In summer 1942, Nazi Germany ordered officials in Vichy Fance to begin deporting foreign Jews from internment camps in southern France, including Gurs, Rivesaltes, and Les Milles.1 Many of the Jews in these camps had applied for immigration to the United States and were still awaiting their US visas when the deportations began in early August. The transports took more than 30,000 prisoners north to Drancy internment camp. From there, most went to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center.
Vichy authorities had permitted American aid workers, mainly representatives of pacifist churches, to distribute food and clothing in the camps. These Americans witnessed the deportations. Many of them also collaborated with the United States Committee for the Care of European Children (USCOM), an organization supported by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Created in June 1940 after France's surrender, the Committee had arranged for the temporary immigration of children: first youth escaping the Blitz in Great Britain, and later several hundred mainly Jewish children, largely from southern France and Spain. Parents voluntarily surrendered their children to the Americans, who were able to streamline the immigration process and reunite the children with distant relatives in the United States or pair them with foster families. Many of the parents were deported in the summer of 1942 and subsequently murdered.
After the first trains departed, American diplomats and aid workers wrote frantic accounts of the deportations, urging USCOM to speed their work. Originally committing themselves to rescue 1,000 children—mostly Jewish children childrens' homes in Vichy France—USCOM secured State Department approval for their proposal. They prepared to send an additional group of aid workers, nurses, and social workers to France to select the children. This memo, written by Attorney General Francis Biddle to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, discusses the USCOM effort. In the second paragraph, Biddle writes that "the President has approved a proposal that the number of children to be brought to the United States...may be increased to a total of five thousand." USCOM did not have American homes lined up for foster care, nor was the funding for the rescue operation entirely secure. But by October 1942, American witnesses in southern France already suspected that the Nazis and their allies were murdering the deportees. They hurried to rescue as many children as possible.
On November 8, 1942, the USCOM workers sailed from Baltimore toward southern France. That same day, British and American forces invaded North Africa, marking the beginning of Operation Torch. In response to the invasion, Nazi Germany occupied Vichy France, ending USCOM’s hope of rescuing the 5,000—or even the original 1,000—children. The aid workers evacuated a much smaller group, numbering about 50 children, from Lisbon in January 1943.
The failure of this plan shows how aid organizations like USCOM often struggled to orchestrate rescue amidst the priorities of a larger war effort.