Letter Regarding the Plight of German Jews Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the summer of 1940, US State Department official Breckinridge Long issued a series of recommendations to US consulates and embassies in Europe, advising diplomats to limit the number of visas granted to German Jews seeking to immigrate to the United States. Quaker leader Margaret E. Jones shortly thereafter sent a letter to Quaker leader Clarence E. Pickett voicing her opposition to such a policy. Jones argued that European Jews already went through a tremendous bureaucratic process of high financial cost to obtain a visa. She suggested that US policy on Jewish immigration, especially in light of the war, should be clear in order to prevent Jews from enduring any further hardship.

Summary Overview

In the summer of 1940, US State Department official Breckinridge Long issued a series of recommendations to US consulates and embassies in Europe, advising diplomats to limit the number of visas granted to German Jews seeking to immigrate to the United States. Quaker leader Margaret E. Jones shortly thereafter sent a letter to Quaker leader Clarence E. Pickett voicing her opposition to such a policy. Jones argued that European Jews already went through a tremendous bureaucratic process of high financial cost to obtain a visa. She suggested that US policy on Jewish immigration, especially in light of the war, should be clear in order to prevent Jews from enduring any further hardship.

Defining Moment

The 1933 ascension of Adolf Hitler to the chancellor of Germany had tremendous implications for the European continent as well as the world at large. Hitler spoke of reviving postwar Germany and establishing the country as a global power—a status that he promised would last for one thousand years. As Hitler set out creating an internal order compliant with his ideology—including establishing concentration camps and disseminating the preferred Nazi philosophy among the German people—he also looked outward from the boundaries imposed on his country after World War I, sending troops into the demilitarized Rhineland in 1936. Hitler's rise and growing anti-Semitic rhetoric drove tens of thousands of Jews out of Germany and into neighboring countries, a trend that Hitler first welcomed, but later sought to halt.

In the interest of creating one unified German people, Hitler in 1938 began his most infamous campaign—the persecution of Jews that would later become known as the Holocaust. Taking advantage of the assassination of a German diplomat by Jewish teenager in Paris, Hitler and his minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels called for Germans to engage in a violent uprising against all German Jews and non-Aryans in response. On November 9, mob violence spread throughout Germany, as Nazi troops, SS, and Hitler Youth members beat Jews, destroyed property, and desecrated temples. The incident would become known as Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass. Although Jews had already started to experience persecution under Hitler, Kristallnacht helped formalize the government's policy of imprisoning all Jews and/or expelling them from Germany.

Coupled with the Nazis' expansion into Austria, Kristallnacht sparked another massive exodus from Germany. About thirty-six thousand Jews emigrated from Germany in 1938. In 1939, that figure more than doubled to seventy-seven thousand. Other European countries took in limited numbers of refugees, as did the United States and many states in Latin America, Russia, and even New Zealand. However, each country allowed only a certain number of these immigrants, setting quotas that were far too small to account for the tremendous outpouring of refugees. Those who were able to emigrate found themselves subject to continued hardship and discrimination.

In the United States, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long was tasked with assisting Americans living in increasingly unstable Europe in returning to North America. However, European refugees, given visas at US embassies across Europe, were taking up the majority of seats on American transatlantic ships. Somewhat disdainful of these refugees and concerned that Nazi agents and sympathizers might be among the refugees, Long issued to embassy and consulate personnel in Europe a series of recommendations designed to make the US-bound emigration process for “non-Aryan” German refugees considerably more difficult than the already complicated process in place.

Author Biography

Margaret E. Jones was born in 1895 in New Jersey. Raised in a Quaker family, she graduated from Wellesley College in 1917, and took a position with the American Friends Service Committee's (AFSC) Home Service Program. In 1933, she began her first of several overseas posts as part of the AFSC. Between 1964 and 1969, she served on the AFSC's board of directors as well as the Wider Quaker Fellowship. She died on November 26, 1984, in Medford, New Jersey.

