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Refugees and Survivors: Reception in the New World
by David S. Wyman
Irving Abella and Harold Troper. None Is Too Many: Canada and the
Jews of Europe, 1933-1948. Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys, 1982; New York: Random House, 1983. 336 pages.
Leonard Dinnerstein. America and the Survivors of the Holocaust. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. 409 pages.
None Is Too Many, a scholarly study built on extensive and exhaustive archival research and judicious use of numerous interviews, surprised most observers because it caught fire among the reading public of Canada and became one of the country's most widely discussed books of 1982-1983. The book's scholarship, though sound, is hardly the explanation for this development. Neither is its style unusually compelling. (The volume is basically well written, and the authors made excellent use of the human interest value of their personal and anecdotal documentation. But the narrative is too often overly detailed and drawn out, and its events too often prosaic, to have captured and held readers because of its literary appeal.)
The great interest in the book unquestionably had to do with the sharp slap that it administered to a self-congratulatory attitude widespread in Canada in recent years. Canada did have a fairly good record in accepting post-World War 11 displaced persons (mostly non-Jews). Unlike the United States, it had the sense (or luck) to avoid the Vietnam debacle; it even offered refuge to fugitive American youth. Its record in taking Vietnamese refugees has been good. Then came this volume, which proved beyond any doubt that not only was Canada's policy toward the Jews of the Holocaust abysmal, but it grew out of a combination of sheer political opportunism and a rank antisernitism that permeated both the government and the Canadian population. Moreover, the government consciously employed subterfuge to mask its heartless policy and to quiet the Canadian Jewish leadership by stringing it along. In essence, Canada's record was one of stubborn resistance to any Jewish immigration.
Canada's policy against taking in Jews, a policy backed by both the Conservative and the Liberal parties, had its origin in the 1920s and was locked into place by the Great Depression's impetus for further restraints on all immigration. It was fortified by the fact that after 1935, with the Liberal party in power, the director of immigration was Frederick Blair, an unmitigated antisernite and narrow-minded bureaucrat who closely controlled all immigration activity. Blair's policies enjoyed the full support of the Liberal government, especially that of Prime Minister Mackenzie King.
King, probably personally less antisernitic than most of the top political leadership, nonetheless adamantly opposed Jewish immigration, mainly on the grounds that it would threaten Canadian unity. He feared that entry of Jews might inflame antisernitic passions, even causing riots. More important, he was extremely wary of anything that would add fuel to the antisernitism already rampant in French Quebec. The French press and French political leaders time and again emphasized Quebec's unwillingness that any more Jews enter Canada. King would not risk the Liberal party's following in Quebec for the sake of the hard-pressed Jews of Europe (or for the few votes his party might gain among Canadian Jews). Quebec nationalists were only too anxious to seize and exploit such an issue. On the very few occasions (as, for instance, in the wake of Kristallnacht) that King suggested any tiny liberalization in policy, he found himself checked by the Quebec politicians in his own Liberal cabinet.
By the end of 1940, the government's constantly hardening attitude reached a point where "all the holes had been plugged" and almost no Jewish refugees were able to enter. (This included even those requesting transit through Canada to other countries, because Blair was convinced that Jews could not be trusted to keep their word and move on.) Consequently, the book's narrative threads through a series of lengthy and hard-fought efforts by Canadian Jewish leaders to extract tiny concessions from the King government. Once it was a plan to bring 79 Jewish refugees over from Japan. In the end, 29 were accepted. On another occasion, the government agreed to take in 100 refugee children, but none ever came. Later, Canadian Jews asked that 20 older children trapped in Spain and Portugal be allowed in. Ottawa refused, on the ground that taking only the children would break up families, and Canadian policy would not permit immigration of the parents.
Once, after the Nazi policy of extermination became publicly known, the King government did accede to increased pressure from Canadian Jewry and promised to take in a small but unspecified number of Jewish refugees. (Secretly, the government set a limit of 200 families.) A strongly negative popular reaction rapidly arose, fueled by "a hornet's nest of nativist passion." Quebec politicians fanned the flames with wild stories of a Jewish flood and international Jewish conspiracies. An anti-refugee petition drew large support. The government's reaction was to delay the whole project and to cut it back by setting extremely tight eligibility rules. Eventually, fewer than 450 people came under the arrangement.
