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Waiting for the Fuehrer: The Terrified Jews of Unoccupied Europe During World War II

Nazi-occupied Europe

Nazi-occupied Europe, 1942

Google doesn’t offer any individual accounts written by nervous Jewish citizens in neutral nations while Germany conquered most of their neighbors.

But their apprehensions and hopes can be surmised based on how their governments and gentile countrymen treated them during the war.

As they watched while their co-religionists in Nazi-occupied Europe disappeared into the “night and fog” of arrest and “resettlement in the east,” the Jews of unoccupied Europe saw a glimpse of their fate if Germany won the war.

The Holocaust seemed to be at their nations’ doorstep as the Wehrmacht rolled over most of Europe within weeks.

Britain, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and other nations not under Nazi domination undoubtedly would have been invaded and occupied after Hitler defeated the Soviet Union.

A German victory seemed inevitable until three years into the war, when the German Blitzkrieg (“flash” or “lightning war”) slowed to a crawl at Stalingrad, then retreated as the Red Army launched a ferocious counter-offensive that would end at the Fuehrerbunker in Berlin in April 1945.

The fears of Jews in unoccupied Europe were well-founded if unrecorded.

Vichy France

After Germany defeated France in 1940, the Third Reich didn’t have enough manpower to occupy the entire country.

A rump state called Vichy, named after its capital in central France, was allowed limited self-rule by Germany. Jews in Vichy, a health spa renowned for its springs and eponymous bottled water, were persecuted but not exterminated until Hitler invaded what was left of unoccupied France in 1942.

The German move into Vichy that year followed the Allied landing in North Africa to counter German and Italian offensives against British-controlled Egypt and the Suez Canal. Men and matériel flowed to England from Australia and British-ruled India via the Canal.

However, the Vichy regime was complicit in the liquidation of its Jewish citizens, who had been reclassified as “subjects” or second class members of society from which they had been removed by statute.

Marshall Petain

France's collaborationist leader, Marshal Philippe Pétain, left, with friend

In 1942, before the Germany army or Wehrmacht and the SS arrived, French police rounded up 13,000 Jews and sent them to Auschwitz in cattle cars. The collaborationist government was freelancing because the Gestapo hadn’t asked for the arrest of Vichy’s Jews.

In a curious quirk of racism, blacks from France’s African colonies were not persecuted in Vichy although German racial policy considered all people of color Untermenschen or subhumans.

One French-African served in the cabinet of Marshal Pétain, the World War I hero and quisling premier of Vichy.

French blacks escaped the fate of another group of people of color. Roma, the politically correct term for gypsies, were hunted down and exterminated all over Nazi-occupied Europe because they weren’t Aryan white.

Estimates of Roma murdered run as high as 1.5 million, although some Holocaust scholars put the number much lower.

Like wealthy residents of Hong Kong before the British territory reverted to Communist China in 1997, rich and well-connected Jews in neutral nations sent funds and their art collections abroad.

They also secured passports and transit visas, legally or not, to escape when the Wehrmacht arrived with its SS executioners, called Einsatzgruppen, close behind.

The degree of Jewish apprehension in so-called neutral nations varied according to the policies of each nation.

How their governments treated Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe stoked or diminished the fears of Jews in unoccupied Europe and served as an indicator of their own fate as they waited for the Fuehrer to come.

Switzerland

Swiss Jews had good reason to fear that their countrymen would enthusiastically participate in the Holocaust if Switzerland were occupied by Germany.

Only the objections of Hitler’s generals kept him from acting on his obsession to occupy Switzerland and seize its gold reserves, which the cash-strapped Third Reich needed to fund the war.

One of the first things the Nazis did after occupying a country was to transfer its bullion to the Reichsbank.

In 1938, the Swiss government, not Nazi Germany, originated the infamous red “J” stamped on passports to identify Jews seeking refuge in Switzerland and prevent their entry.

Switzerland’s top cop, Dr. Heinrich Rothmund, explained his “neutral” country’s lethal exclusionist policy with a grim quip:

“The lifeboat is full.”

