On 29 March 1939, Croydon airport was the site of an extraordinary scene, as the Daily Express reported:
NEARLY 400 Jewish refugees streamed into Croydon in a succession of air liners yesterday — the biggest influx the airport had ever experienced.
They came from Danzig, the Polish Corridor, Cologne, Berlin, Vienna, Switzerland — all over Europe.
Most of them were allowed to enter the country [...]1
For example, David Herbst was allowed to stay when his wife Leishi, a former Austrian tennis star, showed up and was able to prove that Herbst 'had money in English Banks'.
[...] when some were told they would have to go back to the Continent in the morning they burst into piteous cries.
One man from Cologne dropped to his knees and pleaded, in tears, with the immigration authorities.
Wailing, he fell on his face and broke his nose. Afterwards he threatened to commit suicide.
He said his father had been taken away manacled and then shot and he believed he would be dealt with in the same way if he returned to Germany.2
Herbst's travelling companions were in the same situation. The thirteen of them had chartered a Danish tri-motor for £600 to fly them out of Warsaw (one source says Cracow). Herbst got to go home with his wife; but the other twelve were detained by the police overnight.
"Nobody knows who the people are. They are a mystery crowd," it was stated by an official. "Many had little money and could not give satisfactory reasons why they should be allowed to land in England."3
I assume the official was talking about legal reasons why the refugees should be allowed to land, rather than just being utterly dense; the reasons why they were fleeing were quite clear. Two weeks earlier, after threatening to bomb Prague off the map, German troops had been allowed to march in, occupying the Czech portions of Czechoslovakia which remained after the cession of the Sudetenland the previous year. Germany ended Czechoslovakia, taking Bohemia and Moravia for itself; Hungary took Carpatho-Ukraine and Slovakia became independent. This meant that suddenly Czech Jews (and those, like Herbst, who had fled from Austria after the Anschluss a year earlier) were subject to Nazi racial discrimination.
There were (possibly?) conflicting stories about why there was a flood of refugees right now, though: that from 1 April a new visa system would apply to Czechs entering Britain, or that from that date Czechs would be treated as Germans, or that they would need permission from Germany to leave. But whatever the reason, the last aeroplanes did land on 31 March, carrying, among others, 91 year old Frau Krampflicek, a 'Czech Jewess' whose family lived in Manchester.4 About 150 refugees arrived that day, with 3 being detained. The day before there had been 241, with 20 detained; on the first day 257, 10 detained.5
The problem was that refugees qua refugees had no automatic right of entry to Britain. In keeping with poor law principles, refugees would only be allowed to stay if it could be shown they would not be a burden to the public purse. If they could show they had funds to support themselves, that was enough. In the cases of Herr Herbst and Frau Krampflicek they had family already in Britain. Many of the other refugees had sponsors of one sort or another, who would ultimately be responsible for their welfare. Those who were told to leave had little money left, and no family or sponsors in Britain; they were just desperate people.
Like the people on the flight from Warsaw. Hilde Marchant (late war correspondent in Spain) reported for the Express that they resisted being put back on the aeroplane back to Copenhagen, where they had already been refused entry and would presumably be deported again:
The men refused and cried: "We will be shot."
One asked for the Czech Consul. Another offered money, but they all had to be dragged out of the hall on to the tarmac.
One man was carried into the plane.6
Another man escaped the airport entirely 'across the Purley-way, over the grounds of the swimming pool and through some factories', but was picked up by a police car.7 A third man, by the name of Vorosov, was pulled off the seat he was clinging onto by two policemen when he got a reprieve: 'an official from the Immigration Department came rushing through the door and said, "There is a permit for Vorosov."'8 So he was allowed to stay. The others were taken back on board the trimotor.
The refugees then began to beat the sides of the plane and hammered at the windows, breaking one of them.
The Danish pilot refused to take them. "They are crazy," he said to the police sergeant. Later he told me he was afraid they would commit suicide by throwing themselves out of the door of the plane.9
Instead of flying out they were taken to a police station again, this time in handcuffs, with the intention that they would be put on a boat to Denmark in the morning.
In this particular story, there was a happy ending. As its name implied, the German Jewish Aid Committee dealt only with helping German Jews. Nevertheless it decided 'as a special measure to provide the necessary guarantees' for the eleven Jewish Czech refugees in question.10 They were given three month visas; I don't know what happened to them after that. But this was just luck, a fortunate consequence of the publicity they had received. The Manchester Guardian thought there must be a fairer and more humane way to handle such refugees:
it is surely unworthy of this country that anyone coming to these shores for the first time should receive such treatment. Even if papers are not in order it might be thought that the Government could set up an independent tribunal which could consider claims to enter on grounds of equity and real need, thereby tempering the strict and inelastic rules of the Home Office. Expulsion, if decided on then, could at least be attempted in a manner more delicate.11
This was not done. Nobody could have known exactly what was in store for those who were sent back to Germany or the late Czechoslovakia, but then that's the point. In 1951, after the Second World War had created many more refugees, a United Nations conference drew up a Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Britain was one of the original signatories. It defines who is a legitimate refugee and who is not; absolves refugees from criminal charges for not following immigration procedures; and, crucially, protects refugees from being forcibly expelled to a country where they would be in danger.
Australia was also one of the original signatories to the Convention. In the last decade, as increasing numbers of people flee wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, refugees have become an incredibly toxic issue in Australian politics. Both major parties have done everything they can to dodge meeting our obligations under international law, from effectively declaring that Australian migration law no longer applies to certain areas where refugees arrive, to sending refugees to other countries while their claims are processed (most recently, the so-called Malaysian solution). The point of all this is deterrence, though the tiny numbers of people involved and the fact that the vast majority of them do turn out to be genuine refugees ought to have given someone, somewhere pause. As might the suicides and riots of refugees locked up in detention centres for years on end. Bizarrely, all the refugees that have got Australians so worked up come by boat. Nobody worries about the ones which come by plane, even though about six times as many come that way, or even about the even more numerous non-refugees who overstay their visa. Perhaps the boat people are too brown. One of the stupider political slogans of the 2010 federal election was 'stop the boats'; at least no one in 1939 Britain — at least to my knowledge — wanted to 'stop the planes'.
But the High Court of Australia recently put an end to offshore processing; the Government attempted to overturn this by introducing new legislation, but due to its minority position in the lower House needed the support of the Opposition. Even though the Opposition supports offshore processing, for political reasons it refused; and so the bill never came to a vote. As a result, yesterday the Government decided to re-introduce onshore processing after all. Hopefully this will in time lead to a way of treating refugees in a way that is worthy of this country.
WILL SHE FIND REFUGE HERE?
While efforts to deport refugees by air failed at Croydon yesterday, this young refugee, clutching her doll, arrived at the airport from Cologne.12
Image sources: Wikipedia; Daily Express, 31 March 1939, p. 13.
- Daily Express, 30 March 1939, p. 1.
- Ibid., 1 April 1939, p. 11.
- Manchester Guardian, 1 April 1939, p. 13. These numbers conflict slightly with others reported.
- Daily Express, 31 March 1939, p. 13.
- Manchester Guardian, 1 April 1939, p. 13.
- Ibid., p. 12.
- Daily Express, 31 March 1939, p. 13.
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