000 killed. One in every five displaced persons worldwide last year was Syrian. A new joint report from the World Bank and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) claims that 90% of the 1.7 million Syrian refugees registered in Jordan and Lebanon are living in poverty. The majority of them are women and children. (1)

The same day that the report was published, it was announced that the first 1,000 Syrian refugees have now arrived in the UK under the government's scheme to resettle vulnerable people living in refugees camps, David Cameron has said he had met his pledge to bring the first 1,000 people to the UK by Christmas. The UK government has promised to accept 20,000 Syrians over five years. (2)

European leaders are gathering in Brussels today for an end of year summit which will include discussions on the of one and a half million refugees that have entered Europe this year. The European Commission estimated last month that another three million refugees could arrive before the end of 2016. Cameron is unwilling to become involved in negotiations about taking more refugees and recently told journalists that the current crisis might be the thing that might be responsible for the British people voting to leave the European Union. (3)

Seventy-seven years ago this month, world leaders were discussing another migration crisis. This one involved the desire by the Jewish community to leave Nazi Germany. The failure to agree on a way of dealing with this crisis resulted in about 180,000 German Jews dying in concentration camps.

Once in power Adolf Hitler began to openly express anti-Semitic ideas. Based on his readings of how blacks were denied civil rights in the southern states in America, Hitler attempted to make life so unpleasant for Jews in Germany that they would emigrate. The day after the March, 1933, election, stormtroopers hunted down Jews in Berlin and gave them savage beatings. Synagogues were trashed and all over Germany gangs of brownshirts attacked Jews. In the first three months of Hitler rule, over forty Jews were murdered. (4)

On 1st April, 1933, a one-day boycott of Jewish-owned shops took place. Members of the Sturm Abteilung (SA) picketed the shops to ensure the boycott was successful. As a child Christa Wolf watched the SA organize the boycott of Jewish businesses. "A pair of SA men stood outside the door of the Jewish shops, next to the white enamel plate, and prevented anyone who could not prove that he lived in the building from entering and baring his Aryan body before non-Aryan eyes." (5)

Kristallnacht (Crystal Night)
The sign reads: “Germans, Attention! This shop is owned by Jews. Jews damage
the German economy and pay their German employees starvation wages.
The main owner is the Jew Nathan Schmidt.” (1st April, 1933)

Armin Hertz was only nine years old at the time of the boycott. His parents owned a furniture store in Berlin. "After Hitler came to power, there was the boycott in April of that year. I remember that very vividly because I saw the Nazi Party members in their brown uniforms and armbands standing in front of our store with signs: "Kauft nicht bei Juden" (Don't buy from Jews). That of course, was very frightening to us. Nobody entered the shop. As a matter of fact, there was a competitor across the street - she must have been a member of the Nazi Party already by then - who used to come over and chase people away." (6)

Over the next few years t he hostility towards Jews increased in Nazi Germany. This was reflected in the decision by many shops and restaurants not to serve the Jewish population. Placards saying "Jews not admitted" and "Jews enter this place at their own risk" began to appear all over Germany. In some parts of the country Jews were banned from public parks, swimming-pools and public transport. (7) Germans were also encouraged not to use Jewish doctors and lawyers. Jewish civil servants, teachers and those employed by the mass media were sacked. In the 12 months of Hitler taking power, over 40,000 Jewish people left Germany. (8)

The number of Jews emigrating increased after the passing of the Nuremberg Laws on Citizenship and Race in 1935. The first Reich Law of Citizenship divided people in Germany into two categories. The citizen of "pure German blood" and the rest of the population. The Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honour forbade intermarrying between the two groups. Some 250 decrees followed these laws. These excluded Jews from official positions and professions. They were also forced to wear the "Star of David". (9)

