Escape From Vichy: The Refugee Exodus to the French Caribbean
By Eric T. Jennings
Harvard University Press, 2018, 320 pp.
Nearly the New World: The British West Indies and the Flight From Nazism, 1933–1945
By Joanna Newman
Berghahn Books, 2019, 320 pp.
As global migration flows surge, there is renewed interest in the histories of previously displaced populations. When the Nazis tightened their grip on Europe, and the United Kingdom and the United States slammed shut their doors, desperate refugees turned to less common destinations, including the British and French colonies of the Caribbean. Two highly competent studies recount the harrowing journeys of those European refugees lucky enough to secure safe havens in distant tropical destinations.
For a brief period during the early 1940s, Vichy France allowed refugees—mostly German Jews, anti-Nazi activists, and defeated Spanish Republicans—passage on cargo ships sailing from Marseille via Casablanca to the French colony of Martinique. They still had to overcome Kafkaesque hurdles in the Vichy bureaucracy and anti-immigrant attitudes among the authorities in Martinique. Expertly analyzing archives and illustrative case studies, Jennings finds that success required good luck, financial resources, personal connections, courage, and determination. For most of these refugees, Martinique was a transit point for eventual resettlement in the United States or elsewhere in the Americas. Particularly fascinating is Jennings’s sketch of a constellation of celebrity refugees that included the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the surrealist André Breton, the Russian revolutionary Victor Serge, and the Afro-Cuban cubist painter Wifredo Lam. Once in Martinique, these figures encountered Aimé and Suzanne Césaire, early advocates of black pride, opening new horizons that, Jennings suggests, “built a stepping-stone of postwar liberation ideology.”
Newman’s father was a child refugee from Germany, arriving in the United Kingdom in 1937. She seeks “to explain rather than cast blame” as she describes the conflicting priorities of the rulers of the British Empire during the tumultuous 1930s. The plight of asylum seekers barely registered in a time of economic depression, xenophobia, fears of instability in the colonies, and, eventually, the overwhelming imperatives of waging war. Nevertheless, the British West Indies offered temporary sanctuary to some 5,000 European refugees. These refugees often met with a “reluctant welcome” in the Caribbean; the West Indies was not a mythical haven of tolerance. Some Jewish immigrants prospered in their new island communities; most chose to move on when political conditions allowed.