During the first years after the war, the Liberal government's policy accord with Canadian public opinion was no more generous than before in accepting Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, and little more generous in accepting any other displaced persons. Ottawa relied on a diplomatic strategy of insisting that the European DP (Displaced Persons) problem was an international issue; thus the international organizations should deal with it, not individual countries. (Canadian leaders knew from experience that the intemational organizations could and would do nothing without initiative from individual nations.)
Later, in 1947-1948, Canada sensed economic advantage for itself and reversed its immigration policy, opening its doors to more than 60,000 non- Jewish DPs. On the coattails of this important migration, 3,000 Jewish survivors, including 1,000 orphaned children, were able to make their way to Canada. Finally, in late 1948, Canada further liberalized its immigration program and also eased its antisernitic features. But by then Israel had come into existence and most of the Jewish DPs still waiting to leave Europe preferred the Jewish state to Canada.
Throughout the years from 1933 to 1948, Canadian Jewry worked for a more generous immigration policy. But Canada's 170,000 Jews constituted only 1.5 percent of the nation's population. And though they were well organized, they were factionalized and seldom able to unite. In reality, Jews had no political leverage in Canada. Thus their leadership faced a constant quandary regarding strategy. Should they press publicly for Jewish immigration (mass meetings, petition campaigns, etc.) and risk antagonizing government officials? Or should they employ polite, quiet approaches to top government leaders? The Canadian Jewish Congress, which emerged as the leading Jewish organization, tried both tactics, at different times. But with Jewish power as weak as it was and the govemment as adamant as it was, the congress could never win. (Often it could not even learn from a deceptive officialdom what the government's policy actually was.) The Congress's lack of success brought continual criticism down on it from various parts of Canadian Jewry.
The Jewish leadership also sought to attract non-Jewish support. It did stimulate formation of the Canadian National Committee on Refugees (CNCR), a largely Protestant organization that supported refugee immigration. But the CNCR never developed a popular constituency. Other than the minuscule help of the CNCR, almost no support came from the Christian churches or from Canadian nonJews generally. In the words of the authors, the govemment, the civil service, and much of the public "wavered somewhere between indifference and hostility." In sum, "Canada cared little and did less."
Abella and Troper have provided an excellent study of an important topic. But there are a few shortcomings in it. Two of the central explanations for Canada's refugee policies were Canadian antisemitism generally and the apparently volatile situation in French Quebec concerning Jews. A fuller and more systematic exposition of each of these issues would have improved the book. The detailed coverage given to government documents and to correspondence among Jewish leaders could in many cases have been summarized, thus sharpening the narrative at those points and also freeing space for a fuller discussion of the crucial antisernitism and Quebec issues.
The authors also showed a doubtful grasp of some important developments bearing on their study. Their long discussion of the Canadian offer in 1942 to take 1,000 Jewish children out of France barely hints at the main reason for the project's failure, namely, the Vichy French government's decision to stall the plan. Their account of the resurfacing of the plan in 1943- 1944 may be accurate as to the Canadian reaction to it but is quite confused with regard to the American role in it. And that chapter's concluding statement, that most of the Jewish children hidden in France "had been deported and murdered" by mid- 1944 is not correct.
In addition, important aspects of the Holocaust in Hungary were misunderstood. The offer by the Hungarian head of state Miklos Horthy to release tens of thousands of Jews is confused, as well as inappropriately merged into the Joel Brand affair. And the discussion of the Brand episode surprisingly omits any mention of trucks.
The book lacks a bibliography, except for a listing of archival sources and interviews. The index does not do justice to the authors' work. Minor errors appear in several places in the book; some of them are as follows: the U.S. quota for Germany-Austria was not 27,730, source note 104 for chapter 6 is missing, Walter Laqueur's last name is twice misspelled, the American Friends did not smuggle families out of France, the time sequence given for the U.S. government's release of information on plans for the Bermuda Conference is mixed up, UNRRA was in no way "the stepchild of the Bermuda Conference," nothing in U.S. immigration law limited the percentage of immigrants who could be Jews.
