Between 1933 and 1941, the Nazis aimed to make Germany judenrein (cleansed of Jews) by making life so difficult for them that they would be forced to leave the country. By 1938, about 150,000 German Jews, one in four, had already fled the country. After Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, however, an additional 185,000 Jews were brought under Nazi rule. Many Jews were unable to find countries willing to take them in.
Many German and Austrian Jews tried to go to the United States but could not obtain the visas needed to enter. Even though news of the violent pogroms of November 1938 was widely reported, Americans remained reluctant to welcome Jewish refugees. In the midst of the Great Depression, many Americans believed that refugees would compete with them for jobs and overburden social programs set up to assist the needy.
Congress had set up immigration quotas in 1924 that limited the number of immigrants and discriminated against groups considered racially and ethnically undesirable. These quotas remained in place even after President Franklin D. Roosevelt, responding to mounting political pressure, called for an international conference to address the refugee problem.
In the summer of 1938, delegates from thirty-two countries met at the French resort of Evian. Roosevelt chose not to send a high-level official, such as the secretary of state, to Evian; instead, Myron C. Taylor, a businessman and close friend of Roosevelt’s, represented the US at the conference. During the nine-day meeting, delegate after delegate rose to express sympathy for the refugees. But most countries, including the United States and Britain, offered excuses for not letting in more refugees.
Responding to Evian, the German government was able to state with great pleasure how “astounding” it was that foreign countries criticized Germany for their treatment of the Jews, but none of them wanted to open the doors to them when “the opportunity offer[ed].”
Even efforts by some Americans to rescue children failed: the Wagner-Rogers bill, an effort to admit 20,000 endangered Jewish refugee children, was not supported by the Senate in 1939 and 1940. Widespread racial prejudices among Americans–including antisemitic attitudes held by the US State Department officials–played a part in the failure to admit more refugees.
JULY 6-15, 1938 REFUGEE CONFERENCE IN EVIAN Delegates from 32 countries and representatives from relief organizations meet in Evian-les-Bains, a spa town in France, to discuss the German-Jewish refugees. The United States encourages all countries to find a long-term solution to the problem. However, the United States and other countries are unwilling to ease their immigration restrictions. Most countries fear that an increase of refugees will cause further economic hardships. The conference ends a week later. With the exception of the tiny Dominican Republic, no country is willing to accept more refugees. One result of the conference is the establishment of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (ICR), which will continue to work on the refugee problem.
FEBRUARY 9, 1939 LIMITED REFUGEE BILL PROPOSED IN US CONGRESS The Wagner-Rogers refugee aid bill is introduced in the United States Senate by Senator Robert F. Wagner (D-New York). This bill calls for the admission to the United States of 20,000 German refugee children under the age of 14 over the next two years, in addition to immigration normally permitted. The bill will be introduced in the House of Representatives by Representative Edith Nourse Rogers (R-Massachusetts) five days later. Charity organizations across the country publicize the plight of German refugee children in an attempt to gain support for the bill. However, organizations favoring restrictive immigration strongly oppose the bill and claim that the refugee children would deprive American children of aid. After several months of debate, the bill is defeated in committee. The bill would have provided refuge for thousands of German Jewish children.
MAY 1939 BRITISH GOVERNMENT RESTRICTS IMMIGRATION INTO PALESTINE An Arab-Palestinian revolt against the British mandate in Palestine in 1936 and continuing Arab unrest, especially regarding the status of Jews in Palestine, leads to a decisive change in British policy in the Middle East. In the White Paper of 1939, the British government announces its polices on the future status of Palestine. The British reject the establishment of an independent Jewish state and severely restrict future Jewish immigration to Palestine. In response to the British policy, illegal immigration of Jewish refugees to Palestine increases. The British intercept the illegal immigrants and intern them in camps. During the war, there is no attempt to relax the immigration policy. Restrictions on Jewish immigration remain in force until the establishment of Israel in 1948.