The Bermuda Conference on Refugees
April 1943


Bermuda delegates, George Hall, Harold Dodds, Richard Law, Sol Bloom, and Osbert Peake

“It was a conflict of self-justification, a façade for inaction.”
- Richard Law, British chairman of delegation at Bermuda conference, looking back on the conference in 1965

In April 1943, when the British and American delegates met on the island of Bermuda to discuss the refugee situation, our survivor Jeannine Burk, three years old in Brussels, Belgium, had been in hiding for nine months. She tells us in her documentary that when the Germans paraded down the street, her Christian rescuer took Jeannine to the backyard and hid her in an outhouse.


Jeanine Burk: Hiding in Backyard

Our survivor Lila Millen, four and a half years old, was “passing” as a Catholic child on the Aryan side of Warsaw at the time of the Bermuda conference.


Lila Millen: Passing as a Christian

The Bermuda conference was preceded by a meeting in the White House that included President Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cornell Hull, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, and British Ambassador to the U. S. Lord Halifax. At one point during the wide ranging discussions, Secretary of State Hull raised the subject of 70,000 Bulgarian Jews and the possibility of rescuing them from the Nazis.

According to the transcript of the meeting, Eden replied:

“The whole problem of the Jews in Europe is very difficult. We should move very cautiously about offering to take all the Jews out of a country like Bulgaria. If we do that then the Jews of the world will be wanting us to make similar offers in Poland and in Germany.”

On Monday, April 19, 1943, the same day as the outbreak of the Warsaw ghetto revolt, the Bermuda conference got underway. Its stated purpose was to explore the possibilities of rescue. The real purpose was different: to deflect public pressure away from rescue.

The conference was held in a resort overlooking the ocean. As was true of the Evian conference in 1938, the beautiful setting in Bermuda was at odds with the grim subject of the conference. The mass-murder of Jews had been acknowledged long before. Public pressure was growing for the two governments to do something. The Jews in Romania and Hungary were still alive and there were a great many Jews stranded in neutral countries. There was much discussion about five thousand Jews in Franco’s Spain.

The State Department had a hard time getting somebody to lead the delegation. Myron Taylor refused the offer. He “would not let us use his name,” Breckinridge Long wrote in his diary. Associate Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts begged off. President Roosevelt lightheartedly replied, “I fully understand, but I am truly sorry that you cannot go to Bermuda, especially at the time of the Easter lilies!” President Seymour of Yale accepted the assignment - until his trustees objected. He withdrew his acceptance.

In the end it was Harold Dodds, president of Princeton, who accepted the invitation and led the delegation. The State Department made absolutely clear that it wanted no emphasis or even mention of Jews.

Breckinridge Long continued to argue that U. S. efforts on behalf of Jews would serve the interests of Nazi propaganda: “One danger in it all is that their activities may lend color to the charges of Hitler that we are fighting this war on account of and at the instigation and direction of our Jewish citizens.”

Historian Deborah Lipstadt disputes that argument: “The Allies argued that if they treated Jews as a separate entity, it would validate Nazi ideology. A truer explanation for this behavior was American and British fear that singling out the unique fate of the Jews would strengthen the demands of those who wanted the allies to undertake specific rescue action on behalf on their behalf.”

In January 1943, when most European Jews were already dead, a Roper poll asked this question: “Would it be a good idea, or a bad idea to admit more refugees after the war?” Seventy-eight percent of the respondents answered that it would be “a bad idea.” In a 1944 survey, Americans were asked to identify “the most dangerous group” to the country. The response: 1. Jews (24%) 2. Japanese (16%) 3. Germans (8%).

The Western Allies decided that the fate of the Jews in Europe was not their problem. Fighting a world war, they had enough problems. There was a current of resentment among the diplomats who thought the Jewish issue was interfering with the war effort.

The chairman of the British delegation, Richard Law, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs and son of a former prime minister, was concerned that rescue efforts might be successful: “There is a possibility that the Germans or their satellites may change over from the policy of extermination to one of extrusion, and aim as they did before the war at embarrassing other countries by flooding them with alien immigrants.”

