by Rafael Medoff
Seventy-five years ago today, a ship sailed into the New York harbor, carrying more than 900 European Jewish refugees. Unlike similar ships that had approached America’s shores in the 1930s, the S.S. Henry Gibbins was not turned back. Instead, the passengers were taken to an abandoned army camp in upstate New York, where they spent the rest of the war in safety, far from Hitler’s clutches.
Why did President Franklin D. Roosevelt permit this group of Jewish refugees to enter the United States? What had changed since the years when other ships were turned away?
* * *
By the autumn of 1943, news of the mass murder of Europe’s Jews had been verified by the Allies and widely publicized in the United States, although major newspapers often buried it in the back pages. There could be no doubt that at least several million Jews had been slaughtered by the Germans and their collaborators, and many more were still in danger.
President Roosevelt and his administration insisted that nothing could be done to help the Jews except to win the war. Others disagreed. In October 1943, U.S. Senator Warren Barbour, Republican of New Jersey, introduced a resolution calling on the president to admit 100,000 Jewish refugees “for the duration of the war and six months thereafter.” The resolution was endorsed by both the National Democratic Club and the National Republican Club.
Granting temporary refuge was a way of addressing the life-and-death crisis that Europe’s Jews faced, without incurring the wrath of those who opposed permanent immigration. The Jews who were saved would go back to Europe, or elsewhere, when the war ended.
Sen. Barbour tragically passed away just a few weeks later, but the idea of temporary refuge gained traction. In early 1944, a proposal for temporary havens was presented to President Roosevelt by the U.S. government’s War Refugee Board (a small, underfunded agency recently created by FDR under strong pressure from Jewish groups and the Treasury Department).
“It is essential that we and our allies convince the world of our sincerity and our willingness to bear our share of the burden,” wrote Josiah E. DuBois, Jr., a senior official of the War Refugee Board, in a memo to Roosevelt. The United States could not reasonably ask countries bordering Nazi-occupied territory to take in refugees if America itself would not take any, DuBois argued.
The president was reluctant to embrace the plan; he had previously confided to his aides that he preferred “spreading the Jews thin” around the world, rather than admitting them to the United States.
Secretary of War Henry Stimson, for his part, vigorously opposed the temporary havens proposal. In his view, Jewish refugees were “unassimilable” and would undermine the purity of America’s “racial stock.”
Public pressure pushed the plan forward. Syndicated columnist Samuel Grafton played a key role in this effort, by authoring three widely-published columns advocating what he called “Free Ports for Refugees.”
“A ‘free port’ is a small bit of land… into which foreign goods may be brought without paying customs duties… for temporary storage,” Grafton explained. “Why couldn’t we have a system of free ports for refugees fleeing the Hitler terror?… We do it for cases of beans… it should not be impossible to do it for people.”
The activists known as the Bergson Group took out full-page advertisements in the Washington Post and other newspapers to promote the plan. Jewish organizations helped secure endorsements of “free ports” from religious, civic, and labor organizations, including the Federal Council of Churches and the American Federation of Labor. U.S. Senator Guy Gillette (D-Iowa) introduced a resolution calling for free ports; eight similar resolutions were introduced in the House of Representatives.
Support for the havens plan could be found across the political spectrum. The liberal New York Timesendorsed it; so did the conservative Hearst chain of newspapers. Temporary refuge was fast becoming a consensus issue.
With public pressure mounting, the White House commissioned a private Gallup poll to measure public sentiment. It found that 70 percent of the public supported giving “temporary protection and refuge” in the United States to “those people in Europe who have been persecuted by the Nazis.”
That was quite a change from the anti-immigration sentiment of earlier years. But circumstances had changed, and public opinion did, too. By 1944, the Great Depression was over and the tide of the war had turned. The public’s fear of refugees had diminished significantly, and its willingness to make humanitarian gestures increased.
Despite this overwhelming support for temporary refuge, President Roosevelt agreed to admit just one token group of 982 refugees.And he did not want them to be all Jews; FDR instructed the officials making the selection to “include a reasonable proportion of the [various] categories of persecuted minorities.” (In the end, 89% were Jewish.)
Ironically, the group was so small that they all could have been admitted within the existing immigration quotas. There was no need for a special presidential order to admit them, since the regular quotas for citizens of Germany and German-occupied countries were far from filled in 1944. In fact, they were unfilled in eleven of FDR’s twelve years in the White House, because his administration piled on extra requirements and bureaucratic obstacles to discourage and disqualify refugee applicants.
Of the 982 refugees whom the president admitted in August 1944, 215 were from Germany or Austria. Yet the German-Austrian quota was less than 5% filled that year. The second largest nationality group was from Yugoslavia; there were 151 Yugoslavs in the group. That quota was less than 3% filled in 1944. There were also 77 Polish citizens and 56 Czechs; those quotas were only 20% and 11% filled, respectively. Put another way, a combined total of 39,400 quota places from those particular countries sat unused in 1944, because of the Roosevelt administration’s policy of suppressing refugee immigration far below the limits that the law allowed.
The S.S. Henry Gibbins arrived in the New York harbor on August 4, 1944. Ivo Lederer, one of the passengers, recalled how they cheered when the ship approached the Statue of Liberty. “If you’re coming from war-time, war-damaged Europe to see this enormous sight, lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty–I don’t think there was a dry eye on deck.”
The refugees were taken to Fort Ontario, an abandoned army camp in the upstate New York town of Oswego. It would be the only “free port” in America. By contrast, Sweden, which was one-twentieth the size of the United States, took in 8,000 Jews fleeing from Nazi-occupied Denmark.
* * *
According to conventional wisdom, most Americans in the 1940s were against admitting Jewish refugees. It is also widely assumed that members of Congress—especially the Republicans—were overwhelmingly anti-refugee, too. America’s immigration system supposedly made it impossible for President Roosevelt to allow any more Jewish refugees to enter. And American Jews allegedly were too weak to do anything about it.
Yet 75 years ago this summer, those myths were shattered when a coalition of Jewish activists, rescue advocates, and congressmen from both parties, backed by a large majority of public opinion, successfully
pressured FDR to admit a group of European Jewish refugees outside the quota system.
Refugee advocates had hoped the United States would take in hundreds of thousands of Jews. Sadly, President Roosevelt was interested in nothing more than an election-year gesture that would deflect potential criticism. Famed investigative journalist I.F. Stone was not off the mark when he called the admission of the Oswego group “a token payment to decency, a bargain-counter flourish in humanitarianism.”
(History News Network – August 4, 2019)