Adolf Hitler urged Jews to leave Germany. One of the major reasons why so many refused was that they were unable to take their money with them. Hitler arranged for 52,000 to emigrate to Palestine. To encourage them to go the German government allowed "Jews who left for Palestine to transfer a significant portion of their assets there... while those who left for other countries had to leave much of what they owned behind". Richard Evans has argued: "The reasons for the Nazis' favoured treatment of emigrants to Palestine were complex. On the one hand, they regarded the Zionist movement as a significant part of the world Jewish conspiracy they had dedicated their lives to destroying. On the other, helping Jewish emigration to Palestine might mitigate international criticism of anti-semitic measures at home." (10)

As Rita Thalmann and Emmanuel Feinermann, the authors of Crystal Night: 9-10 November 1938 (1974) have pointed out: "After five years of National Socialism, the German government angrily acknowledged that threats and intimidation had not rid the Reich of its Jews. About a quarter of the total had fled but the other three-quarters still preferred to stay in Germany." (11)

The main reason that the Jews did not leave was that they had nowhere to go. On 6th July 1938, a conference of 32 nations met at Evian in France to discuss the growing international problem of Jewish migration. The conference made an attempt to impose general agreed guidelines on accepting Jews from Nazi Germany. According to Richard Evans, the author of The Third Reich in Power (2005): "One delegation after another at the conference made it clear that it would not liberalize its policy towards refugees; if anything, it would tighten things up... Anti-immigrant sentiment in many countries, complete with rhetoric about being 'swamped' by people of 'alien' culture, contributed further to this growing reluctance." (12)

Adolf Hitler took note of what the world politicians were saying about the Jews wishing to leave Germany. He concluded that he would have to change tactics in order to obtain better results. (13) New plans were drawn up but first they had to wait for an excuse to begin this new campaign to force the Jews out of the country. This opportunity came on 9th November, 1938, when Nazi official, Ernst vom Rath, was murdered by Herschel Grynszpan, a young Jewish refugee in Paris. At a meeting of Nazi Party leaders later that day, Joseph Goebbels suggested that there should be "spontaneous" anti-Jewish riots. (14) Reinhard Heydrich sent urgent guidelines to all police headquarters suggesting how they could start these disturbances. He ordered the destruction of all Jewish places of worship in Germany. Heydrich also gave instructions that the police should not interfere with demonstrations and surrounding buildings must not be damaged when burning synagogues. (15)

Heinrich Mueller, head of the Secret Political Police, sent out an order to all regional and local commanders of the state police: "(i) Operations against Jews, in particular against their synagogues will commence very soon throughout Germany. There must be no interference. However, arrangements should be made, in consultation with the General Police, to prevent looting and other excesses. (ii) Any vital archival material that might be in the synagogues must be secured by the fastest possible means. (iii) Preparations must be made for the arrest of from 20,000 to 30,000 Jews within the Reich. In particular, affluent Jews are to be selected. Further directives will be forthcoming during the course of the night. (iv) Should Jews be found in the possession of weapons during the impending operations the most severe measures must be taken. SS Verfuegungstruppen and general SS may be called in for the overall operations. The State Police must under all circumstances maintain control of the operations by taking appropriate measures." (16)

Kristallnacht (Crystal Night)
Youths attacking Jewish shops (9th November, 1938)

Joseph Goebbels wrote an article for the Völkischer Beobachter where he claimed that Kristallnacht (Crystal Night) was a spontaneous outbreak of feeling: "The outbreak of fury by the people on the night of November 9-10 shows the patience of the German people has now been exhausted. It was neither organized nor prepared but it broke out spontaneously." (17) However, Erich Dressler, who had taken part in the riots, was disappointed by the lack of passion displayed that night: "One thing seriously perturbed me. All these measures had to be ordered from above. There was no sign of healthy indignation or rage amongst the average Germans. It is undoubtedly a commendable German virtue to keep one's feelings under control and not just to hit out as one pleases; but where the guilt of the Jews for this cowardly murder was obvious and proved, the people might well have shown a little more spirit." (18)

