Deteriorating economic conditions contributed to the political and social climate which both launched World War II and fueled the anti-Semitism which encouraged the destruction of the Jews of Europe. These same economic conditions world-wide resulted in barriers placed against those potential Jewish immigrants who sought refuge from the Nazi terror. Anti-Jewish sentiment in France, England, and even the United States resulted in hundreds of thousands of European Jews being denied a safe haven, which meant virtually certain death. Simple indifference to the plight of Jews, according to many historians, also played a role in the events which led to the Holocaust.
Thousands of Jews in Germany were successful in fleeing before the onset of hostilities in 1939, especially in the early years of the Nazi period. Many of these refugees were able to find their way aboard ships headed for American ports. There are, however, tragic stories of these ships being turned away by immigration officials, and their occupants returned to Europe to face the gas chambers (see story about the St. Louis voyage). Each nation had its own story of how its government and citizens responded to the horrors of the Holocaust. The following are capsules of some of these stories.
United States — Despite the fact that the U.S. received early reports about the desperate plight of European Jewry, procrastination and inaction marked its policies toward rescue. Immigration quotas were never increased for the emergency; the existing quotas, in fact, were never filled.
Wagner-Rogers legislation — Legislation was introduced in the United States Congress in 1939 by Rep. Robert Wagner to admit a total of 20,000 Jewish children over a two-year period above the refugee quota applicable at the time. The legislation was inspired by similar efforts by the Dutch and British government to save Jewish children from Nazi terror. The legislation was amended in committee to admit the 20,000 children only if the number of Jewish refugees admitted under the regular quota was reduced by 20,000. The bill died in the House after the sponsor withdrew his support for the bill in frustration.
Bermuda Conference — As the Germans advanced through Europe, more Jews and others who were targets of Nazi racial policies came under Nazi control. By 1943 the war had created millions of refugees in Europe. The Bermuda Conference, jointly sponsored by the United States and Great Britain, was held in Bermuda in April 1943 to discuss solutions to the refugee problem. The conference failed. As Michael Marrus writes in The Holocaust in History:
At the Bermuda Conference in April 1943...the British and Americans proved most adept at postponing serious efforts to change matters. By this point, opinion was mobilized on behalf of several schemes for rescue and refuge. Such views were deflected, however; the press was kept at arm's length and little was achieved.
War Refugee Board — U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, presented a report to President Roosevelt in 1943 providing details about the Final Solution. It was not until January 1944, however, that the President responded by establishing the War Refugee Board as an independent agency to rescue the civilian victims of the Nazis. By then, most of these civilian victims had already been murdered. The Board joined a plea to the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Horthy, from Great Britain, Sweden, the Pope, and the International Red Cross to stop the deportations of Hungarian Jews. While Admiral Horthy agreed on July 8, 1944 to discontinue the deportations, fewer than 200,000 Jews of the original number of more than 600,000 remained. Thousands of those permitted this reprieve from the death camps were eventually saved through the efforts of Raoul Wallenberg and other diplomats.
Spain and Portugal — As many as 40,000 Jews who were able to make their way to Spain and Portugal were saved from the Nazi death camps more than 20,000 Jews made their way into Switzerland, but many thousands were turned back, according to Michael Marrus' Holocaust in History.
Denmark — The rescue of Denmark's 8,000 Jewsserves as an example of an entire nation mobilized to rescue humanity from the abyss of German terror. While the story may be apocryphal that King Christian X threatened to abdicate and to wear the Nazi yellow Star of David as a badge of honor, it symbolizes his opposition to all anti-Semitic legislation. Almost all of the Jews of Denmark survived the war, while those in almost every other nation occupied by the Nazis had their ranks decimated.
A September 1943 decision by the Nazi occupiers of Denmark to round up all Danish Jews for shipment to the death camps was thwarted. Courageously acting on a tip from a German shipping official, Danes from all walks of life mobilized whatever would float and ferried 5,900 Jews, 1,300 part-Jews, and 700 Christians married to Jews to safety in Sweden. Of the 500 or so Jews left in Denmark on October 1, 1943, all were deported by the Germans to Theresienstadt. Eighty-five percent survived the war.
Historians have pondered why the citizens of Denmark resisted the war against the Jews, unlike most of their European neighbors. One reason is that Denmark did not have a history of anti-Semitism. Another was that nearby was neutral Sweden, willing to accept the Jews that could be saved.
Bulgaria — Forty-eight thousand Jews in Bulgaria were also spared the horror of the gas chambers as a result of the courage of the Bulgarian people. A public outcry by Bulgarian church officials and others against a deportation order directed at all Jews forced the Bulgarian government to rescind its order. Jews who had been rounded up in Bulgarian-occupied Thrace and Macedonia were not as lucky; virtually all perished in the Holocaust.
Several embassies in Hungary acted in concert to issue passports to Jews at risk (see story about Raoul Wallenberg, above). Yet many other European governments not only complied with the demand of the Germans to deport Jews to the death camps but facilitated the deportations.
France — Pre-war France had a Jewish population of over 300,000, out of a total population of 45 million. Many thousands of these were refugees, and only about 150,000 were native Frenchmen. In May 1940, the German army invaded France and occupied three-fifths of the country in accordance with an armistice signed on June 22nd.
A government was formed in unoccupied France at Vichy. The Vichy government was dominated by advocates for cooperation with the Germans. Many of the decrees of the Vichy government in 1940-41 paralleled the anti-Jewish edicts of Germany in the mid-1930s. Jewish property was expropriated, and Jews were stripped of their basic civil rights. Non-native French Jews were singled out in October 1940 for internment in labor camps, which resulted in a large number of deaths.
In March 1942, the Germans began deporting Jews from the occupied zones in France to the death camps. In July of that same year, they demanded that all Jews be rounded up in unoccupied France for deportation.
The Vichy government decided to protect French Jews, but handed over 15,000 foreign Jews from the internment camps for deportation to the death camps. Many hundreds of other Jews were executed, as described in Lucy Dawidowicz's The War Against the Jews in reprisal for partisan activities. By the time France was liberated, 90,000 of the pre-war Jewish population in France had been killed.
Source: The Holocaust—A Guide for Teachers. Copyright 1990 by Gary M. Grobman. All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any form, or by any means, mechanical or electronic, or by any information storage and retrieval system or other method, for any use, without the written permission of Gary M. Grobman, except that use, copying, and distribution of the information in this electronic version of this book is permitted provided that no fees or compensation is charged for use, copies, or access to such information and the copyright notice is included intact.