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New refugees line up outside the Jewish Refugee Aid Committee of Antwerp

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Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust


Jewish Refugees and the Holocaust

For European Jews living in the shadow of the Third Reich, the prospect of emigration was complex. The rise of antisemitic sentiment in Nazi Germany during the 1930s sparked fear and anxiety, and anti-immigrant sentiment abroad limited Jews' opportunities and compounded their fears about fleeing to a new country. The sources in this collection point to both the obstacles and the life-changing implications of emigration.

Many European Jews facing discrimination during the years of Nazi rule tried to flee persecution and start new lives elsewhere. Many others decided to stay in their homes for a variety of complex reasons. Even if they were determined to leave, many Jews found that it could be difficult to immigrate to a new country.

Few countries were willing to accept refugees or immigrants at the time. Those that did typically relied on a quota system that discouraged certain groups from immigrating. Bureaucratic procedures further slowed the process and created obstacles. Widespread antisemitism in Europe and the United States also complicated the possibilities for large-scale Jewish immigration.

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Widespread anti-immigration sentiment in the United States was formalized after World War I by a radical change in American immigration policy.1 Congress passed several laws restricting immigration. The most consequential of those was the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924, which was meant to reduce overall immigration and had profound implications for Jewish immigration during the years of Nazi rule and the Holocaust

In addition to the quotas introduced by the Johnson-Reed Act, the prohibitive bureaucratic requirements and high costs of immigration worked against prospective immigrants. Those seeking to enter the United States were asked to assemble extensive amounts of paperwork. Furthermore, because of the strict interpretation of a 1917 clause mandating that no person would be admitted into the country who would become "public charge," prospective immigrants were asked to produce an "affidavit of support" from an American sponsor guaranteeing that an American citizen would support them in case they were unemployed or sick. Even those who had relatives in the United States found this requirement difficult to fulfill.

Palestine was another destination that attracted Jewish immigration. International Zionist organizations had pushed for Jewish immigration to Palestine since the late 19th century with the ultimate goal of establishing a Jewish state. As a region with a growing Jewish community in the interwar period, Palestine also became a potential haven for non-Zionist fleeing persecution. Palestine was under the British authority since 1922. British authorities sometimes showed support for the Zionist cause, but they did not want to alienate the Palestinian Arab majority by encouraging masses of European Jews to immigrate. This made British immigration policy to Palestine unclear, and by the late 1930s it had become very restrictive.2

Many Jews who wanted to leave Nazi Germany or German-occupied territories preferred to go to other European countries (France, Britain, the Netherlands). Others hoped to go anywhere as long as they could flee from the Nazi regime and its radical anti-Jewish policies. As the refugee crisis escalated over time, many European Jews began considering moving to Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia. From the Dominican Republic and Uruguay to China and South Africa, European Jews moved to places they might never have heard of a few years before.3 The refugee crisis of the 1930s became so severe that President Roosevelt called the international conference in Évian, France, in the summer of 1938—but the results were disappointing.

This collection features documents that point to the personal side of flight and displacement. A letter from Amalie Malsch to her son describes some of the bureaucratic obstacles and personal worries she and her husband faced as they tried to leave Germany. The Diary of Elisabeth Ornstein records the thoughts and feelings of a Jewish child rescued on a so-called Kindertransport. A Havana-based Yiddish newspaper reported on the experiences of Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis when the ship was denied entry into Cuba in late May 1939. And a five-year correspondence between a Viennese refugee in the Dominican Republic and an American aid organization show his frantic attempts to locate the whereabouts of his wife, mother, and child—still trapped in German-occupied Europe.

Flight and displacement created many obstacles that were difficult to overcome. The sources in this collection show some of these obstacles and give a glimpse into the impact emigration had on people's lives.

For a history of American nativism in this period, see John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002).

To learn more about Zionism and Jewish immigration to Palestine, see Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to the Establishment of the State of Israel (New York: Schocken, 2003). For a review of British immigration policy in Palestine and Jewish responses, see Dalia Ofer, Escaping the Holocaust: Illegal Immigration to the Land of Israel, 1939-1944 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

For an overview of some of these lesser known destinations and how they shaped Jewish experiences of the Holocaust and survival, see Atina Grossmann, "Remapping Relief and Rescue: Flight, Displacement, and International Aid for Jewish Refugees during World War II," New German Critique 39:3 (2012): 61-79.

For an overview of some of these lesser known destinations and how they shaped Jewish experiences of the Holocaust and survival, see Atina Grossmann, "Remapping Relief and Rescue: Flight, Displacement, and International Aid for Jewish Refugees during World War II," New German Critique 39:3 (2012): 61-79.

To learn more about Zionism and Jewish immigration to Palestine, see Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to the Establishment of the State of Israel (New York: Schocken, 2003). For a review of British immigration policy in Palestine and Jewish responses, see Dalia Ofer, Escaping the Holocaust: Illegal Immigration to the Land of Israel, 1939-1944 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

For a history of Jewish life in Nazi Germany, and responses to the radicalizing Nazi anti-Jewish policies, see Marion Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

For an overview of some of these lesser known destinations and how they shaped Jewish experiences of the Holocaust and survival, see Atina Grossmann, "Remapping Relief and Rescue: Flight, Displacement, and International Aid for Jewish Refugees during World War II," New German Critique 39:3 (2012): 61-79.

Herschel Grynszpan's parents were deported from Nazi Germany in October, as part of Germany's decision to expel Jews holding German resident permits. The Nazis used Grynszpan's act as a pretext for a country-wide, state-organized pogrom of the Jews in November 1939, known as the Kristallnacht.

All 17 Items in the Jewish Refugees and the Holocaust Collection

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