The Jewish community was forced to pay the costs of Kristallnacht: "The Jews were ordered to replace all damaged property, though their insurance - when they had any - was confiscated. At the same time new decrees were issued denying the 500,000 of them a chance to earn a livelihood. They were forbidden to participate in trade or the professions; they were dismissed from all important posts in incorporated companies. Against them as a race was levied a fine of a billion marks, nominally $400 million-roughly half their remaining wealth." (19)

On 21st November, 1938, it was announced in Berlin by the Nazi authorities that 3,767 Jewish retail businesses in the city had either been transferred to "Aryan" control or closed down. Further restrictions on Jews were announced that day. To enforce the rule that Jewish doctors could not treat non-Jews, each Jewish doctor had henceforth to display a blue nameplate with a yellow star - the Star of David - with the sign: "Authorised to give medical treatment only to Jews." German bookmakers were also forbidden to accept bets from Jews. (20)

Joseph Herman Hertz, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, asked Sir Michael Bruce, a retired British diplomat, if he could travel to Germany to assess the situation. He was horrified by what he found and went straight to the British Embassy to see Sir Neville Henderson, the British ambassador, who hoped he would contact Lord Halifax, the British foreign secretary, about what could be done to help. "I went at once to the British Embassy. I told Sir George Ogilvie-Forbes everything I knew and urged him to contact Hitler and express Britain's displeasure. He told me he could do nothing. The Ambassador Sir Neville Henderson, was in London and the Foreign Office, acting on instructions from Lord Halifax, had told him to do nothing that might offend Hitler and his minions." (21)

After Kristallnacht the numbers of Jews wishing to leave Germany increased dramatically. The problem was that the world's politicians reacted in a similar way to those dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis. Sweden had taken in a large number of Jewish refugees since 1933. However, the government felt it had taken too many already. According to one source "this attitude was shared by the Jewish minority in Sweden, who were apprehensive that an influx of Jewish refugees might arouse anti-semitic sentiments". (22)

The American Ambassador based in Stockholm reported: "No matter how great the sympathy for the Jews may be in Sweden it is apparent that no one really wants to take the risk of creating a Jewish problem in Sweden also by a liberal admission of Jewish refugees." (23) It was claimed by one Danish newspaper, Politiken, that "Europe is inundated with refugees, but there must certainly be a place for them elsewhere in the world." (24)

Most of the world looked to the United States to take these Jewish refugees. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was approached by Jewish organizations to change the quota system employed by the United States. The combined German and Austrian annual quota of 27,000 was already filled until January 1940. It was suggested that the quotas for the following three years to be combined, allowing 81,000 Jews to enter immediately. (25)

President Roosevelt believed that such a move would not be popular with the American people. A public opinion poll conducted a few months after Kristallnacht asked: "If you were a member of Congress would vote yes or no on a bill to open the doors of the United States to a larger number of European refugees than now admitted under our immigration quotas?" Eighty-three per cent were against such a bill and 8.3 per cent did not know. Of the 8.7 per cent in favour, nearly 70 per cent were Jewish. As the authors of Crystal Night: 9-10 November 1938 (1974) pointed out: "At the very time when sympathy for the victims was at its height, ten Americans out of eleven opposed massive Jewish immigration into the United States." (26)

Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, put forward a plan to settle large numbers of German and Austrian Jewish refuges in the virtually uninhabited 120-mile-long Kenai Peninsula, in Alaska. However, four Alaskan Chambers of Commerce passed resolutions opposing the settlement plan. Felix S. Cohen, one of the Interior Department lawyers, told Ruth Gruber, how Ickes "was determined to help refugees" but that "a whole group of Alaskans came all the way down here just to fight us." These Alaskans "said there was no anti-Semitism in the Territory now because there were only a few Jewish families in each town. Bringing give thousand Jews a year would start race riots." (27)

Philip Noel-Baker, the Labour Party representative for Derby, and a leading Quaker, argued in the House of Commons, that Neville Chamberlain had been morally wrong to make concessions to Hitler and it was time to change policy towards Nazi Germany. He proposed a two-point programme: the threat of reprisals, to halt the arrest and expulsion of the Jews; and the immediate creation of a rehabilitation agency for the hundreds of thousands of emigrants.

