“A few thousand years after giant volcanic eruptions formed the Virgin Islands,” explains one resort, they became home to “the rich, the famous and the infamous, from Christopher Columbus and Sir Francis Drake to the pirate Blackbeard.”
Today, the islands are known almost exclusively as a vacation spot for the global leisure class.
But in another world, this tropical paradise might also have been home to thousands of Jewish refugees, escaping the hell of war and genocide.
The islanders lobbied to let them immigrate, but the federal government blocked the locals’ overture, keeping Europe's Jews (and Gypsies, homosexuals, and others who didn’t fit the plan for the “master race”) trapped in a system that marginalized them, isolated them, and ultimately exterminated them by the millions.
“Contrary to popular belief,” wrote William R. Perl in the Freeman, “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 US government didn’t even allow Jews to immigrate at the level of those token numbers. According to Rafael Medoff at the LA Times, the official limit on admitting German Jews during those years was “about 26,000 annually — but even that quota was less than 25% filled during most of the Hitler era, because the Roosevelt administration piled on so many extra requirements for would-be immigrants.”
For instance, “starting in 1941, merely leaving behind a close relative in Europe would be enough to disqualify an applicant — on the absurd assumption that the Nazis could threaten the relative and thereby force the immigrant into spying for Hitler.”
Yes, the official excuse for keeping Jewish refugees out of the United States was the fear that they would be secretly helping the perpetrators of the Holocaust.
“That not a single such case had been proven mattered little,” says Perl.
If FDR’s government didn’t want an influx of European Jews in New York or Washington, DC, then the islands that the US government acquired from Denmark in 1917 should have offered the perfect compromise. The Virgin Islands held no war secrets to protect. And their legislature showed far greater compassion and foresight than the politicians in DC.
On November 18, 1938, the islands’ legislative assembly resolved “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.”
Perl writes, “The State Department immediately started action to obstruct the islanders’ humanitarian efforts and to close this possible avenue of escape.”
The Islands’ governor, frustrated by the federal government’s response, continued to try to invite as many refugee families as permitted by the barriers erected in DC, but every effort failed. Finally, the State Department persuaded the US Navy to declare all of the Virgin Islands “a restricted area for strictly naval reasons.”
In a note to the chief of naval intelligence, the assistant secretary of state wrote that such a declaration would “prevent the raising of the political questions involved in this refugee and undesirable citizens traffic which is going on” (emphasis added).
The plan worked. “Nobody in wartime,” writes Perl, “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.”
Perl’s account details the many players in the central government’s machinations to keep the Jews out, but he downplays FDR’s culpability. “President Roosevelt, ‘informed’ of the undoubted arrival of spies among the refugees, was won over” by others in his government.
In the LA Times, Medoff is more critical:
Why didn’t the president quietly tell his State Department (which administered the immigration system) to fill the quotas for Germany and Axis-occupied countries to the legal limit?
That alone could have saved 190,000 lives. It would not have required a fight with Congress or the anti-immigration forces; it would have involved minimal political risk to the president.
Medoff suspects the president’s inaction was the result not so much of political prudence as of personal preference. “There is evidence,” he writes, of “troubling private remarks by FDR”:
including dismissing pleas for Jewish refugees as “Jewish wailing” and “sob stuff”; expressing (to a senator ) his pride that “there is no Jewish blood in our veins”; and characterizing a tax maneuver by a Jewish newspaper publisher as “a dirty Jewish trick.”
“It is sobering,” he concludes, “to consider that partly because of Roosevelt’s private prejudices, innocent people who could have been saved were instead abandoned.”
“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,” Perl writes.
But apathy wasn’t the problem. During a war that pitted the free world against the forces of fascism, nationalism, and racism, the liberal democracies actively pursued illiberal policies at home and sabotaged their citizens’ efforts to save thousands of families from extermination.
As Perl bluntly puts it, “The Nazis set the house aflame, and the free world barred the doors.”
In a different version of history, one in which compassion and local autonomy had triumphed, a Caribbean haven would have allowed tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of human beings to be alive today, whose parents and grandparents were, in our actual history, lost to Hitler’s Final Solution.
We mourn them, and we solemnly promise “never again.” But first we must come to grips with what exactly was done — and not just by Germany — that must not be repeated.