Back in 1999, when I reported the story of several rural Jewish families who tried to escape Nazi Germany to Alaska, it seemed a lesson for the future.
The Alaska refugee plan, the only geographic rescue proposal generated in America before the war, ran into a wall of selfishness, nativism, and antisemitism. The proposal died. Instead of sailing west to America, the Rosenthals and Lilienfelds and their children were taken from their small town in 1941 and shipped on trains to Riga, Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.
More than prejudice had been at work in Alaska, of course. Many practical and political arguments were raised against creating an exception to immigration quotas for the Alaska territory. Workers and small businesses feared competition from thousands of subsidized newcomers. Refugees, stripped of any wealth by the Nazis, would require costly new welfare programs and facilities. Miners in particular feared new taxes to pay for it all. And creating a back-door “exception” to America’s strict quotas would make a virtual internment camp of the territory, with residents forced to go through screening as they got off steamships in Seattle.
All of that sounds pathetic, looking back, understanding the bottomless depravity of the Nazis — small sacrifices, trifling excuses for not cracking the door open, even a little. But historical judgments are tricky.
Watching the new Ken Burns series about the U.S. response to the Holocaust on PBS this month, one uniquely Alaskan argument from those pre-war times gnawed at me, forcing me to question how much I would have been willing to sacrifice.
I couldn’t forget the 1940 rebuttal to the resettlement plan published in a national magazine by a literary hero of mine: Bob Marshall, founder of The Wilderness Society and son of the past-president of the American Jewish Committee.
A wealthy Easterner who served as an influential government forester in the 1930s under Franklin D. Roosevelt, Marshall traveled north year after year to tramp and live rough in the Brooks Range. When friends and I backpacked through the Brooks Range in the 1970s, his book “Alaska Wilderness” was pretty much the only written “guide” we could find.
Even more important to me was the example of his 1933 national bestseller, “Arctic Village,” a detailed account of a winter he spent in the settlement of Wiseman, “two hundred miles beyond the edge of the Twentieth Century.” Marshall portrays with twinkling admiration the people and lifestyles of that remote community, white and Native. The book is on a short list of Alaska classics and influenced my own recent book about the ghost town decades of McCarthy-Kennecott.
Marshall played an active and often controversial role in Alaska public policy during the Depression, speaking up for wilderness preservation in Washington, D.C. He hoped a slower pace of northern development would perpetuate “the possibility of exploration” and the pioneer individualism he admired in his Wiseman neighbors.
Marshall was interested in the social benefits of wilderness more than nature for nature’s sake. Asked in a congressional hearing how much wilderness the nation needed, the millionaire socialist responded, “How many Brahms symphonies do we need?”
He once made a far-fetched proposal to restrict federal leasing and road-building north of the Yukon River, which would have precluded the later oil find at Prudhoe Bay. Yet his survival skills and good nature earned the friendship of Chuck Herbert, the mining engineer who later helped select the state’s oil-rich Arctic lands. The North Slope Inupiat might have considered his Yukon River line to be more colonialist arrogance. Yet Marshall’s writing refuted racial stereotypes of his day, emphasizing to a national audience the wit and superior intelligence of his Eskimo friends in Wiseman.
There were other reasons to expect compassionate concern for the situation unfolding in Europe. His grandparents, on both sides, were descended from German Jewish refugees. His father, Louis Marshall, was a famed constitutional scholar and civil rights activist.
Louis Marshall also fought to protect wilderness in New York’s Adirondack State Park, and it was there that antisemitism had smacked the family. Bob and his brother were both noted climbers, and an effort to name an Adirondack peak after them was shot down by an Eastern attorney who declared his own “pro-Gentile bias” and accused the Marshalls of changing their name’s spelling to disguise their “Hebrew” origins. According to his biographer, Bob Marshall shrugged off the controversy, agreeing that mountains shouldn’t be named after living people.
Finding safe haven for persecuted and homeless Jews was a far more serious matter. Yet when the Alaska resettlement plan was proposed — first in 1939 in the Interior Department’s “Slattery Report,” then in 1940 in the King-Havenner bill in Congress — Bob Marshall’s response was to oppose it, mounting instead a defense of the wilderness way of life in The New Republic.
Marshall’s piece did not mention Jewish refugees at all. He didn’t have to: Drafters of the Slattery Report had been so evasive about the plan’s true aim that they mentioned Jews only once in 70-plus pages, touting instead a program open to refugees and citizens both.
The idealists at Interior, advocating for Jewish resettlement, had pitched their plan to Alaska boomers and developers, calculating that business leaders would be loathe to refute familiar bromides about frontier progress. Only a conservationist like Marshall would take those on.
A government program to populate Alaska, he argued, would ultimately run afoul of the same problems of distance and markets that had long frustrated development in the north. Like all such booms, it would at best bring transient prosperity for a few. In the process it would threaten the open land, abundant wildlife, scope for individualism, and “frontier atmosphere” that added up to Alaska’s great appeal.
Some opponents of the plan veered instead into barely disguised antisemitism. Headlines in Alaska newspapers proclaimed “”Alaska Wants No Misfits” and “Jews for Alaska?” The president of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce said such newcomers would be hard to assimilate: Just look at how they had brought trouble on themselves in Germany.
Given time, as things in Germany grew worse and worse, Bob Marshall’s priorities might have shifted. But he was not given time.
By January 1940, when his New Republic article appeared, Marshall was dead, felled two months earlier by an apparent heart attack while riding on a train to New York from Washington, D.C. He was 38. Only that summer, he had been in the Brooks Range, happily thrashing his way up the North Fork of the Koyukuk.
Today, the future I imagined when I wrote that sad story back in 1999 is already upon us. The planet is shrinking and barriers to immigration are rising everywhere.
It does feel like we have been moved by that lesson of history. A new tide of refugees is on its way to Alaska, some of whom need no help: the monied vanguard fleeing the drought-stricken American West to buy second homes with a view of the sea. I don’t expect to see headlines proclaiming “Alaska Wants No Millionaires.” We have opened the sanctuary door to others, however — to families who fled Afghanistan and Ukraine, Sudan and Somalia, migrants now living in Anchorage and elsewhere around the state.
But there are 27 million refugees fleeing conflict and persecution in the world today, according to the UN refugee agency. Even more are on the move because of hunger and poverty. As rising heat swells their numbers, some will look north and see horizons of empty land. This summer, a Time Magazine writer imagined just such a scenario over the next 75 years, with new cities in Alaska built to house millions of migrants from the tropics, bringing“vast opportunities for development in the New North.”
When wilderness and compassion clash this time, where will we draw the line?
Homer writer Tom Kizzia was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He is author of the books “Pilgrim’s Wilderness” and “The Wake of the Unseen Object.” His latest book is “Cold Mountain Path,” published in 2021. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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