The German-Jewish Refugee Crisis and the United States 1933 – 1938

The German-Jewish Refugee Crisis and the United States 1933 – 1938

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The German-Jewish Refugee Crisis and the United States 1933 – 1938

By ELIZABETH T. ALEPH  |  Our Voice Contributor

The German-Jewish refugee crisis is a result of Hitler’s ascent to power which led to the implementation of Nazi anti-Semitic ideology, as government policy. The main goals of this policy were to force Jews out of government and other public positions, to initiate the firing of Jewish professionals, to bar Jews from immigration, and ultimately to revoke the citizenship of German Jews, thus reducing them to second-class citizens. Many tried to emigrate to the United States, but were faced with impossible visa qualifications, and antisemitism within the state department. The United States resisted accepting German-Jewish refugees because the country was amid the Great Depression.1 These factors led many Jews to make the unfortunate decision to remain in Germany.

The Holocaust Research center at Yad Vashem states that, “During the very first year of Nazi rule tens of thousands of Jews left Germany,”2 most of them headed towards the United States. Canada and Great Britain were also potential destinations, but those countries were “unwilling to increase their immigration quotas to admit very large groups of refugees, especially the impoverished and dispossessed.”3 The superpowers did not want an influx of refugees who would be dependent on public support, thus leading them to block the entry of refugees from attempting to flee Nazi persecution.

The first stage of forced emigration from Hitler’s Germany began as a response to restrictive laws that targeted the Jewish community. It began in 1933, with the Law of Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which removed Jewish government officials from their positions and Jewish doctors from their practices. The law prohibited Jewish writers from obtaining editorial positions, and forced soldiers still active in the military to be dismissed. In response, the United States created the Emergency Aid Committee for Aid to Displaced German Scholars,4 to help teachers and professors find employment in other countries. The Law of Restoration of the Professional Civil Service placed pressure on the German Jewish community to emigrate quickly. However, many German-Jews believed they would be able to adjust to the Nazi regime5 and so remained behind, expecting that Nazi persecution would pass.6

With the implementation of the Law of Restoration of Professional Civil Service many Jews were left without employment and were forced to live off their savings. Wealthier Jews had to pay for those who couldn’t afford it.7 Although many tried to leave Germany, emigration costs were too high.8 Some remained behind because they were children whose parents were reluctant to send them abroad. At this stage, forced Jewish emigration was limited, due to the restrictions placed on the Jewish community, and to the expectation that the persecution would not get worse.

The legal persecution of Jews in Germany intensified after September 15, 1935, when the Nazi’s issued the Nuremberg Laws. It consisted of two separate laws that provoked the first massive emigration out of Germany. The first of the Nuremberg Laws was the Reich Citizenship Law, which stated,

A subject of the state is a person who enjoys the protection of the German Reich. . .. A Reich citizen is a subject of the state who is of German or related blood. . .. A Reich citizen is the sole bearer of full political rights in accordance with the law.”9

The second law was the Law of Protection of German Blood and Honor, which stated that Jews were not allowed to marry or have sex with Germans. If they were married, they would be pressured to divorce.10 The effect of these laws was to strip Jews of their German citizenship, removing them from under the protection of the state. In a letter to the Secretary of State in Washington, American Consul General, John G. Erhardt, described the Nuremberg Laws as reducing,

its Jewish nationals to secondary classification deprived of most of the rights, privileges, and duties of German citizens. . .. Regulating the social, professional, and official position of the Jews within the community.”11

In response to the crisis, Britain agreed to take in refugees, but only if they could pay for their transport. Switzerland maintained that, “racial persecution was not a valid reason to be admitted.”12 Faced with persecution and impoverishment, many began preparations to leave the country. This marked the first massive emigration out of Germany.

However, although the Nazi regime wanted Jews out of the country they made it close to impossible to obtain bureaucratic permission to leave.

