Quakers During the Third Reich

by | Nov 9, 2023 | What I'm Reading, What I'm Thinking | 6 comments

[I found this photo on a site called Quaker Service Memorial Trust. In included the following information: The 1200 people, men and women in equal numbers, who joined FRS teams came from a variety of backgrounds. Not all were conscientious objectors, and the majority were not Quakers. ]

While working on my novel, Rachel and the Ancestors, (set in Cornwall in 1932–1933 and regarding the rise of fascism in Britain as well as in Germany) I began to wonder whether there were German Quakers who were persecuted or murdered by Nazis. Searching for “Hitler and Quakers,” I came across this interesting article in The Holocaust Encyclopedia. It’s important to note that many U.S. and British Quakers did fight in World War II. They had many reasons for doing so, but many may have felt that fascism was a form of violence that required military action.

If anyone reading this knows whether there were any German Quakers in Germany at this time, I would be interested to hear about that.

I quote verbatim from The Holocaust Encyclopedia:

In the early years of Nazism, the Quaker International centers focused primarily on relief efforts such as soup kitchens and kindergartens, instead of immigration assistance or public condemnations of Nazi treatment of Jews and other minorities. They received criticism from the League of Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, who complained in a letter that the “springs of [Quaker] charity seem to have dried up in this dry land.” Quaker officials, however, felt they were walking a fine line, opposing Nazi persecution yet wanting to continue widespread relief work, which might get shut down entirely if they protested too forcefully. They were also concerned about spreading their resources too thinly, believing that food pantries and similar programs could help the greatest number of people.

After the violent anti-Jewish Kristallnacht pogroms of November 9–10, 1938, the Quakers were motivated to expand their work. A delegation of three prominent American Quakers—Rufus Jones, D. Robert Yarnall, and George A. Walton—traveled to Germany in December 1938 on a secret trip to meet with Nazi officials and protest the attacks. Before their ship arrived, however, a Philadelphia newspaper published the delegation’s plans. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels ridiculed the visit in a newspaper editorial, calling Jones, Yarnall, and Walton the “Three Wise Men,” stating, “Don’t expect us to take them seriously. We can’t help it, we must laugh, even if in this case it is ever so honorable a sect.” The group met with Gestapo representatives to deliver their protest, and Jones reported that the Nazi agents agreed to instruct German police not to interfere with Quaker assistance to Jews.

In the wake of Kristallnacht, the AFSC shifted their efforts on behalf of individual refugees. One week after the pogroms, the AFSC established a Refugee Division (or Section) tasked with assisting individuals and families in need. Quaker relief efforts continued, but the AFSC also began helping people flee Nazi Europe, communicate with loved ones, and adjust to life in the United States. Clarence Pickett later wrote that

“The world was breaking loose in so many places that it was difficult to know how to think about one’s responsibilities…it was important in such a time not to become simply paralyzed by the quantity of the need.”

Since the mid-1930s, the AFSC had been supporting the work of Hertha Kraus. Kraus was a refugee professor at Bryn Mawr College, who found teaching positions and provided assistance to other refugees, some she knew personally and others who had been referred to her. When the Refugee Division formally began work in February 1939, they took over the 780 case files from Kraus’s office, and Kraus became an important consultant in their work.

Within a year, the Division opened more than 3,000 new cases and met with thousands of people seeking help in the Vienna and Berlin Quaker offices. The Division had a mostly female staff of about 25 workers in the AFSC’s main Philadelphia office, plus a few workers in a New York office that shared a building with several other refugee aid groups. The AFSC relied on volunteer typists, translators, and secretaries to carry out their work with refugees.

Many relief organizations specialized in certain types of refugees—Jewish groups helped Jews, Catholic groups helped Catholics—but the AFSC’s Refugee Division assisted those who were not already being helped. In practice, the AFSC primarily worked with “non-Aryan Christians” (those considered “racially Jewish” by the Nuremberg Laws but who did not consider themselves Jewish by religion) and those in mixed marriages between Jews and non-Jews. The Quakers aided people seeking affidavits to come to the United States—a critical step in the immigration process—by locating American citizens willing to sponsor them. In many cases, the refugee was unknown to the person writing the affidavit. The Quakers coordinated with numerous other agencies such as the National Refugee Service, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), and the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) to ensure that as many refugees could be helped as possible.

In addition to assisting those still in Europe, the Quakers helped newly arrived refugees adjust to life in the United States. The AFSC established a series of workshops and hostels to help refugees learn English and prepare for their new lives, including Sky Island Hostel in Nyack, New York; the Haverford Cooperative Workshop in Haverford, Pennsylvania; and the Quaker Hill Hostel in Richmond, Indiana. The largest and longest-running hostel was Scattergood, in West Branch, Iowa, where more than 185 refugees lived between 1940 and 1943. Working with the Joint, Hertha Kraus traveled to Havana, Cuba, in 1939 to found the Finca Paso Seco hostel, where refugees could learn agricultural trades.

The Quakers also combated anti-refugee sentiment. The AFSC joined with the American Jewish Committee to publish a booklet, Refugee Facts: A Study of the German Refugee in America, intended to show that refugees were neither swarming the United States, nor would they worsen unemployment in a country still deep in the Depression. More than 250,000 copies of the booklet were distributed across the country. The AFSC also advocated on behalf of Japanese and Japanese-Americans interned in the United States after the outbreak of war.

Clarence Pickett was a leader of the Non-Sectarian Committee for German Refugee Children, which advocated forcefully for the immigration of up to 20,000 German children to the United States (introduced in Congress in 1939 as the Wagner-Rogers Bill). Those efforts ultimately failed, but Pickett and others from the Non-Sectarian Committee played important roles, along with Eleanor Roosevelt, in the founding of the US Committee for the Care of European Children (USCOM) in 1940.