THE GREY FOLDER PROJECT
FROM THE SPRING of 1939, as my father's parents and aunt in Mannheim awaited U.S. visas, my father (who had immigrated just months before) wrote desperate letters to various governments requesting temporary refuge until their visas came through.
In a six-month period between May and November, 1939, he received eleven official looking letters from various countries—Britain, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, Canada, Holland and Mexico. They were written in English, German, Dutch or Spanish.
Each response was a rejection.
THE EARLIEST RESPONSES arrived in May and June of 1939 to my father’s address in Nashville, where he had been living for just under two months. The British Consul General in New Orleans, spoke of “the desire of your father and mother to enter the United Kingdom to await the issue of an immigration visa” for the United States, and simply referred him to refugee organizations, such as the German Jewish Aid Committee. The British Consul General in Frankfort wrote essentially the same thing.
The Canadian government, which sent two letters (oddly, from the “Immigration Branch” of the Department of Mines and Resources) were more specific in their rejections to my father’s request that his parents and aunt be allowed to reside in Canada until sometime in 1940 when he hoped to get them into the United States.
“I regret that it is not possible,” wrote the director, “as Canada already has a great many applications from her own people for the admission of relatives and friends and the number is so great that we cannot undertake to solve the problems of those who desire to go to the United States. “
The Commissioner of the Immigration Branch in Ottowa, after a second appeal from my father, was firm. “Your parents could not be accepted as bona fide non-immigrants in Canada,” he wrote, “unless they could obtain definite and unconditional assurance of re-admission to the United States upon temporary stay in this country.
“You can appreciate, of course, they would have no desire to return to Europe if admitted to Canada,” he added, in the most verbose of the letters, “and it would cause great embarrassment to all concerned should they come to this country for a temporary purpose and subsequently be refused entry to the United States where they desire to make their permanent home.”
THEY WOULD HAVE NO DESIRE to return to Europe. Indeed.
Reading the letter from Ottowa, I could hear, echoing down the corridor of time, the sound of doors slamming shut.