Historical Document

Memo to Clarence E. Pickett from Margaret E. Jones

Re,--Visa situation in Vienna

Because I am deeply disturbed over present visa difficulties in Vienna, I want thee to have this memorandum for thy information.

Last July, en route from Geneva back to the Vienna Center, I stopped in Zurich and had an interview with Mr. Strom, at the U.S. Consulate. He told me of recent orders from Washington which would severely limit the number of visas ordinarily issued month by month from the various Consulates. I asked him if this was an attempt on the part of the State Department to offset any move by Congress to stop immigration entirely. Mr. Strom at once asked me with whom I had been talking to get that impression, and then said that he “did not think it was”. Later in Vienna, Mr. Hohenthal told me too about the new stringent regulations, and was also obviously interested when I raised the same question with him. About the middle of August, the Consulate--always, as I have repeatedly said, working most cooperatively and sympathetically with me and the Quaker Center--telephoned to say the Mr. Warren, Mr. Morris and Mr. Hohenthal and I talked that afternoon about the new regulations concerning emigration. Mr. Warren began by saying, “Miss Jones, you Quakers will be doing a straight relief job for the non-Aryans here from now on.” I said, “No more non Aryans to go to the U.S.?” Warren replied- “Not just non-Aryans--but no more aliens.” Then I asked him the same question --was this an attempt to forestall Congress and prevent an out and out closing of immigration by making so severe a cut that the State Dept. could assure Congress they had the situation in hand. Mr. Warren said not Congress, but the President just did not want any more aliens coming to the U.S. and would like to have it closed especially for aliens coming from Germany. The State Dept. asked to be allowed to taper it all off gradually, and he, Warren, was touring Europe as far east as Moscow to check up with the consulates and to make plans accordingly. He explained it somewhat casually--increasing anti-Semitism in the U.S.; some refugees had already been traced to 5th column activities; the need to give visas to England and so forth. He told me that during July, 4000 visas had been granted to England,--many to English people, and many to German refugees in England, and he said that he also hoped additional visas would be granted to Shanghai, to help the refugee situation there. He told me Stuttgart had only given 3 visas during July. Vienna had issued that month about 100, but the number would be greatly reduced. I asked him what the State Dept. planned to do about reuniting families, and also about children. Warren implied that they would carefully consider cases where reuniting families was an issue, and that surely some children would be allowed to emigrate from Germany. But his whole idea was that emigration for German Jews coming from Germany was practically finished.

Thee may recall that as soon as I get to Geneva, in September, on my way home from Vienna, I wrote about this and indicated just how awful it was, because the Consulate kept encouraging people to do everything required of them, and then at the final interview decided the person would “become a public charge” and therefore could not get a visa. I now know that about 3 or 4 visas are issued each week, and that supposedly with each, the Consulate evaluates the candidate according to Mr. Warren's instructions, “What outstanding contributions can he make to the U.S.A.?” No one can imagine what trouble the men and women must go through to finally get to the Consulate for the last interview--all sorts of severe local requirements must be met before permission to leave is given by the Nazi authorities. Each step takes weeks, and also Marks. (This entirely apart from the heartbreaking anxiety over affidavits and steamship tickets. With every thing in order, the candidate learns now from the Consulate that he must have a new certificate notarized (20 to 40 Marks) indicating that at least two friends can vouch that he is an upright man and not engaged in espionage activities. This in addition to the usual Police certificate, which would be sufficient. (I should think the Consulate would know, if they suspect every applicant for a visa as a potential spy, that the applicants could get anyone to sign such a statement if they wanted to do so.) Furthermore, the candidate for the visa in his final interview faces a board of Consuls, who ask questions ( I was told in the Consulate in Vienna that this questioning HAD to last 40 minutes and that often the two men doing the questioning just couldn't fill in the time!) and a stenographer takes down the answers in short hand. Now very few non-Aryans in Germany entirely trust the German members of the U.S. Consular staff, and to reply to questioning in a way which would damn the Nazi government, and to know that those replies are being taken down by a German, naturally terrified the applicant. On the other hand, if he doesn't say what he thinks about the Nazi gov't, he feels that the U.S. Consuls will judge him potential 5th Column material and refuse the visa accordingly.

