Responding to a Refugee Crisis | Facing History & Ourselves
refugees on a large boat

Responding to a Refugee Crisis

Students think about the responsibilities of governments as they consider how countries around the world responded to the European Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany.


At a Glance

lesson copy


English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies




One 50-min class period
  • The Holocaust


About This Lesson

In the previous lesson, students learned about Kristallnacht and explored the range of choices people made in response to the violence and destruction of those coordinated attacks on Jews in Nazi Germany. In this lesson, students will learn about one significant consequence of Kristallnacht and other instances of Nazi aggression in 1938: an intensifying refugee crisis. They will explore how countries around the world responded to thousands of European Jews trying to escape the danger of Nazi Germany. Students will think deeply about the rights and responsibilities of governments to respond to events that take place within the borders of other countries, and they will hear the testimonies of Holocaust survivors describing their experiences as they tried to escape from Nazi Germany before World War II.

Unit Essential Question: What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?

  • What challenges prevented many Jews from leaving Nazi Germany?
  • What responsibility does a country have to help those from another country who are facing danger?
  • Students will analyze texts describing the choices countries made in response to the European Jewish refugee crisis in the late 1930s in order to deepen their thinking about the responsibilities of governments and individuals to people outside their borders.
  • Students will respond to video testimony of Holocaust survivors describing the difficulties of escaping Nazi Germany in 1939.

This lesson is designed to fit into one 50-min class period and includes:

  • 3 activities
  • 3 teaching strategies
  • 2 videos
  • 3 readings, available in English and in Spanish
  • 2 assessments
  • 3 extension activities

Germany’s aggressive steps to expand its borders in 1938 touched off both an international political crisis, as world leaders scrambled to avoid war, and a humanitarian refugee crisis, as hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Jews, sought safety from the Nazis.

The annexation of Austria into the Third Reich spelled terror for the 200,000 Jews in that country. Within weeks of the Anschluss (a term used to refer to the union of Germany and Austria in 1938), foreign journalists in Austria were reporting hundreds of antisemitic incidents throughout the nation. Some noted a sharp increase in suicides, as thousands of Jews tried desperately to emigrate only to encounter roadblocks wherever they turned. Their difficulty in leaving “Greater Germany” was not with the Nazis, who, faced with the problem of including an additional 200,000 Jews in the Reich, were eager to see Jews leave the country as long as they left their money and other possessions behind. The problem was with other nations, most of whom had no interest in accepting thousands of penniless Jewish refugees. US President Franklin Roosevelt believed he did not have the public’s support to ask Congress to change the quota system under which immigrants were admitted. In one poll, 67% of Americans said that the United States should keep Jewish refugees out. 1

Instead, Roosevelt called for an international conference at Evian, France, to discuss the growing crisis. Yet none of the countries that gathered, except the Dominican Republic, pledged to help. Only M. J. M. Yepes of Colombia, a professor who also served as the legal advisor to his country’s permanent delegation to the League of Nations, addressed the real issue at the Evian conference. He told delegates that there were two central questions that they must confront. One was a question of fact that each nation had to answer for itself: How many refugees would it admit? The other question involved a matter of principle: “Can a State, without upsetting the basis of our civilization, and, indeed, of all civilization, arbitrarily withdraw nationality from a whole class of its citizens, thereby making them Stateless Persons whom no country is compelled to receive on its territory?” 2  Yepes went on to say that as long as that central problem was not decided, the work of the conference would not be lasting and a dangerous example would be set—an example that in his view would make the world “uninhabitable.” But most delegates did not want to deal with either issue. 3

The events of Kristallnacht in November 1938 only increased the urgency felt by hundreds of thousands of Jews to leave the Third Reich. But both public opinion and political will against admitting refugees held strong in most countries, including the United States.

Nevertheless, there were some successful rescue efforts, as some individual activists and diplomats devised ways to issue visas to allow Jews to emigrate. Also, a group of Christians and Jews in England responded with a plan to rescue Jewish children from the Nazis. In the operation known as the Kindertransport, 10,000 children under the age of 17 were brought to England between December 1938 and September 1939. The rescue effort was focused on children because the organizers feared the British would see adults as competitors for jobs, housing, and social services. Children were forced to separate from their parents (often permanently), and they were placed in English homes, schools, and farms, where they were raised at least through the war years.

