Bermuda Jews Part 3: The Jewish Question — by Deborah Levine

(The Bermuda Jews History Series was originally published in The Bermudian Magazine)

I sat in a restaurant overlooking Hamilton harbor pondering my morning researching Bermuda Jews in the island’s Archives. I’d spent many hours reviewing Bermuda’s Jewish tourism prior to World War II. Yes, my family had mentioned ‘restricted’ places where no Jews were allowed. But mostly I remembered their stories of Bermuda’s war-time kindness to Jews. Dr. Hollis Hallett, the Archives founder, directed me to documents from the 1930s showing the impact of an increasingly global anti-Semitism on Bermuda tourism. What should I write about this ugly period?

I put the question to my lunch companion who was as unflappable as she’d been thirty years ago. Picture the two of us at fifteen on the grandparents’ dock. I was dark, intense and barely smiling. Blond and sunny, Sammy’s big grin was a people magnet. I dithered; Sammy was direct. “There’s no reason not to tell the story and acknowledge history, but also no need to dwell on it. People and communities change. We all need a chance to move on and the nineteen thirties are long gone.”

In 1937, Bermuda was a major tourist destination; 20% of Bermuda’s tourists were American Jews, 70% were Jewish during the Christmas holidays. The Trade Development Board, the precursor to today’s Board of Tourism, oversaw the development of Bermuda’s tourism with the Hotel Association, the legislature and numerous tourist attractions.

The responsibilities featured in Board minutes of the 1930s were wide ranging including funding a caretaker for the St. George Historical Society and sponsorship of the Bank of the Bermuda Militia Artillery at a General Electric company convention. The Board mandated safety measures for off-shore fishing. It debated sending Easter Lilies to Rotary Clubs in the eastern United States to encourage seasonal tourism. Somewhere between the discussion of Easter lilies and deep-sea fishing safety was a discussion of Jewish tourism.

The Board called a meeting in February 1937 to hear the concerns Mr. E. Rees who represented the Furness Bermuda Line. Furness received a subsidy from the Bermuda government for providing two ships, the Monarch and the Queen Elizabeth, to bring tourists to the island. Rees was upset that yet another Bermuda hotel adopted a policy restricting their Jewish clientele. Only two or three hotels remained who were willing to accommodate Jewish guests. Rees objected to Jewish tourists being directed to these particular hotels because Furness had a business interest in them. He insisted that every hotel on the island should take its fair share of Jews.

Mr. Rees threatened to activate clauses in their contract should the situation worsen. If restricted policies became public knowledge in New York, American newspapers would pick up the story and tourism would drop off. If tourism declined, Rees announced that Furness was legally obligated to run only one ship between New York and Bermuda. Rees was not dissuaded when reminded that Furness had created the Mid-Ocean Golf Club which was among the first to initiate restricted policies.

The Board Chairman noted that given the increasing number of “Hebrew” tourists, some Gentile (non-Jewish) tourists of long-standing hinted that they might not return. The Board considered that Gentiles might replace Jews if they were guaranteed restricted hotels. When the question of racial prejudice was raised, Board members claimed that discrimination was forced on them. Hotel guests demanded segregation from lower-class Jews, especially the newer, Russian immigrants.

The remainder of the meeting was devoted to modifying the “Jew trade” without causing a backlash in the press. They focused on increasing cruise prices to eliminate lower-class passengers. The minutes refer to past success of such policies, “… restrictions imposed on people buying land, and stated that he felt that the difficulty which Jews experienced acquiring land in Bermuda had been a great help in protecting those who had already acquired property here.”

Meanwhile, the Hotel Association proceeded with discriminatory policies, making a public announcement in The New York Times. Almost immediately, the Trade Development Board received letters from lawyers demanding an explanation. With few options available, the Board responded with copies of the Hotel Keeper Protection Act giving hotels the legal right to accept or refuse admittance.

