“The problem of the refugee — political, racial, religious — is as old as man. It becomes acute in every cruel and intolerant age. The present age is cruel and intolerant; and many people who are not either are nevertheless satiated of pity, so that they no longer react to tales of horror and injustice as they once would have done.”
This is how Hamilton Fish Armstrong began his foreword to Dorothy Thompson’s influential short book, Refugees: Anarchy or Organization? The foreword is dated June 4, 1938.
Yes, 1938: the refugee crisis created by Nazi Germany’s expanding empire. I am well aware of Godwin’s Law, so it’s with only the greatest historical care and personal awareness that I invoke this time period. That being said, roughly half of all Americans harbor, at the very least, deep concerns about allowing Syrian refugees into the country.
Sadly, this general resistance to permitting additional refugees to enter the country is nothing new. But the means of resistance is different than those of the isolationist 1930’s. Americans today are seeking to change the laws to reflect their fears and Trump just issued an executive order that does just that.
However, at the time Armstrong wrote his foreword, Americans hid behind existing legislation to prevent additional refugees while Nazism spread.
In a letter dated May 16, 1939, Nicholas Winton, an Englishman who saved 669 children from the Nazis, wrote to President Roosevelt pleading for America to take more child refugees from Czechoslovakia, many of whom had fled Germany years before. His entire letter is printed below, which was only recently discovered in Roosevelt’s library. Note the factual but firm tone:
Perhaps people in America do not realize how little is being and has been done for refugee children in Czechoslovakia. They have to depend entirely on private guarantors to get into England, which means that somebody has to take full responsibility for maintenance, upkeep, and education, until they are 18 years of age. No other country is taking an interest in them except for Sweden, which took 35 children last February. We at this office have case-papers and photos of over 5000 children, quite apart from a further 10,000 whom we estimate have to register. Actually, so far, we have brought only about 120 into England.
In Bohemia and Slovakia to-day, there are thousands of children, some homeless and starving, mostly without nationality, but they certainly all have one thing in common: there is no future, if they are forced to remain where they are. Their parents are forbidden work and the children are forbidden schooling, and apart from the physical discomforts, which all this signifies, the moral degradation is immeasurable. Yet since Munich, hardly anything has been done for the children in Czecho-slovakia. Many of the children are quite destitute having had to move more than once since they originally fled from Germany.
Is it possible for anything to be done to help with this problem in America? It is hard to state our case forcibly in a letter, but we trust to your imagination to realize how desperately urgent the situation is.
Believe me, Esteemed Sir, with many thanks,
Your obedient servant,
His request was essentially denied, citing that the President had no authority, short of new legislation, to allow additional refugees. One can only guess the fate of those 10,000 children cited in the letter.
Private philanthropy played a massive role in German refugee settlement. Thompson’s book reported £3 million raised from private parties for refugee settlement, which led to 35,000 people coming to the United States by 1937, 7,500 to the Netherlands, 4,000 to England, and 42,000 to Palestine. Perhaps surprisingly, most of the Palestinian refugees were funded not by private philanthropy, but by a trade-and-transfer agreement with the Nazi government. Still, this represented a fraction of the refugees seeking a new home at the time.
Like the Syrian refugees today, there were widespread misconceptions about who the refugees from Nazi Germany actually were and what they believed.
“When the exodus from Germany started in 1933, the world began to look at the refugee problem as exclusively Jewish. This is an error. The refugee question is not even essentially Jewish in those countries which make anti-Semitism their leading idea! Many of the German refugees are as ‘Nordic’ as can be, but have had to flee for political reasons, because they were liberals, socialists, democrats, pacifists, or religious devotees.”
Likewise, many people across the world didn’t realize how broad Hitler’s definition of Judaism was, and that, to most other countries and societal situations, such people would not be considered Jewish: “Therefore, the Aryan laws affect one to three million people in Germany who are not Jews except by a fantastic stretch of the imagination.”[Emphasis Thompson’s]
In a later section titled “An Appeal to Reason,” Thompson argues, “If the democratic world were realistic and robust, it would regard the refugees as potential assets, provided the task of transfer and resettlement can be organized in a large way and with imagination and adequate finance.” Her book, which is open-source and worth the quick read, is full of practical advice on where such imagination and adequate finance could come from.
