of four parts
As members of the
small Jewish community in Neustadt waited through the early months
of war for word on their application to immigrate to Alaska, they
learned of a frightening proposal by the local Nazi authorities.
The Jewish cemeteries
in the region could be flattened and plowed under for agriculture.
The tombstones would make excellent sharpening stones, one official
Even for Jews who
had remained in Germany through the first waves of emigration,
hoping things would get better, the message about the future was
But in America, where
the debate over opening the Alaska Territory to immigrants gathered
steam in the first months of World War II, nobody spoke of saving
people from death chambers.
At the beginning of
1940, annihilation of the Jewish population was not yet German
government policy. In fact, some Nazi officials were weighing
plans to deport the Jews en masse to a new colony carved out on
Poland's eastern frontier or to the African island of Madagascar.
Despite the outbreak
of war, sealed trains carrying emigrants with visas ran from Berlin
through Paris to the Atlantic port of Lisbon. Concentration camps
were filling with Communists and other "undesirables," but they
had not yet become machines for extermination. Hitler had publicly
threatened far worse. Yet for now, official policy was forced
emigration of the nation's remaining 200,000-plus Jews - an early
variant of what would later come to be known as "ethnic cleansing."
Not that the Germans
made it easy for them to leave. Applicants were stripped of wealth
that might make them more appealing as settlers in a new land.
Nor was it easy to
find somewhere to go. There were 309,782 applications for U.S.
visas from Germany and Austria in the spring of 1940, according
to a news wire story that appeared, among other places, in The
Anchorage Daily Times. Only 27,370 people from those countries
would be allowed to immigrate under U.S. quotas.
Shortly before war
began, the ocean liner St. Louis, filled with Jews without visas,
had been sent back to Europe from the eastern seaboard. The British
were trying to placate Arab leaders by cutting off emigration
to Palestine. Other countries said they were full.
The start of fighting
created further obstacles. German U-boats sank 110 merchant ships
in the first four months of war. In the United States, opponents
of immigration began to warn of spies slipping into the country
through the "Trojan Horse" of refugee quotas.
As millions of additional
Jews fell under German authority in the Reich's sweep through
Eastern Europe, the grand Nazi resettlement schemes were quietly
abandoned. Emigration, even deportation, became a grim public
relations mask. The Nazis began to systematically collect Jews
and move them into urban ghettos.
In the midst of all
this, the Alaska settlement plan appeared as a peephole of light.
From Breslau, Germany,
Joachim Hein wrote the Department of the Interior asking to immigrate
to Alaska with his wife, Anna, and daughter, Henny. His letter,
along with others, sits today in the National Archives.
"We shall in no way
a burden for the country, because we take our electric machines
from here and furnish a manufacture in aprons and linen, like
we have had here. But if this business is not agreable (sic) to
your Excellency, we are prepared to every work."
Hein added that his
daughter had "studied philosophy and is a teacher and she is musical
Moses Rudman wrote
from the Bronx, N.Y., where he was staying with relatives on a
visitor's visa that would soon expire. His wife, Blume, and daughter,
Margot, were still in Germany. He asked the government to reunite
them in Alaska.
In the central German
town of Neustadt, Bruno Rosenthal continued to wait for a reply
to his inquiries on behalf of his family and friends.
Finally, a letter
from the Department of the Interior arrived, on March 27, 1940.
It said simply:
"We are trying to
find out from the appropriate Governmental authorities what disposition
can be made of your request for permission to immigrate to Alaska.
Our inquiries have not been answered yet. As soon as possible
we will send you further information."
"We ... are registered
by the American Consul for entering into the United States and
we are waiting for calling off. But we all have to wait about
one year and it is not possible to stay here longer. We are anxious
to go abroad immediately. I requested for permission to immigrate
to Alaska, because we are short of time.
"Is it possible, to
deliver my request as an Immediate Request on Mr. President?"
A 'DUMPING GROUND'
Mrs. Emma de la Vergne,
the U.S. recorder at Fairbanks and an "old-time resident of the
North," was receptive when the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner asked
her about the new refugee idea.
"Let the German-Jew
refugees come to Alaska, if they want to. Alaska is a big country.
Give them a chance. If they cannot make a go of it, they will
But Mrs. de la Vergne,
the widow of a well-loved doctor, was in the minority. Most other
Fairbanksans quoted by the newspaper in November 1938 criticized
For the next three
years, it was hard to find anybody in Alaska with anything favorable
to say about opening the territory to refugees fleeing Europe.
"No use to make a
dumping ground of this country," said Frank Frates, a local miner.
Fairbanks Mayor Leslie
Nerland said the idea had as much appeal among Alaskans as the
old proposal to turn Alaska into a penal colony. Emma Miller,
identified as "one of the leaders of the Fairbanks younger social
set," echoed a strong national sentiment when she said America
had enough problems already. "Why wish refugees of any sort from
Europe on any part of the United States?" she asked.
