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Walter Nash, Labour’s immigration minister, helped keep doors largely barred to Jewish refugees from Nazis

by Phil Duncan

While the Labour Party showed its knee-jerk racism in relation to the Chinese yet again last year – a modern-day equivalent to the early party’s keen support for the White New Zealand policy – few people are aware of the first Labour government’s shoddy record in relation to refugees, particularly Jewish refugees, from Nazism in Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s.  Below is essentially a summary of chapter 13 of Oliver Sutherland’s Paikea, a book about his father (I.L.G. Sutherland), which throws an interesting light on this.

Michael Joseph Savage: first Labour prime minister wanted white British immigrants, not Jewish refugees from the Nazis

Michael Joseph Savage: first Labour prime minister wanted white British immigrants, not Jewish refugees from the Nazis

I only became aware of this hidden part of Labour Party history when, by chance, I saw Paikea in a display in a public library.  I knew of Oliver as a prominent figure in the Auckland Committee on Racial Discrimination (ACORD) way back in the 1970s, so I picked up the book and had a look at it.  I was interested to see that Ivan Sutherland had been very involved in campaigning for European refugees in the late 1930s and into the 1940s and had been up against it as the first Labour government wasn’t keen on opening the gates, and especially wasn’t keen in relation to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution.

Oliver records the hostility of the Forbes-Coates regime to immigration and notes the new (and first) Labour government “was equivocal and cautious, and in 1936 only 84 German refugees (about half of whom were women and children) were allowed into New Zealand.”  At the time tens and tens of thousands of Jewish people alone were trying to get out of Germany.

Intellectuals set up committee to support refugees from Nazism

Around the end of 1937, a committee was set up in Christchurch to help Jewish refugees come to New Zealand, as conditions for Jews in Germany had deteriorated markedly.  The Christchurch Refugees Emergency Committee was led by Ivan Sutherland, Karl Popper and other academics at Canterbury University, with a key role also being played by Otto Frankel, who was an important scientist in the recently-established Wheat Institute.  At the time, according to Popper, nine out of ten immigration permits applications for people seeking to escape continental Europe were turned down, although Labour professed sympathy with refugees.

Oliver points to the case of the Kaisers as one that “show(s) just how reluctant the government was to admit refugees of the Third Reich.  The husband was a “high class tailor and cutter” who also had a brother-in-law, Dr T. Reifer, in Palmerston North as his guarantor (something required by the Labour government).  Ivan, who knew Walter Nash (the government minister responsible for immigration) contacted him on the Kaisers’ behalf but Nash refused entry.  Ivan contacted Nash again, as Paul Kaiser faced immiment imprisonment.  Nash turned him down again.  With impriosnment looming, Paul Kaiser’s health broke down, and Ivan contacted Nash yet again.  In the meantime the man was imprisoned twice; again, Ivan contacted Nash and again Nash turned down the application.  The committee then contacted the local Trades Hall to gain their support.  With that support, they forced Nash to relent.  On May 31, 1939, just a few months before the war started and ten months after the first plea to Nash – and after Paul Kaiser had been imprisoned several times – Nash finally relented.

At the end of August 1938, the annual conference of NZ’s League of Nations Union adopted a motion urging the government “to expedite the admission of a fair and generous number of Jewish and other European refugees and that the present financial guarantees be recognised as unsuitable in the circumstances and be held in abeyance.”

Savage not keen on Jewish refugees from Nazism

After the government received it, prime minister Michael Savage responded.  A Christchurch Press editorial criticised Savage’s response, saying it was “depressingly evasive and contradictory”.  In fact, this was standard Labour politics.  When they were pursuing their anti-Chinese racism in the years after their foundation, Labour also found it helpful to pass resolutions indicating they were ‘internationalist’ and stood for (what in those days was called) ‘the brotherhood of man’.

Savage ludicrously (and thoroughly dishonestly) claimed “We are taking just as many refugees as we can without. . . losing sight of our obligations to Great Britain herself”.  (In itself an interesting indication of NZ Labour’s well-entrenched attachment to imperial Britain, while also furthering NZ imperialism’s own interests.)