Despite the difficulties of emigration, by 1939, nearly half of the 1933 Jewish population of Germany had left the country. Many more were desperate to obtain visas to get out. Among those who had the “right papers” were the 937 men, women, and children who boarded a ship, the St. Louis, in Hamburg, Germany, on May 14. The voyage of the St. Louis has become both a symbol of the refugee crisis and a cautionary tale about the indifference of countries to the plight of those in danger outside their borders. As the St. Louis neared Cuba, the Cuban government, in response to pressure from Cubans opposed to increased Jewish immigration, suddenly canceled the landing permits of all Jewish passengers (30 non-Jews were permitted to enter the country). The ship left Havana and sailed along the Florida coast, hoping to obtain permission for the passengers to enter another country in North or South America. No permission was granted. On June 7, the captain had no choice but to return to Germany with most of his passengers still on board. The Nazis turned the incident into propaganda. They claimed that it demonstrated that Jews were universally disliked and distrusted. On June 10, Belgium accepted 200 passengers from the St. Louis. Two days later, the Netherlands promised to take in 194. Britain and France admitted the rest.

Furious at the role the US government had played in the crisis, a resident of Richmond, Virginia, wrote:

[The] press reported that the ship came close enough to Miami for the refugees to see the lights of the city. The press also reported that the U.S. Coast Guard, under instructions from Washington, followed the prevent any people landing on our shores. And during the days when this horrible tragedy was being enacted right at our doors, our government in Washington made no effort to relieve the desperate situation of these people, but on the contrary gave orders that they be kept out of the country....The failure to take any steps whatsoever to assist these distressed, persecuted Jews in their hour of extremity was one of the most disgraceful things which has happened in American history and leaves a stain and brand of shame upon the record of our nation. 4

  • 1Ishaan Tharoor, “What Americans thought of Jewish refugees on the eve of World War II,” Washington Post, November 17, 2015, accessed June 29, 2016.
  • 2Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, Flight from the Reich: Refugee Jews, 1933–1946 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009), 100.
  • 3Dwork and van Pelt, Flight from the Reich, 100.
  • 4Quoted in Arthur Morse, While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy (New York: Overlook Press, 1985), 280.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this text set, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

This unit does not explore the history of the Anschluss (the German annexation of Austria) and the Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Yet these are two significant events in 1938 that contributed to the refugee crisis and to international tensions that led to World War II. It is important to explain briefly to students that Germany began to expand its borders in 1938 so that they can understand why some of the stories included in the resources they encounter took place in Austria and Czechoslovakia. Consult Chapter 7 of Holocaust and Human Behavior for additional resources that can provide background knowledge or classroom activities.

The following are key vocabulary terms used in this lesson:

  • Refugee
  • Visa
  • Quota

Add these words to your Word Wall, if you are using one for this unit, and provide necessary support to help students learn these words as you teach the lesson.

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Lesson Plans


Tell students that in this lesson they will learn about the efforts of many Jews to leave Nazi-controlled areas and the barriers they faced, in large part, because of other countries’ unwillingness to help them. Begin by asking students to copy the statement below into their journals and then respond to it. Do they agree or disagree with the statement? Why?

When a government commits violence against the people of its own country, other countries have a responsibility to intervene, stop the violence, and help the victims.

After students have had a few minutes to respond, encourage them to share their viewpoints in a short class discussion. If you have time, you might debrief their responses using the Barometer teaching strategy.