One could have assumed that the German authorities interested in the emigration of Jews, would not stand in our way and would enable us to arrange for our departure. But soon enough we . . . found out that the situation was different. . .. One had to prepare endless paperwork, visit many offices. . . hours and days waiting in line. . .. Rude and hostile attitudes of the official. Simply procuring application forms for passports or identity cards necessitated a long and nerve wracking process of . . . pushing and waiting. . .. The police office was supposed to open at 9 AM, but by 6 AM there was already a long line outside. . .. Uncivil, even inhuman rude officials turned the wait into torture.”13

In his testimony, Erwin Pollock stated, “the Jews had to go. No excuses would be permitted.”14 Such obstacles seem motivated by the Nazis’ view that German economic capital owned by the Jews did not actually belong to them, but to the Reich. From April 1933 to December 1935, about 50,000 German-Jews had left the Germany. The United States had taken 10,000, and the American Consul General in Hamburg, Germany, John G. Erhardt, estimated in a letter he wrote to the Secretary of State, that in the following year 5,000 more refugees might attempt to enter the United States.15

The visa process for entering the U.S. was equally arduous. To enter, the applicant needed five copies of their visa application, two copies of their birth certificate, their quota number, multiple sponsors – close relatives preferred, supporting documents – one’s most recent tax return, affidavits from the bank inquiring about applicants’ accounts, a certificate of good conduct from German police authorities, two copies of a police dossier, prison record, military record, a physical from the U.S. consulate, proof of permission to leave Germany and proof that emigrant had booked travel to the Western Hemisphere.16 Leo Spitzer says of his experience dealing with the consulate,

Visas! We begin to live visas day and night. When we were awake, we were obsessed by them. We talked about them all the time Exit visas. Transit visas. Entrance visas. Where could we go?”17

Officials in Washington feared competition for American employment from destitute refugees; but were facing pressure from the American Jewish Organization to increase immigration quotas. The officials developed an ideal kind of immigrant they would allow into the United States. John G. Erhardt, in his letter to the Secretary of State, writes about this prospective refugee.

For example, a skilled, well educated, technician without close relative in the United States . . . speaks English and occupied a high position of trust and who has merely been forced out because of a Jewish ancestry would . . . be potentially a more desirable future citizen than a village shopkeeper who . . . happens to have a rich uncle . . . in New York. . .. Whose background . . . will render it very difficult for him to adapt himself to the American ways.”18

Not only would they have to be able to support themselves financially, or by a relative already in America, but they would have to fit in with American culture and society. Furthermore, the emigrants would be expected to leave tradition and culture behind in order to adapt to American society. As a response to the growing crisis, John G. Erhardt writes that the situation is, “the most pressing and potentially dangerous refugee question in Western Europe today.”19

Immigration laws in the United States at this time were controversial, drawing upon the immigration policy established in 1921 and re-established in 1924. The United States was not interested in accepting paupers, prostitutes, beggars, or moral defectives, “idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, insane persons, epileptics, persons with chronic alcoholism.”20 One passage in this Act states that a person is to be excluded from admission should they need personal financial help in coming to the U.S.21 This meant that even if migrants were able to get through the arduous visa qualifications, they would still need to show their labor value. Elected officials only wanted immigrants that could support themselves and contribute to society, rather than require the support of the state.

By the end of 1937, 129,000 Jews had left the Reich, while 371,000 had remained.22 The German Jews stayed in Germany because, as described in Martin Gilbert’s book, Kristallnacht: A Prelude to Destruction, they thought of Germany as their homeland. Leaving Germany would be leaving tradition behind, and so many waited until it was too late to leave. On March 13, 1938, upon Germany’s annexation, 50,000 Austrian Jews fled Austria for the United States. 40,000 entered Britain; 8,000 to Palestine, 15,000 to France, and more than 14,000 to Switzerland.23 Observing this large exodus, the National Negro Conference asked President Roosevelt to “provide in America a free haven for the oppressed Jewish people.” The United States did not do that. Instead the U.S. called upon Britain should share the burden.24 Britain responded that they would take refugees temporarily who the U.S. would then take permanently.25 In observing the desperate behavior of those seeking to leave Germany, a British correspondent writes,

Rumors that certain countries have relaxed their restrictions result in hundreds of Jews hurrying to their consulates only to find out that the rumors are false. This occurred at the Argentine and at the Paragayan consulates today. Out of 300 Jews who went to the Argentine consulate yesterday, only two qualified to make applications to enter into the country. . .. Crowds of . . . frightened Jews continued to throng the British and United States consulates there, begging for visas to enable them to leave the country. To very few of them. . . visas are being granted. . .. Neither Britain or the United States are making any concessions.”26

Not everyone in Britain agreed with maintaining strict immigration quotas. Lord Baldwin, a former Prime Minister, said about the refugees,

They may not be our fellow subjects, but they are our fellow men. . .. The honor of our country is challenged, our Christian charity is challenged, and it is up to us to meet that challenge.”27

As the 1930’s were coming to an end, the Jews remaining in Germany were growing desperate to leave the Reich. Yet no major country agreed to increase its immigration limits Instead they continued to close borders.

