No wonder Einstein chose the US over Britain

Whitehall and the Jews, 1933-1948: British immigration policy and the Holocaust by Louise London (Cambridge University Press, £30)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"We should always be grateful to the British," my father would say frequently, "at least they didn't put us in the gas chambers." He was the grandson of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. His grandfather left at the beginning of the century, when most Jewish families sent their sons out of tsarist Russia to escape a punishingly long conscription meant to kill or convert. I grew up believing Britain to be a haven for emigrant Jews.

This image of hospitable Britain has been eroded over the past 20 years as public records started to be opened, and newer refugees requested entry. But, until now, there has been no detailed study of Whitehall policies towards the Jews threatened by Hitler. Louise London's admirable book makes for disturbing reading.

In the Thirties, Britain had no refugee laws. There were no laws on immigration until the l905 Alien Bill, which limited entry to refugees like my great-grandparents. Indeed, Louise London's research makes it clear that interwar governments deliberately avoided making any policies, leaving the problem of Hitler's Jewish victims to private organisations. The government gave the appearance of helping the Jews while doing nothing at all.

The fear was that allowing entry to Hitler's Jews would encourage anti-Semitism in Britain. Whitehall's opinion was that the Jews caused anti-Semitism! From l933, some Jews were allowed admission, but this was meant to have zero cost for the government, and to fulfil British employment needs.

So Jews with no contacts here, the majority, had no access. Would-be immigrants needed guarantees from Jewish agencies, on the understanding that settlement was temporary. Permission to remain was "only for persons of unquestioned repute, for example Professor Einstein" (who chose the United States).

There was talk of sending the Jews to British colonies, but Whitehall deemed Jews unfit for rural life. Yet had Britain accepted Jews into the dominions, thousands would have escaped the gas chambers. The system was riven with contradictions. Neville Chamberlain epitomised the spirit of Whitehall when in l939, in a letter to his sister, he wrote: "No doubt Jews arent (sic) a lovable people; I don't care about them myself; but that is not sufficient to explain the pogrom."

The government was keen to employ Jewish women as maids and nannies in wealthy families, but was cold to pleas from professionals and academics. Self-interest, rather than humanitarianism, ruled.

What is shocking isÿÿ­ÿÿ­ÿÿ­ÿÿ­­­ÿÿ­­ÿÿ­­ÿÿ­­ÿÿ­­ÿÿ­­ÿÿ­­ÿÿ­­ÿÿaanÿaanÿaanÿaanÿll ill ill ill iaa naa naa naa nnnasnnasnnasnnascci cci cci cci iiVliiVliiVliiVl s s s s hhp'hhp'hhp'hhp'eePmeePmeePmeePmGG GG GG GG aaeAaaeAaaeAaaeA rv rv rv rvoopeoopeoopeoopeJJ JJ JJ JJ ..nd..nd..nd..ndfffofffofffofffoThe Foreign Office was besieged by letters. EM Forster and Harold Nicolson wrote to The Times. During a Lords debate in March l943, the Archbishop of Canterbury pleaded for the Jews, but Lord Cranborne, for the government, rebuked him for wishing to limit rescue proposals to one group. Although the British public reacted sympathetically, government remained intransigent.

Even after the war - after British soldiers had seen Belsen - policy did not change. Workers were welcomed as long as they were not Jews. Britain was in urgent need of labour and encouraged thousands from eastern Europe and the Baltic states, without looking too closely into their wartime history. We now see the fruits of this policy as elderly SS men are revealed to be living in suburban comfort.

Louise London has accumulated a wealth of material which helps understand Britain's apathy. It reveals the gulf between what was perceived to be British policy and the reality behind it. We are used to the image of Kindertransport children arriving in England, but there are no photographs of their parents - who were denied entry by Whitehall, only to be murdered by the Nazis.