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“Plan to Bring German Refugees Here Approved in Survey of College Opinion”

News of anti-Jewish violence in Nazi Germany and growing numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing Europe for the United States brought increasing awareness of the plight of German Jews to US college campuses in the 1930s.1 Many US colleges were reluctant to admit Jewish students, however, and many Americans did not favor admitting more Jewish refugees to the US. 

Shortly after the organized anti-Jewish violence of November 1938—often referred to as Kristallnacht—multiple articles regarding refugee students appeared on the front pages of the student newspaper of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. The featured pages of the November 22 issue of the Swarthmore Phoenix contain a survey of students and faculty about their opinions about efforts to sponsor refugees2 fleeing Nazi Germany. Participants were asked, "Do you think it advisable that Swarthmore College students, faculty, and administration help defray the costs of education for German refugee students?" Of the ten surveyed, only one person expressed strong disapproval.

These efforts and the campus community's support both were exceptional at a time when many Americans were reluctant to allow increased immigration for German Jewish refugees.3 This may have been due to the college's strong ties to the Religious Society of Friends (also known as Quakers), a socially active religious movement which was instrumental in aiding refugees from Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.4 Although Swarthmore had only been officially affiliated with the Quakers until 1908, the college's campus culture continued to reflect their ethical principles. And many students, faculty, and community members still identified as Quakers in the 1930s.

The lone voice in opposition to the plan—a junior named James Zimmer—expressed suspicion over an "extensive migration” that he feared would "drive young Americans from important positions." Zimmer expressed his specific discomfort with "a large German-Jewish immigration" because he saw German Jews as too foreign to integrate into American society. He argued instead that the world should "find some colony" for the Jewish refugees to live.

Zimmer was not alone in this view—other students and faculty voiced similar opinions. Zimmer's call for a separate Jewish "colony" was echoed by an English professor, who thought that funds to support Jewish refugees should support their "bare subsistence" in a "colonization scheme." Antisemitic plans to resettle European Jews to a faraway colony—typically Madagascar5—had existed for decades by the time the Nazi regime briefly considered the idea in 1940. In contrast, the Zionist movement believed that establishing a Jewish state in Palestine was necessary to protect the Jewish people from antisemitism.

Others who responded in favor of sponsoring German Jewish refugees reasoned that they were motivated by humanitarianism or the "ideals of Christianity." Yet even among these more vocal supporters, there were limits to their enthusiasm—some called for measures that would ensure only "worthy" refugees would be eligible for immigration to the US.6

To learn more about the American public's reaction to events in Europe through the US press, see the US Holocaust Memorial Museum's citizen history project, History Unfolded

The plan mirrored similar efforts advanced on behalf of Chinese refugees from the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, as well as Spanish people fleeing the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

According to one poll taken in November of 1938, 72 percent of Americans answered "no" when asked "Should we allow a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany to come to the United States to live?" Only 21 percent said "Yes." On the exclusion and marginalization of Jews at American Universities, see Valerie B. Kolko, "A History of Jews in American Higher Education," Journal of the Student Personnel Association at Indiana University (2003): 20–32; Dan A. Oren, Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985); and Nitza Rosovsky, The Jewish Experience at Harvard and Radcliffe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986).

The idea of "relocating" Jews to settlements in Africa emerged in the late nineteenth century and was embraced by antisemitic figures from France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Poland, among other countries. The so-called "Madagascar Plan" was a specific formulation of this effort, conceived as a partnership between Germany and Poland in 1938. For more on the "Madagascar Plan" and its place in Nazi policymaking, see this excerpt from the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal convicted for his role in the mass murder of European Jews in 1961. See also Eric T. Jennings, "Writing Madagascar Back into the Madagascar Plan," Holocaust and Genocide Studies, 21:2 (Fall 2007): 187–217.

For more on restrictive hiring and admission policies for European Jewish refugees on US college campuses, see Laurel Leff, Well Worth Saving: American Universities' Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees from Nazi Europe (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020).

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Swarthmore Phoenix
External Website TriCollege Library and Archive
Date Created
November 22, 1938
Page(s) 1, 6
Swarthmore College
Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, USA
Document Type Newspaper Article
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