This article was taken from our archives. It comes from the May 2005 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
A look at Bermuda’s role in the discrimination of Jews and the infamous Bermuda Conference of 1939.
Visiting politicians and businessmen must have held thousands of “Bermuda Conferences” here over the years. But in the minds of many Jews today, those words have an unpleasant connotation. To them, the Bermuda Conference can only be the hush-hush meeting held here by the British and American governments during World War II to discuss ways of helping European Jews escape Hitler’s clutches.
To say it wasn’t a successful conference would be dishonest. In fact, it was a subterfuge, not meant to produce a useful result at all. The meetings were really designed to deflect pressure being put on the two governments. Jews weren’t fooled; they have always associated the conference with an Allied anti-Semitism that doomed many people who could have been helped.
Bermudians had no accurate idea of what the meetings were about. We tried very hard to be helpful and hospitable to the delegates as part of our contribution to the war effort. Under the circumstances, it seems rather an unfortunate trick of fate that we should have become associated in Jewish minds with anti-Semitism. Unless, that is, you believe in karma…
Jews in Bermuda in the New World
There is a small Jewish community in Bermuda, numbering a few dozen men, women and children. It is an awkward number – not big enough to support a synagogue in which to worship, a rabbi to lead their worship or a yeshiva in which to teach children. It is difficult for so small a group even to keep kosher – that is, comply with Jewish laws that stipulate what food they may eat and how that food may be prepared and eaten.
But Bermuda’s Jews manage. They worship regularly and keep a sense of community. This being the twenty-first century, they are an accepted part of the larger Bermuda community.
It was not always thus. Jews were actively discriminated against in Bermuda until about 50 years ago. Jewish tourists who came here were welcome at only one or two of the major hotels. Many American travel agents used a surreptitious code that allowed local hotel managers to identify Jewish clients, so that they could be steered away from hotels that didn’t want them. That system ended when the pressure group B’nai B’rith International threatened a tourism boycott of Bermuda if the island didn’t stop its discriminatory practices.
The twentieth century’s discrimination against Jews had its roots way back in Bermuda’s history. In 1694, the legislature passed a piece of legislation entitled “An Ace laying an Imposition on all Jews and reputed Jews trading or merchandizing in these Islands.” The act’s preamble made it clear that the reason for it was that Bermudians didn’t like the idea that Jews “have come to and resided in these islands, and have sold and vended great quantities of goods, wares, merchandizes and commodities, and the monies thereby received and gotten do still send out and carry away from these islands into foreign and remote parts and places, to the great impoverishment, hurt and prejudice of their majesties subjects in these islands.” Early Bermudians sound just as obsessive about money as their twenty-first century descendants, don’t they?
Prejudice against Jews in those days tended to be based on religion. Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon wanted to unite Spain as a Catholic nation in the late fifteenth century, and they used the Spanish Inquisition to put pressure on non-Catholics who lived in the country, chiefly Jews and Moors, to convert. Jews had flourished in Islamic Spain and had become a significant part of the Spanish population.
Strictly speaking, the Inquisition had no jurisdiction over a non-Catholic, but once Jews and Moors did convert in order to stay where they were, as many did, they made themselves subject to the attention of the Inquisition like any other Catholic. During the first 15 years of its existence, the Inquisition sentenced some 2,000 people to be burned at the stake. Most of them were converted Jews, convicted of secretly practising their old religion. King Manuel I of Portugal followed the Spanish lead and made it law that Portuguese Jews had to convert to Christianity.
As a result, Jews fled in great numbers from Spain and Portugal and settled elsewhere in Europe, in places like Amsterdam, Hamburg and London. They also went farther afield, to the New World. Jews of Portuguese-Spanish ancestry first landed in Jamaica-where Columbus had landed in 1494-in 1530. There is still a large and thriving Jewish community there.
The New World Jews, many of whom were merchants and moneychangers, not planters, flourished. The ability of many of them to speak Spanish helped their success in trade with Spanish America. Trade among commercial centres inhabited by Jews on this side of the Atlantic (in North America, Jamaica, the Dutch colonies of Curacao, St. Eustatius and Saba, and Danish St. Thomas) and centres on the other side of the Atlantic, such as Amsterdam, Genoa, Venice and London, was brisk. They traded goods like pepper, cocoa, vanilla, pimento and sugar. By the nineteenth century, some Jewish merchant families had expanded into shipbuilding and construction.
