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Europe – 1933-1945

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Scene during the Evian Conference on Jewish refugees. On the far right are two of the U.S. delegates: Myron Taylor and James McDonald of the President's Advisory Committee on Political Refugees. Evian-les-Bains, France, July 1938. (Photo from U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum)

James G. McDonald, an American diplomat who served as the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Coming from Germany, resigned his post in 1935 in an effort to draw attention to the true designs of the Nazi regime.  He eventually became chairman of President Roosevelt’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees in the late 1930s until the end of the war.

His meticulous diaries, which have only recently been published, document his increasing despair as Europe sank into conflict, hundreds of thousands were displaced.  Having met Hitler, McDonald knew full well that Germany had no plans to protect or eventually repatriate Jewish refugees.  McDonald urgently tried to find ways within the bureaucracies to save them, but was met with resistance at each turn. Many were concerned that Jews would be security threats to the United States, forced into espionage by Hitler.

A memo from Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long outlined the various bureaucratic tactics that could be employed to thwart any ambitious resettlement of imperiled Jewish refugees:

We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls, to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas. However, this could only be temporary. In order to make it more definite, it would have to be done by suspension of the rules under the law by the issuance of a proclamation of emergency–which I take it we are not yet ready to proclaim.

In a confidential letter to McDonald, the Rabbi Stephen Wise commiserated about the frustrating pace of processing:

With regard to the political refugees, we are in the midst of the most difficult situation, an almost unmanageable quandary.  On the one hand, the State Department makes all sorts of promises and takes our lists and then we hear that the Consuls do nothing.  A few people slip through, but we are afraid, – this in strictest confidence, – that the Consuls have private instructions from the Department to do nothing, which would be infamous beyond words.

Any ambitious efforts to resettle Jewish refugees were abandoned upon the bombing at Pearl Harbor and the consequent American entry into the Second World War.


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