None Is Too Many is a valuable book. It is an authoritative study of an important issue, Canada's refugee policy and the reasons behind it. Nations such as Canada, nations that were able to do much but willing to do virtually nothing, contributed importantly to the abysmal policy of the main powers, the United States and Great Britain. The keystone of American and British policy was aversion to any large scale exodus of Jews from Axis Europe. One reason was fear of the resulting pressure on the British to open Palestine and on the United States to widen its gates. Another was the realization that no other countries were willing to help shoulder the refugee burden. (Government chancelleries, if not the New Republic, were quite aware of Canada's and other nations'- stringent policies.) In short, rescue was not attempted (except on a small scale, by the U.S. War Refugee Board, after January 1944) because the great powers saw no place where rescued Jews could be put. Canada could have injected a positive influence into this situation by taking in a reasonable share of Jewish refugees. Instead, it set a most negative example before the rest of the world.
Leonard Dinnerstein, who has previously made several contributions to the history of American antisemitism, ventured into virtually uncharted territory when he researched and wrote America and the Survivors of the Holocaust. This book is the first comprehensive study of America's response to the displaced persons problem of 1945-1952. The research is extensive, and the narrative extremely well organized and lucidly written. Numerous photographs, maps, and tables enhance the effectiveness and clarity of the presentation. Most important, Dinnerstein offers a valuable analysis of an important topic hitherto barely mentioned by historians.
Ultimately, from 1946 through 1952, the United States took in 447,000 displaced persons; some 96,000 of them were Jews, survivors of the Holocaust. In doing so, the United States recorded the world's most generous response to the plight of the DPs and as Dinnerstein stresses set a precedent that the nation applied in subsequent years to the benefit of hundreds of thousands of political refugees from Hungary, Cuba, Vietnam, and elsewhere. But the breakthrough, which came with the Displaced Persons Acts of 1948 and 1950, was won in the face of extremely stubborn anti-Jewish and anti-immigration sentiment in Congress and in the population at large. America and the Survivors of the Holocaust traces the ups and downs on the route to this victory and offers some explanations for the outcome.
As World War II ended in Europe, the armies of the Western Allies were confronted with the massive problem of eight to nine million displaced persons slave laborers uprooted by the Nazis, concentration camp survivors, prisoners of war, eastern Europeans who fled west ahead of the Russian advance in 1944. (The Russian Army faced no such crisis, because the Russian government acknowledged no DP problem in the areas that it occupied.) By September 1945, the military had succeeded in repatriating seven million of the DPs. But about 1,500,000 would not or could not return home. UNRRA proved unable to care for these DPs, so this unwanted and difficult responsibility fell to the military.
The U.S. Army was ill prepared for the task and did a grossly inadequate job especially with regard to the Jews, who at first numbered about 100,000. (Within a year, that figure was approximately doubled.) Jews were the most physically and psychologically depleted of all the DPs, yet they received the poorest treatment, in part because of widespread antisemitism in the U.S. Army. (General George S. Patton, who was among the least sympathetic, considered Jewish DPs "lower than animals.")
In the summer of 1945, a presidential commission, led by Earl G. Harrison, the former U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, traveled to Europe to investigate the DP situation. It reported that conditions were terrible especially for the Jews, who were found penned behind barbed wire, living under crowded and unsanitary conditions, insufficiently fed, and idle. Responding to the resulting pressure from Washington, the Army quickly and substantially improved the DPs' living conditions. Harrison's report had made clear, however, that the only real answer to the Jewish DP problem was to move the survivors out of Europe. He recommended that 100,000 (which was most of them at the time) be allowed to move to Palestine, and "reasonable numbers" be admitted to the United States. Britain's adamant stand against Jewish immigration to Palestine eliminated that possibility, even though President Truman, and later an official AngloAmerican Committee of Inquiry, supported the proposal.
