Migration and Memory in Europe

ROME – Stories of migrant-laden ships sinking in the Mediterranean while trying to reach the shores of Europe, and of refugees dying at Calais while trying to enter Britain through the Eurotunnel, have lately become ubiquitous in Europe. This ongoing crisis should remind us of a painful, and shameful, episode of recent history: the rejection faced by European Jews seeking refuge from the anti-Semitic fury that raged across Europe in the 1930s. Today’s refugees should remind us, too, of those Jews who, having survived the Holocaust, sailed across the Mediterranean toward Palestine in 1946-1947 only to be imprisoned by the British in Cyprus or elsewhere.

The fact is that in the 1930s, as Jews faced growing persecution in Germany and anti-Semitic laws proliferated in Central and Eastern Europe, the outside world was mostly indifferent to the victims’ fate. That indifference was no doubt shaped by the deeply ingrained prejudices of the time, as well as by widespread suspicion of all strangers. “The boat is full” was a refrain that resonated with governments and public opinion alike.

Indeed, in 1935, the United States admitted only about 6,000 Jewish émigrés from Europe; Argentina let in 3,000; and 2,000 legally entered Brazil. Western Europe was more generous: France took in 35,000, while Belgium and the Netherlands admitted about 20,000 each.

In 1938, under pressure from US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a conference was held in Évian, France, to discuss the status of Jewish refugees. Although more than 30 countries took part, they accepted only a minuscule number of Jewish refugees. Citing unemployment, socioeconomic difficulties, and problems of public order, the participants concluded that nothing could be done for Europe’s Jews.