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Dec 2001 Journal

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Were the Refugees to Be Repatriated in 1945?

During the war, a major concern for the Jews from Central Europe who had fled to Britain was the possibility that they might be compelled to return to their countries of origin once hostilities ended. The Jewish refugees had contributed to the war effort and had shared the dangers and privations of wartime life with the British. They had begun to settle here, and in most cases had no desire to return to the lands where Jews had been systematically murdered.

The circulars through which the AJR communicated with its members reflected this fear of repatriation. From late 1943 the AJR sought to impress upon the British authorities that the Jews from Germany and Austria did not regard the prospect of returning to their native lands as anything remotely resembling a homecoming, given the complicity of their former fellow countrymen in the persecution and extermination of their entire communities.

Importance of British citizenship

A vital step towards permanent residence in Britain was the acquiring of British nationality, without which the refugees would have remained stateless and liable to have their former German nationality reimposed on them against their will. The wartime British government refused to grant British citizenship to the refugees, even if they were serving in the Forces. The AJR's circular of November 1944 quotes with approval from a letter to the New York Times from the President of the American Federation of Jews from Central Europe:

There will be no doubt that among the problems which Jewish refugees from Central Europe all over the world will be confronted after the war, the problem of their nationality will be of great importance. Should they, against their will, automatically become German citizens again? I believe that nobody who considers nationality more than a mere matter of form would advocate that anyone should be forced to resume citizenship of a nation with which he no longer is connected through any formal or emotional ties whatsoever. Even less would they advocate the idea of forced repatriation. No one should be compelled to return to his former country after having experienced such dreadful persecution as was and still is imposed on the Jews by the Nazis.

In April 1944 the AJR seized on a broadsheet issued by PEP (Political and Economic Planning) which sought to dispel the misapprehensions that surrounded the 'refugee problem'. It demonstrated that the number of Jewish refugees who wished to stay in Britain would be a tiny fraction of the population and hardly likely to increase unemployment; on the contrary, their skills and labour would be urgently needed for post-war reconstruction. The survey concluded by demanding that an end be put to the state of uncertainty and homelessness that the refugees had endured for so long.

In June 1945, following the liberation of the concentration camps, the AJR issued a press statement that clarified its attitude to Germany unequivocally:

To the Jews from Germany their former country is the graveyard of their families. There are no bonds left between them and Germany. In their overwhelming majority they have no desire to return to the country where these atrocities were committed and be compelled to live amongst people who perpetrated the murder of the Jews or connived at these crimes. They prefer to live anywhere else in the world than in Germany.

Churchill intervenes on behalf of refugees

What was the attitude of the British Government? In her exhaustive account Whitehall and the Jews: British Immigration Policy and the Holocaust, Louise London is severely critical of government policy on refugee settlement. She accuses successive home secretaries Herbert Morrison, R.G. Somervell and James Chuter Ede of adopting the ungenerous and obstructive stance that allowing refugees the right of permanent residence was undesirable and would provoke an antisemitic backlash. Indeed, her account sets out to cast the entire process of the refugees' reception in Britain as one more chapter in official British inhumanity and callousness towards asylum-seekers.

But there is a notable omission in Dr London's book, and a very important one. On 15 May 1945 Winston Churchill himself answered a parliamentary question from Austin Hopkinson MP asking whether arrangements could be made for the immediate repatriation of all Jewish refugees. Churchill's reply was unambiguous: 'No, Sir. Quite apart from other considerations there would be very considerable practical difficulties in carrying out this suggestion'

The Jewish Labour MP Sydney Silverman interjected that 'it would be difficult to conceive of a more cruel procedure than to take people who have lost everything they have - their homes, their relatives, their children, all the things that made life decent and possible - and compel them against their will to go back to the scene of those crimes.' This drew a crisp prime ministerial one-liner: 'I agree with that.' That spelt the end of any plans for compulsory repatriation.

Anyone can see that such a statement, issued with the full force of the prime minister's authority, settled the matter; and the incoming Labour Government kept to Churchill's policy. The fact is that the refugees were never subjected to a policy of deportation to their former homelands. Instead, they were allowed to stay, and over the next few years acquired British nationality. That, however, is the next chapter in the history of their settlement in Britain

Dr Anthony Grenville is a Historical Researcher to the AJR
Anthony Grenville

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