While American Zionists continued to press for admission of the Jewish DPs to Palestine, two non-Zionist organizations, the American Jewish Committee and the American Council for Judaism, prepared a campaign to persuade Congress to allow 100,000 Jewish DPs to come to the United States. Late in 1946 the Citizens Committee on Displaced Persons was formed to spearhead the movement. Jews stayed in the background of this organization as much as possible; prestigious Protestants held most of the official posts. But it was Jewish work (mainly by the American Jewish Committee) and Jewish funds (raised largely by Lessing Rosenwald of the American Council for Judaism) that made the committee an extremely effective educational and lobbying force, on both the national and local levels. To broaden its support, the CCDP soon called for help for all DPs, asking for admission of 400,000 over a four-year period. It anticipated that twenty or twenty-five percent of that number would be Jews. This step eventually brought endorsement of the CCDP's program by over one hundred labor, veterans, Christian church, social work, and civic organizations in the United States.
For eighteen months, the strong anti-immigration sentiment that prevailed in Congress and in the nation withstood the gradually increasing public support for DP entry. Probably the most important contributing factor in the restrictionism was the high level of antisemitism then prevalent in American society; Americans generally believed that most DPs were Jews.
As Congress looked more closely at DP conditions in Europe, and as more and more non-Jews became concerned about the problem, the resistance in Congress slowly weakened. In June 1948, the Displaced Persons Act was passed, allowing for the admission of 200,000 DPs over a two-year period. But the Jewish lobby that had paved the way for the breakthrough was chagrined at the result. Legislators who were anxious to keep Jewish immigration to a minimum managed to frame the law in a way that indirectly but very effectively discriminated against Jews. The act set aside thirty percent of the openings for farmers. (This was done with full knowledge that few Jewish DPs could qualify as farmers.) It allotted forty percent of the places to DPs from the Baltic area, almost all of whom were Christians fleeing Communism. (Many of them had been pro-Nazi during the war.) And it limited the program to those who had reached the DP camps by December 1945, thus excluding a second sizable wave of Jewish survivors who had fled from Eastern Europe in 1946 and afterward.
In spite of its rank discrimination against Jews, the DP Act of 1948 turned out to be a major gain for Jewish as well as non-Jewish displaced persons. The reason was that President Truman packed the Displaced Persons Commission, which was established by the law to administer the Act, with pro- immigration people. Their goal was to get as many DPs as they could out of Europe, both Jews and nonJews, and to do so they circumvented the discriminatory intent of the law whenever necessary. As Dinnerstein phrases it, "The accomplishments of this agency showed how a government bureaucracy could undermine the thrust of congressional legislation." (He does not, however, go into the ramifications of this tactic for representative government.)
By 1949, the Displaced Persons Commission and the Citizens Committee on Displaced Persons were pressing for new legislation, to increase the numbers allowed in and to remove the anti-Jewish aspects of the 1948 act. Public opinion and congressional sentiment were moving in that direction too. Despite a long drawn out fight against it by Senator Pat McCarran, a Nevada Democrat and the powerful chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the DP Act of 1950 became law in the middle of that year. It authorized the entry of more than 200,000 additional DPs. And it eliminated the discriminatory restrictions contained in the 1948 act. But McCarran did manage to delay passage of the law for a year, and in the interval, many of the Jewish DPs who were still in Europe chose to move to Israel, an option that had become available with the creation of the Jewish state in 1948.
America and the Survivors of the Holocaust is a revealing book in many ways. Much of the information in it has faded into the haze of memory or for most of us is entirely new. Yet it is information that should be known: what the survivors were forced to endure even after Hitler, the blight of antisernitism then pervasive in America, the struggle that was required to achieve some kind of a humane DP policy, the continuing indifference of so many Christian Americans to the suffering of European Jews.
Dinnerstein also provides an interesting and useful analysis of the ambiguous, but mainly positive, role that Harry Truman took in the effort to help the DPs. Truman's support, though often indirect and sometime faltering, was crucially important at many points in the struggle. Here is another aspect of the Truman story, one that reveals a record far superior to the one that Franklin Roosevelt compiled on the parallel issue of rescue during the Holocaust.