Law warned “that if Hitler accepted a proposal to release perhaps millions of unwanted persons, we might find ourselves in a very difficult position. For one thing, Hitler might send a large number of picked agents which we would be forced to take into our own countries. On the other hand, he might say, ‘Alright, take a million or two million.’ Then because of the shipping problem, we should be made to look exceedingly foolish.”

A British delegate, Osbert Peake, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Home Office (handling immigration issues), remarked on a prior occasion: “Many of the potential refugees are empty mouths for which Hitler has no use….It would be relieving Hitler of an obligation to take care of these useless people. If Hitler would agree to release a large number of old people and children, we should be placed in a ridiculous position because we could only take between 500 and 1,000 a month…”

In the issue of April 18, 1943, an article on page 20 described local Jews celebrating Passover “to Mark Delivery from Egyptian Slavery.”

The Times-Picayune published four articles on the Bermuda conference.

The first appeared on page 22 in the April 18th issue. This was the day before the conference opened.

The headline was grossly misleading: “TO SEEK REFUGE FOR PERSECUTED.”

That was not the purpose of the conference. The purpose was to avoid seeking refuge for the persecuted. Chairman Harold Dodds announced (in the words of the AP reporter) that the American delegation “would seek temporary places of refuge for millions from Nazi-persecuted in the midst of war.” This was a wrong-headed statement, as the results of the conference would prove. “The solution to the refugee predicament is to win the war,” Dodds added.

The reporter went to some length describing the “pressure” that the delegates said had been exerted on them: “The American delegates said they would begin their search for places of refuge for persecuted Europeans on a strictly practical basis, regardless of pressure from various interested groups.” The delegates complained that they “already have received letters from organizations and individuals asking them to adopt one or another plan.” This was “particularly true” of Senator Lucas and Representative Bloom. Chairman Dodds “said he also had heard from those with suggestions for the treatment of certain groups, especially the Jews.” The reporter added that “Appeals on behalf of the Jews have appeared, too, in newspaper advertisements in leading United States cities.”

There seems to have been resentment, and a whiff of anti-Semitism, in these comments.

The Zionist complained that Palestine was not on the agenda and that the British had closed Palestine to Jewish immigration. The British maintained that Palestine had not been closed but “that only its capacity to care for them limited the number that could be received.”

Representative Bloom, who was Jewish and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was not much of a spokesman for Jewish rescue. He criticized the “Stop Hitler Now” rally at Madison Square Garden, saying that “he thought it was foolish to ‘ask for the impossible, adding that you can’t settle such problems in a Madison Square Garden mass meeting.”

Bloom did not use the word “foolish.” The reporter added the word, and it might very well have reflected his own feelings.

Richard Law, chairman of the British delegation, hinted that the conference would not yield any results. He told reporters, “We have come to examine the refugee problem and reach some conclusion which could be referred to the respective governments as the basis for future inter-governmental action.”

“Shipping handicaps” were cited as a problem. The reporter (and his State Department sources) suggested that the United States was unable to accept more refugees because there was not enough shipping to bring them over.

That was untrue. Neutral shipping was plentiful Ships going back and forth across the Atlantic often returned empty. The delegates argued that diverting ships to rescue operations would interfere with the war effort.

The article mentioned the possibility of placing Jews in neutral countries.
In was a reference to the discussions about transporting five thousand Jews in Franco’s Spain to a camp in French North Africa. The Americans did not want to have anything to do with this. They didn’t want to inflame the Arab population.

Fewer than two thousand Jews were later transported from Spain to a refugee camp in North Africa. The locals were assured that the Jews wouldn’t live there permanently but would leave when “the war’s end allowed them to go home.”

The most controversial paragraph in the article had to do with an infamous fabrication by the State Department that would have severe repercussions and lead to the unraveling of the State Department’s deceit and misrepresentations on refugee matters.

Repeating what American diplomats had told him, the reporter wrote:

“The United States already is sheltering more than 500,000 refugees from Axis dominated countries. Visas totaling 547,775 have been granted since Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933. Most of them were used to reach the United States.”

The figure of 547,775 visas (later it would be 580,000 visas) referred to the number of visas that were available during those years, not to the number of visas that were issued to people who actually made it to the United States.

The State Department’s figure was more than twice the actual number. This incorrect information was provided the White House several times in 1943. On November 26, 1943, Breckinridge Long repeated this falsehood during a congressional hearings. He stated that “we have taken into this country since the beginning of the Hitler regime and the persecution of the Jews, until today, approximately 580,000 refugees.”

