Nazi policies designed to persecute Jewish populations prompted a wave of emigration from Europe beginning in 1933. Many sought to move to the United States in the days leading up to World War II. If direct migration to the United States was not possible, some went to a third country and applied to get into the U.S. from there.
At that time, the U.S. used a quota-based immigration system in which a specific number of visas would be granted to applicants from each country. The system also included a literacy test that potential immigrants over the age of sixteen had to pass to be considered for a visa. This system was supposedly designed to maintain a homogeneous U.S. population and keep out those seen as “undesirable.” Some U.S. consular officers bent the rules to help those desperately seeking refuge.
Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed Niles W. Bond in 1998, William Belton in 1992, William Trimble in 1990, and George Bogardus in 1998 to hear about their experiences with influxes of Jewish refugees before and during WWII. William B. Cobb, Jr. recalls his time in Havana and the lives of Jewish refugees there at the end of WWII in an interview with Horace G. Torbertin in 1990.
“You should be proud of being Jewish”
Niles W. Bond, Consular Officer, Havana 1939-1940
BOND: At that time , there were approximately 25,000 visa applicants waiting to get American visas in Havana. They were mainly European Jews… people who were fleeing from Germany, at least 25,000. And about 20,000 of those would be outside the door every day trying to get information. The quota system was so overbooked.
For example, if somebody was Hungarian-born, and therefore trying to get a visa under the Hungarian quota, there was a waiting period of 30 years! On my first day there, I went up on the elevator and got off and I had to fight my way through the crowd of visa applicants to get to the receptionist.
Ninety percent of the work was visa work and so I spent most of my time doing just that. We were very good with these people. I remember we had one unaccompanied Jewish woman. She was about 50 and had a relative in the States who had vouched for her and that sort of thing. But when it came to the literacy test, she couldn’t read the cards in either Yiddish or Hebrew. That was a compulsory turn-down.
But she said to my secretary, who was Irish but for some reason, spoke Yiddish: “I can read. I can’t read these, but if you can give me a Yiddish Jewish newspaper, I’ll show you I can read.” At that time, there was a Jewish newspaper being published in Havana. My secretary went out and got a copy of it and brought itback.
She read and spoke Hebrew well, so she gave it to the woman and said, “Read.” And the woman read everything and got it right. So I gave her a visa and explained that she was literate, although she had not been able to read the reading cards. She got to Miami and was turned down by Immigration for being illiterate.
The Department sent a very snotty telegram to the post saying, “Don’t you know what you’re doing? Don’t you know what illiteracy is?” So, I drafted an answer back for my boss to sign saying that, “The meaning of literacy in this case does not mean the ability to read the reading cards.”
I’d looked at them and they were all either biblical or Shakespeare. “She is literate because she can read newspapers.” The Department got it reversed and they let her in.
Q: One of the charges made against the State Department was that it was not welcoming, particularly to the Jewish refugees in the ‘30s.
BOND: We had none of that in Havana when I was there. As a matter of fact, some of them used to apologize for being Jewish and I would give them a little lecture saying “You should be proud of being Jewish,” and that sort of thing. No. They got the opposite of what you describe from those of us who were working the visa desk.
Some of them were [settling in Cuba]. A lot of them became residents and probably citizens of Cuba because they couldn’t get in anywhere else, at least for the duration of the war. A colony had grown up with these people. They had taken over one of the low-cost parts of town.
Some of them were very wealthy. I had visa applicants whose relatives were millionaires. They were the least polite of all. They demanded to be given a gold-framed visa right away. But I never saw any anti-Semitism in our operation.
“We had to keep them sitting there on the benches in the parks of Havana for years on end”
William Belton, Consular Officer, Havana 1938
BELTON: Havana was flooded with European refugees. This was just before the outbreak of the war. The city was just full of German Jews who had been unable to get U.S. visas while they were still in Europe, so had come to Havana to wait until their numbers came up on the quota system for the United States.
So we had a really big and extremely active, busy visa mill going there. That was my principal duty…
I never felt there was anything but sympathy for this tremendous problem and the people involved in it. There was a difference between our attitude toward these people, how we handled them, and what the laws enabled us to do for them.
Thousands of people were eventually going to get into the United States, one way or another. We knew that. It was a tragedy that we had to keep them sitting there on the benches in the parks of Havana for years on end sometimes, before they could come.
When they walked into the office, we did the very best we could under extremely difficult circumstances. Understandably, the visa applicants themselves weren’t always models of patience.
I remember on one occasion we received a complaint from the United States about how somebody was treated at the reception desk. The Consul General, Coert du Bois, was a very imaginative and gung-ho officer. When he got this complaint he had a photographer come and take a picture of the receptionist at work.
It was a very dramatic picture. There was this young woman at her desk surrounded by at least twenty people, all with their arms out, shouting at her, trying to get her attention, trying to get in. The poor woman was trying to cope with this great crowd of people.
