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The Holocaust Learn & Remember

"For the dead and the living, we must bear witness." -- Elie Wiesel



Refuge in the Americas

Holocaust Learn & Remember

The Emigration of German Jews


In the late 1930s, a severe worldwide economic depression reinforced through Europe and the United States an existing fear and mistrust of foreigners in general, as well as antisemitism in particular.

From 1933 to fall 1941 Nazi Germany pursued an aggressive policy of forced emigration for the Reich’s Jews.

The initial response to the Nazi takeover was a substantial wave of emigration (37,000 – 38,000), much of it to neighboring European countries (France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland.

More than 340,000 Jews emigrated from Germany and Austria. Of these, about 100,000 who fled to other European countries subsequently were killed in the Holocaust.

Finally, many who wanted to flee had, by necessity, to apply to numerous countries for entry.

Most foreign countries, including the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, were unwilling to increase their immigrant quota to admit very large groups of refugees, especially the impoverished and the dispossessed.

In the case of the United States, applicants were required to provide affidavits from multiple sponsors and to have secured a waiting number within a quota established for their country of birth, which severely limited their chances to emigrate.

The events of 1938 caused a dramatic increase in Jewish emigration. The German annexation of Austria in March, the increase in personal assaults on Jews during the spring and summer, the nationwide Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) pogrom in November, and the subsequent seizure of Jewish-owned property all caused a flood of visa applications. Although finding a destination proved difficult, about 36,000 Jews left Germany and Austria in 1938 and 77,000 in 1939.

Until Nazi Germany started World War II in 1939, antisemitic legislation in Germany served to “encourage” and ultimately to force a mass emigration of German Jews.



In the summer of 1938, delegates from thirty-two countries met at the French resort of Evian. Roosevelt chose not to send a high-level official, such as the secretary of state, to Evian; instead, Myron C. Taylor, a businessman and close friend of Roosevelt's, represented the US at the conference. During the nine-day meeting, delegate after delegate rose to express sympathy for the refugees. But most countries, including the United States and Britain, offered excuses for not letting in more refugees. Responding to Evian, the German government was able to state with great pleasure how "astounding" it was that foreign countries criticized Germany for their treatment of the Jews, but none of them wanted to open the doors to them when "the opportunity offer[ed]."


Voyage of the St. Louis

Felix Koch (left) and his workers prepare to drill in the forests near Sosua.

Archive of the Jewish Community and Museum of Sosua


Since the Kristallnacht (literally the “Night of Crystal,” more commonly known as “Night of Broken Glass”) pogrom of November 9 – 10, 1938, the German government had sought to accelerate the pace of forced Jewish emigration.

On May 13, 1939, the German transatlantic liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba. On the voyage were 937 passengers.

The majority of the Jewish passengers had applied for US visas, and had planned to stay in Cuba only until they could enter the United States.

The passengers, who held landing certificates and transit visas issued by the Cuban Director-General of Immigration, did not know that Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru had issued a decree just a week before the ship sailed that invalidated all recently issued landing certificates.

Like the United States and the Americas in general, Cuba struggled with the Great Depression. Many Cubans resented the relatively large number of refugees (including 2,500 Jews), whom the government had already admitted into the country, because they appeared to be competitors for scarce jobs.

Following the US government’s refusal to permit the passengers to disembark, the St. Louis sailed back to Europe on June 6th, 1939. The passengers did not return to Germany, however, and were admitted to Great Britain, Netherlands, Belgium, and France.

254 of the original 937 then perished because of German occupation.


The United States

Many German and Austrian Jews tried to go to the United States but could not obtain the visas needed to enter. Even though news of the violent pogroms of November 1938 was widely reported, Americans remained reluctant to welcome Jewish refugees.

Influenced by the economic hardships of the Depression, which exacerbated popular antisemitism, isolationism, and xenophobia, the refugee policy of the US State Department and its stringent (and questionably legal) application of the 1924 Immigration Law made it difficult for refugees to obtain entry visas, despite the ongoing persecution of Jews in Germany.

About 85,000 Jewish refugees (out of 120,000 Jewish emigrants) reached the United States between March 1938 and September 1939, but the level of immigration was far below the number seeking refuge.

After the United States entered World War II in December 1941, the trickle of immigration virtually dried up, just as the Nazi regime began systematically to murder the Jews of Europe.

Despite many obstacles, however, more than 200,000 Jews found refuge in the United States from 1933 to 1945, most of the before the end of 1941.

US authorities did not, however, initiate any action aimed at rescuing or providing safe haven for refugees prior to 1944, when the War Refugee Board was established.

