September 18, 2011
Leaders of the Virgin Islands who tried to help rescue Jews from the Nazis–but were blocked by the Roosevelt administration–were honored posthumously at the Wyman Institute’s ninth national conference.
Congresswoman Donna Christensen, who represents the Virgin Islands in the U.S. House of Representatives, accepted the award at the ninth national conference of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, held at the Fordham University School of Law in New York City on September 18, 2011.
The conference theme was “While Six Million Lived: America and the Jewish Refugee Crisis, 1933-1939.”
The Virgin Islands award was designed by internationally renowned Judaica artists Michael Berkowicz and Bonnie Srolovitz. They are also currently designing the forthcoming Holocaust memorial site in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
In 1939, Governor Lawrence Cramer and the Virgin Islands Legislative Assembly offered to open their doors to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. The offer came at a time when almost every country in the world, including the United States, refused to take more than a handful of refugees.
The Virgin Islands rescue plan was blocked by the Roosevelt administration, which claimed that the refugees might use the Virgin Islands as a vehicle to sneak into the mainland United States.
“At a time when most of the world turned the other way, the leaders of the Virgin Islands extended a brotherly helping hand,” said Wyman Institute director Dr. Rafael Medoff. “This great act of humanitarianism deserves to be recognized and publicized. The leaders of the Virgin Islands are moral role models for every generation.”
Congresswoman Christensen said she was “extremely proud that the people from our small islands, mere dots on any world map, who at a time of world turmoil, when many more powerful were turning away, sought to extend the hand of help, a place of succor and refuge to those who needed it so desperately.”
Her voice tinged with sadness, the congresswoman recalled how the Roosevelt administration, “under the guise of fearing German espionage, summarily frustrated and dismissed these attempts, forcing closed the doors of the historically open and welcoming port to those who needed it most.”
Not one actual case was ever discovered of a German spy successfully disguising himself as a Jewish refugee in order to enter the United States or its territories.
She noted that the administration even went so far as to make the Virgin Islands off-limits to refugees by “declaring the territory a restricted area over the protests of the people and pleading letters from German refugees, leaving the island with little recourse but to watch as millions met a terrible fate.”
“The offer for sanctuary came from a small, but proud people, who by virtue of their own experiences, did not hesitate to extend “refuge” to another in need, ” Congresswoman Christensen concluded. “How many lives could have been saved if our offer had not been rejected and blocked!”
Dr. Christensen is now serving her eighth term as a Member of the United States House of Representatives, representing the Virgin Islands. She is the first female physician in the history of the United States Congress, the first woman to represent an offshore Territory, and the first woman Delegate from the United States Virgin Islands. She is also Assistant Minority Whip in the Democratic Caucus, and First Vice-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Other speakers at the conference:
Prof. David S. Wyman presented a survey of the international search for havens for Jewish refugees in the 1930s.
Dr. Rafael Medoff described new research on President Roosevelt’s private views regarding Jews, blacks, and Asians, and connected it to FDR’s hostility toward Jewish immigration during the 1930s and 1940s.
A panel discussion on “Cartoonists and the Plight of German Jewry, 1933-1939” featured cartoon historian Craig Yoe and illustrator Sal Amendola. They focused on editorial cartoonists in U.S. newspapers who tackled subjects such as the voyage of the S.S. St. Louis.
Prof. Laurel Leff (Northeastern University) spoke about the American medical community’s unfriendly attitude towards German Jewish refugee doctors in the 1930s.
Prof. Stephen Norwood (University of Oklahoma) described efforts by elite American universities, especially Harvard and Columbia, to build friendly relations with Nazi Germany in the early and mid 1930s.
Dr. Ari Babaknia, the eminent physician and scholar, chaired the conference. Prof. Thane Rosenbaum, scholar and novelist (and Fordham faculty member) served as Master of Ceremonies.