"They are not the
type of hardy Scandinavians who have had so much to do with development
of Alaska on their own initiative," said postmaster Robert E.
Sheldon, president of the Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce.
"Alaska wants no misfits
and is unprepared to care for discards," concluded an editorial
in Cap Lathrop's News-Miner.
The Chambers of Commerce
in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau and Valdez passed resolutions
opposing the refugee plan. The Anchorage Chamber feared a colony
made up entirely of immigrants, which would "stifle assimilation
and will prevent them from becoming Americanised." The Juneau
Chamber, citing recent experience with the federal agricultural
colony in the Matanuska Valley, predicted a heavy tax burden would
fall on the territory to support roads and schools. The Fairbanks
Chamber would only support colonization by "financially responsible
individuals and groups," such as a proposed settlement by Mormons.
A few small-town chambers
went the other way. Skagway and Petersburg endorsed the Interior
Department settlement plan, eager to develop Alaska by any means
possible. The Seward Chamber of Commerce cabled Ickes to declare
that the Kenai Peninsula could support a quarter-million additional
inhabitants, "regardless their creed or condition their personal
But, by and large,
when Alaskans talked about refugees it was to find problems. No
one in the public record talked about finding a way to make a
resettlement plan work.
One strike against
the plan was that its chief backer, Interior Secretary Harold
Ickes, was widely distrusted in Alaska. It would not have come
as a surprise to many territorial residents if Ickes had dreamed
up such a scheme not for humanitarian reasons but simply to stir
up his political opponents in the north.
the Slattery Report's glib economic predictions. They said unemployed
workers were already swarming north looking for jobs in military
construction, overloading relief agencies. They complained that
subsidies would be necessary - a possibility of special concern
to the Alaska Miners Association, which noted that its members
would likely carry much of the new tax burden.
Some critics professed
concern for the immigrants themselves, saying they would suffer
from "forced" colonization. Others predicted practical problems
from having a special class of citizen unable to travel freely
to the states. Though all ship passengers from Alaska routinely
passed through customs at Seattle, they complained that Alaskans
would face the humiliation of carrying special identification
The most common complaint
in Alaska, however, was that the potential immigrants - "of wholly
alien racial and religious character," as one business group put
it - would not be able to adapt to harsh frontier conditions.
Ickes' clever ploy,
pitching the program as an effort to build Alaska's economy, had
forced Alaskans to abandon their comfortable pro-development rhetoric.
Years later, University
of Alaska historian Orlando Miller wrote that Alaskans seemed
almost forced into adopting anti-Semitism as a strategy because
a full discussion of the problems of new settlements would contradict
the old boosterism and faith in the frontier's promise.
"Our campaign to bring
the needs of Alaska to the attention of the Nation has succeeded
almost too well," wrote the Juneau Empire. "Now we appear to be
in danger of being run over by a juggernaut of unwise and hasty
schemes for colonization."
"The question," Miller
wrote, "was turned from whether Alaska was good enough for refugee
settlers to whether the settlers were good enough for Alaska."
Hence the Anchorage
Pioneer Igloo said the aliens would be "a menace to our American
civilization" and the Fairbanks News-Miner said the proposal was
"enough to make any true American and particularly Alaskan think
twice ... Keep Alaska American."
Jewish miners and
traders had long played a role in the life of the territory, of
course. In fact, four of the seven partners in the San Francisco
firm that bought out the assets of the Russian American Co. in
1867 were Jewish - as was Benjamin Levi, the young U.S. soldier
who raised the American flag over Sitka during the ceremony taking
control of Alaska from Russia.
Critics of the colonization
plan sometimes prefaced their remarks by expressing indignation
over "the brutalities heaped upon the Jews by Germany." But resettlement
efforts should point the European Jews toward warmer climes, they
"Let others settle
the Jewish problem," said the News-Miner, "but as for Alaska,
open the way for her to march on toward statehood with a people
schooled in American traditions and such as she can assimilate
and with whom she can build from the ground up with security and
Throughout this time,
Alaskans never heard the voices of people like Bruno Rosenthal.
They did not personally close the door in the face of Rosel Lilienfeld
and her sons. Many Alaskans seemed proud of their insular lives,
and their newspapers did little to drive home the plight of the
individual European Jew.
stories and the comments of businessmen and politicians showed
interests that rarely ventured beyond the territory," wrote Miller,
"that centered on the gossip and trade in the small towns, the
level of gold production, the size and value of the salmon catch,
the high freight rates, and the continuing wicked neglect of Alaska
by the federal government."
