Documents: U.K. blocked plan to save Jews

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LONDON — The British government blocked a secret U.S. plan that would have saved thousands of Jews from Nazi concentration camps because Britain feared they would settle in Palestine, according to newly released British documents.

The documents were not scheduled to be released until 2021, but were released by the Public Records Office in London last month under the Open Government Initiative.

The plan would have involved the exchange of captive Jews in Germany and German-occupied territory who held South American passports for German nationals in Latin America.

But Britain's foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, rejected the June 14, 1944 proposal because he feared the freed Jews would stir up trouble for Britain if they emigrated to Palestine, a Foreign Office document shows.

Eden was also concerned that the return of able-bodied Germans might contribute to the Nazi war effort.

Britain's refusal to contemplate the exchange plan angered Washington, where politicians had been shocked by the malnourished, emaciated condition of prisoners from Bergen-Belsen who had been released in an earlier civilian exchange.

U.S. officials suggested the plan after diplomats noted that many Germans were interned or under effective house arrest in Latin American countries, while thousands of concentration camp inmates were Latin American citizens or their dependents.

Eden, however, was unimpressed with the plan.

"Most of the holders of these documents [Latin American passports] are of the Jewish race who have been accepted as immigrants to Palestine," he wrote in November 1944 to the British ambassador in Uruguay, Gordon Vereker.

He added that "the passports are good for a journey thither provided the holders succeed in leaving enemy or enemy-occupied territory.

"In these circumstances, it appears doubtful that it will ever be possible to carry out the exchange envisaged by the United States Government."

Eden expressed the hope, however, that "the German Government will abstain from exterminating these people and will keep them in camps open to outside inspection" if it was made aware that they might be exchanged for Germans.

British diplomats in South America also argued about the lists of German citizens prepared by the United States.

"All of them are capable of rendering services to Germany if in that country," Vereker wrote. "Many have qualities that would render them of considerable value to Germany.

"For instance, it seems absurd to suggest sending to Germany highly trained employees of the German bank who otherwise are languishing here doing nothing but draw their pay," he added.

In February 1945, the U.S. State Department was so exasperated by Britain's procrastination that an emotional memo was sent to London.

"The department has received most distressing reports regarding physical conditions of the unfortunate persons from Bergen-Belsen camp who were released in the latest exchange of civilians, and it will be noted that five of them died of malnutrition during a short period after their arrival in Switzerland. A sixth has died this week.

"It is therefore a matter of the greatest humanitarian urgency that cleared lists of Germans in this hemisphere available for exchange be compiled and that they comprise enough persons to permit the release from confinement and otherwise certain death of the several thousand unfortunate bearers of Latin American passports whom the Germans are holding under such conditions."

However, by the time Lord Halifax, then British ambassador in Washington, sent the note to Vereker, progress in the war had made the plan "of academic interest," according to a document.