Although the Nazi party in Switzerland had been temporarily banned in 1936, many Swiss supported Germany’s anti-Jewish policies. Several home-grown Fascist parties hinted at the fate awaiting Swiss Jews if their country were overrun by the Wehrmacht and the SS.

Sweden

The humanitarian treatment of Jewish refugees consoled the indigenous Jewish population, which nevertheless lived in terror because of circumstances outside their government’s control. Sweden was surrounded by Nazi-occupied Norway and Denmark.

Raoul Wallenberg

Raoul Wallenberg

By 1943, the government had allowed 8,000 Jews fleeing the Holocaust to enter Sweden, where they were treated well – unlike in Vichy France, which interned its refugees in concentration camps where many died under wretched conditions before they could be deported to death camps in the east. The courageous efforts of  Raoul Wallenberg also gave heart to Swedish Jews. The diplomat rescued more than 20,000 Hungarian Jews by giving them Swedish passports in the final days of the war. Embodying the quip that no good deed goes unpunished, Wallenberg was detained by the Soviet Red Army in Hungary in 1945 after the wealthy diplomat refused to surrender his Rolls-Royce.

He reportedly died in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison two years later, although other prisoners claimed they saw Wallenberg as late as 1987.

The prisoner would have been 75 by then, an unlikely age to reach in the harsh conditions of the Soviet penal system called the Gulag.

Wallenberg's heroic work and self-sacrifice gave heart to Sweden’s worried Jews during the war.

Spain

Franco and Hitler

Gen. Franco and Friend

During the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, Germany allied itself with General Francisco Franco and  tried out its new army and air force, the Luftwaffe, on the leftist Spanish government Franco successfully overthrew in 1939.

When World War II began, General Franco, by then President Franco and dictator, refused to return the favor and enter the war on the side of Germany despite repeated groveling by Hitler.

Franco had many reasons to rebuff the Fuehrer. One of the most compelling involved Hitler’s attempts to replace Christianity in Germany with Teutonic paganism.

The plan offended Franco, a devout Catholic whose dictatorship was supported by the Church. However, almost 50,000 Spanish volunteers fought on the side of the Third Reich with Franco's approval.

Their alliance with Nazi Germany added to the fears of Spain’s tiny Jewish population whose ancestors had been expelled from Spain in 1942 by Their Christian Majesties and Early Ethnic Cleansers, Ferdinand and Isabella.

The Spanish monarchs are better known for financing an obscure Italian adventurer’s voyages of exploration and exploitation.

Conversos, Jews who had converted to Christianity, were allowed to remain in Spain, but continued to practice their religion in secret until Napoleon granted full civil rights to Jews in France and all the nations he conquered in the early 19th century.

Despite the mass murder of aristocrats and clerics, French Revolutionaries, like Russia’s Bolsheviks a century later, considered anti-Semitism bourgeois and counterrevolutionary.

Napoleon was a revolutionary before he became a reactionary and appointed himself emperor. Despite his ideological volte-face, the French conqueror continued to champion the rights of European Jews until his ouster.

Despite Napoleon’s well-earned criticism as the cause of half a million French dead and the countless deaths of France’s enmies, his humanitarian treatment of the Jews put to shame the genocidal treatment of Vichy’s Jews.

Adding to the fears of Spain’s Jews, the government’s strict enforcement of immigration and transit laws kept the flow of refugees into and out of Spain to a trickle.

Without authorization, some government officials further stemmed the tidal wave of desperate émigrés with bureaucratic stalling tactics.

Franco resisted Hitler’s pressure to seize British-ruled Gibraltar in southern Spain, which would have been easy pickings while the Brits fought for their survival during the Battle of Britain.

Had the Spanish dictator occupied Gibraltar, he would have been deposed and probably executed by the Allies after the war.

Franco and Eisenhower

President Eisenhower with General Franco in Madrid, 1959

Instead, because of  Spain’s equivocal neutrality during the war, the United States, which needed allies as the Cold War heated up, signed a trade and military agreement with Franco that horrified anti-Fascists in America and elsewhere.

