In the early years of World War II, a small group of German Jews were settled in Pender County, safe from what was soon to come in Nazi-controlled Europe.
A haven for Jews and others fleeing Adolph Hitler’s psychopathic reach had been created on land purchased at the site of the abandoned Van Eeden colony, created in 1909 to lure Dutch dairy farmers to North Carolina.
There were other efforts during the late 1930s to find places for Jewish refugees in America. Duke University, for example, hired three Jewish scientists from Germany under a national program to place Jewish scholars threatened in Germany.
But what stands out for many is that relatively few Jews found refuge from the Holocaust in the United States.
A poignant symbol of America’s reluctance to open its doors wider is the 1938 St. Louis voyage. In May, the luxury ship left Germany with about 900 Jews – Germans and other eastern European nationals. The passengers had seen increasing repression of Jews from the Nazis and had concluded that it was time to leave. Indeed, they were just months ahead of Kristallnacht, when Jewish businesses, homes, schools and synagogues were vandalized and burned, and the decision to confiscate Jewish businesses.
The St. Louis sailed for Cuba, from where many passengers thought they could get to the United States. But Cuba allowed entry to only about two dozen. The ship headed to Miami with passengers petitioning the U.S. for refuge. The only response was to wait their turn to obtain visas under the regular immigration system. The U.S. Coast Guard circled the ship to prevent its docking in Miami.
The St. Louis was forced to return to Europe. According to some accounts, about 250 of the passengers eventually died in Nazi death camps.
The U.S. response to 1930s Jewish refugees has come up during the past week as a chorus of politicians, including Gov. Pat McCrory, called for a halt to the United States accepting Syrian refugees until the federal government can ensure that no terrorists are among them.
McCrory, who is seeking re-election next year, declared that North Carolina would not accept any refugees after authorities found a link between one alleged perpetrator of the atrocities in Paris and the wave of refugees from the civil war in Syria streaming into Europe. The remaining suspects were European nationals, according to French authorities. McCrory was joined by nearly two dozen other governors and politicians at all levels, including state Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is campaigning to challenge McCrory.
Supporters of the U.S. keeping without delay its commitment to accept 10,000 Syrians say to do otherwise would be to repeat the shameful U.S. human rights failure of the 1930s.
The two situations have similarities and differences.
But fear is a common motivator in both cases.
The Great Depression threw millions of people out of work, and immigrants were feared as competitors for scarce jobs. Public opinion was solidly in favor of the racist 1924 immigration law that set strict quotas on immigrants from various regions. Several news organizations this week have referred to a poll published in Fortune Magazine in 1938 that showed that 61 percent of respondents said “No” when specifically asked whether the United States should admit 10,000 refugee children from Germany, “most of them Jewish.”
Jews were assimilated in the United States in the 1930s, but antisemitism was embedded in nearly every American institution. The Depression fueled those sentiments and was a factor in the response to Jewish refugees seeking safe haven. Some historians suggest that American Jewish organizations were reluctant to push too publicly for admission of refugees for fear that it would increase antisemitism.
Fear is a big factor in today’s American attitudes toward Syrian refugees. A few weeks ago, a poll of Americans showed that more feared U.S. domestic gun violence than foreign-inspired terrorism. But that was before the Paris attacks and Islamic State threats of attacks in the United States. An NBC News/SurveyMonkey online poll this week found that 56 percent of Americans opposed allowing more Syrian refugees into the United States. A Bloomberg poll found 53 percent opposed.
We are headed into a major election year, with campaigning for president, governors and legislative offices already underway, so the Syrian refugee debate is also partly political opportunism.
Some also see the taint of Islamophobia, similar to the antisemitism of the 1930s, in the reaction. Some of the talk coming from some politicians is adding fuel to those beliefs. Presidential candidate Donald Trump talks of closing mosques. His rival Jeb Bush talks of admitting refugees if they can prove they are Christians, and Mike Huckabee has a theory about the incompatibility with life in the United States of Syrian’s “desert” origins, their religion and culture.
In defense of the U.S. not doing more for Jewish refugees in the 1930s, some say that Americans at the time could not imagine Hitler’s “final solution.” But there’s little doubt about what awaits Syrian refugees who don’t find safe haven. In Syria, they are caught between the atrocities of Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the murderous Islamic State. If they are shunned by the West and herded into refugee camps for years, those camps would likely become breeding grounds for terror recruiting.
Linda Williams: 919-829-4524