In July 193828 a 10-day conference was held on Lake Geneva, France, at the Evian-Les-Banes resort town. 140 representatives of the European powers29 were present, along with 40 delegates from private aid agencies. No Jewish representative, of any organization, was allowed to attend; for fear that Jewish representatives would likely push for increasing immigration quotas.30 It was discussed previously that immigration quotas were not to be increased.31 Even so, the Jewish community remained hopeful seeing the Evian conference as a first step in aiding the refugees. At the conference it was decided that “involuntary migrants” and “political refugees,” euphemisms used at the conference,32 had to pay for their migration themselves or through private means, and not depend on government aid. This was due to the economic strain of the Great Depression. One representative at the conference said that the Jews had to realize their problem was complex and not readily solvable.33 George Strausser Messersmith, in a letter to the U.S. Secretary of State, writes,

The problem remains a long range problem and one that is not susceptible of rapid solution nor of any solution by any one country. It is a problem which will require cooperative action.”34

In other words, the United States cannot and will not solve the growing issue alone, but re quire help from other governments. The Evian conference was proposed by President Roosevelt to discuss the growing refugee situation in Germany, which suggests that the United States and other countries would be willing to assist. However, the conference was only “for show” since many countries at the meeting refused to open their borders.

Kristallnacht35 led to the second massive emigration out of Germany.36 Afterwards, many Jews realized they could no longer wait out the Nazi regime. Persecution would grow worse. Kristallnacht occurred as a consequence of Hitler’s order that 120,000 Jews had to be expelled from Germany.37 Placed on trains bound for Poland,38 among the passengers were the family of one Herschel Grynzspan,39 who learned from a letter his sister wrote that his family had been deported. In response, on November 7, 1938, Grynzspan walked into the German consulate in Paris and shot the German diplomat, Ernst Von Rath, who two days later died of his wounds. In a punitive response, the Nazi regime forced Jewish newspapers to stop publication, thus depriving many Jews information about emigration.40 On November 9th through the 10th, in the first pogrom ever to happen in modern Germany. Citizens rioted against Jewish businesses, setting fire to synagogues and smashing shop windows. That night, more than 30,000 German Jews were sent to concentration camps.41 This frightening event caused the second largest exodus out of Germany and destroyed the illusion that life was possible under the Nazi regime. It taught German Jewry that from here things would only get worse, and stimulated a new wave of German Jews to leave Germany.

When news of Kristallnacht reached the United States, Roosevelt publicly stated he was against the rise of antisemitism in Germany. As a way of combating it, he allowed Jews visiting the U.S. on temporary visas to stay permanently. However, his statement did not lead to an increase in immigration quotas. One year later,42 Senator Robert S. Wagner of NY submitted a bill that would have allowed 20,000 Jewish children, age fourteen and under, to enter the U.S. over a two-year period. The bill was met with many objections: if the U.S. admitted 20,000 children they would later have to admit 40,000 adults – parents of those children; America had its own children to help and could not spare the necessities to help foreign ones;43 resources were still limited. A bizarre objection was that the bill would allow children of Nazi’s into the country.44 These objections caused the bill to die in committee. Anti-Semitic coalitions stated that there was no emergency that required such drastic measures. Despite Roosevelt’s modest effort, and Wagner’s bill, political and bureaucratic obstacles brought the effort to aid the displaced Jewish population in Germany to a standstill.

On September 1, 1939 Germany invaded Poland and began the Second World War. In response, international borders closed, leaving the 250,000 – 300,000 German Jews who remained in Germany without a place to go. On November 1939, the German and Austrian immigration quota for the U.S. reached its annual limit of 27,000. Leaving it filled until January 1940. In response, the American Jewish Organization asked for quotas for the following year to be combined, seeking to allow 81,000 Jews to enter, but their request was denied. Most of the Jews that remained in Germany perished in concentration camps, while others that emigrated remained unemployed because obtaining work papers involved another lengthy process. When the Second World War began and borders closed, the German Jews in Germany realized they were stuck and it was too late to leave.