As the war progressed, Bermuda was transformed by militarization of its economy, land and transportation. The entire population was affected and the Malloys were no exception. My grandfather became an auctioneer for government courts selling seized German contraband. His real estate business catered to military personnel, civilian service providers and British wives and children seeking safety, many of whom were Jewish. The Malloy brothers, Myer and Barney, organized Jewish services, a first in Bermuda’s history.
The war also separated families. Barney encountered business difficulties regarding war restrictions and relocated his family to safety in the States. My Aunt Polly was sent to the safety of an American boarding school. My mother wasn’t easily able to return from the States.

In the months before her departure in 1941, Polly’s diary writes about the war through the eyes of an exuberant adolescent of the Bermuda Jews.

“Another rainy Saturday! Spent an hour at daddy’s office watching the navy launches coming and going. Some of those officers are so cute! … Every programme on the radio tonight has asked people to buy defense bonds. We can’t do that here (only certificates) but I am going to knit for Red Cross…”

“Lois [Gibbons] came over this afternoon. As usual we ate, talked and giggled. Girls are so silly! Last night after I wrote in this, Kate Smith sang “God Bless America and dedicated it to the marines at Wake and Midway. It gave me a funny feeling at the bottom of my stomach. If I were a man, I would fly a plan on an aircraft carrier. Walter Winchell proposed a good toast for the Jap navy “Bottoms Up!” (Mr. Gibbons says that Norma [Gibbons] is going to take flying lessons. Some people have all the luck.)”

“… We all went to St. Georges today for the game. What fun! Barbara and Gloria are loads of fun! Everything out there was really exciting (in a dull sort of way). Soldiers and sailors all around, a convoy out at dockyard, target practice, etc. Heard the most wonderful poem about a marine from Texas on Wake Island. It was like “The Charge of the Light Brigade” only much sadder and more beautiful.”

“… Mr. & Mrs. Odone from the Censorship [British] came over this evening and we are going to swap our rations for their coffee rations. They have started rations this week with a bang – even bread. Oh well, we haven’t been asked to do very much before.”

“… Today was the fatal day (leaving for school in the States)! Mom, daddy and I went down to the airways office … Then in the launch to Darrels Island where we found out the plane hadn’t arrived from Lisbon, and had to wait until 7 o’clock. It was very interesting though. Bombers, naval scout planes, and trainers all around the place and “Scotties” guarding everything… The plane was loaded to capacity – 65. We were blacked out almost all the way over, but everyone peeked.”

Bermudians watched the war unfold as military news from China, Egypt, Leningrad, Algeria, Sweden, and Italy took over The Royal Gazette and Colonist Daily. Local news included discussion of Bermuda’s role and financial responsibility to the Imperial Government. Sir Stanley Spurling endorsed local support.
“I think that we must realize we are taking upon ourselves a very serious risk in authorizing this loan but we should do it unanimously and gladly in the common interests of the empire which, I feel, it is our duty and privilege to do.”

The Royal Gazette and Colonist Daily followed the plight of European Jews with gut-wrenching reports including this report from Paris.
“Many Jews were dragged from their homes. Others were ejected from the hospital. At the Rothschild Hospital, Herr Deniker, renowned for his sadism at the Jewish camp at Compiegne, personally direct the evacuation with a whip in his hands. Among the patients who were thrown out of this hospital, was a cancer case that had been operated on 12 hours before; also a woman beside whose bed the police stood, while she was being delivered of a child…   Three hundred suicides were recorded. Jewesses were seen to throw their babies out of sixth floor windows, and then jump to death, screaming wildly.”

The dire situation of Warsaw Jews was also reported in Bermuda’s press which printed their ‘dramatic S.O.S.’
“The liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto by the Germans is being speeded up. It is intended to empty the ghetto altogether and close it before the Spring. The methods used are most brutal and inhuman … A similar extermination of Jews is going on all over Poland. You must rouse the whole world to action. Only 200,000 of us remain and we are threatened with annihilation.”

