America, a nation of immigrants, has a dark past of rejecting “the other.”
This history includes the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the National Quotas Act of 1924 and the World War II internment of Japanese Americans. Even in the aftermath of the Holocaust, our borders were barely open to Jewish survivors.
In 1945, a million Jewish, Polish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Ukrainian and volksdeutsche refugees in displaced persons camps in Germany and Austria faced resettlement. Three-quarters of the million in the DP camps were not Jewish.
“The Last Million: Europe’s Displaced Persons from World War to Cold War,” David Nasaw’s new book, recounts how the United States was slow to create adequate camps for the Jewish survivors, and, in the next decade, new laws pushed back on accepting large numbers of Jewish refugees.
Nasaw describes how the U.S. Army, charged with setting up and supporting the DP camps, fell far short. Army chaplain Rabbi Robert Marcus reported:
“It was a story of starvation diets, callous American officers who disregarded military directives concerning treatment of stateless people and downright anti-Semitism; of bad food, tattered lager clothes and overcrowded sleeping quarters … of pressure to return to lands they wish to forget.”
I know this history. My late father, James Rice, sailed to Europe in June 1945 with the first group of American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee staff. JDC was the best organized and funded Jewish organization rescuing survivors.
Dad spoke of facing indifferent, or worse, US Army support. In his 1988 oral history, he recounted: “[T]errible conditions under which the Jewish displaced persons were living … As the news came to the United States, it embarrassed the [a]dministration. President Truman appointed [Dean] Earl Harrison [of the University of Pennsylvania School of Law], who had been the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, to investigate the situation and report to him. Harrison, in turn, asked Dr. Joseph Schwartz [of the JDC] to be his colleague. They reported the shocking fact that in some instances the Jewish DP camps were near the U.S. Army’s German prisoner-of-war camps. Conditions in the prisoner-of-war camps, following the Geneva Convention, were far superior to those of their former victims.”
Dad continued: “[A]nother element of the Harrison-Schwartz report, which was also being reported in the media, was the demand of the Jewish survivors for the doors of Palestine to be opened.”
“The Last Million” and the oral history note that, in August 1945, based on the public Harrison report, Truman directed General Eisenhower to take immediate action on camp conditions. Truman also pushed the British government on Jewish emigration to Palestine, with little effect.
Dad was based in Austria, setting up camps, housing and medical care, along with sparse but welcome Passover supplies in 1946. Under new orders, the Army requisitioned resort hotels in Bad Gastein for Jewish DPs.
Off the record at the time, JDC was part of Brichah, the clandestine efforts to move survivors to Palestine through the British blockade. Dad recounted: “Bad Gastein, being in the Alps and near the Italian border, was a great place to use as a way station on this underground effort … There would always be approximately the same number of people in the hotels, but they would move people in and out in the middle of the night.”
Questioned by a British officer, Dad “felt I had to lie like a gentleman, and I absolutely denied it.”
Thousands resettled in Israel after 1948, but the U.S. remained closed. Nasaw presents the lengthy Congressional debates on watered-down immigration bills, The debates had a barely-hidden anti-Jewish bias, cloaked in “Communist infiltration” threats.
The final bills favored other nationalities, those fleeing Soviet-backed regimes in Poland and the Baltic countries. Many DPs had been willing participants in the murder of Jews or had joined the Waffen-SS. Of the quarter-million Jewish refugees in DP camps in 1945, only about 60,000 were resettled in the U.S.
In 2021 with new leadership in Washington, we must confront the lessons of “The Last Million” and reverse Trumps’s 400 actions against immigrants and refugees. Let us work for real immigration reform, and uphold the Jewish value of welcoming the stranger.
My father, of blessed memory, would understand both this history and the urgent need to welcome refugees.