  • Explain to students that in 1938, Nazi Germany expanded into Austria and Czechoslovakia without other nations acting in those countries’ defense. Germany’s expansion put millions more Jews in danger of persecution by the Nazis, and the violence of Kristallnacht (in November 1938) caused many fearful Jews in these countries to try to emigrate to other countries. But emigration wasn’t so simple, because other countries weren’t willing to take them in.
  • Prepare the class for Jigsaw discussions by arranging students in groups of three. Assign one of the following three readings to each group:
  • Each group will read its reading together and then discuss the following questions:
    • How did the countries in this reading respond to the refugee crisis? What reasons did they give for their response? What determined whether or not countries were willing to accept Jewish refugees? What do the countries’ responses say about how each of them defined its universe of obligation
      Let students know that they will each be required to share their group’s response to these questions with a new group, and encourage them to each write down their group’s response in preparation for that task.
  • After students have had time to read and discuss their readings, instruct the class to form “expert” groups of three. Set up these groups so that each member of an expert group will bring a different reading to the group. In their new groups, students should take turns summarizing their readings and sharing their first group’s response to the discussion question.
  • After the expert groups have completed their tasks, ask students to take a moment to complete an S-I-T reflection in their journals. They should name and write about one thing they learned about world responses to the refugee crisis that surprises them, one thing that they find interesting, and one thing that troubles them.
  • Tell students that they will watch two videos of Holocaust survivors discussing their efforts to leave Germany in 1939.
  • Before showing the first video, Turned Away on the M.S. St. Louis (06:28), share with students the following context:
    On May 14, 937 men, women, and children boarded a ship, the St. Louis, in Hamburg, Germany. Each had paid $150—a significant sum of money in 1939—for written permission to enter Cuba. While the ship crossed the Atlantic Ocean, the Cuban government changed its mind and prohibited the refugees from entering the country. The ship sailed along the coast of Florida, hoping the US government would accept the refugees, but the United States turned the ship away, and it sailed back to Europe. The passengers were eventually admitted into Belgium, the Netherlands, Britain, and France. In this video, Holocaust survivor Sol Messinger describes his experiences aboard the M.S. St. Louis.
  • Before showing the second video, Preparing for the Kindertransport (07:06), share with students the following context:
    Between December 1938 and September 1939, a group of Christians and Jews organized an effort to rescue Jewish children, under the age of 17, by bringing them to England to live with families or at schools and on farms. They focused their efforts on children because they feared the British would see adults as competitors for jobs, housing, and social services. In all, the operation rescued 10,000 children, though it forced them to separate from their families (often permanently). In this video, Vera Gissing, a Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia, recalls how her family prepared her for the Kindertransport.
  • After viewing the videos, ask students to respond to the following questions in their journals:
    • What did watching these videos make you think and feel?
    • How does hearing a firsthand account from a survivor add to your understanding of the difficulties Jews experienced in attempting to flee Nazi Germany?
  • Finish the lesson by asking students to review their journal response from the beginning of the lesson. Ask them now to write for a moment about how what they learned and experienced in this lesson either changed or confirmed their initial thinking about whether or not countries have a responsibility to intervene when other countries act violently toward the people living within their own borders.


  • Collect the S-I-T reflections from Activity 2 to gauge students’ understanding of and reaction to the plight of refugees in 1938 and the refusal of so many countries to help. If you have established that journals are private in your classroom, have students complete the reflection on a separate sheet of paper to turn in.
  • Listen carefully to students’ contributions to the Jigsaw discussions in this lesson to check for understanding and the quality of their contributions to each other’s learning.

Extension Activities

In the 2010s, Europe has faced its greatest humanitarian and refugee crisis since the 1930s. The reading Memory and Decision Making in Europe Today explores the historical parallels between these two crises. You might share this reading with students and use the connection questions that follow to begin a class discussion about the echoes of history in contemporary Europe. You might also assign students to research the current state of the refugee crisis in Europe (as well as those taking place in Myanmar and other parts of the world) to extend their exploration.

The film America and the Holocaust (01:21:00) traces the history of the US response to the actions of the Nazi government through the 1930s, World War II, and the Holocaust. One particular clip (05:00–20:30) is worth showing to students to help them better understand the extent of antisemitism and fear of refugees in the United States in the 1930s. After watching the clip, use the Connect, Extend, Challenge strategy to debrief with students.

Chapter 7 of Holocaust and Human Behavior includes several readings that explain Nazi Germany’s takeover of Austria (known as the Anschluss) and expansion into Czechoslovakia. The chapter also includes additional information about the refugee crisis, the refusal of countries to take in refugees, and efforts to rescue Jews from Nazi Germany on the eve of World War II. Consider using these resources in additional activities with students, or read the chapter for your own background information.

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