ROME – Stories of migrant-laden ships sinking in the Mediterranean while trying to reach the shores of Europe, and of refugees dying at Calais while trying to enter Britain through the Eurotunnel, have lately become ubiquitous in Europe.
This ongoing crisis should remind us of a painful, and shameful, episode of recent history: the rejection faced by European Jews seeking refuge from the anti-Semitic fury that raged across Europe in the 1930s. Today’s refugees should remind us, too, of those Jews who, having survived the Holocaust, sailed across the Mediterranean toward Palestine in 1946-1947 only to be imprisoned by the British in Cyprus or elsewhere.
The fact is that in the 1930s, as Jews faced growing persecution in Germany and anti-Semitic laws proliferated in Central and Eastern Europe, the outside world was mostly indifferent to the victims’ fate. That indifference was no doubt shaped by the deeply ingrained prejudices of the time, as well as by widespread suspicion of all strangers. “The boat is full” was a refrain that resonated with governments and public opinion alike.
Indeed, in 1935, the United States admitted only about 6,000 Jewish émigrés from Europe; Argentina let in 3,000; and 2,000 legally entered Brazil. Western Europe was more generous: France took in 35,000, while Belgium and the Netherlands admitted about 20,000 each.
In 1938, under pressure from US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a conference was held in Évian, France, to discuss the status of Jewish refugees. Although more than 30 countries took part, they accepted only a minuscule number of Jewish refugees. Citing unemployment, socioeconomic difficulties, and problems of public order, the participants concluded that nothing could be done for Europe’s Jews.
For their part, the British refused even to discuss the issue of Jewish emigration to Palestine. Despite the surge in anti-Jewish violence in Europe, the number of Jews admitted by Britain into Palestine had first fallen and then stagnated: 60,000 in 1935, 30,000 in 1936, 10,000 in 1937, 13,000 in 1938, and just a few more in 1939. Yielding to Arab opposition and afraid of strengthening the Zionist movement, the United Kingdom limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to 10,000 per year for five years (with a potential supplementary quota of 25,000).
In April 1939, the colonial secretary, Malcolm MacDonald, responding to a question in the House of Commons, said that Britain had prevented “1,220 illegal immigrants from landing in Palestine.” Passengers were ordered to be returned to their ports of embarkation. “You mean the concentration camps?” the MP then asked. MacDonald’s retort echoes through today’s crisis in the Mediterranean: The responsibility, he said, fell on those who had organized the illegal immigration.
Even after the outbreak of war in Europe that September, only 20,000 Jews found asylum in the US. (They owed their salvation mainly to resolute action in occupied France by the Emergency Rescue Committee, whose valiant volunteers included Varian Fry and Hannah Arendt). Many factors account for America’s reticence: anti-Semitism; anti-immigration ideology; silence by Christian churches; and US Jewish organizations’ reluctance to press the Roosevelt administration, lest they increase anti-Jewish sentiment. Moreover, for Zionists, the need to create a Jewish state took precedence over Jewish migration to America.
In the chronicles of those horrible years, two ships take starring, albeit ill-fated, roles: the Struma and the St. Louis.
The Struma left Romania’s Black Sea port of Constanța in December 1941, carrying 800 Jews fleeing the slaughter organized by the Romanian state and fascist militias. Upon reaching Istanbul, the British refused to grant its passengers entry visas to Palestine. After 70 days in harbor, the Struma was forced to return to the Black Sea – where it was sunk by a torpedo whose origin remains a mystery. Only one passenger survived.
The St. Louis, with 900 German Jews on board, left Germany in May 1939 on course for Cuba. Upon reaching Havana, after long negotiations between the Cuban government and the American Joint Distribution Committee, the ship was obliged to return to Europe. Some of the refugees were given safe haven by the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Great Britain. Others, however, were forced to return to Hitler’s Germany, where they were soon to perish.
Europe’s response to today’s destitute migrants, many of them seeking asylum from countries that have been torn apart by extremism and civil war, shows that it can happen again. European leaders, fearful of a popular backlash, are once again devising novel ways to reject, rather than help, some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.
Migration is a complex issue, and there are no simple solutions between the extremes of utopian goodwill and heinous xenophobia. But recalling the plight of Europe’s Jews in the 1930s should compel us to reject indifference to the fate of those with nowhere else to turn.
Giorgio Gomel, an economist, is a member of JCall, an association of European Jews committed to the two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.