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Yehuda Bauer: My Brother's Keeper

A History of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee 1929-1939

[Holocaust preparations in Europe and resistance without solution of the situation]

The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia 1974

Transcription with subtitles by Michael Palomino (2007)



Chapter 6. The Beginning of the End
[K. 6.32.] Illegal Migration [by ship]

[July 1934: Illegal emigration to Palestine: The ship "Velos" tries in vain]

The tragedy of Jewish emigration caused the appearance of what was to become, for a whole decade, a phenomenon identified with (p.285)

the plight of Jews: illegal migration. As early as July 1934 the first illegal immigrant ship to Palestine, the [ship] Velos, made a successful run with 330 Hechalutz trainees from Poland. In September of that year the Velos tried a second time, but the British prevented a landing; the 310 passengers

(End note 165: Yehuda Slutsky: Sefer Toldot Hahaganah; Tel Aviv 1963, 2:528-29. There were 360 passengers, but 50 managed to land without being noticed by the British).

attempted to find a haven "at several ports" but nowhere were they allowed to enter. Finally they returned to Poland and obtained legal permits to enter Palestine. HICEM requested that JDC support the passengers, but Kahn refused. "We could not contribute to this cause as it was a case of illegal smuggling of immigrants to Palestine."

(End note 166: R16, monthly bulletin, nos. 1 and 2, 3/6/35 [6 March 1935])

[Jan 1938: Histadruth illegal immigration - Zionist are against this not to bother Britain]

Efforts to start illegal immigration to Palestine began again in January 1938.

(End note 167: Slutsky, op. cit. [Yehuda Slutsky: Sefer Toldot Hahaganah; Tel Aviv 1963], 2:1036 ff.)

This was done partly by the Histadruth (the Palestine General Jewish Federation of Labor), partly by the Revisionists, the opponents of the official Zionist movement, and partly by private persons and various political groups. The official Zionist bodies were split on the question; some of the American and British Zionists were opposed to illegal efforts, at least as long as there was the slightest hope of an accommodation with Britain.

[Early 1939: Emigration negotiations about immigration to Palestine - help for stranded illegal immigrants]

In early 1939 JDC was approached by the different groups engaged in organizing the immigration movement to Palestine. "JDC was ready to put up 5,000 pounds if the Council (for German Jewry) and Simon Marks's group put up a like amount  each and if the Council would share in the responsibility."

(End note 168: Kahn material, file 1939/40, 6/15/39 [15 June 1939])

This meant that JDC would participate only if the whole matter became open, public, and, ipso facto, legal. Naturally, this did not happen, and JDC help was not forthcoming. Troper stated that "we must continue to take the attitude that JDC can take no part in this emigration." The local committees (who were not part of JDC in any case), such as Mrs. van Tijn's group in Holland or Mrs. Schmolka's group in Prague, "can do so if they wish."

(End note 169: R55, Troper letter, 3/2/39 [2 March 1939])

This essentially was JDC's policy right up to the [European] outbreak to the war.

With this position established in principle, there arose a question that could not be easily answered. One could have a set policy, yet not be able to close one's eyes to the misery and the suffering of the people who could not manage to get through to Palestine. JDC (p.286)

was committed to helping people regardless of the politics involved. Moreover, even ICR [Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (ICR) (set up at Evian 1938)], through its British director, Emerson, expressly allowed "giving relief for humanitarian reasons to those who were stranded through the rejection of the transports" while warning the "responsible organizations not to give any direct help to such transports."

(End note 170: 9-27, meeting of ICR directors [Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (ICR) (set up at Evian 1938)] with JDC and HICEM, 7/25/39 [25 July 1939])

[Help for stranded Jews on defect or caught emigration ships in Greece]

Some of the situations that arose were tragic indeed.

In early July 1939 the S.S. Rim caught fire, and its 772 passengers were landed on a Greek island. Other ships, mismanaged by their organizers, ran out of fuel or food, or were caught by the British and had to remain in Greek waters without provisions.

By July 1939, $ 9,000 had been spent by JDC to help feed these people, largely through the good offices of the Athens Jewish community, which administered the relief.

JDC was watching the situation carefully. It received reports and detailed information on boats filled with people trying to save themselves by getting into Palestine; if these efforts failed, JDC might have to step in with food and clothes and blankets, while still maintaining its noninvolvement in the political aspects of the situation.

(End note 171:
-- R10, 5/29/39 [29 May 1939], Kahn note for Baerwald;
-- R55, 5/11/39 [11 May 1939] report;
-- 42-Palestine, emigration to Palestine, 1937-39)

Palestine was by no means the only goal of boats bearing illegal immigrants.

[Illegal emigration to Latin America: Cuba with bribed officials - other countries]

At about the same time that attempts to reach Palestine were being made, refugees without visas were trying to get to the Latin American countries. This movement appears to have started as early as September 1938, when 43 passengers on the S.S. Iberia vainly tried to enter Mexico and were finally allowed to land at Havana.