"I think they (the Government) might in some measure stay the tyrant's hand in Germany by the means I have suggested. Certainly they can gather the resources, human and material, that are needed to make a new life for this pitiful human wreckage. That wreckage is the result of the mistakes made by all the Governments during the last twenty years. Let the Governments now atone for those mistakes. The refugees have surely endured enough. Dr Goebbels said the other day that he hoped the outside world would soon forget the German Jews. He hopes in vain. His campaign against them will go down in history with St Bartholomew's Eve as a lasting memory of human shame. Let there go with it another memory, the memory of what the other nations did to wipe the shame away." (28)

Chamberlain's rejected Noel-Baker's proposals but did have a meeting with Edouard Daladier, the prime-minister of France on 24th November. Daladier claimed that France had already accepted 40,000 Jewish refugees and urged Britain and the United States to do more. Chamberlain told Daladier that Britain was weekly admitting 500 hundred Jewish refugees: "One of the chief difficulties, however, was the serious danger of arousing anti-semitic feeling in Great Britain. Indeed, a number of Jews had begged His Majesty's Government not to advertise too prominently what was being done." (29)

French newspapers tended to support Daladier. One newspaper argued: "France is a hospitable country. It will not allow a properly accredited diplomat to be assassinated in Paris by a foreign pig who was evading a deportation order... The interests of national defence and of the economy do not permit us to support the foreign elements which have recently installed themselves in and around our capital. Paris has too long been a dumping ground for international hoodlums, the right of asylum must have limits." (30)

The French Socialist Party published a resolution of its executive committee "noting with regret that of all the government of the democratic countries only the French ministers had not thought fit to express publicly their disapproval of the Nazis government's crimes.... The SFIO urges workers to combine forces before the hateful repression embodied in fascism, and to join with the Socialist party in opposing all racial prejudice and in defending the conquests of democracy and the rights of man against adversaries." (31)

The Jewish National Council for Palestine sent a telegram to the British government offering to take 10,000 German children into Palestine. The full cost of bringing the children from Germany and maintaining them in their new homes, as well as their education and vocational training would be paid for by the Palestine Jewish community and by "Zionists throughout the world". (32)

The Colonial Secretary, Malcolm MacDonald, told his Cabinet colleagues that the proposal should be rejected because of a forthcoming conference to be held in London, between the British government and representation of Palestinian Arabs, Palestinian Jews, and the Arab States". He argued that "if these 10,000 children were allowed to enter Palestine, we should run a considerable risk that the Palestinian Arabs would not attend the Conference, and that, if they did attend, their confidence would be shaken and the atmosphere damaged." (33)

Neville Chamberlain was very unsympathetic to the plight of the Jews. He wrote to a friend: "Jews aren't a lovable people; I don't care about them myself." (34) On 8th December, 1938, Stanley Baldwin, a former Prime Minister, made a radio broadcast calling on the British government to do more for the Jews in Nazi Germany. "Thousands of men, women, and children, despoiled of their goods, driven from their homes, are seeking asylum and sanctuary on our doorsteps, a hiding place from the wind and a covert from the tempest... They may not be our fellow subjects, but they are our fellow men. Tonight I plead for the victims who turn to England for help... Thousands of every degree of education, industry, wealth, position, have been made equal in misery. I shall not attempt to depict to you what it means to be scorned and branded and isolated like a leper. The honour of our country is challenged, our Christian charity is challenged, and it is up to us to meet that challenge." (35)

