Jewish Refugees and the International Response to the Holocaust

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Jewish Refugees and the International Response to the Holocaust

ESSENTIAL LEARNING: Students must be able to define the concept of genocide and be able to explain the progression of the Holocaust from 1933 to 1945.
CURRICULUM OUTCOME: Students will examine international response to Jewish refugees during and after the Second World War. (6.1.3.) Students will identify international action and human rights legislation resulting from this period. (6.1.4.)

Essential Learning:

Curriculum Outcome:

The actions of the Nazis led to a large number of Jewish refugees before, during and after the Second World War. 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 (25%) 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 seeking refuge were unable to find countries willing to take them in.

Evian Conference

July 6-15, 1938

As requests for visas by Jews seeking to flee Nazi Germany increased, the Evian Conference was organized to discuss the German-Jewish refugees. Delegates from 32 countries and representatives from relief organizations meet in Evian-les-Bains, a spa town in France. The United States encouraged all countries to find a long-term solution to the problem. However, the represented countries were unwilling to ease their immigration restrictions. Most countries fear that an increase of refugees will cause further economic hardships. The conference ended a week later. With the exception of the tiny Dominican Republic, no country was willing to accept more refugees.

Jewish Emigration from Germany, 1933 – 1939

Between April 1933 and May 1939, 304,500 Jews emigrated from Germany (including areas occupied by Germany in May 1939). They emigrated to:





Great Britain








South Africa




Other European countries


Other South American countries






The Voyage of the St. Louis

a postcard of the ss st. louis. may 1939.

The voyage of the St. Louis, a German ocean liner, dramatically highlights the difficulties faced by many people trying to escape Nazi terror. In May 1939, 937 passengers, most Jewish refugees, left Hamburg, Germany, en route to Cuba. Most of them planned eventually to immigrate to the United States and were on the waiting list for admission. All passengers held landing certificates permitting them entry to Cuba, but when the St. Louis reached the port of Havana, the President of Cuba refused to honour the documents.

After the ship left the Havana harbour, it sailed so close to the Florida coast that the passengers could see the lights of Miami. The captain appealed for help, but in vain. U.S. Coast Guard ships patrolled the waters to make sure that no one jumped to freedom and did not allow the ship to dock in the U.S. Canada also rejected the appeals of its Jewish refugees. The St. Louis turned back to Europe. Belgium, the Netherlands, England, and France admitted the passengers. But within months, the Germans overran Western Europe. Hundreds of passengers who disembarked in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France eventually fell victim to the Nazi "Final Solution."

Canada’s Response to Jewish Refugees

The following story: None is too Many is taken from the CBC Archives. It was broadcast on The Journal on October 6, 1982.

Canada likes to think of itself as a sanctuary for the oppressed. But, as we see in this CBC Television clip, the Canadian government did everything in its power to bar the door to European Jews trying to flee Nazi persecution. Irving Abella, co-author of the new book None Is Too Many, argues that Canada did less than other Western countries to help the Jews despite mounting reports of Adolf Hitler's genocide.

Small countries managed to rescue 15,000 to 20,000 Jews, compared to 4,000 to 5,000 for Canada, says Abella. "It was a hideous, shameful, disgraceful record," says the Toronto-based history professor. At the heart of the closed-door policy was Frederick Charles Blair, the head of immigration in the Mackenzie King administration. In one letter, Blair compared Jews clamouring to get into the country to hogs at feeding time. But he couldn't have acted alone.

Abella says his three-year search of official records showed that Mackenzie King, the wartime prime minister, and Vincent Massey, Canada's high commissioner to Britain, supported a tight cap on the number of Jewish immigrants. Saul Sigler, a Toronto businessman, tells the CBC he tried in vain to get his brother and sister into Canada. Blair's response, according to Sigler: "Why don't you people learn to live with your neighbours wherever you are? Why are you hated?"

Did you know?

• The title, None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933 to 1948, comes from an anecdote relayed in the book. Authors Irving Abella and Harold Troper recount how a civil servant, when asked how many Jews Canada would accept after the Second World War, quipped: "None is too many."

• Canada's refusal to help European Jews escape the Nazis' clutches, first exposed by None Is Too Many, is generally accepted today as fact. In a 1995 speech to Holocaust survivors in Toronto, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien said: "We turned our backs on Jewish refugees from Europe when we could have saved lives, when we should have saved lives. Instead, we washed our hands of the matter."

• Canada's immigration policy slowly became more accepting of Jews after the Second World War. It wasn't until the 1950s that Canada allowed Jews again in large numbers, as it had between the 1880s and the First World War. Restrictions on Asian immigrants outlived the limits on Jewish newcomers, lasting until the 1960s.