Between 1933 and 1938 the Nazi’s operated upon the platform that Jews should not have any sort of power within Germany, and that they should not even be considered citizens. The Law of Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, and the Nuremberg Laws, along with others created during 1933 – 193845 reflect these platforms. In reducing the German-Jewish population to second class citizens, the Nazi’s successfully began to force the Jews out of Germany, creating a refugee crisis. The United States certainly knew about the barbarism occurring in Germany. In letters exchanged by American diplomats in Germany,46 one can see that the officials knew what was happening but tried to keep quiet about it. If the American media were to pick up on how dreadful things truly were in Germany, the U.S. department would have faced increased pressure to lift the immigration quota, allowing an influx of refugees. The United States made it difficult for Jews to enter the country for fear they would compete with unemployed Americans for scarce positions. However, between 1933 and 1939 the U.S. took in 200,000 refugees, by far the largest amount of any country.47


Dippel, John Van Houten. 1996. Bound Upon A Wheel Of Fire: Why So Many German Jews Made The Tragic Decision To Remain In Nazi Germany. Basic Books.

Erhardt, John G. 1936. “Recent Developments In The German-Jewish Refugee Problem and Their Possible Reperccussions Upon The Flow of These Emigrates to The United States.” Letter, Hamburg, Germany.

Gilbert, Martin. 2006. Kristallnacht: Prelude To Destruction. Harper Collins Publishers. . 2009. American Response to the Holocaust. Accessed March 19, 2017.

Laqueuer, Walter. 2001. Generation Exodus: The Fate of Young Jewish Refugee From Nazi Germany . University Press of New England .

1982. “Statement of The Immigration Laws and Practices of The United States of America Governing The Reception of Immigrants.” In The Holocaust: 5. Jewish Emigration from 1933 to the Evian Conference of 1938, by John Mendelsohn, 230 – 231. London: Garland Publishing, Inc. .

Messersmith, G.S. March 31, 1938. “Letter on Refugees.” In The Holocaust: 5. Jewish Emigration from 1933 to the Evian Conference of 1938, by John Mendelsohn, 171. London: Garland Publishing, Inc. .

Ringelblum, Emmanuel. 1938. “From A Letter By Emmanuel Ringelblum’s on Refugees in Zbaszyn.” Yad Vashem. December 6. Accessed March 4, 2017.

SHOAH Resource Center. 1938. “From the Testimony of Erwin Pollak on Eichmann’s Meetings With the Heads of the Reichsvertretung, Berlin, 1938.” Yad Vashem. Accessed March 5, 2017.

. n.d. “Refugee’s.” Yad Vashem. Accessed February 26, 2017.

Taylor, Myron C. July 20, 1938. “Intergovernmental Meeting at Evian.” Letter to the Secretary of State, Paris.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. n.d. Ending Statelessness. Accessed March 23, 2017.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum . 2002. “Teaching about the Holocaust: Documentation Required for Immigration Visas to Enter the United States.” The Holocaust Memorial Museum . May 16. Accessed March 19, 2017.

Wischnitzer, Mark. Jan., 1940. “Jewish Emigration from Germany 1933-1938.” Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1 22 – 44.

Yad Vashem. n.d. From the Testimony of Joseph B. Levy about Facing the German Authorities in the Witness’ Attempt to Immigrate. . Accessed April 9, 2017.

. 1981. “Nuremberg Laws On Reich Citizenship, September 15, 1935 .” Yad Vashem. Accessed March 7, 2017.

. n.d. The Holocaust Research Center: Emigration, Nazi Policies and Jewish Initiatives. Accessed March 4, 2017.

1Great Depression lasted 11 years.

2Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Research Center: Emigration, Nazi Policies and Jewish Initiatives.


4Martin Gilbert, Kristallnacht. (Harper Collins Publishers, 2006) 121

5“The impression prevailed in the Jewish agencies that the problem would be merely one of a small scale emigration . . . but that the vast majority of the Jews would remain in Germany and re-adjust themselves to the new conditions.” – Mark Wischnitzer, “Jewish Emigration from Germany 1933-1938.Jewish Social Studies Vol. 2, No.1., 27

6Gabriel Riesser, a German-Jew during this period, is quoted in Walter Laqueur’s book, Generation Exodus: The Fate of Young Jewish Refugees from Nazi Germany, (New England University Press, 2001) saying, “we are either German, or without a country.”

