Refugee Politics: New Research on European Jewish Refugees in the 1930s and 1940s

AHA Session 236
Conference Group for Central European History 7
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Berkeley Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Jeffry M. Diefendorf, University of New Hampshire
Refugee Status and Immigration Law before and after the Evian Conference
Diane Afoumado, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Emigration of Elderly Jews from Vienna to the United States, 1938–41
Melissa Jane Taylor, Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State
The Voyage of the St. Louis Revisited
C. Paul Vincent, Keene State College
Jeffry M. Diefendorf, University of New Hampshire

Session Abstract

An immigration crisis ensued in the 1930s and early 1940s as a result of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.  As persecuted religious refugees, the Jews were determined to leave increasingly anti-Semitic Germany. Hitler’s annexation of more territory into the German Reich meant that the number of Jews desperate to leave grew substantially.  The new research on this panel addresses how this religious community interacted with and was influenced by the political world of refugee policy, from the broad level of international legal response to the micro level of individual refugee experience.  This intersection of sacred and state should appeal to a broad range of historians and fits with the conference theme.               

Diane Afoumado will examine the international response to the immigration crisis through the lens of the Evian Conference.  Convened in 1938 at U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s request, the conference sought to provide a solution to the crisis by gathering countries together and discussing where the refugees could find a haven.  Afoumado will outline the variety of legal responses presented at the conference from both the United States and other countries around the world.  In an era of restrictive immigration policy, Afoumado will explore the rationale that countries provided in order to justify their continued exclusion of persecuted Jewish refugees.               

Melissa Jane Taylor’s paper addresses the challenges faced by elderly Jewish émigrés from Vienna.  Many of these émigrés were reluctant to leave their homelands and everything that they knew, in order to start over in a distant land at the end of their lives.  Elderly émigrés are one of the few refugee demographics that have not received adequate historical attention.  These émigrés faced different political, physical, mental, emotional, and psychological barriers which contributed to a dissimilar immigration story to that of their younger, working-aged coreligionists.  Taylor will examine the complexities of the elderly émigrés’ experiences and shed light on what the elderly can tell us about immigration history.               

C. Paul Vincent’s examination of the voyage of the St. Louis (May 1939) explores the then-contemporary perceptions of success and failure of the immigration experience.  Today, the voyage is often depicted as a failure, given that the desired refuge for nearly one thousand refugees was not found.  Vincent’s paper calls for a more nuanced interpretation of the events, which he argues should take into account the then-contemporary perceptions which did not interpret the outcome as a failure.               

This panel clearly addresses the conference theme by exploring how the political world responds to refugees who are persecuted for their religious beliefs.  The Jewish refugee experience in the 1930s and 1940s is challenging to talk about in the context of “History, Society, and the Sacred.”  Conventional understandings of sacredness and society were upended in order to achieve Hitler’s goals for the “Thousand Year Reich.”  As a result, it is especially important to address difficult topics, like the world’s largely restrictionist immigration policies toward Jewish refugees.

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