Dr. Perl is a Holocaust researcher. A retired Lt. Colonel, U.S. Army, he served on the war crimes prosecution team in Germany. He is the author of The Four Front War:. From the Holocaust to the Promised Land; Operation Action: Rescue from the Holocaust;and The Holocaust Conspiracy: An International Policy of Genocide.
It is widely believed that the Nazi “Final Solution” would have claimed fewer victims if the free world had shaken off its apathy and helped the Jews to escape. This theory, that the world stood passively by as the genocide was being committed, is now being challenged. Evidence has been produced that arrives at the shattering conclusion that the Western powers were more than passive, apathetic bystanders.
Contrary to popular belief, the problem for Jews during the Holocaust was not how to get out, but where to go. The key figures in most governments throughout the world, instead of liberalizing their immigration laws, closed their borders to the hunted Jews, or at most admitted token numbers only. The Nazis set the house aflame, and the free world barred the doors.
Some of the measures taken by the free world that contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands remain little known. Foremost among these was the thwarting by the United States Department of State of rescue plans that would have brought otherwise doomed refugees to the Caribbean, specifically to the sparsely inhabited U.S. Virgin Islands as well as the Republic of Haiti.
The U.S. Virgin Islands had been acquired by the United States from Denmark in 1917 for $25 million. Most people are aware of only three islands: St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John. The group, however, consists of 68 islands of diverse sizes. Although most are tiny, they comprise 86,000 acres. At the time when their inhabitants invited refugees from Nazi barbarism, the islands had a population of approximately 25,000, most of whom were very poor and uneducated.
Many of the islands are quite mountainous, dotted with picturesque little ports and cozy bays. The climate is ideal in the spring, fall, and winter, and quite comfortable in the summer as the trade winds provide a cooling breeze. Temperatures vary only slightly from the warmest to the coolest months. There is a rich diversity of native plant and animal life.
Resolved: A Haven for Refugees
As early as November 18, 1938, the legislature of the Virgin Islands adopted the following resolution:
WHEREAS, world conditions have created large refugee groups, and
WHEREAS, such groups eventually will migrate to places of safety, and
WHEREAS, the Virgin Islands of the United States being a place of safety can offer surcease from misfortune.
NOW THEREFORE, be it resolved by the Legislative Assembly of the Virgin Islands of the United States in session assembled that it be made known to Refugee peoples of the world that when and if existing barriers are removed that they shall find surcease from misfortune in the Virgin Islands of the United States.
AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that copies of this Resolution be forwarded to the President of the United States, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Labor, the Secretary of the interior, and members of the Press.
The State Department immediately started action to obstruct the islanders’ humanitarian efforts and to close this possible avenue of escape. On December 15, 1939, the Secretary of State sent a letter to all authorities possibly concerned, calling this resolution “incompatible with existing law.”
The Department of the Interior and the Labor Department began a probe of the legal issues. The Labor Department announced on February 3, 1940, that the invitation was “consistent with existing law and unobjectionable from the standpoint of policy.”
It was November 6,1940, almost two years after the announcement of the invitation, when the Solicitor of the Interior Department published his 22-page report. The report concluded that “the proclamation in question is, in all respects, legally unassailable.” The Attorney General, however, who on October 16, 1939, was asked by the Secretary of the Interior for his evaluation of the legalities, refused on March 29, 1940, to study the issue “for the reason that the Secretary of State had not invited such an opinion.”
“Delay and Delay”
During all that time, people who could have been rescued and living in a Caribbean paradise remained in the hell of Nazi Europe until they fell victim to the death camps. The effectiveness of this “delay and delay” policy was praised by the Assistant Secretary of State, Breckinridge Long. In a memo dated June 26, 1940, he wrote: “We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to resort to various administrative advices which would postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”
This policy was criticized by the General Counsel of the U.S. Treasury, Randolph Paul, as “murder by delay.” He charged high officials in the State Department with forming “an American underground movement . . . to let the Jews be killed.”
This strategy was in sharp contrast with the public statements of concern made by State Department officials. On October 17, 1939, at a meeting in the White House, speaking before the Intergovernmental Committee on Political Refugees, Secretary of State Cordell Hull declared: “We do know that at this period there are an increasing number of people who are draining the cup of bitterness and of disappointment to its very dregs. We do know that they are on a level below that of the common animal, which is able to find something to subsist, to find some place where it can relax and sleep.”
Lawrence H. Cramer, Governor of the Virgin Islands, surprised and frustrated by the turmoil created in Washington by his legislature’s rescue attempt, finally signed on November 2, 1940, two years after the resolution had been adopted, a decree according to which 2,000 families were to be admitted initially. To appease State Department critics, certain requirements were imposed, but tens of thousands qualified.
The invitation’s main purpose was to provide a haven for those who had applied for immigration to the United States and had obtained a quota number for their registration and eventual processing when their number came up. Waiting times were usually long, sometimes three years or more. The Nazis, of course, didn’t abstain from arrests and deportations just because the victims had quota numbers, and thousands with such numbers perished. The islands were thus to have provided a refuge during the dangerous waiting period. As a prerequisite to entry, the refugees were not to become public charges—but that would have been no obstacle since many had relatives in the U.S. who were willing to provide such an affidavit, as were many major Jewish welfare organizations.