Six days later Chamberlain announced that the government would allow a total of 10,000 Jewish children to enter the country. However, their parents would have to remain in Nazi Germany. He also stated that Jewish refugee organisations in Britain would have to maintain them and would be responsible for finding homes for the children. (36) Anne Lehmann, a twelve-year-old girl from Berlin arrived soon afterwards. She was placed with a non-Jewish couple, Mary and Jim Mansfield, in the village of Swineshead. Anne never saw her parents again as both died at the hands of the Nazis. (37)

Kristallnacht (Crystal Night)
Jewish children arriving in London from Germany (July, 1939)

A Jewish boy who had witnessed the destruction of the synagogue in the village of Hoengen was another child who was allowed to live in Britain later wrote: "Standing at the window of the train, I was suddenly overcome with a maiming certainty that I would never see my father and mother again. There they stood, lonely, and with the sadness of death... It was the first and last time in my life that I had seen them both weep. Now and then my mother would stretch her hand out, as if to grasp mine - but the hand fell back, knowing it could never reach. Can the world ever justify the pain that burned in my father's eyes?... As the train pulled out of the station to wheel me to safety, I leant my face against the cold glass of the window, and wept bitterly." His parents died in an extermination camp three years later. (38)

In a leading article in Pravda compared the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany with the pogroms in Tsarist Russia: "The economic difficulties and the discontent of the masses have forced the fascist leaders to resort to a pogrom against the Jews to distract the attention of the masses from grave problems within the country... But anti-semitic pogroms did not save the Tsarist monarchy, and they will not save German fascism from destruction." (39) However, although the Soviet Union was willing to admit communists fleeing from Germany it did nothing to encourage Jewish emigration and rejected requests by the League of Nations High Commissioner for German Refugees to take in people seeking help. (40)

On 9th February, 1939, Senator Robert F. Wagner, introduced a Senate Resolution that would have allowed 20,000 German Jewish refugee children of fourteen and under into the United States. One argument raised against the bill was that the admission of these refugee children "would be against the laws of God, and therefore would open a wedge for a later request for the admission of 40,000 adults - the parents of the children in question". One newspaper claimed that America should concentrate on looking after its own children. Another objection raised was that the bill would create a dangerous precedent that would result in the wholesale breakdown of the existing immigration statutes. The bill "died in committee" and no further action was taken. (41)

An estimated 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps after Kristallnacht. (42) Up until this time these camps had been mainly for political prisoners. However, in January 1939, Reinhard Heydrich ordered police authorities all over Germany to release all Jewish concentration camp prisoners who had emigration papers. They were to be told that they would be returned to the camp for life if they ever came back to Germany. (43) Josef Stone later recalled that his father benefited by Heydrich's order as he was released from Dachau after he had obtained permission to emigrate to the United States. "He was away for about four or five weeks... I remember that when he came home, it was late in the evening. I remember when he rang the doorbell he looked strange to us. Although he never had much hair... now he was completely bald." (44)

Nicholas Winton with one of the Jewish children he saved.
Nicholas Winton with one of the Jewish children he saved during the Second World War

On 13th May, 1939, the ocean liner, the St Louis, left Hamburg with 927 German Jewish refugees on board. All had immigration quota numbers, issued by the American Consulates in Germany, entitling them to enter the United States. However, this was for the years 1940 and 1941. Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of the Treasury and a Jew, suggested that the refugees be given tourist visas. Cordell Hull, Secretary of State, rejected the idea.

The captain now tried seven Latin American countries - Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Panama, Paraguay and Uruguay. All these countries refused to take a single one of these refugees. On 6th June, the liner arrived in Miami and a further request was sent to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. This was ignored and the St Louis returned to Europe. Britain took 288, France 244, Belgium 214 and Holland 181. Those in Britain were safe but more than 200 of those who were given haven by France, Belgium and Holland were killed after being deported to the death camps together with French, Belgian and Dutch Jews. The authors of Voyage of the Damned: A Shocking True Story of Hope, Betrayal, and Nazi Terror (2010) later argued: "What is certain is that if Cuba or the United States had opened their doors, almost no one from the ship need have died." (45)