Perhaps I feel too strongly about this--but I know only too well what the life of the Jew in Vienna is today. I know of the terror and despair, and of the unbelievable difficulties each man and woman endures, and tries to solve, in connection with obtaining the U.S. visa. I want to say again that the Vienna Consulate has on its Visa Division staff men of ability and sympathy, who work as much as possible with the individual in mind, but they can only do what the U. S. immigration law permits. (I cannot endorse the physician at the Consulate, but his attitude is subject for another memorandum!) But it seems to me that if the U.S. wants to make a new ruling due to the war, etc., that it must make it openly and give the reasons. We cannot continue to let these tragic people go on hoping that if they comply with every requirement, if they get all the special documents required (Marks are increasingly needed by the Jews just to live), if they nerve themselves for the final interview at the Consulate, they may just possibly be the lucky ones to get visas when we know that practically no one is granted visas in Germany today. As thee knows, the whole question of affidavits is involved --irrevocable trust funds as required by the Consulate--we can't go out to individuals in this country for this basic cooperation when we know that regardless of what we or the applicant does, he is not going to get the visa.

Thee understands that this is a confidential report for thee to have as background. I do hope that the question can be given very careful study, and a decision reached which will in some measure allay the mental suffering of so many persons. We could alleviate a lot of the mental suffering, of course, by restoring the normal visa program for the applicants in Germany.

Naturally I am fully aware of the almost insuperable difficulties of travel from Germany. Greece is now closed to those who would have attempted to go via that country through the Mediterranean to Lisbon. Spain now refuses a transit visas to anyone with a “J” on his passport. The route via Siberia and Japan is the only one open, and it offers tremendous difficulties. But our government should make its own position absolutely clear, and I do hope the several refugee committees can get this matter satisfactorily outlined.

Margaret E. Jones


affidavits: a written declaration upon oath made before an authorized official

fifth (5th) column: a group of people who act traitorously or subversively out of a secret sympathy for an enemy of their country; originally from a 1936 statement about Franco sympathizers in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War

insuperable: incapable of being passed over, overcome, or surmounted

stenographer: a person who specialized in taking dictation in shorthand

thee: the archaic objective case of thou; you

thy: the archaic possessive case of thou; your

Document Analysis

Margaret E. Jones had been traveling throughout Europe, coming into contact with countless German Jewish refugees during her tour. She had personally witnessed the hardships refugees experienced while attempting to reestablish their lives outside of Hitler's Germany. She was, therefore, quite surprised to learn that US policy regarding these refugees was changing significantly, adding considerable difficulty to the already challenging process of obtaining a visa. In this letter to AFSC leader Clarence E. Pickett, she expresses her surprise at a policy that, in her opinion, is misdirected and antithetical to the Quaker tradition.

Throughout the letter, Jones comments on her liaisons with consular personnel in Switzerland and Austria, men with whom she had worked considerably and amicably during her European tour. During her interactions in 1940, however, she became aware of a set of guidelines that would change her own job of providing relief to “non-Aryan” refugees during their exodus to one in which she would provide aid to refugees who would not be allowed to emigrate. The new guidelines essentially closed the doors through which refugees could travel to the United States. The orders came directly from the State Department, in an apparent attempt to upstage Congress, which was mulling legislation that would deny German Jews entry into the United States. Furthermore, she added, this “policy” was not publicly known—only the applicants and those close to the process (including Jones) were aware of the changes.