A similar journey by the S.S. Orinoco in October with 300 passengers ended in the same way. All this of course cost money: Cuban officials had to be bribed. Cuba remained one of the main havens throughout the period, largely because of the venality of its officials.

[There are no figures about the immigrnants and about an eventual continuation of the journeys].

For various reasons, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, and Bolivia also accepted visaless refugees from time to time.

[Again there are no figures about the immigrnants and about an eventual continuation of the journeys].

[Balance March 1939: 23 boats with 1,740 passengers]
A list prepared at JDC offices in March 1939 counted 23 boats with 1,740 passengers who somehow had to be squeezed into Latin America without proper documents.

[Returning emigration ships]

Not all these ships managed to land their human cargo. The S.S. General (p.287)

Martin, for instance, leaving Boulogne with 25 visaless passengers in early February [1939], had to return to Europe with the refugees aboard. The same happened to the 40 passengers on the S.S. Caparcona in late March.

(End note 172: For a list of the ships see
-- 29-Germany: Panic Emigration, 1938-39, 3/30/39 [30 March 1939];
-- Executive Committee, meetings between December 1938 and July 1939;
-- R9, Aid to Jews Overseas (pamphlet); also
-- R56, and
-- AC [Administration Committee files] meetings during this period).

[JDC is financing the bribes - play with visas during the trip]

JDC had to pay a high proportion of the bribes, thinly disguised as landing money or living expenses for the refugees. Often, too, the passengers held forged visas, or the visas were genuine but the receiving country had suddenly invalidated them - as happened with the St. Louis.

To arrange matters, money had to change hands, and JDC simply could not pay those sums.

On March 15 Baerwald sent a cable to Europe asking for a meeting of the main emigrating agencies to consider what should be done. It was, he said, "quite clear (that the) resources (of) private philanthropic bodies (were) strained (to the) utmost ... even (by the) more normal (and) orderly emigration under (the) supervision (of) responsible bureaus."

(End note 173: Cable of 3/15/39 [15 March 1939], quoted in Hyman's report to the Executive Committee, 3/23/39 [23 March 1939])

[Criminal circumstances around the illegal Jewish emigration - and JDC help]

The dumping of refugees was resulting in panic migration and exploitation by unscrupulous steamship agencies, lawyers, and venal officials. Alarming problems were arising: indefinite maintenance of the refugees, huge guarantees that were quite beyond the financial capabilities of private bodies such as JDC, and the specter of a more or less permanent threat of blackmail, endangering the operations of different agencies. Both the steamship companies and the Germans would know that the Jewish organizations might protest but would pay in the end.

[There is missing any figure which would be very interesting].

The other agencies - HICEM, ICA, the Council for German Jewry - were in the same quandary. There was no real solution as long as the countries of immigration were closed.

[Early 1939: Most of Latin American countries close borders for Jewish emigration]
Partly as a result of this panic emigration, most Latin American countries did in fact close their borders in early 1939. Opinions in JDC were divided.

[JDC: Discussion to help or not]

Alexander Kahn was one of those who declared that JDC simply "had to help them as far as our means can last, because I do not think we will be forgiven if we take the harsh (line of) policy that we will not help. When the next batch of 100 comes we will have to do it anyway." The other view was expressed by Rosenberg, who argued against agreeing to the expulsion of Jews from Europe. If (p.288)

one allowed the Germans to "eliminate" their Jews, the Poles and Romanians were going to follow suit. In the minds of German officials, also "there is a notion that American Jewry can meet all sorts of emergencies." One had to say no to the refugees. "After all we are in a world war and there are times when you have to sacrifice some of your troops. And these unfortunates are some of our troops."

(End note 174: AC [Administration Committee files], 3/15/39 [15 March 1939])

JDC did not follow Rosenberg's counsel. It accepted the policy proposed by Alexander Kahn, but tried to pay as little as possible in bribes; and except in the case of the St. Louis it declined to offer ransom money.

[St. Louis affair: Boats Flandre and Orduna also return to Europe]

During and after the St. Louis affair, illegal immigration into Latin America continued. Besides the St. Louis, two small boats arrived at Havana: the S.S. Flandre, a French boat with 96 refugees, and the S.S. Orduna, a British boat with about 40 people. Like the St. Louis passengers, they were refused permission to land. They too returned to Europe and were accepted by the four countries that had received others.

[among others England, where the refugees were safe].

[American Jewish diplomatic efforts for European Jewish emigration]

JDC had to support the Latin American Jewish communities that were trying to care for the refugees from Europe. In December 1938 it sent a former German Jewish social worker to Latin America to establish contact with the communities there. These contacts bore fruit in early 1939.The Havana Refugee Committee was brought under the influence of the New York National Coordinating Committee, later the National Refugee Service. Other committees received direct aid from JDC and dispensed it according to set rules to those who needed it. In 1939, $ 600,000 was appropriated for this work, which affected about 68,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe.

(End note 175: A detailed list of the countries and the numbers of refugees in each was submitted to the Executive Committee meeting on 7/20/39 [20 July 1939]).

[It's a pity that this list is missing in the text].