In Christchurch, people showed they were far more generous than the government.  A public meeting was attended by 300 people, unanimously passing a resolution calling for a more liberal immigration policy in relation to people in Europe suffering racial, religious and political persecution.

Contrast with right-wing Australian government

Interestingly, the approach of the NZ Labour government stood in stark contrast to the right-wing United Australia Party government across the ditch.  Oliver notes, the NZ Labour government “adopted an extraordinarily restrictive policy regarding the entry of European refugees, in stark contrast to the Australian government, which in 1938 had undertaken to admit 15,000 refugees over a period of three years.”

Another Jewish refugee, Joseph Burstein, did not manage to gain a permit until he’d been in two concentration camps – Dachau and Buchenwald – for most of a year.

Oliver records that both Canterbury University and the Wheat Institute provided support for the refugees’ support group.  All the letters sent to the government by Ivan were on university-headed paper and all those sent by Otto Frankel went on Wheat Institute-headed paper and the committee was allowed to use the Wheat Institute’s address in Christchurch as its postal address.  Meanwhile, government policy, records Oliver, was “increasingly restrictive and discriminatory”.

One reverend, living in London and a family friend of the Nashes, even wrote to Nash, arguing for more help for refugees from the government and that the NZ High Commission there should do more than simply “barricade their doors. . . (and) refer the pitiable stream of applicants to Wellington”.  (The High Commission in London wasn’t allowed to process refugee applications.)

J.B. Condliffe and other NZers in London came up with a scheme for 500 refugees to settle in Southland to farm and forest, but Labour wasn’t interested.  Indeed, Oliver notes, “As events in Europe worsened, the Christchurch committee seemed to befighting a losing battle”.  While they had plenty of local support, “getting Walter Nash to grant permits for new refugees was becoming increasingly hard”.  The number of permits which were granted dropped to zero in April 1939, despite the committee sending dozens of supported applications, complete with matching guarantors.

Aryans yes, Jewish refugees no

Oliver notes that the Labour government’s “brutally clear-cut” view was indicated in an internal document.  It preferred non-Jewish, Aryan, northern European, Dutch, Belgian and French as the “more suitable type of immigrant” (my emphasis); the document stated, “it is the general practice at this time to accede to applications made by such persons”.  But as for Jewish and non-Aryan refugees (my emphasis), “it is unlikely that permits to enter New Zealand would be granted to them.”

No wonder the document was confidential; the Labour government didn’t dare say this in public.  As Oliver notes, despite the government pretending publicly that it had no policy, “the confidential memorandum reveals that a policy existed, and its purpose was absolutely clear – Aryans were wanted by the present Labour cabinet but Jews were not.”

Public campaign

The refugees’ supporters decided that rather than continue with the hopeless strategy of relying on friendly links with Labour politicians and discreet lobbying, they needed a more public-oriented campaign.  There was some division in the refugees’ support committee, but Popper argued strongly for such a campaign.  The Timaru committee, which was very active, produced a publication to be circulated throughout the country.  The short (4-page) pamphlet made a moving emotional appeal to the population to to help people whose lives had become “hopeless, terrifying, tortured” in Europe and needed to be allowed to enter New Zealand.

The Timaru committee quickly began receiving dozens of replies, informing them of a range of organisations that were passing resolutions in support of refugees and sending them to the government.  New committees began springing  in small centres like Oamaru and Blenheim.  One of the members of the Christchurch committee was prominent in the Anglican church and wrote to bishops all over New Zealand, asking them to set aside Sunday in which the question of the refugees would be addressed positively from the pulpit.  The national action was stymied, but preaching for refugees took place in Wellington on August 20, 1939.

When war broke out, instead of inceasing the number of refugees, especially Jewish refugees, allowed in, the Labour government clamped down further.  Not only were restrictions tightened but the government decided to ‘revise’ entry permits that had already been granted.  The hostility of the government became such that genuine refugee supporters like Ivan Sutherland turned more attention to helping refugees already here and trying to gain entry for their family members.  Even this proved difficult.  As Oliver records of one case, Nash was so reluctant to allow in the mother of one prominent refugee that she died en route to Auschwitz.

Further reading:

Labour’s racist roots

The truth about Labour: a bosses’ party

 

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