Friday, June 17, 2016

Aliens and Refugees During World War II

The war in Europe began with Germany's invasion of Poland and the subsequent declarations of war against Germany by Great Britain and France in September, 1939. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the United States remained neutral until December, 1941, when Japan bombed our military base at Pearl Harbor.


In 1940, as the war raged on, the United States began taking in refugees. Children from Great Britain were the first to be welcomed, sent away by their parents in the hopes that they would escape the bombings and the possible impending invasion. (If you're a fan of the Narnia Chronicles, this might sound familiar--the Pevensie children were sent away to the English countryside to escape the Nazi bombings of London.) The U.S. government found itself balancing citizen enthusiasm for taking in refugee children with the slow bureaucratic requirements of the immigration laws ("Mayor Spellacy Gets Assurance," Waterbury Democrat, 13 July 1940).

Waterbury Republican, 7 Aug 1940
Collection of Silas Bronson Library

Children from countries other than Great Britain also escaped to the United States, but in fewer numbers. Getting them across multiple borders in Europe was difficult. Getting anyone out of Germany or German-occupied France was nearly impossible. Early efforts, before the war began to help Jews leave Germany came to a halt when the war started.

Waterbury American, 23 July 1940
Collection of Silas Bronson Library

Children left from England by ship, arriving in Canada before traveling to the United States. Immigration law restricted the number of children to 6,500 a month, between the ages of 5 and 16, registering as permanent resident aliens. The children were Dutch, French, Belgian, Polish, Czech, Scandinavian, and German, as well as British. (Waterbury Republican, 5 July 1940)

The U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children, created in 1938 at President Roosevelt's suggestion, established a social service network for placing refugee children in foster homes. In Waterbury, Margaret Bull oversaw the Corner House, which processed requests from local people to foster refugee children. The first wave of requests came primarily from the local relatives of refugees, who needed official government permission to take in their grandchildren or cousins or nieces & nephews being sent from Europe. In some cases, unrelated immigrants (including an unidentified Portuguese woman) read about the refugee children in the newspapers and offered to become foster families.

Children being sent as refugees from Europe had to be bonded to the amount of $50, to "protect" them from becoming paupers. An additional $13 fee covered the expense of supervising the child's welfare. As tactfully explained by Margaret Bull, "It may be found that a child and a family do not get along. It will be possible to for the committee to switch the child to some more congenial home." (Waterbury Republican, 18 Aug 1940)

The children who came here were traumatized by the war. The Waterbury Republican recounted a story about three siblings, Tom, Sally and Susan Abrams, whose father was fighting with the British army. The children were in Connecticut with their mother visiting relatives in Woodbury: "The first thing the children did in peaceful Woodbury was to gravely build a bomb shelter in the cellar. They set up cots there, and stored the shelter with food, flashlights and blankets. They did this as casually as American children play house."

Connecticut residents were so eager to take in refugees, there were more available homes than refugees. The medical condition of many of the refugee children was an issue. Many were suffering from measles and other childhood illnesses prevalent during that era. Medical records were, not surprisingly, hard to come by for children who fled from war-torn countries. (Waterbury American, 6 Aug 1940)

Associated Press images of refugee children published in the Waterbury Republican, August 18 1940.
Collection of Silas Bronson Library

The children were sent by parents who knew there was a chance they would die at sea. They were also sent with the knowledge that, perhaps, the parents would not survive the war. There was no safe choice. Soon, however, the option of evacuating ended.

In September, 1940, George Brown and wife, who lived at 29 Euclid Avenue, waited to find out if the refugee children they were expecting had been on a ship torpedoed by a Nazi submarine. The ship was the SS City of Benares, which left Liverpool as part of a convoy of 21 ships on September 13 and was torpedoed and sunk on September 18. Nearly all of the 90 children on board died. The incident led to the cancellation of the program to evacuate children from England to Canada and the U.S.

Waterbury American, 23 Sep 1940
Collection of Silas Bronson Library

The parents are torn with doubt. Should they send their little boys and girls away on a ship that may be sunk by enemy mines, or should they keep them at their sides and risk death rained from overhead? Most of them are willing to part with their families because they think the children will have a greater chance of safety in America but some of the parents, mothers especially, cannot refrain from expressing their fear of the long sea voyage.
                        ~ Waterbury Republican, 18 August 1940


Fear of enemy agents working in secret in the U.S. led to federal regulations requiring "enemy aliens" (immigrants from Germany, Italy, and Japan) to register with the government starting in September, 1940. By the end of 1940, nearly 12,000 aliens in Waterbury and surrounding towns had registered (Waterbury Republican, 27 Dec 1940). Registration involved being fingerprinted, photographed, and issued an Alien Registration Receipt Card. The Post Office was responsible for doing the registrations.

Postmaster Charles A. Babin learning how to take fingerprints with
Detective Captain John V. Leary at police headquarters (Waterbury American, 1940)
Collection of Silas Bronson Library

Kay Wolff, secretary to Waterbury's budget director, models the fingerprinting process
for the Waterbury American in July, 1940. Collection of Silas Bronson Library.

Immigrants from Germany, Italy, or Japan were required to register if they were at least 14 years old (younger children were registered by proxy by their parents). A year after the initial registration push, the Federal Immigration and Naturalization office sent out a reminder that "alien" children were required to register within 30 days after their 14th birthday. This was to be done in person: 14-year-olds were treated the same as adults in the registration process.

Waterbury Democrat, 16 Sep 1941
Collection of Silas Bronson Library

Under increasing pressure, immigrants rushed to apply for citizenship. Some had lived here for decades, never feeling the need to become citizens. With the wartime hostility toward and legal action against "enemy aliens," immigrants had an urgent need to become citizens.