It has been estimated 115,000 Jews left Germany in the ten months or so between November 1938 and September 1939. It has been calculated that between 1933 and 1939, approximately two-thirds of the Jewish population of Germany left the country. Almost 200,000 had been given refuge in the United States and 65,000 in Britain. Palestine, with all the restrictions imposed on it, accepted 58,000. It is estimated that between 160,000 and 180,000 of those left in Germany died in the concentration camps. (46)

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(1) Sam Jones, The Guardian (16th December, 2015)

(2) BBC report, Syria crisis: First 1,000 refugees have arrived in UK (16th December, 2015)

(3) Jon Stone, The Independent (10th December, 2015)

(4) Richard Evans, The Third Reich in Power (2005) page 15

(5) Christa Wolf, Patterns of Childhood (1976) page 79

(6) Armin Hertz, interviewed by the authors of What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany (2005) pages 26-27

(7) Richard Grunberger, A Social History of the Third Reich (1971) page 575

(8) Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History (2001) page 287

(9) James Taylor and Warren Shaw, Dictionary of the Third Reich (1987) page 208

(10) Richard Evans, The Third Reich in Power (2005) page 556

(11) Rita Thalmann and Emmanuel Feinermann, Crystal Night: 9-10 November 1938 (1974) page 13

(12) Richard Evans, The Third Reich in Power (2005) pages 559-560

(13) Rita Thalmann and Emmanuel Feinermann, Crystal Night: 9-10 November 1938 (1974) page 13

(14) James Taylor and Warren Shaw, Dictionary of the Third Reich (1987) page 67

(15) Reinhard Heydrich, instructions for measures against Jews (10th November, 1938)

(16) Heinrich Mueller, order sent to all regional and local commanders of the state police (9th November 1938)

(17) Joseph Goebbels, article in the Völkischer Beobachter (12th November, 1938)

(18) Erich Dressler, Nine Lives Under the Nazis (2011) page 66

(19) New Republic (23rd November, 1938)

(20) Martin Gilbert, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction (2006) page 168

(21) Michael Bruce, Tramp Royal (1954) pages 236-240

(22) Rita Thalmann and Emmanuel Feinermann, Crystal Night: 9-10 November 1938 (1974) page 161

(23) Report of the American Ambassador in Sweden (18th November, 1938)

(24) Politiken (13th November, 1938)

(25) Martin Gilbert, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction (2006) pages 165-166

(26) Rita Thalmann and Emmanuel Feinermann, Crystal Night: 9-10 November 1938 (1974) page 161

(27) Ruth Gruber, Inside of Time: My Journey from Alaska to Israel (2002) pages 13-14

(28) Philip Noel-Baker, speech in the House of Commons (21st November, 1938)

(29) Minutes of Franco-British talks of 24th November, 1938

(30) Action Française (8th November, 1938)

(31) Le Populaire (17th November, 1938)

(32) The Manchester Guardian (21st November, 1938)

(33) Malcolm MacDonald, cabinet minutes (14th December, 1938)

(34) Neville Chamberlain, private letter (30th July, 1939)

(35) Stanley Baldwin, radio appeal (8th December, 1938)

(36) Martin Gilbert, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction (2006) page 186

(37) Anne L. Fox, My Heart in a Suitcase (1996) page 43

(38) Martin Gilbert, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction (2006) page 196

(39) Pravda (16th November, 1938)

(40) Kurt Grossmann, Emigration (1969) page 107

(41) Martin Gilbert, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction (2006) page 213

(42) Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) page 100

(43) Richard Evans, The Third Reich in Power (2005) pages 598

(44) Josef Stone, What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany (2005) page 38

(45) Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts, Voyage of the Damned: A Shocking True Story of Hope, Betrayal, and Nazi Terror (2010) page 302

(46) United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (18th August, 2015)