Dealing with Jewish Refugees during World War II: Conflicts and Cooperation

Dealing with Jewish Refugees during World War II: Conflicts and Cooperation

Barbara Häne / Sarah Hagmann / Catrina Langenegger / Olga Pollack, Basel Graduate School of History
Vom - Bis
14.11.2018 - 15.11.2018
Sarah Hagmann

In her 1943 published essay «We Refugees» Hannah Arendt pointed to the different notions of the term «refugee» and that Jews did not necessarily consider themselves as such. From an inner-Jewish perception, she suggested different terms like «newcomers» or «immigrants». Other actors such as public authorities and (Jewish) relief organisations adopted one or the other notion according to their agendas. The Swiss Federal Department of Justice and Police, for example, deliberately referred to them until 1944 as «immigrants» avoiding the term «political refugees» and thus being able to send them back to the places they had come from. At the same time, Jewish relief organisations, whose goal was to rescue Jews, worked with terms such as «Halutzim» (pioneers), «immigrants», «migrants» or «refugees» – depending on the organisation’s tasks, their Jewish applicants and the moment.

All these organisations not only talked about refugees but dealt with them and faced multiple challenges: In the Swiss case, the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities had to adopt the official Swiss policy which meant that «immigrants» as referred to in the previous paragraph could only stay for a short time – if at all. Otherwise, the communities felt responsible for their co-religionists and therefore organised their emigration or took care of those who stayed in the country. In doing so, they cooperated both with state officials, and (Jewish) relief organisations on a global scale. Such national and international relief organisations, however, did not act out of pure altruism. Rather, they had to make concessions, accept limitations and suffered conflicts. In short, they sometimes cooperated and sometimes were in competition with each other. In 1940, the Swiss government accepted its responsibility and established camps to provide the refugees with food, shelter and the possibility for religious practice. For the government, this was also an instrument to keep the refugees under control. The Association of Swiss Jewish Refugee Aid and Welfare Organisations approved this policy and thereby reduced its own financial burden. Providing many refugees with all the goods needed, preserving a system of camps and allowing a Jewish life in refugee camps were the challenges the Swiss government faced together with the Swiss Jewish communities.

During this workshop we would like to pay special attention to the different local, national and transnational actors who dealt with Jewish refugees during World War II. Besides Switzerland as one country where questions of relief were discussed, the geographical focus of this workshop will be open. In addition to existing research on Jewish refugee’s experiences we wish to add new perspectives on the topic of Jewish flight and exile in order to encourage a more profound discussion of the relevant discourses and dynamics. Therefore, we want to address the following themes and key questions:

1) Dealing with Jewish refugees in general: Who defined their needs and interests? How were those met? Who was responsible for the well-being of Jewish refugees and how were they treated?

2) Refugee camps as temporary solutions and places of transit: How were they experienced by the refugees and viewed by the government and the relief organisations?

3) Relief organisations, Jewish and otherwise, (such as JDC, HIAS-HICEM, Jewish Agency/Palestine Office, International Red Cross etc.): Which organisation was relevant and in what context? What did the relationships between them look like? What were their agendas and ideologies? Who were the personnel who ran these organisations – what were their mindsets, what roles did they play and how did they define their scope of action?

We aim to bring together doctoral students and early career researchers working on the fields of Jewish history, the history of relief organisations/committees and (military/DP/«alien enemy») refugee camps as well as researchers of migration, refugee and exile studies to discuss and exchange their ideas and perspectives.

Key note: Marc Perrenoud (former member of the Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland – Second World War).

Scholars who would like to present and discuss their work during the workshop are warmly invited to send a title and an abstract (max. 300 words) to Catrina Langenegger <> no later than 30 June 2018. Authors will be notified regarding the acceptance of their contribution by 31 July 2018. The Basel Graduate School of History will cover the travel and accomodation expenses of the speakers.


The workshop will offer a combination of keynote lectures, panel discussions, and a final roundtable session. The definite programe will be published in August 2018.


Organization team "Dealing with Jewish Refugees"

Basel Graduate School of History
Kanonengasse 27, 4051 Basel