Frederick Charles Blair, the civil servant highlighted in this clip, was born in Carlisle, Ont., in 1874 to Scottish parents. An elder in the Baptist church, he was in charge of upholding immigration restrictions as director of the Immigration Branch in the Department of Mines and Resources. His correspondence in federal archives is rife with anti-Semitic remarks. Upon his retirement in 1943, Blair was given a prestigious award for meritorious public service.

• Many historians point out that the Canadian government's actions, while shameful, largely reflected Canadian public sentiment at the time. "Anti-Semitism was rife throughout Canada, where, in some places, Jews could not hold particular jobs, own property, or stay in certain hotels," states "Forging Our Legacy," a 2000 paper by Citizenship and Immigration Canada. "It was most strident in Quebec, however, where right-wing, nationalist French-language newspapers castigated Jews … ."

Postwar Refugee Crisis and the Establishment of the State of Israel

Most Jewish survivors, who had survived concentration camps or had been in hiding, were unable or unwilling to return to Eastern Europe because of postwar anti-Semitism and the destruction of their communities during the Holocaust. Many of those who did return feared for their lives. In Poland, for example, locals initiated several violent pogroms. The worst was the one in Kielce in 1946 in which 42 Jews, all survivors of the Holocaust, were killed. These pogroms led to a significant second movement of Jewish refugees from Poland to the west.

Many Holocaust survivors moved westward to territories liberated by the western Allies. They were housed in displaced persons camps and urban displaced persons centers. At its peak in 1947, the Jewish displaced person population reached approximately 250,000. While the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) administered all of the displaced persons camps and centers, Jewish displaced persons achieved a large measure of internal autonomy.

Many Jewish displaced persons formed self-governing organizations, and many worked toward the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. There were central committees of Jewish displaced persons in the American and British zones which, as their primary goals, pressed for greater immigration opportunities and the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

In the United States, immigration restrictions strictly limited the number of refugees permitted to enter the country. The British, who had received a mandate from the League of Nations to administer Palestine, severely restricted Jewish immigration there largely because of Arab objections. Many countries closed their borders to immigration. Despite these obstacles, many Jewish displaced persons attempted to leave Europe as soon as possible.

The internment of over 50 000 Jewish refugees on the island of Cyprus--many of them Holocaust survivors--turned world opinion against British policy in Palestine. The report of the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry in January 1946 led U.S. president Harry Truman to pressure Britain into admitting 100,000 Jewish refugees into Palestine.

As the crisis escalated, the British government decided to submit the problem of Palestine to the United Nations (UN). In a special session, the UN General Assembly voted on November 29, 1947, to partition Palestine into two new states, one Jewish and the other Arab, a recommendation that Jewish leaders accepted and the Arabs rejected.

After the British began the withdrawal of their military forces from Palestine in early April 1948, Zionist leaders moved to establish a modern Jewish state. On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, announced the formation of the state of Israel, declaring, "The Nazi Holocaust, which engulfed millions of Jews in Europe, proved anew the urgency of the reestablishment of the Jewish State, which would solve the problem of Jewish homelessness by opening the gates to all Jews and lifting the Jewish people to equality in the family of nations."

Holocaust survivors from displaced persons camps in Europe and from detention camps on Cyprus were welcomed into the Jewish homeland. Many of them fought in Israel's War of Independence in 1948 and 1949. In 1953, Yad Vashem (The Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority), the national institution for Holocaust commemoration, was established.

The Nuremburg Trials

The international response to the war crimes of World War II and the Holocaust was to establish the Nuremberg international tribunal. Three major wartime powers, the USA, USSR and Great Britain, agreed to punish those responsible. Twenty-two prominent Nazis were tried at Nuremburg; twelve were sentenced to death. The trials brought human rights into the domain of global politics, redefined morality at the global level, and gave political currency to the concept of crimes against humanity, where individuals rather than governments were held accountable for war crimes.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

After the atrocities of World War II and the planned extermination of Jews during the Holocaust, it was believed that the UN and its United Nations Charter did not sufficiently clarify the rights it protected. Inspired by these events, John Peters Humphrey of Canada led the effort to link human rights and ethics, and universalize basic rights for the peoples of the world. He was supported by Eleanor Roosevelt of the United States, René Cassin of France, Charles Malik of Lebanon, P. C. Chang of China and others. The vote in the General Assembly passed unanimously, but several countries (Germany & Austria, the entire Soviet bloc, South Africa and Saudi Arabia) chose to abstain.

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