America and the Survivors of the Holocaust is an important and valuable book. In my opinion, however, there are three significant issues that it does not deal with sufficiently. The first concerns the American Zionist movement's response to the DP problem. During the immediate postwar period, and from time to time since, the American Zionist leadership has been charged with opposition to (or, at best, only token support of) the attempts to get the United States to accept Jewish DPs. Critics have maintained that the Zionists wanted the DPs to remain in Europe indefinitely, in order to keep the heat on Britain to admit them to Palestine. Diversion of DPs to the United States would ease that pressure, thus slowing progress toward a Jewish state in Palestine. Anyone aware of the miserable and hopeless lot of the Jewish DPs in Europe can readily perceive the seriousness of this charge.
Dinnerstein raises the issue in passing but does not fully come to grips with it. In one place, he asserts that the drive to open America to DPs "had the quiet acquiescence of most Zionists but little of their zeal or financial backing" (p. 8). Later on, he states that "Some of the more ardent Zionists ... feared that bringing DPs to the United States would weaken the pressure to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine" (p. 115), and "a powerful minority of Zionists thought that bringing DPs to this country meant sabotaging the ultimate goal of the Jewish state" (p. 118). These observations provide little insight into this troubling question. Moreover, they are based on almost no source material beyond one letter written by a person who was a party to the dispute, along with a recent interview with that person.
This is a sensitive issue, and an investigation of it would need to contend with the unwillingness of American Zionist organizations to permit any except a few selected scholars to use their archives. But enough basic sources are available to make a fairly solid assessment of the charges. It would be of some value to focus the searchlight of objective scholarship on this question and, if the longstanding accusations are not valid, to lay them to rest once for all. One might also seek to determine whether it is possible that the anti-Zionists of the American Council for Judaism were motivated at all in their drive to bring DPs to the United States by a desire to keep them out of Palestine.
A second area where the book's coverage is too limited involves the State Department (which did not even rate an entry in the index). At crucial times, Dinnerstein shows, the State Department gave vital support to the efforts to persuade Congress to open the gates to DPs. This was a complete and astounding reversal in policy for a department that from 1940 to 1945 had been determined to keep refugees out of the United States, and that between 1933 and 1945 had consistently opposed legislative attempts to permit refugee immigration beyond the quotas. What happened to cause the turnabout? The single sentence that Dinnerstein offers to explain this (p. 135) tells little. The answers are certainly available in internal State Department documentation.
Lastly, a central theme of the book is that fairly generous DP legislation was achieved, despite the fact that a Congress ridden with antisernitism and anti-immigration sentiment strongly opposed it as late as 1947, and probably a majority of Americans did too. A key question is how this uphill battle was won. The book provides much of the answer. The crux of it is that America's basic humanitarianism was brought into play, largely through the work of a small Jewish lobbying organization, the Citizens Committee on Displaced Persons, which itself represented only the ten percent of American Jewry which was non-Zionist. This seems like an insufficient power base for success against such odds. Dinnerstein occasionally mentions support from other ethnic and religious organizations. But the reader finds only faint shadows of them and their actions. I may be wrong, but I think a fuller investigation of the responses of American ethnic organizations and the Christian churches would have revealed more extensive and more important activity on their part than appears in Dinnerstein's book.
The author was correct to focus on Jewish efforts. After all, the book's central subject was Jewish DPs and Jews took the initiative in pressing for help for all the DPs. But more needed to be told about the non-Jewish side of the picture. An appendix to the book lists 128 organizations that supported the goals of the CCDP. About eighty percent of them were not Jewish. Why were they for DP immigration? And what part did they actually take in the struggle?
Criticism of these few aspects of the book does not, however, detract from its many values or its overall importance. Moreover, Professor Dinnerstein is the specialist on the topic and he undoubtedly had cogent reasons for his decisions on what to cover and in what depth. I certainly recommend the book, to the general literate public as well as to scholars and students.