One of the most commonly proposed solutions to the refugee problem involved not integration of refugees in a new society, but isolation in a remote piece of land. In the September, 1941 issue of Harper’s, prominent Zionist Benjamin Azkin discussed at length the Jewish refugee problem resulting from the European turmoil (America, of course, was blissfully determined to remain neutral at the time). Azkin sought not for integration, but the formation of a Jewish state (as Zionists tend to do). He argued Jews need their own territory, for centuries of attempted coexistence had resulted in nothing but persecution, exile, and more persecution.
A few ideas came to the fore the time: give Alaska to the Jews (thanks…?), a large chunk of Africa (it is not clear which chunk, or what nation was to give it, but it was to fit 10 million Jews), or Brazil (it’s not clear if Brazil was actually on board with this, and fair to assume they weren’t). Thompson also dedicates a section of her book to this proposition. Palestine is barely mentioned by either writer, except to dismiss it as non-viable (Thompson says it won’t work unless Arabs — who outnumbered Jews in Palestine at the time by a factor of two — and Jews cooperate and work together). Nevertheless, Azkin’s rhetoric regarding the Jew’s place in global xenophobia is noteworthy:
“The solution President Roosevelt envisages is the ‘resettling of several million people in new areas of the earth’s surface.’ President Roosevelt was quite right in dealing with the Jewish question within the larger framework of the problem of minorities in general. Though the Jews form the most ubiquitous minority, and the longest-living one on record, and though anti-Jewish prejudice is the most obstinate and severest case of xenophobia known to the world, it still is nothing else than xenophobia-e-the dislike of the stranger. Somewhat milder forms of the same disease are a recurrent feature in our world. The relations between Slavs and Germans, Germans and Latins, Catholics and Protestants, White and Colored, Christians and Moslems, Northerners and Southerners, the relations between smaller units within each of the larger groups offer innumerable examples of this phobia. At times it is no more than a trivial dislike that can be cured or ignored. At other times the dislike is intense, shows no sign of abating, is easily stimulated and becomes a major threat to orderly life in the affected area. Race, religion, nationality, language, or dialect may form the element determining the “strangeness” of the group involved. It is pathetic indeed to watch some Jewish spokesmen (usually among the least religious) trying to escape the consequences of antisemitism by incessantly proclaiming that Jews are a religion, not a nation. As if the label mattered!
“The simple truth is that the resistance of England, of the Americas, and of the Dominions to antisemitism and to the things that come in its wake is already very strained, a matter of touch-and-go. It is hoped, though one should not be too confident, that the resistance will prove equal to the existing stresses. But so allergic have these countries become to Jewish immigration, that a further large scale influx is no longer a matter of practical politics. Small groups of individuals will probably manage to find a berth in these countries. But any migrations on a scale likely to alleviate the pressure of the Jewish problem in Central Europe will not find room in any other organized nation. The world, by and large, as somebody has said, can be divided with regard to the Jews into two parts: that which the Jews will have to leave, and that which they will be unable to enter. All this is very unpleasant. Freedom of migration is a beautiful idea. So is freedom from xenophobia. But nothing will be gained by refusing to face realities, and much is to be lost by refusing to deal adequately with a dangerous disease.”
Back to Armstrong’s foreword, which is the most lucid and transcendent text on the matter I came across: he seems to believe, as current events reflect, that despite democracy’s theoretical framework, our leaders shape our thinking and policies on refugee problems, and not the other way around. In a powerful passage, he pleads:
“We need spokesmen who will recall to us that this difference between wrong asserted as right and wrong protested but not yet defeated is complete and irreconcilable. We need spokesmen who will reanimate our pity for the victims of personal and public outrage, whenever perpetrated; who will re-new our courage; who will challenge us to demonstrate our intellectual capacity for dealing rationally with the problems which those outrages create, both in social relationship and in international politics.”
Do we have any such leaders today? Brave enough to escort us past our fears and into the uncertain realm of decency and empathy? Do we have any statesmen willing to challenge us to be our best selves rather than play to our fears for selfish political ends?
Regardless, I find myself consistently drawn to a line in Thompson’s work, which outlines the fundamental moral and practical elements of any refugee crisis. I am constantly reminded of it when I see Jewish friends and relatives questioning the value of expanding America’s refugee intake, or letting in any Muslims at all.
“It is a challenge, moreover, to the prescience and common sense of any racial or religious minority which has ever known persecution or discrimination anywhere in the past; for if these do not now protest the abuse of other minorities what moral grounds will they have for protesting if once again their own rights are threatened?”
Yad Vashem has an online exhibition about Muslims who saved Jews from Nazi Germany. It’s worth your time.