Monday, February 3, 2014

March 20 & 23, 1939: Red Tape for Refugees

Original Letter from Jerome Mecklenburger to American Friends Service Committee

629 Forest
Ann Arbor, Michigan
March 20, 1939

American Friends Service Committee 
20 So. 18th Street
Philadelphia, Pa.

Dir Sirs:

This afternoon I was privileged to be able to listen to Mr. Albert Martin of your organization. He had with him a paper entitled "Memorandum to Colleges Interested in Refugee Students". I would appreciate it very much if you would be so kind as to send a copy of that paper to me as well as any similar information you care to send.

I am very much interested in the work which you are doing, and would like to know how best to assist the refugee students.

Thank you very much for your consideration, I hope to hear from you at your earliest convenience.

Yours very truly,
Jerome W. Mecklenburger 

Original Letter from Charlotte Salmon of AFSC in response to Jerome Mecklenburger

March 23, 1939

Jerome W. Mecklenburger
629 Forest
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Dear Mr. Mecklenburger:

We are glad to send you the information entitled, "Memorandum to Colleges Interested in Refugee Students". However, much of this information is out of date now. The situation in regard to scholarships and other aid for German students, at present is this: the policy of the American consuls now seems to be against issuing student visaes to Jewish students who will probably not be readmitted into Germany. The American consuls realize that although student visaes are issued supposedly for a temporary period, the students will find that they won't be able to return to their own country. The last few scholarships for which we have arranged have been held up to the point of securing visaes. It may be that the policy will loosen up a bit so we need not abandon altogether the idea of getting scholarships for German students. In fact an effort is being made to influence the State Department in this direction. But for the time being, it is more practical to help students who are already here or who are in some European country to which they would be permitted to return.

We are in touch with a number of refugee students already in this country and are endeavoring to find ways to help them continue their education and so better fit into the American scheme. I enclose stories of a number of students, who have come to us for help.

Sincerely yours,

Charlotte S. Salmon
Placement Worker
Refugee Service

(Handwriting on the letter includes Opa's name: Doppner)

These two letters give me the case of the grrs. Mr. Martin is campaigning for refugees across universities, informing colleges of their unique opportunity to help refugees get out of a dangerous situation and further their studies in America. Remember that the terrors of Kristallnacht (Hitler's organized attack on Jews and their businesses and synagogues) are still fresh in the memory of the watching world. People are still interested in trying to help the Jews in Germany. Imagine how many refugees and schools were matched because of Mr. Martin’s efforts. Each refugee could represent three to four generations of Americans thriving today, like mine. That’s incredible. Then we read the American Friends Service Committee’s (AFSC) response to Mr. Mecklenburger. His earnest search for more information on how to help refugees can indeed help folks, but much less than previously possible. Within four months of kristallnacht, a policy of fear has been thrown over like a blanket, suffocating the desire to help.

This is where the immigration policy drives me batty. Absolutely batty. Once again, it is pretty simple and straightforward: the student visa is intended to grant a student from a foreign country a temporary pass into the USA for the time it takes to earn a degree. Once that student earns their degree, the assumed destination for them is back home. I imagine, as student visas probably work now, that many students found employment locally and moved into work-type visas and perhaps were able to permanently resettle in the USA. But at the basic level, a student visa is meant to be a temporary visa. Although the immigration policy that allowed German refugees to come study in the US had not changed, the “interpretation” of the policy started to change. Consuls who were in charge of approving visas were now interpreting the policy in a way that was extremely limiting to a particular group of people: German Jews. The logic is that these folks no longer were likely to return back to their home country, which made them refugees more than students in search of overseas study opportunities. The reason behind this logic: the American consuls (and the powers that be) were nervous about an influx of German Jews into American society. It was a double-whammy of prejudice. Americans didn’t like Jews that much and were wary of Germans.

So a perfectly capable German student with scholarship money waiting could not leave a country who had viciously attacked people of his/her religion - because they wouldn’t be welcomed back into that country. Hmmm. The way I see it (which is clearly biased): their lives were basically revoked by cowardice. The AFSC is working on lobbying with the State Department to interpret the policy less restrictively. In the meantime, they focus on helping those who have a bit of a loophole: the refugees who are already in the US but in need of scholarships and support, or those in other countries not yet deemed non-returnable. Enter Opa. He’s one of the lucky ones that got out and happened to have a connection in a country not currently under Nazi control. Opa doesn’t realize it, but his luck is time-sensitive. Europe will see the Nazi army very soon.

It hurts to read these words of red tape getting in the way of young German Jews hoping to escape Nazi Germany. What lives were sentenced to death in those offices of the American Consuls? Did they even have a clue? Fear of the undesired Jew, the unpredictable German… Fear often clouds our judgment. Even just yesterday, people responded negatively to a Super Bowl ad because a patriotic song was sung in various languages. How quickly we forget that we are a nation of immigrants, and the only "original" Americans are the Native American Indians. 

Readers, do me a favor and any time you make a decision or judgment call, ask yourself- is fear playing a role here? If it is… give yourself time and space to be brave. You may never know the consequences of that decision.


  1. I don;t know if fear was playing a big factor in this case. It seems to me like they just didn't want anyone to stay in the country forever unless they were "American." Sort of how we're currently treating Latin and South Americans.

    1. Rachel- actually- that's just it- the fear of change, the fear of "difference", the fear of the unknown. In this particular case, I believe it is the fear of being neighbors with a Jew- people that had different customs and who had needs and would take up resources that I might want... I think fear is a useful description for that feeling or emotion that keeps us from accepting something different that might change our current status. I can see how "fear" in this context might be seen as fear of German Nazis. I don't think that is it either- although there may have been a hint of it. The folks who were being turned down were the folks that wouldn't be admitted back into Germany: Jews. And the consuls knew they wouldn't be admitted back because they saw the same pictures and heard the same news about kristallnacht. So the fear was - what will happen to my neighborhood if a bunch of Jews from Germany were all of a sudden allowed in? We could be overrun by these folks! They will take all our jobs, our food, our tax money. This was a real fear in a time of recovery from a big recession... Gosh- all of this sounds crazy familiar.....


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