He was caught in his lie. The press got hold of the truth. Henry Morgenthau, Treasury Secretary, investigated the matter and released a scorching report in January 1944, titled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews.” Breckinridge Long resigned soon afterwards, his hands removed from the levers of power that governed life and death for so many. The War Refugee Board was established and the Swede Raul Wallenberg was dispatched the Budapest. He managed to rescue 20,000 Jews in the final months of the war. In June 1944, President Roosevelt announced that the United States would accept 1,000 refugees. They were quartered at Fort Ontario, New York. Most of them were Jewish.

The article contains a reference to “French, Spanish, and Portuguese children” who (it was said) had received permission to enter the United States. Were these the five thousand Jewish people (not only Jewish children) who were stranded in Franco’s Spain. Many had fled Vichy France in 1942 when the Nazi deportations began. Their fate was the subject of much discussion at Bermuda, and much dithering. The children did not make it to the United States. Two thousand ended up in a camp in French North Africa.

The article described a letter written by the Committee to Under-Secretary of State Sumner Welles. The Committee wrote that it was “seriously disturbed” and complained of “the failure of the United Nations to act until now to rescue the Jews of Europe,” and of problems with the conference. Its goals were “primarily exploratory.” No action was promised. Jews had not been “consulted or invited.” Furthermore, the conference was “being held in an inaccessible place.” Indeed, Bermuda was chosen for the conference precisely to “sidestep public pressure.” Travel to the British island was restricted under the war-time conditions. There were only a few (hand-picked) reporters, five in all, at Bermuda, including The Associated Press reporter whose articles appeared in The Times-Picayune. Limited coverage assured that the “circus atmosphere” at the Evian conference in 1938 wouldn’t be repeated.

Hitler’s birthday was on April 20th. He turned fifty-four.

The General Council of Churches of Christ in America issued a bulletin, “The Mass Murder of Jews in Europe.” It was a guide for Christian churches to use at services on May 3, 1943, which was described as a day of compassion for Jews. The bulletin stated: “Of the approximately 600,000 Jews who were in Germany in 1939, according to the council, it is not it is estimated that not more than 40,000 remained at the end of 1942.” Dr. Samuel McCavert of the Council said: “It is impossible to dismiss the reports as ‘atrocity stories.’ What the full story is when the full story is known, the actual facts may turn out to be worse than the fragmentary reports have indicated.”

This article was buried deep inside the newspaper on page 13. The headline was misleading. Deferred was the opportunity of transporting five thousand Jews from Spain to French North Africa. Three places were proposed as temporary places of refuge: French North Africa, “the Cireniaca area of Libya and the Diredawa region of Ethiopia.” The negotiations (“bargaining”) between the Americans and British delegation concerned the rescue of a small number of refugees who would be sent to remote places where the local governments were too weak to object.

The fate of five thousand refugees was a minor issue in the grand scheme of things, yet the two delegations failed to reach an agreement even here. The reporter wrote that the fate of these refugees “was understood to be the only unsettled question” at the conference.

The article refers to “the Russian Polish diplomatic rupture…” This “rupture” resulted from the Katyn massacre. When the mass graves of the Polish officers (murdered by the Russians in 1940) were discovered by the Germans in 1943, the Polish government-in-exile requested a Red Cross investigation. Knowing what the outcome of that investigation would be, Stalin promptly severed diplomatic relations with the Poles. There was some discussion about Polish refugees in Iran and a sentence describing the tragedy of the Polish people in Russia: “The number of potential Polish refugees in Russia is unknown, but they are considered few because the Soviets have naturalized Poles within their borders en masse and now consider them Russian citizens.”

The delegates announced the recreation of the Inter-government Committee. The “final report” was not released.

Bermuda was a replica of Evian. In 1938 as in 1943, no government was willing to help the Jews.

Nearly 190,000 openings in the U. S. quota went unfilled while the slaughter in Europe went unchecked. Looking back on the Bermuda conference in 1965, the former chairman of the British delegation, Richard Law described the conference as “a façade for inaction. We said the results of the conference were confidential, but in fact there were no results that I can recall.”