It wasn’t too many years before Bermudians realised that they might have made a mistake when they rebuffed Jewish traders. They repealed their 1694 act in 1760, explaining that “For as much as these islands are supported by trade only it must be very prejudicial to prevent any person from trading in the said islands. And for as much as our neighbouring islands who have permitted Jews to trade there have reaped great advantage therefrom, the said act so laying an imposition on all Jews trading here must have been very prejudicial to the inhabitants of these islands…”
The Bermuda Conference
Adolf Hitler first published Mein Kampf in 1924, when he was simply an up-and-coming political figure in Germany. It was not an immediate success, but as his political power increased, so did sales of the book. When he came to power in 1933, it was running neck and neck with the Bible as the best-selling book in Germany.
It makes his thoughts about the Jewish race very clear. So for Jews living in Europe, especially in Germany, watching him rise to power must have been a terrifying experience – like that terrible nightmare we all have of not being able to make our legs work as we try to run from approaching danger.
When he did become Germany’s leader, he quickly dispelled any doubt there might have been about his intentions toward Jews, blacks, homosexuals, gypsies, the handicapped – anyone he thought posed a threat to the purity of the Aryan line. In 1935, the Nuremberg race laws were passed, stripping German Jews of their rights as citizens. By 1938, five years after taking office, he had made life in Germany so difficult for Jews that one in four of the 600,000 who were German citizens had left the country to live elsewhere. Had it been easier to emigrate, the number of those leaving would have been much higher. It was not easy to leave, though. It seemed the more who wanted to go, the harder it became.
Hitler’s policies created a very substantial refugee problem, not just for European countries, but for countries around the world, which had to deal with a flood of requests for immigrant visas.
In early July 1938, at the urging of the American president Franklin D. Roosevelt, an international conference was held in Evian-les-Bains, France, at which 32 countries met to discuss the problem. Delegate after delegate, including those from Britain and the United States, stood up to express sympathy with the refugees and then explain why his or her own country was unable to do anything further for them. Of the 32 countries there, only little Dominican Republic agreed to accept additional refugees.
The U.S. had ended its policy of accepting all comers in the early 1920s, when it set restrictive quotas. Under those quotas, 25,957 German nationals were allowed entry every year, but the stock-market crash of 1929 and the resulting high levels of unemployment made that number theoretical. In 1932, the U.S. allowed only 35,576 immigrants from all countries of the world to enter.
In November 1938, Hitler raised the temperature of the problem considerably. He gave instructions to target Jews and Jewish businesses in a night of terrible violence all over Germany and Austria, now known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Gangs of Nazis roamed through Jewish neighbourhoods in Germany, attacking Jews, breaking the windows of Jewish businesses and homes, burning synagogues and looting. Dozens of Jews were killed. Thousands were taken to concentration camps.
Kristallnacht shocked the world. The U.S. recalled its ambassador to Germany. Britain agreed to take another 50,000 Jewish refugees to try to get them out of harm’s way. In the U.S., something similar was tried, but it failed. Legislation was introduced in Congress in 1939 by Rep. Robert Wagner to admit over a two-year period 20,000 Jewish children above the refugee quota applicable at the time. But the legislation was amended in committee to admit them only if the number of Jewish refugees admitted under the regular quota was reduced by 20,000. The bill died in the House after the sponsor withdrew his support in disgust. So the Jews of Europe came to recognise that though they faced terrible, growing dangers at home, the rest of the world was reluctant to help them.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the explanation was the same: the best way to help the Jews of Europe was to defeat the Nazis on the battlefield. But that was, at least in part, an avoidance of the truth. One of the problems was that anti-Semitism, in those days, was widespread. It was by no means as virulent as it was among Adolf Hitler’s Nazis, but the notion of Jews as undesirable, second-class people was accepted by many in Britain, the United States, Europe and elsewhere in the world. In the U.S., anti-Semitic figures such as the radio priest Father Charles E. Coughlin were common. In Britain, “swarthy” Jews were often villains in popular literature.
In January 1939, Hitler made a speech in the Reichstag, the German parliament, during the course of which he said this: “During the time of my struggle for power, it was in the first instance only the Jewish race that received my prophecies with laughter when I said that I would one day take over the leadership of the state and with it that of the whole nation and that I would then among other things settle the Jewish problem. Their laughter was uproarious, but I think that for some time now they have been laughing on the other side of their face. Today I will once more be a prophet: if the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevising of the earth and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!”
For Jews, it was time for desperate measures. About 1,ooo Jewish refugees boarded the ship Saint Louis in Hamburg, thinking their agent had successfully negotiated entry to Cuba with its immigration minister. When they were at sea, though, the Cuban government demanded more money. Negotiations broke down, and the American authorities refused help. Eventually, the ship returned to Europe, where most of its passengers were murdered in concentration camps.