The United States admitted 400,000 displaced persons between 1945 and 1952. Approximately 96,000 (roughly 24 percent) of them were Jews who had survived the Holocaust.


Latin America

Latin American governments officially permitted only about 84,000 Jewish refugees to immigrate between 1933 and 1945.

Latin America was an important destination for many survivors of the Holocaust. More than 20,000 Jewish displaced persons (DPs) immigrated to the region between 1947-1953. Their primary destination was Argentina, which became home to at least 4,800 Holocaust survivors. Others settled in Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Panama, Costa Rica, among other countries.

The refusal of Latin American nations to offer admittance to more Jewish refugees stemmed from many causes. Growing antisemitism was undoubtedly one reason, as was fear of economic competition. In certain cases, there was resentment of the fact that some Jewish refugees who were admitted on the condition that they work in agricultural regions later drifted to the cities. In addition, the sympathy of some Latin Americans of German descent for Nazi ideology and racial theories also contributed to increasing antisemitism.

These attitudes were reflected in increasingly tight immigration laws introduced throughout Latin America in late 1930s (Mexico in 1937; Argentina in 1938; Cuba, Chile, Costa Rica, Colombia, Paraguay, and Uruguay in 1939). The results of these laws were striking. Argentina, which had admitted 79,000 Jewish immigrants between 1918 and 1933, officially admitted 24,000 between 1933 and 1943. Another 20,000 Jews entered Argentina illegally, crossing from neighboring countries. Brazil admitted 96,000 Jewish immigrants between 1918 and 1933, but only 12,000 between 1933 and 1941.

After Nazi Germany and its Axis partners began to implement the mass murder of the European Jews in 1941, some Latin American governments issued passports, visas, and citizenship papers through their European legations. These documents played an important role in the rescue of Jews, although many never actually reached the nations that issues the papers. Nevertheless, these documents often enabled them to begin the journey to safety.

Beginning in 1942, El Salvador made up to 20,000 passports available to Jews under Nazi occupation through its Consul General in Geneva, José Arturo Castellanos. These passports were especially useful in saving lives in Budapest in 1944, when Hungarian Jewry was the last intact Jewish community in occupied Europe.



Dominican Republic

Felix Koch (left) and his workers prepare to drill in the forests near Sosua.

Archive of the Jewish Community and Museum of Sosua


At the international Evian Conference on the refugee crisis, President Rafael Leonidas Trujillo offered to admit up to 100,000 Jewish refugees to the Dominican Republic.

The Dominican government subsequently donated land in Sosua, a city on the island’s northern coast, for the establishment of a Jewish agricultural settlement

Despite backing from US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the American State Department, and the investment of considerable sums of money by Jews in the US, the Dominican Republic only admitted 645 Jews from 1938 – 1945 and the population of the Sosua colony peaked at 476 residents in 1943.

Overall, the Dominican authorities issued around 5,000 visas to European Jews between 1938 and 1944.



Austrian Jewish refugees pose on the back of a truck during an excursion to the Altiplano in Bolivia.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Leo Spitzer


Less well known is the admission of 30,000 Jewish refugees between 1938 and 1941 to the Andean country of Bolivia.

Decisive in this enterprise were the efforts of Mauricio Hochschild, a German-Jewish mining magnate who controlled one-third of Bolivia’s mining production and had political ties to Bolivian President German Busch.

Hochschild used this opening to facilitate a regular flow of German and Austrian Jewish immigrants into the country.

The refugees by ship in Arica, Chile, where they were taken by train to La Paz, Bolivia, in what became known as the Express Judio (“Jewish Express”).

With the help of the US-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Hochschild established facilities for the immigrants.

 Many of whom subsequently traveled illegally across Bolivia’s porous borders into neighboring countries, especially Argentina.



Gilberto Bosques, Mexican diplomat




Mexico admitted only 1,850 Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1945, but issued at least 16,000 immigration visas to Spanish loyalist refugees between 1938 and 1945, and over 1,400 visas to Catholic Polish refugees between 1939 and 1941

Mexican diplomat Gilberto Bosques Saldivar also played an important role in rescuing Jews. As a consul in Marseilles, a port city in what became Vichy France, Bosques directed consular officials to issue a visa to any refugee who wished to flee to Mexico.

His efforts saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews and refugees fleeing the Franco dictatorship in Spain.

In 1943, the Gestapo arrested Bosques, his family, and 40 consular staff and detained them in Germany for a year until the Mexican government obtained their release through a prisoner exchange.





All information courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.