A joint Allied declaration condemning these atrocities was reported in Bermuda’s newspaper as was the debate that followed in British Parliament. Several Members of Parliament asked Mr. Anthony Eden, Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons what steps were contemplated to rescue the Jews from threatened extermination by the Nazis. In an article entitled, “Britain Working for Rescue of the Jews: ‘Concrete’ Results Hoped For, Eden Tells Commons”, Mr. Eden responded that he didn’t know of concrete proposals to the German government. However, he did expect results from a proposal concerning areas under British responsibility and from a second proposal concerning international rescue arrangements.

Several months later, a front-page article demonstrated the on-going inaction. “More Govt. Help For Refugees Is Demanded by Archbishop In Lords: Urges Charter of Neutral Vessels” reported that the Bishop of Canterbury spoke to a cheering House of Lords when he demanded that the government go beyond debate. He wanted ships carrying troops and supplies to receive refugees and take them to British or American ports where food, clothing, and funds would be provided. The Bishop urged immediate revision of visa regulations to ameliorate the refusal of visas to many refugees.      “We should open our doors, irrespective of whether the German door is open or shut, so that all who can may come.”

Prominent Catholics and Methodists added their support, but the British government responded sluggishly.
“ . . . Although the Jewish aspect was the most horrible feature, it was only one feature of a much bigger problem. The Government’s policy remained to all in their power consistent with the military situation and the safety of her own people, but over 150,000 refugees had been admitted before and during the war and all have to be fed and cared for, and Britain is not self-supporting. Every ounce of food now being brought here is brought by the blood and sweat of British sailors. Whatever our wishes there must be limits to the steps we can take.”

Despite British Parliament’s refugee exhaustion, the debate continued. Bermuda’s newspapers soon reported “Anglo-U.S. Refugees Parley in Bermuda”. The article gleefully noted that Bermuda was chosen over Canada as the site of this international conference. Further, rumors circulated that Bermuda might be a post-war site for the United Nations. Was there a new, international role for Bermuda?

The United Nations never did relocate. Nor did the 1943 Refugee Conference bestow international fame. The conference was decidedly lackluster with no public statement on its findings for weeks.  Even so, my grandfather was disappointed when his request for permission to attend, as one of few Bermuda Jews, was denied. When finally issued, the document highlighted the difficulty of rescue with Hitler still in power, stating that haste wouldn’t alter the refugee situation.

Whatever the failures of the conference, Bermudians themselves extended themselves generously. Among my father’s papers was this description of war-time cooperation between Bermuda’s Jews and Gentiles, the Malloys and the Church, by the late rabbi of Rockford, Illinois where I’d become the Jewish Federation executive director. Rabbi Saul Appelbaum had visited Bermuda and wrote this letter:

“I don’t think I shall ever again think of Kol Nidre [Yom Kippur Eve – High Holy Day of Atonement] without remembering the story about the boatload of Jewish refugees putting into Bermuda’s Harbor during wartime. It was the day before Yom Kippur. The ship was crowded, and these poor bedraggled people wanted only one thing that day. All they wanted was to have a Yom Kippur Service. . . With pride, I shall remember how the magnificent citizen of your community, for 36 years a resident, and carrying the heritage of Judaism proudly, arranged with the Governor-General to have these former-prisoners released from the ship; sought out the Bishop of the Church of England who eagerly gave his consent for a service to be held in the Cathedral and how they set foot on free soil, marched down the streets, guided by friendly soldiers, to hold their first Kol Nidre service in many a year in freedom. There they all sat, all on one side because they were still in quarantine, and the Jewish service men on the other side, and all of them sent their hearts out to God …”

As I looked from the pulpit where this rabbi once stood, I thought “Yes, it is time to move on, but it is also appropriate to remember as the past shapes the present and shapes the future.” The next and final installment honors love, documents war and celebrates post-war achievements. It’s for you Sammy, friends and loved ones.


Jewish in Bermuda Series © Deborah Levine
originally published in The Bermudian Magazine

Part 1: Returning for Passover
Part 2: The Immigrants

Part 4: Love, War, and Beyond

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