Similarly, 769 refugees aboard the ship Sturma tried to find refuge in the British Mandate in Palestine. Overloaded and unseaworthy, the ship got into difficulties near Turkey. Turkey refused to allow the refugees to land unless Britain agreed that they would be allowed entrance to Palestine. Britain refused. Eventually, the Turks towed the Sturma into the Black Sea where it was sunk, apparently by a Soviet submarine, with the loss of all aboard. There were many such attempts to escape. Occasionally, one succeeded and encouraged more attempts. Most failed.
All stories have both heroes and villains. One of the heroes of the tale was the then-archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple. The archbishop made himself a spokesman for the cause of rescuing Europe’s Jews from Hitler. Consumed by what he called a “burning indignation” about the behaviour of the Nazis, he spoke out often and powerfully about Allied indifference to the fate of Hitler’s Jewish victims. In one speech, he said that Jews were “caught between the hammer of the enemy’s brutality and the anvil of democracy’s indifference.” The British public listened sympathetically.
To protect themselves from the scourge of the archbishop’s tongue, British leaders came up with a plan for an Allied conference about the fate of Europe’s Jews, which they suggested to the American government.
One of the villains of the tale was a man called Breckenridge Long, an assistant secretary of state in the U.S. State Department with responsibility for refugee questions. Historians today believe he was an anti-Semite who did everything he could to prevent the United States from helping European Jews.
Judging by his writings at the time, he didn’t much like the British, either. In his diary, he wrote that the British conference initiative “was a plain effort to embarrass us by dumping the international aspects of that question plumb on our lap. I picked up the ball and, by our February 25 reply [which was a rebuff] put the baby very uncomfortably back in their laps.”
But he was wrong. The ball did not reach Britain’s lap. By this time, public pressure within the United States was beginning to embarrass the American government in the same way the British government had been embarrassed. The notion of rescuing Jews on the battlefield simply wasn’t cutting it any more.
So a compromise was agreed. An Allied conference would be held, but not in the U.S. as originally planned. It would be held in Bermuda. Bermuda was far enough away from the U.S. to make sure, in those wartime days, that media coverage would be sparse. Furthermore, it would not be a conference about the fate of European Jews; it would be a conference about the problem of “refugees” in general terms.
In a telegram to the governor of Bermuda, the secretary of state in Britain underlined the need for a low press profile. “Excessive publicity,” he wrote, “is to be deprecated as calculated to raise/exaggerate hope [about the] outcome of meeting which must perforce be of a largely exploratory character.”
Arrangements in Bermuda were made to house the delegates at Horizons and to hold meetings at Belmont Manor and the Mid Ocean Club. According to Executive Council minutes of the day, a small Parliamentary committee, consisting of the Hon. F. G. Gosling and W. J. H. Trott, handled local arrangements.
Apart from making some vague public statements condemning Nazi persecution, the Bermuda Conference achieved nothing. The truth of the matter, as it is now known, is that both sides were under instructions to talk but not to try seriously to solve the problem. Both sides did as they were told. Behind the closed doors of their sessions, the U.S. delegates reaffirmed the U.S. State Department’s refusal to allow any more refugees into the United States. The British delegates would not even discuss the possibility of opening Palestine up to Jews fleeing Hitler. These things are known now, but if Bermudians at the time knew even that the meetings concerned Jews, they kept quiet about it.
The Bermuda government volunteered to pay for the cost of the conference, no doubt feeling it was appropriate as part of Bermuda’s contribution to the war effort. Horizons submitted a bill for £773.13 – not a big sum, even in those days. A thank you note from the British, received after the conference had ended, mentioned, too, that the delegates had been overwhelmed by offers of hospitality from the community.
Bermuda must have patted itself on the back for a job well done. But the rest of the world reacted with disdain and anger. A group of Jewish activists in the United States sponsored an advertisement in The New York Times, whose headline was ‘To 5,000,000 Jews in the Nazi Death-Trap, Bermuda Was a Cruel Mockery.” The president of the Synagogue Council of America said the conference was “not only a failure, but a mockery.” He said, “The victims are not being rescued because the democracies do not want them.” The magazine Jewish Frontier said the delegates to the Bermuda conference had acted like “undertakers.” One Holocaust historian has described the Bermuda Conference as “especially criminal…the pinnacle of Allied apathy” to the fate of Jews trying to escape death in the Nazi concentration camps.
And time has not lessened the anger that Jews feel about the Bermuda Conference. In a bitter speech before the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in January of this year, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remembered it this way:
“The Allies knew of the annihilation of the Jews. They knew and did nothing. On April 19, 1943, the Bermuda Conference gathered, with the participation of representatives from Britain and the United States, in order to discuss saving the Jews of Europe. In fact, the participants did everything in their power to avoid dealing with the problem. All the suggestions for rescue operations which the Jewish organizations presented were rejected.
They simply did not want to deal with it…
“Mr. Speaker, the sad and horrible conclusion is that no one cared that Jews were being murdered.”