Jones's tone in the letter is direct. According to her conversations with these consular personnel, there was a growing anti-Semitic attitude among Americans that was fueling congressional and—in an effort to show Congress it “had the situation in hand”—State Department action on Jewish immigration. This trend was exacerbated by fears that, among the Jewish refugees, were Nazi sympathizers and spies. The new policy would include provisions that would help some refugees travel to England, China, and elsewhere. However, refugee traffic from Germany to the United States would essentially be halted.

Jones informs her superior that previous consular policy was, in her opinion, sufficient in terms of ensuring that these refugees, once in the United States, would be productive and positive members of American society. Furthermore, she argues, Jewish refugees already faced onerous and expensive bureaucratic protocols in order to obtain a visa and enter any new country. In fact, the number of visas available to them was rapidly dwindling. In addition to the bureaucratic challenges they faced, Jewish applicants were subjected to intense interviews. Many of which were conducted by Aryan German consular employees. Barriers were already in place, she concludes, that both made emigrating difficult for Jews and weeded out potential Nazi spies and sympathizers as effectively as possible.

Jones recognized that the doors for Jewish refugees throughout Europe and Asia were rapidly closing, and that the United States was following suit. However, she argues, the AFSC should take into consideration Jones's observations and experience in this arena. Furthermore, she writes, the American government should, at the very least, make the public aware of its altered immigration policies. This disclosure would at least provide potential Jewish immigrants with the truth about the risky process they were about to undergo, so that they could make the decision whether to take the risk, or to find less onerous avenues toward freedom.

Essential Themes

Margaret E. Jones had a distinctive position from which she could see the hardships Jewish immigrants faced during the visa process. When the State Department issued a series of significant changes to its visa process as it pertained to “non-Aryan” German refugees, it did so in an understated and, in Jones's opinion, somewhat surreptitious manner. In a letter to Pickett, Jones invited the AFSC to take note of her experience and perspective as well as work with other refugee organizations to correct this new policy.

Jones only learned about the changes to US policy through her contacts at the various consulates with which she worked. She understood that the changes were driven by increased anti-Semitism in the United States coupled with a concern that Nazi spies were among the flood of Jewish refugees. These social and political attitudes were not localized to the United States, either. Across Europe and around the world, governments were closing their doors to German Jewish refugees. Visas were becoming scarce, and the process by which refugees applied for the few available passes was increasingly onerous and expensive.

Jones did not hide her belief that such attitudes ran counter to Quaker values. German Jews escaping Nazi persecution were subjected to seemingly international discrimination, she suggested. Even families with children were greeted with skepticism by consular personnel. During interviews, refugees were quizzed not only on their goals and social contributions but also on their political allegiances. Jewish refugees were faced with countless barriers, she argued, both in their homelands and around the world. She therefore felt that the United States should continue to follow its original visa policy—one which she found effective—as the war created more refugees.

Despite her own personal attitudes, Jones wrote that, if such changes to US policy must be made, it should be done with far more transparency. She could not undo growing anti-Semitism, but she could advocate for the new US visa policies to be publicly disclosed. Such a change, she argued, would both make it easier for Jewish refugees to make their decision about where to emigrate and would alleviate what she saw as the “mental suffering” of these refugees. It was her hope that the AFSC would work with other organizations to advocate for such a change.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “German Jewish Refugees, 1933–1939.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. US Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2014. Web. 24 Oct. 2014.
  • Jacobs, Janet. “Memorializing the Sacred: Kristallnacht in German National Memory.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 47.3 (2008): 485–98. Print.
  • Laqueur, Walter. Generation Exodus: The Fate of Young Jewish Refugees from Nazi Germany. London: I. B. Tauris, 2003. Print.
  • Long, Breckinridge, and Fred L. Israel. The War Diary of Breckinridge Long: Selections from the Years 1939–1944. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1966. Print.
  • “Margaret E. Jones Papers, 1937–1969.” Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College. Swarthmore College, 1993. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.
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