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Friday, June 18, 2010


- Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis while the ship was docked in the port of Havana

A post at Denny's blog on Arizona's immigration policies and a movie I watched last night (Holocuast) made me curious about how the US reacted to Jewish immigration just before and during WWII. We may think (or maybe only uneducated I thought :) that the US policy on immigration has always matched the sentiments in the poem on the statue of liberty ....

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

... but that's not really so.

- James Woods and Meryl Streep in Holocaust

The movie I mentioned above was an old one (1978) and starred a strangely young James Woods and Meryl Streep :) It was criticized by some as being inaccurate but one reference made by James Woods' character, that the US was not accepting some of the Jewish refugees trying to get out of Germany, appears to be accurate. Here's a little from Wikipedia on the subject ....

In the years before and during World War II the United States Congress, the Roosevelt Administration, and public opinion expressed concern about the fate of Jews in Europe but consistently refused to permit large-scale immigration of Jewish refugees.

In a report issued by the State Department, Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat noted that the United States accepted only 21,000 refugees from Europe and did not significantly raise or even fill its restrictive quotas, accepting far fewer Jews per capita than many of the neutral European countries and fewer in absolute terms than Switzerland .....

U.S. opposition to immigration in general in the late 1930s was motivated by the grave economic pressures, the high unemployment rate, and social frustration and disillusionment. The U.S. refusal to support specifically Jewish immigration, however, stemmed from something else, namely antisemitism, which had increased in the late 1930s and continued to rise in the 1940s. It was an important ingredient in America's negative response to Jewish refugees .....

One of the most memorable examples of this was a German cruise ship, the MS St. Louis ......

St. Louis sailed from Hamburg to Cuba on May 13, 1939, carrying seven non-Jewish and 930 Jewish refugees (mainly German) seeking asylum from Nazi persecution. On the ship’s arrival in Cuba, the Cuban government under Federico Laredo Brú refused the passengers entry as either tourists (laws related to tourist visas had recently been changed) or under political asylum .....

Telephone records show discussion of the situation by Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, members of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's cabinet, who tried to persuade Cuba to accept the refugees. Their actions, together with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, were not successful. The Coast Guard was not ordered to turn away the refugees, but the US did not make provision for their entry. As St. Louis was turned away from the United States, a group of academics and clergy in Canada attempted to persuade Canada's Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to provide sanctuary to the ship, which was only two days from Halifax, Nova Scotia. However Canadian immigration officials and cabinet ministers hostile to Jewish immigration persuaded the Prime Minister not to intervene on June 9 ......

US officials worked with Britain and European nations to find refuge for the travelers in Europe. The ship returned to Europe, docking at Antwerp, Belgium, on 17 June 1939. The United Kingdom agreed to take 288 of the passengers, who disembarked and traveled to the UK by other steamers. After much negotiation by Schröder, the remaining 619 passengers were allowed to disembark at Antwerp; 224 were accepted by France, 214 by Belgium, and 181 by the Netherlands ...

I'm curious - I wonder what the US Bishops' stance was on immigration around WWII.


Blogger Mike L said...

I have read (which means I don't remember where) That there was a great deal of support for Germany before WWII. I believe that Joseph Kennedy was one of the people that strongly supported the US entering the war on Germany"s side and Roosevelt had to call him to the White House and give him a talk.

It would be interesting to find out what the Church's public stance was on immigration at that time. Unfortunately, well maybe fortunately, I am not old enough to remember what went on before WWII, but I suspect that there was no public stand at that time. From what little I have read the Church was more afraid of communism and socialism at that time.


Mike L

6:23 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Mike,

Oh, I didn't read far enough in that wikipedia page. It goes on to say ....

The main spokesman for antisemitic sentiment was Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest whose weekly radio program drew between 5 and 12 million listeners in the late 1930s. Coughlin's newspaper, Social Justice, reached a circulation of 800,000 at its peak in 1937. After the 1936 election, Coughlin increasingly expressed sympathy for the fascist policies of Hitler and Mussolini .... Like Joseph Goebbels, Coughlin claimed that Marxist atheism in Europe was a Jewish plot. The 5 December 1938 issue of Social Justice included an article by Coughlin which closely resembled a speech made by Goebbels on 13 September 1935 attacking Jews, atheists and communists, with some sections being copied verbatim by Coughlin from an English translation of the Goebbels speech ..... On December 18, 1938 two thousand of Coughlin's followers marched in New York protesting potential asylum law changes that would allow more Jews (including refugees from Hitler's persecution) into the US .... After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war in December 1941, the anti-interventionist movement (such as the America First Committee) began to sputter out, and isolationists like Coughlin were seen as being sympathetic to the enemy. In 1942, the new bishop of Detroit ordered Coughlin to stop his controversial political activities and confine himself to his duties as a parish priest.

Holy macjerel!

10:08 PM  
Blogger Liam said...

Coughlin was a sui generis horrible nasty person -- he no more represented the Catholic position in the 30s than Pat Buchanan does now. I would like to know more about the official church position on immigration then.

This story has a couple good lessons to it. I personally am appalled by current Israeli policies. Yet Americans and especially Europeans who are vehemently and self-righteously anti-Zionist have short historical memories about why it seemed necessary for Jews to establish their own state.

Also: all those people who indignantly say, "my ancestors came here legally" ignore the fact that immigration restrictions, except for Asians, are a twentieth-century phenomena. Their ancestors didn't have the option of coming here illegally.

8:34 AM  
Blogger Mike L said...

I believe it was in "The Myth of Hitlers Pope" that the author claims that Pius XII ordered Coughlin shut downat the request of Roosevelt. If so, it was certainly one good thing that Pius XII did. I can think of a few today that could stand to be shut down, but probably none are as bad as Coughlin was.

I think that the United States has always been more or less isolationists and I would expect the Church would have reflected that outlook. This also shows up in our perception that immigration is a problem mostly in the US, but from what I am reading it is far more of a problem in Europe with Islamic migrants. I have to admit that I wonder if the American Church would be so outspoken if those crossing our borders were mostly Islamic rather than Catholic.


Mike L

9:06 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


Coughlin was a sui generis horrible nasty person -- he no more represented the Catholic position in the 30s than Pat Buchanan does now.

You know about everything :)

I personally am appalled by current Israeli policies. Yet Americans and especially Europeans who are vehemently and self-righteously anti-Zionist have short historical memories about why it seemed necessary for Jews to establish their own state.

My feelings too. I never really learned anything in school about contemporary history but the more I read about the WWII era, the more I'm understanding what's going on in the middle east now and why Israel is the way it is.

11:29 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


From the little I've read about Pius XII, I'd think he was supportive of Coughlin. Interesting, that but you mentioned earlier about Kennedy.

11:31 AM  

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