7The Nazi regime viewed Jews as German political and economic capital, and forbade them from taking large sums of money out of the country.

8This caused the majority to remain.

9At the Nuremberg Rally a minor law was added to these two, forbidding Jews from flying the German flag.

10 Yad Vashem. “Nuremberg Laws On Reich Citizenship, September 15, 1935.” (Yad Vashem, 1981.)

11John G. Erhardt, “Recent Developments in the German Jewish Refugee Problem and Their Possible Repercussions Upon the Flow of These Emigrates to the United States.” Letter, Hamburg, Germany, 1936.

12Laqueur, Generation Exodus, 22

13Yad Vashem. “From the Testimony of Joseph B. Levy about Facing the German Authorities in the Witness’ Attempt to Immigrate.” Yad Vashem.

14Yad Vashem. “From the Testimony of Erwin Pollock on Eichmann’s Meetings with the Heads of the Reichvertretung” SHOAH Research Center (Yad Vashem, 1938).

15John G. Erhardt, “Recent Developments in the German Jewish Refugee Problem and Their Possible Repercussions Upon the Flow of These Emigrates to the United States.” Letter, Hamburg, Germany, 1936.

16Information adapted from USHMM.

17Gilbert, Kristallnacht, 126

18John G. Erhardt, American Consul General. “Recent Developments In The German-Jewish Refugee Problem and Their Possible Reperccussions Upon The Flow of These Emigrates to The United States.” Letter to The Secretary of State, Washington. (Hamburg, Germany, 1936)


20Immigration Act of 1917, Section 3, Sub-Section 1 and 2

21Immigration Act of 1917, Section 3, Sub-Section 12

22John V.H. Dippel, “Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire: Why So Many German Jews Made the Tragic Decision to Remain in Nazi Germany.” (Basic Books, 1996), 208

23Gilbert, Kristallnacht, 131

24“The United States wanted to know why the refugees could not be given a home somewhere within the British empire.” – Gilbert, Kristallnacht, 154

25Ibid. 184

26Ibid. 151 – 152

27Gilbert, Kristallnacht, 185

28July 6 – 15, 1938

29Countries present were: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, France, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Hungary, Ireland, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Venezuela.

30Dippel, Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire, 230

31Ibid. 231.

32“Previously I had read all available material bearing upon the problem of political refugees (or involuntary emigrants as they have come to be called).” Letter to the Secretary of State, from Myron C. Taylor, chairman to the United States delegation at the Evian conference, about the Evian conference.

33“political rather than racial refugees.” – Laqueur, Generation Exodus, 19.

34George Strausser Messersmith was the United States ambassador to Austria, Cuba, Mexico, and Argentina.

35Translated: Night of Broken Glass.

36First massive emigration out of Germany occurred after the Nuremberg Laws were passed.

37October 1938.

38300,000 Polish Jews left German-occupied Poland for soviet territories, but when Germany invaded the Soviet Union they massacred many of those Jews. At the border, four thousand were accepted, 8,000 were denied and stuck there. Five committed suicide.

39Who had been residents since 1911.

40The minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels blamed the Jewish population for this event by saying they worked together to assinate Von Rath.

41100 were killed.

42In 1939

43“Fear of ‘flooding’ the already overburdened orphanages, future competition for jobs during a period of high unemployment, and neglecting American children who were already in need of assistance. . .. Report read to the committee declared, ‘America is failing to take care of its own children.’” – Gilbert, Kristallnacht, 213

44“Bill would allow Nazi or Communist children into the country, and indeed other children who were not being victimized.” – Ibid. 213

45The Law against Overcrowding in Schools and Universities: (April 25, 1933) Limits the number of Jewish students in public schools. Editor’s Law: (October 4, 1933) Forbids non-Aryans to work in journalism. Law of Alteration of Family and Personal Names: (August 17, 1938) Requires Jews bearing first names of “non-Jewish” origin to adopt an additional name: “Israel” for men and “Sara” for women.

46George S. Messersmith, William E. Dodd, John G. Erhardt.

47Gilbert, Kristallnacht, 125


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