Stories from the Archives
Jewish Immigration to America

1930s-40s

Austrian Passport

Austrian passport issued under Nazi occupation of Vienna, 1939.

The rise of the Nazi Party to power in Germany was a catastrophe for German Jews. The Nazis enacted a series of racist laws aimed at isolating Jews from society, stripping them of their rights as citizens and barring them from schools, parks, and other public places. Jewish businesses and even personal property were confiscated. In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria and subjected Austrian Jews to the same laws and restrictions. 

On two horrific nights in November 1938, hundreds of synagogues were burned down at the instigation of the government, and 30,000 Jews arrested and imprisoned in concentration camps.

In desperation, hundreds of thousands of Jews tried to emigrate. But almost every country in the world, including the United States, refused to accept them as immigrants. These restrictive immigration policies remained in place throughout WWII, as millions of Jews across Europe fell under control of Nazi Germany and became victims of genocide, murdered en masse in what came to be known the Shoah, or Holocaust.

Only a very small number of Jewish refugees from the Holocaust were granted entry into the U.S. between 1933 and 1945. Even children were turned away.

Profile Book of Oppressed German Jews

Profile book, with photographs and data about individual refugees presented to the President's Advisory Committee on Political Refugees, ca. 1940, by Virginia Dorsey Lightfoot on behalf of a group of about 328 Jews in Breslau, Germany who she hoped to bring to the United States.

What is more tragic than an child that grows up with tight lips, with secretly clenched fists, with a tormented, disturbed soul?...  Those who help now to take German children out of their oppressive surroundings and plant them into a life that is more free and happy, are not only helping the children alone, are not merely diminishing the personal sufferings of individuals, but are helping to diminish hatred itself, which is now, in a thousand different ways, darkening our European earth.

—Stefan Zweig, speech delivered in London on November 30, 1933 

Papers of Joseph P. Chamberlain. RG 278 - Folder 17 - Memo, January 1935, YIVO Archives
Potential Emigrants at Office of Hilfsverein

Jewish men seeking to emigrate from Germany  in the office of the Hilfsverein, a German Jewish aid organization, 1935. On the wall is a map of South America (left) and a sign about emigration to Palestine (right).

…she had received a letter written from Switzerland, by a German who had gone out of the country to write the letter, to say that conditions had been growing steadily worse for children in small towns, and is requesting us to take emergency cases…

—Minutes of Meeting of German-Jewish Children’s Aid, Inc. Tuesday, January 20, 1938

Papers of Joseph P. Chamberlain, RG 278, YIVO Archives