The reference librarians at the Silas Bronson Library (Charlotte Gibson, Anne Burns, and Mary Freney) went to work helping Waterbury's "aliens" with their citizenship applications. In order to apply for citizenship, you needed to prove how and when you arrived in this country. This meant trying to figure out the name of the ship they arrived on, which was not something most immigrants paid attention to. For people who had been in the U.S. for decades, it was even more difficult. The immigrants would try to remember what time of year it was when they arrived and what year they thought it might have been. The reference librarians would then write to either the steamship companies or to immigration officials in Washington, D.C., asking if the immigrant in question was on the passenger list of a specific ship on a certain date. In the pre-internet database days, this was a long, laborious task.

Waterbury Republican, 22 Sep 1940

A man who came over more than 50 years ago had that difficulty the other day. He is not an old man now and was a young child when he came. His parents are dead and there is no one else to tell him the name of the big strange port from which he left that fateful day. He must find some other means of proving he really got here.
              ~ Waterbury Republican, 22 Sept 1940

In the months following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, as with Japanese immigrants and Americans, hundreds of Italians were arrested or detained. About 250 were interned in military camps in Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas. By June of 1942, more than 1,500 Italians were detained by the FBI on the grounds that they were Italian and therefore might be spies or saboteurs (none were charged).

Internees Eating In Mess Hall At Fort Missoula in Montana, 1943- Peter Fortune Memorial Collection (2001.048.111)
Collection of The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula

Three Waterbury residents were arrested for being illegal aliens as part of the national roundup of Italians in May, 1941. The roundup was focused on merchant marines whose ships had been impounded after the war began in 1939. In other words, these were Italians who were forced to stay in the United States by the United States, and who were then arrested for being in the United States. Go figure. Domenico Pappaianni, age 39, was arrested at a restaurant on Bank Street. Vito Antonia, age 38, was arrested at a tavern on East Main Street by two immigration agents and six Waterbury vice squad members. Mario Pitorri, age 31, was one of seven Italians arrested in Hartford ("Three Local Aliens Held In Roundup of 200 In U.S.," Waterbury Republican, 19 May 1941). I don't yet know what happened to them. It seems likely they were sent to Fort Missoula, Montana and would have remained imprisoned until the end of 1943, following Italy's surrender to the Allies.

During the month of February, 1942, all "Axis aliens" (German, Italian, and Japanese immigrants) were required to report to the local post office to register with the Department of Justice, even if they had registered previously. Anyone age 14 and older had to be photographed and fingerprinted, and given identification cards to carry at all times. Anyone failing to report would be subject to arrest and detention ("Axis Nationals to Re-Register," Waterbury Republican, 31 January 1942).

"Notice to Aliens of Enemy Nationalities: Certificates of Identification," 1942
Collection of Silas Bronson Library

Notice to Aliens of Enemy Nationalities, 1942. Sent to factories and other employers likely to have immigrant workers. Employers were encouraged to post the notice on their bulletin board to help reach people who were required to register.
Collection of Silas Bronson Library

A wave of fear, racism, and prejudice swept the country. On January 2, 1942, President Roosevelt issued a strongly-worded statement addressing the problem:

        I am deeply concerned over the increasing number of reports of employers discharging workers who happen to be aliens or even foreign-born citizens. This is a very serious matter. It is one thing to safeguard American industry, and particularly defense industry, against sabotage; but it is very much another to throw out of work honest and loyal people who, except for the accident of birth, are sincerely patriotic.
        Such a policy is as stupid as it is unjust, and on both counts it plays into the hands of the enemies of American democracy. By discharging loyal, efficient workers simply because they were born abroad or because they have "foreign-sounding" names or by refusing to employ such men and women, employers are engendering the very distrust and disunity on which our enemies are counting to defeat us.
        Remember the Nazi technique: "Pit race against race, religion against religion, prejudice against prejudice. Divide and conquer!"
        We must not let that happen here. We must not forget what we are defending: liberty, decency, justice. We cannot afford the economic waste of services of all loyal and patriotic citizens and non-citizens in defending our land and our liberties.
        I urge all private employers to adopt a sane policy regarding aliens and foreign-born citizens, and to remember that the sons of the "foreigners" they discharged may be among those who fought and are fighting so valiantly at Pearl Harbor or in the Philippines.
        There is no law providing against employment of aliens except in special defense work of a secret nature, and even in such work the employer may hire an alien with the permission of the Army or Navy, depending on the contract.

Press Release, "Statement By The President," January 2, 1942
Collection of Silas Bronson Library

As wartime anxieties grew, so-called enemy aliens found their lives turned upside down. In Waterbury, Patrolman Anthony Stango, a member of the police department for 13 years, was placed on suspension when it was discovered that he had registered as an "Axis alien" (Waterbury American, 9 March 1942). When Stango joined the police force, he thought he had been born in the United States. He had even been drafted into the U.S. Army during World War I. After World War II started, however, Stango found out that he came here from Italy as an infant, sometime around 1900 or 1901. The discovery of an "enemy alien" on the police force in Waterbury caused a mild panic, with both the police and fire commissioners vowing to adopt a policy requiring new applicants to submit proof of citizenship.

The path to citizenship was eased slightly for some immigrants with the announcement on Columbus Day, 1942, that any alien age 50 or older, who arrived in the U.S. before July 1, 1924, would be granted citizenship without having to take a literacy test ("New Ruling Affects 8,000 Waterburians," Waterbury American, 13 Oct 1942). In Waterbury, there were more than 8,000 Italian immigrants who were not naturalized citizens. More than 2,000 were eligible to take advantage of the relaxed regulation.

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