One of the few personal
accounts from Germany to run in The Anchorage Times was an interview
with the U.S. Commissioner from Yakutat, who returned from a vacation
in Germany with his wife and children in 1939 to report the people
were "happy, well fed and with a great deal of freedom."
"You read all sorts
of stories in this country about Germany which are not the least
bit true," Hardy Trefzger told the Times. "Nobody hated Hitler
more than I before we went to Germany, but when I saw how things
were, I changed my mind."
To be sure, The Anchorage
Times took no such position on the editorial page, denouncing
the Nazis' anti-Jewish actions as "savagery." But to Robert Atwood's
Times, as to many Americans, such barbarism was a European problem.
Even as news of the latest German Panzer attacks filled the Times'
front page, the newspaper campaigned to keep America out of the
"We're staying out
of this war," the paper wrote in 1940, addressing Britain's leaders.
"Did you get that? We're staying out."
The Anchorage Times
was editorially silent on the refugee plans, quoting instead the
mostly negative views of other papers. A skepticism came through
in headlines referring to "German Cast-Offs" and foreigners ready
to "Invade North." Atwood reprinted the entire Slattery Report,
which had underplayed the controversial refugee angle and mentioned
Jews only once, under an introduction titled "Jews for Alaska?"
In the spring of 1940,
as Congress prepared for a showdown over the Alaska refugee plan,
Anchorage Chamber of Commerce president Clyde R. Ellis composed
a report summarizing what he said were Anchorage's objections
to the plan.
refugees competing with American businessmen and American citizens
would create a race prejudice such as has been practically unknown
in our country during its history," predicted Ellis, a lawyer
and one-time territorial commander of the American Legion.
The biggest objection
in Anchorage, he said, was that these new foreigners would be
difficult to assimilate. Just look at how they had failed to mix
with the German population, bringing such trouble down upon themselves,
the chamber president said.
"Without casting any
reflection on that race in our country which are of the same faith
religiously as the refugees which the colonization plan is meant
to embrace," Ellis wrote, "we can safely say without fear of contradiction,
that those refugees have proven their non-assimilability which
has resulted in the disaster which has overtaken them."
did not respond personally to Bruno Rosenthal's request, as Rosenthal
had asked in March 1940.
Instead, a legislative
circular regarding the upcoming debate in Congress over a bill
providing for the settlement and development of Alaska was mailed
to Germany. Four months later, at the end of August, it reached
"I am quite informed
about the economic conditions and problems of Alaska," Rosenthal
wrote back. And then he opened his copy of the Slattery Report
and quoted back to the Interior Department the words on which
the Jewish families of Neustadt had pinned their hopes of survival.
He wrote: "As 'tolerance
and democracy are natural products of the frontier where a man
is appraised for his worth and not for his ancestry,' as written
in the Dep. Report on 'The Problem of Alaskan Development,' Page
70066/85, 'and it makes little difference whether this population
comes from the United States or from abroad,' and as we applicants
are such men as the Alaskans are fond of, I hope, I shall be advised
as soon as possible that I have the permission to immigrate to
Alaska, as requested since May 1939 till to-day."
By the time he wrote
those words, however, the debate was over and the fate of Neustadt's
last Jews was sealed.
is drawn from the following sources:
reactions to the Slattery Report are drawn especially from The
Anchorage Daily Times and the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 1938-1940.
- Two scholarly
articles explored the Alaska plan and its opposition: Gerald
S. Berman, "Reaction to the Resettlement of World War II Refugees
in Alaska," Jewish Social Studies, volume 44, 1982; and Claus-M.
Naske, "Jewish Immigration and Alaskan Economic Development:
A Study in Futility," Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly,
vol. 8 (Jan. 1976), pp. 139-157.
treatment of the Alaska response is also available in Orlando
W. Miller's book, "The Frontier in Alaska and the Matanuska
Colony," Yale University Press, New Haven, Ct., 1975, pp. 162-176.
- Two important
books on general U.S. immigration policies before World War
II include lengthy discussion of the debate over Alaska: Henry
Feingold, "The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration
and the Holocaust, 1938-1945," Rutgers University Press, 1970;
and David S. Wyman, "Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis,
1938-41" University of Massachusetts Press, 1968.
on the history of Jews in Alaska was drawn from Matthew Eisenberg,
"The Last Frontier: Jewish Pioneers in Alaska," Hebrew Union
College 1991 (thesis available at Loussac Library Alaska Collection).
- The Slattery
Report is available from library sources in Alaska: "The Problem
of Alaskan Development," United States Department of the Interior,
Harold L. Ickes, Secretary, Washington, 1939/1940.
- The letters
of Bruno Rosenthal and other European Jews regarding Alaska,
along with Interior Dept. memos on the Slattery Report are available
in the National Archives. The file is available on microfilm
at University of Alaska Fairbanks archives, Elmer E. Rasmuson