WINTER 2000/01
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remembering the holocaust


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- goddesses of peace
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In the run-up to the Government-decreed first Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27) I've been reading 'Whitehall and the Jews, 1933-1948', which examines what the British Government really did to help Jewish refugees to escape the Holocaust. The author, Louise London, is herself the daughter of two Jewish refugees who were allowed into Britain.

'The British record has been obscured by selective memories and complacency over Britain's war-time role. The myth was born that Britain did all it could for the Jews between 1933 and 1945.... The Jews excluded from entry to the United Kingdom are not part of the British experience, because Britain never saw them.'

In fact there were people in this country who went out of their way to help Jewish refugees (including the War Resisters' International, briefly acknowledged here). Many individuals and organisations pressed the government for a more liberal policy. The Germany Emergency Committee of the Society of Friends, for example, actively helped those (such as Christian Jews) whom Jewish organisations didn't support. Eleanor Rathbone MP, who set up the National Committee for Rescue from Nazi Terror, stands out as a beacon of light and thorn in the side of the government. Another group was prompted by Victor Gollancz's famous pamphlet 'Let My People Go' to call for 'a full open-door policy'. They commissioned a Gallup poll in 1943 which showed that 78% supported admission of Jewish refugees, as least on a temporary basis.

This book, however, focuses on official government response. The very first Aliens Act of 1905 was 'designed to stem the influx of Jews from Eastern Europe'. Strict controls on aliens were tightened during and after World War I. Passport controls were used (and still are) for intelligence surveillance; many passport control officers held military rank. It was presumed in the late 1930s that 'if there was war with Germany, the mass of refugees from Nazism would immediately be interned as enemy aliens.' Refugees, it seems, were always seen as a potential threat to the state.

What is interesting is the degree to which voluntary aid agencies did the government's work for it. Only when the numbers of refugees massively increased, and voluntary funds were exhausted, was the government forced to support refugees (Czechoslovaks first). The agencies also did the administrative and bureaucratic work; ironically, 'Departments were thus partly insulated from the desperate plight of Jews seeking escape from Nazism.'

The government's overwhelming preoccupation, once war began, was to win it; help for refugees was low on the priority list. 1930s unemployment stimulated public fears that refugees would take up scarce jobs. Government fears of stirring up anti-semitism if 'too many Jews' were accepted were another powerful factor, even for Jewish groups here. Here and elsewhere, 'all the democratic countries where Jews sought refuge found ways of manipulating immigration procedures to exclude them.'

  Members of a group of Jewish refugees from Czechoslovakia being marched away by police at Croydon airport in March 1939. The refugees were detained at the police station because their documents were not in order. They were put on a flight to Warsaw but threatened to jump out of the window if the plane took off. The pilot refused to fly, so they were deported the following day.    

There were a few who were welcome: women who could be domestic servants, diamond industrialists and their wealth, and diamond workers who could make precision tools for the armaments industry; qualified dentists, apparently, were also in short supply. Otherwise the professions' appalling restrictive practices reinforced official preference by blocking attempts to bring in skilled, educated Jews. The 1939 Kindertransports (over 7000 of the 9354 unaccompanied children were Jewish) took place because it was believed that they could be Anglicised. 'Admission saved the children's lives. Exclusion sealed the fate of many of their parents.' It's estimated that about 80,000 Jewish refugees were allowed into Britain at this time - the lucky few.

But the government admitted many Jews on temporary visas only (about 20,000 moved on to the USA). Policies for emigration to Palestine were devised. Desperate ideas were floated, such as installing a Jewish population in 'empty' countries like British Guiana. When in 1943 there was a danger of public pressure on the government to do more, 'the new Cabinet Committee was rapidly mobilised in defence of the British policy of inaction'. 'The government outsmarted its critics by going through the motions of attempting to identify a positive plan of action.' Towards the end of the war the government did provide some financial credit to help Jews escape, which wasn't publicised, but the main intention was to improve Anglo-American relations. There remained the over-riding fear of having to deal on a permanent basis with a flood of homeless and penniless Jews - a fear that persisted even though by then millions were dead.

The deeper reasons for these policies, Louise London believes, lie in the European culture of the time and nation-states' fight for survival. The belief that a homogenous population was the basis of stability led to large minorities being seen as endangering a state's very existence. 'In Britain, as in other countries of refuge, profound tension existed between a genuine aspiration to adhere to humanitarian principles and self-protectiveness against foreigners whose ethnicity was perceived as alien.' 'British policy-making...was not a conspiracy perpetrated on an unsuspecting public. It was, in the end, an expression of the values of the society that produced it...The record of British refugee policy suggests that humanitarianism was hardly one of the determining values of the political civilisation from which it sprang.' The British public comes out better from this history than its government.
One myth must be laid to rest: that the Second World War was ever fought to save the Jews. Louise London's book is an effective answer to that.

Lucy Beck

Whitehall and the Jews, 1933-1948: British Immigration Policy and the Holocaust. By Louise London. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-63187-4.


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