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American Experience | America and the Holocaust | Article

The Bermuda Conference

Courtesy: The Holocaust Chronicle

April 19 - 29, 1943

On March 23, 1943 the archbishop of Canterbury William Temple stood up in front of the House of Lords in London and pleaded with the British government to help the Jews of Europe. "We at this moment have upon us a tremendous responsibility," he said. "We stand at the bar of history, of humanity, and of God." Ever since news of Hitler's plan to annihilate the Jews of Europe reached the public in late 1942, British church leaders and members of Parliament had been agitating for something to be done. Temple's plea marked the culmination of the clamoring. 

The British government responded by proposing to the U.S. State Department that the Allied countries hold a conference to discuss whether some of the refugees who had reached neutral countries could be evacuated to safe havens. But the Foreign Office had one fear: their plan to rescue Jews might be too successful. In a memo the Foreign Office pointed out there were some "complicating factors": "There is a possibility that the Germans or their satellites may change over from the policy of extermination to one of extrusion, and aim as they did before the war at embarrassing other countries by flooding them with alien immigrants." 

The U.S. sat on the proposal for several weeks. It wasn't until Jewish leaders organized a mass demonstration in New York's Madison Square Garden that the State Department saw the public relations value of the conference. Bermuda was chosen as a location most likely because wartime regulations restricting access to the island would keep the deliberations out of the public eye. While some of the mainstream press bought the ploy --"U.S., Britain Map Plan to Save Jews" read a "New York Daily News" headline -- many concerned Americans began to wonder if the conference would achieve anything. A "New Republic" writer expressed some of their concerns: "No Jewish organizations are represented and the conference is purely exploratory, can make no decisions and must submit whatever recommendations it may have to the executive committee of the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees. Meanwhile the hourly slaughter of the Jews goes on." 

Jewish leaders pressed to be allowed to send a small delegation to the Conference, but when the State Department rejected the idea they settled on sending a list of rescue proposals. Others also had suggestions for the delegates in Bermuda. Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle proposed establishing a temporary safe haven for up to 100,000 Jews in an area of Eastern Libya. The idea was already on the agenda for Bermuda, but it never came to anything. The President's Advisory Committee on Political Refugees also sent a list of proposals. These included using British Honduras as a sanctuary for Jews. 

But the Bermuda Conference was organized in a way that prevented it from producing results. Both the British and American governments carefully restricted what their delegates could promise before the meeting even opened. The U.S. instructed its representatives not to make commitments on shipping, funds or new relief agencies. Additionally, the Roosevelt Administration warned that it had "no power to relax or rescind [the immigration] laws." The British government imposed the additional restriction that its policy on admitting refugees to Palestine could not be discussed. 

When the Bermuda Conference finally wrapped up its 12 days of secret deliberations very little had been achieved. The delegates' list of proposals included: the decision "that no approach be made to Hitler for the release of potential refugees;" suggestions for helping refugees leave Spain; and a declaration on the postwar repatriation of refugees. Even though the conferees decided to keep their report secret, they did make it clear to the press that most of the proposals submitted to the conference had been rejected. As the delegates went home, newspaper headlines relayed the disappointing news to the public: "Scant Hope Seen For Axis Victims" read one, "Refugee Removal Called Impossible" reported another. 

The Jews of America met the news from Bermuda with outrage. One Jewish organization took out a three-quarter page advertisement in "The New York Times" with the headline "To 5,000,000 Jews in the Nazi Death-Trap Bermuda Was a 'Cruel Mockery.'" Some congressmen expressed similar anger. One of them declared that Bermuda was nothing more than "diplomatic tight-rope walking." There is no way of measuring how many Jews died as a result of the procrastination at Bermuda. However, two days after the conference opened, the Allies received news that yet another tragedy was unfolding in Europe. The Jews of the Warsaw ghetto, who'd begun their uprising the day the conferees first met, flashed a four-sentence radio message to the West. It ended with the words "Save us." 

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