The Arab proverb, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” explains Eisenhower’s visits to Spain in the 1950s.

The president must have held his nose while meeting with the Fascist dictator who had slaughtered thousands of left-wing Spaniards during and after the Spanish Civil War.

Portugal

Portuguese Jews were encouraged by the anti-German policies of the Fascist dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar, despite his limited cooperation with the Third Reich.

While sending raw material to Germany and allowing its spies to operate unhindered in Portugal, Salazar eventually realized the way in which the wind was blowing – against Germany.

As the outcome of the war became clearer, the Portuguese dictator leased airbases to the British in the Azores and allowed Jewish and other refugees to pass through Portugal en route to Britain and elsewhere.

Britain

With the exception of the United States, Britain was the Promised Land for Europe’s Unchosen People and their preferred place of refuge.

England’s most prominent Jewish refugee was Sigmund Freud, who fled Nazi-occupied Vienna in 1938 after his favorite daughter, Anna, was held over night by the Gestapo.

Unlike most of Europe, Britain didn’t have a long history of anti-Semitism because Jews disappeared from England in the 13th century.

In 1290, King Edward I expelled all Jews from England for humanitarian reasons – to protect them from pogroms or massacres.

Jews didn’t return until the mid-17th century when the English dictator Oliver Cromwell welcomed wealthy Jewish merchants in Amsterdam in order to bolster the economy.

The small number of Jews in England made anti-Semitism less virulent compared to the persecution of their coreligionists who had lived in continental Europe for centuries and multiplied, creating a large minority and target of anti-Semitic acts.

During the Black Death in the 14th century, Jews throughout Europe were slaughtered for allegedly poisoning wells, the presumed cause of the bacterial and viral disease.

Jews suffered less casualties while the plague raged because of ritual purification, particularly washing their hands, a prophylactic still recommended today. Christians believed the survival of the Jews had nefarious not medical reasons.

Despite regular massacres, Jews became a large minority in Europe, especially in Poland.  In the 14th century, Poland’s King Casimir III (the Great) welcomed Jews who had been expelled from other countries. He placed the Jews under his personal protection and called them “people of the king.”

By 1939, the year Hitler invaded Poland, urban Jews made up as much as 33 percent of the population. Less than 10 percent would survive the war.

Churchill opposed appeasement and rejected Hitler’s peace overtures prior to the Battle of Britain and afterwards for many reasons.

One reason was the British prime minister’s fears that an unopposed, all-powerful Germany would force a weakened British government to enact anti-Jewish statutes similar to Italy’s Manifesto of  Race in 1938 and Hungary’s discriminatory measures also enacted that year.

The United States

Breckinridge Long

Breckinridge Long, Assistant Secretary of State and fierce anti-Semite

A conveniently forgotten chapter of U.S. history reveals the freelance anti-Semitism perpetrated by government bureaucrats, in particular, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long.

FDR’s friend and campaign contributor loathed “radical Jews” and immigrants in general. His xenophobic ideology was called "nativism," which Charles Lindbergh also subscribed to under the banner of "America First." To Lindbergh's mind, immigrants, especially Jews, came last in America - preferably not coming at all.

In an intra-department memo, Breckingridge Long ordered American consular officials in Europe to “put every obstacle in the way…to postpone the granting of visas” to Jewish and other refugees.

As a result, 90 percent of immigrants who were allowed entry by U.S. law never left Europe. Many of these early "refusedniks" perished in wretched internment camps while waiting for American visas that never came.

Long was demoted but never prosecuted after his obstructive memo was leaked to the press.

Survivor’s Guilt

Following Hitler’s suicide in April 1945, a collective sigh of relief from Jews who had escaped deportation and extermination resounded around the world.

Collective mourning for their co-religionists who hadn’t survived the Holocaust undoubtedly diluted any rejoicing by those who had – a phenomenon known as “survivor’s guilt.”

It's doubtful that any Nazi fellow-travelers like General Franco and Marshal Petain felt any "victimizer's guilt."