international analysis and commentary

Refugees and strangers: a lesson from the past


Ships sinking in the Mediterranean while trying to reach the shores of Europe or masses of refugees being repelled at its frontiers remind us of painful episodes of a not too distant history. It is the history of European Jews who, towards the end of the 1930s, sought rescue from the anti-Jewish fury raging in Europe, or of other Jews who, having survived the Shoah, in 1946-1947 sailed through the Mediterranean trying to reach Palestine and were seized by the British and imprisoned in Cyprus or elsewhere.

At the time of the surge of anti-Jewish persecution in Germany and the proliferation of anti-Semitic laws and practices in Eastern Europe, mainly in Hungary, Poland, and Romania, the outside world did not respond much. Indifference prevailed, shaped by anti-Jewish prejudice, hostility or indifference to the stranger. “The boat is full” was the refrain echoed by governments and public opinion. In 1935, the USA admitted about 6,000 Jewish emigrés from Europe, Argentina 3,000, Brazil 2,000. Western Europe was more generous: France admitted 35,000, Belgium and Holland about 20,000 each.

In 1938 a conference was held in Evian, France to discuss the status of Jewish refugees, under the impetus of US President F.D. Roosevelt. More than 30 countries took part. But the number of Jewish refugees accepted in those countries was tiny. The official Conference documents stated that unemployment, socio-economic difficulties, and problems of public order led to that decision.

The British refused even to discuss the issue of Jewish emigration to Palestine, and published the White Paper in 1939. Yielding to Arab opposition and to the fears of  strengthening the Zionist movement, it  limited the number of Jewish immigrants to 10,000 per year for five years only. This happened against the background of severe difficulties for Europe’s Jews to make it to Palestine. Throughout the previous years, despite the growing anti-Jewish violence in Europe, the number of Jewish immigrants admitted by Britain had kept falling : 60,000 in 1935, 30,000 in 1936, 10,000 in 1937, 13,000 in 1938, and a few more in 1939.

 A question was raised in the House of Commons in April 1939 and Colonies Secretary Malcom MacDonald replied: “… we prevented 1220 illegal immigrants from landing in Palestine. On March 21st 269 people from the Assandu ship were ordered to return to Costanza, Romania, their port of embarkation. 710 Jews of whom 698 German were prevented from leaving the Astir ship and ordered to return where they had sailed from”. Given that the Jewish refugees had suffered so much, the Secretary was asked why would they be repatriated. ‘They were sent back to their respective ports of departure’, Mr. MacDonald replied. ‘You mean the concentration camps?’, the questioner insisted. ‘The responsibility falls on those who organized the illegal immigration’, Mr. MacDonald responded (as quoted by Arthur Koestler in “Thieves in the night”, 1947).

Even after the onset of the war in Europe, only 20,000 Jews found asylum in the United States, mainly due to the resolute action undertaken by the Emergency Rescue Committee in occupied France, whose valiant volunteers included Varian Fry and Hannah Arendt. Many factors accounted for such inaction: anti-Semitism, anti-immigration ideology, silence by the Christian churches, the very reluctance of organized Jewry to put pressure on the Roosevelt Administration for fear of exacerbating anti-Jewish hostility, and the Zionists’ priority focus on the struggle to create a Jewish state in the future (see David Wyman, “The abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust”, 1984).

In the chronicles of those horrible years two episodes stand out: the Struma and the St. Louis.

In Romania, masses of Jews fleeing the slaughter organized by the state and the fascist militias run by the Iron guards sought to sail through the Black Sea towards Turkey, and from there to Palestine. Many ships sank in the attempt. The Struma left Costanza in December 1941 with 800 people aboard. Because of the British refusal to grant entry visas into Palestine, it was forced to return to the Black Sea after waiting for 70 days in the Istanbul harbor, where it was sunk by a torpedo whose origin remains a mystery. Only one passenger survived.

The St. Louis left Germany in May 1939 with 900 German Jews on board, heading for Cuba. It reached Havana, but after long, debilitating negotiations between the Cuban government and the American Joint Distribution Committee, it had to leave Cuba and head back to Europe. Some of the refugees were rescued by Holland, Belgium, France, and Great Britain. Others were forced to return to Hitler’s Germany and perished.

The question of today’s immigration to Europe from countries in the Middle East and Africa which are torn by civil wars and destitution is very complex. The solutions are not simple, oscillating between the extreme opposites of utopian “goodwill” and heinous xenophobia. And yet, recent Jewish history compels us to fight against the wall of indifference.