I honestly don’t feel that there was anything untoward about the way we handled the people in general under the circumstances that existed at the time, which were extremely difficult for everybody, on our side and theirs as well…
The people were swarming into Cuba, not only from Germany but from many other countries. We had people from thirty or forty nations, it seemed, all lined up there waiting for their visas. As far as I can recall, Cuba was a very hospitable place for them. It was comfortable, warm; of course they had to have some means and I am sure a lot of them were in difficult economic circumstances, but I don’t think the Cubans were giving them any particular problem.
“There was concern about whether there would be adequate employment opportunities for our own people as well as for the refugees”
William Cobb, Immigration Visa Officer, Havana 1945-1947
COBB: I was in the immigration visa section in Havana (the Consular Section pictured here). This was a very interesting position. There was a large number of European refugees in Havana who had gotten there before we entered World War II and who were awaiting an opportunity to come to the United States. They had regarded Havana as a staging area and did everything they possibly could to influence the prompt issuing of visas to enable them to come to the States…
Many of the [Jewish refugees] had finally gotten jobs in Cuba. They had not intended to when they came, but they finally did and were working as shopkeepers, clerks or commission agents, things like that. They were making a fairly good living.
They did not have a lot of resources and this was one of the things that troubled the Department at the time. We had an unspoken rule that either the applicant or his sponsor had to have at least $5,000 in the bank in the United States in order to avoid becoming a public charge.
This was very much on peoples’ minds at the time because of the return of the GIs from Europe, the uncertainty of the economic situation in the States, whether there would be adequate employment opportunities for our own people as well as for the refugees. It was a major factor in determining eligibility under the immigration laws.
“The problem was the law; it was the quota system”
David Fritzlan, Consul General, Naples 1938-1939
Q: There have been accusations that the Department of State was callous about the plight of Jewish refugees seeking to immigrate to the U.S. Did you see this?
FRITZLAN: I didn’t really have any feeling that there was any campaign to keep Jews out or that there was active anti-Semitism. I know there were people who expressed ambivalent feelings towards certain classes of Jews. The Polish Jews came in for the most of what you might call opprobrium. But I never encountered a situation where Jews as such were discriminated against.
The problem was the law, it was the quota system. The quota of nationalities depended entirely on place of birth, and the quota was so many for one year and it couldn’t be exceeded. That’s all. And it was small for certain countries. The quotas were arrived at based on the percentage of population from a certain country in the year 1890, or thereabout. The year was picked arbitrarily in order clearly to keep out certain people…
“I was criticized several times by the Immigration Service for being overly lenient”
William Trimble, Consular Officer, Paris 1939-1940
TRIMBLE: I was meant to be working on financial matters, but then when I got there, there was such a rush of people — immigrants, refugees, the German Jewish refugees wanting to get into the United States — that I was put on the visa desk, as also were several other officers. And we did that until war was declared…
Our job was do everything we could to help them get out [of Europe.] Immigration law was bent. Regulations were bent. For example, there used to be a provision of the law that said that skilled agriculturists had a preference. Jewish groups in this country formed a school in Paris where in three months refugees studied agriculture. Well, that school was a subterfuge and we knew it. But we overlooked that.
There was also an institution called the New School For Scientific Research in New York, and people would come to join it. I gave so many visas to so-called “professors” that I’m sure the number of people on the staff of the New School for Research was far greater than the number of students.
Yes, we leaned over backwards. Indeed I was criticized several times by the Immigration Service for being overly lenient. And the rest of us were doing it, too. We were doing everything we could to get the refugees out.
The Ambassador, William Bullitt, was very much in favor with what we were doing….He believed strongly in what we were trying to do. He gave us all the support he could. Washington wouldn’t tell us directly [to allow the refugees to immigrate]. But, yes, it was unwritten that you do all you can.
And we twisted regulations. We really twisted regulations, and we got an awful lot of people out. And I’m sure it was done in other posts, too. Then war was declared … And so the visa work practically ended, for there were no more ships to carry refugees, except for those who got to go through Portugal and for a few to Holland.
“Foreign Service people had been fudging the legal rules out of the goodness of their hearts”
George Bogardus, Visa Officer, Montreal 1941-1944
BOGARDUS: I was issuing visas of all kinds. After a year and a half or so, I was head of the visa section. Montreal’s main function was as a visa mill. We had a lot of refugees…. I myself issued, like a lot of others, probably about 1,500 immigration visas to refugee Jews.
They’d received non-immigrant visas, temporary visas, in 1938 and ’39, and had stayed on….they were in the United States at that point. [The] rule at that time was, in order to get an immigration visa, you had to get it outside the country.
At that time, only the Foreign Service could issue a visa, and it had to be done abroad….
But the point is that our colleagues abroad in the two or three years before that, young vice consuls, Foreign Service people, career and non-career, had been fudging the legal rules out of the goodness of their hearts, as charity.
That may be different from the official policy in the higher realms of the State Department — possibly. But these people were doing it out of kindness.