A New Weapon
Notwithstanding the thousand miles of ocean separating the U.S. mainland from the Virgin Islands, the State Department went into even higher gear when it learned that Cramer had signed the proclamation. Breckinridge Long contacted his friend Representative Martin Dies, Chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The weapon they used was the old canard that spies would arrive among the refugees. That not a single such case had been proven mattered little to Long and Dies. President Roosevelt, “informed” by Long of the undoubted arrival of spies among the refugees, was won over. Apparently no consideration was given to the fact that, whatever the security concerns, refugees in the Virgin Islands could be kept under close supervision.
Finally, to clinch the matter, Long had a brilliant idea. He went to see Admiral Alan G. Kirk, Chief of Naval Intelligence. “If the Navy could declare it [the Virgin Islands] a restricted area for strictly naval reasons,” Long explained, “[that would] prevent the raising of the political questions involved in this refugee and undesirable citizens traffic which is going on [Then] we would have no more trouble.”
This settled the case. Nobody in wartime could defend an issue that threatened the security of the United States. The attempt to tear a few thousand of the doomed from Moloch’s jaws had been sabotaged. This victory by the State Department was achieved 20 months after the Kristallnacht pogrom and nine months after the Nazi massacres began in Poland.
The State Department expanded its intrigues into other parts of the Caribbean. A little known, but particularly blatant example occurred in Haiti.
Heavy pressure was mobilized against Haiti when it planned to admit 100 refugee families. The Haitian President was accused of undermining the American war effort and thus the safety of the United States. The usual contrivance—the claim that there would be spies among the refugees—in the case of Haiti was extended to the misinformation that (although they might not be straight Hitlerites) all refugees were “at the least” pro- German. The American Minister to Haiti, on September 30, 1940, received the following telegram from Secretary of State Cordell Hull:
The Department desires you to discourage at every opportunity and in a manner which can leave no doubt in President Vincent’s mind all projects for bringing additional European refugees to Haiti under the circumstances that have prevailed in the past . . . . The Department therefore would deplore further interest by the Haitian Government in the admission of refugees among whose numbers will doubtless be found elements prejudicial to the safety of the Republic of Haiti and this country . . . . 
The Chargé in Haiti, fully understanding what his superiors expected of him, lost no time. On October 2 he wrote to the Secretary of State:
I made the following points: One, all refugees from Germany are at most only anti-Hitler . . . . Therefore, we regard these refugees as suspects and cannot view with approval their migration from place to place. I added that since my Government is spending in excess of twelve billion dollars for the defense of the United States, and the Western Hemisphere, it would be unreasonable to expect that we would view without concern the uncontrolled movement of alien suspects.
During all the time that the State Department was thwarting the refugees, letters arrived from those who had heard of the possibility of escape. On May 20, 1941, Robert M. Lovett, Acting Governor of the Islands (Lawrence Cramer had resigned) wrote to James McDonald, Chairman of the President’s Committee for Refugees: “I have been overwhelmed by correspondence of a most poignant nature.”
“Our Last Chance”
Of the dozens of pleading letters in the National Archives, one by Gerhard Neumann, who writes for himself and six others, is particularly tragic. The letter, dated February 14, 1941, was written from Camp de Gurs, a collecting place in France for shipment either via the infamous Drancy Camp, or directly to the annihilation places in the east.
Neumann wrote: “We should be very much obliged to you, if you could improve our actual situation by giving us the permission to stay in your territory till we can immigrate to U.S.A. We are aware, that we do an extraordinary step in applying to you. But that is our last chance.”
On March 25, 1941, Robert Lovett answered: “I regret to inform you that a procedure for giving effect to the plan of affording temporary refuge in the Islands has not been worked out by the State Department and the Department of the Interior.”
Another applicant awaiting deportation was Walter Bruehl. He wrote: “We are still a small number of passengers on the steamboat St. Louis, departing from Hamburg May 13, 1939 [on the infamous Voyage of the Damned], to Havana, Cuba who after an adventurous crossing were forced to return to Europe . . . . Please, Honorable Sir, let me know what we can do. I shall act immediately in the required direction.”
On May 20, 1941, Lovett answered: “I regret to inform you that the State Department has refused permission to put into effect the plan proposed for the reception of the refugees . . . .”
Each of the applicants’ letters, preserved in the National Archives, is a mute witness to the inhumanity of man against man.
6. Memo to Adolf A. Bede, Jr., and James C. Dunn, June 26, 1940, as quoted by Henry L. Feingold, The Politics of Rescue (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press. 1970), pp. 142, 330. See also Foreign Relations of the United States., Diplomatic Papers, 1940, vol. II, pp- 178-79,194-95.
8. National Archives, Intergovernmental Committee on Political Refugees, Washington Conference, October 17,1941. See also State Department Bulletin 400, October 21,1.939, and Department of the Interior, Office of the Solicitor, M. 31037, November 6,1940, p. 7.