Photographic Prints from Loeb Album: Scan 5, in the Manfred and Ann Loeb Collection #P0029, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
A few miles north of Burgaw, North Carolina, on what was then the rail line, nine families of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939 were moved to a rural, agricultural setting. On April 18, at 2:00 p.m. at Pender County Public Library, a NC State Highway Historical Marker was dedicated that reads: "Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany lived, 1939-46, at agricultural colony founded in 1909 and revived by Alvin Johnson. Two mi. SW."
According to Jerry Klinger, president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, “the U.S. State Department, imbued with anti-Semitism, did not care if a Jewish refugee trapped in Europe was an academic, a scientist, a researcher, or a professor, who desperately sought to escape the Nazis and death. In 1939, they did not want more Jews coming to America.”
Alvin Johnson, Director of the New School for Social Research in New York, learned there was a back door to saving life. If a refugee were a farmer, the State Department would be willing to let them come to America—even, begrudgingly, Jewish refugee farmers. Johnson’s simple solution was to have Jewish academics classified as farmers.” However, they had to have farm land in America to settle on before they could enter the country.
Hugh MacRae, a prominent businessman in Wilmington, had 1,080 acres in Pender County already divided into small farms with small, rustic houses vacant since the early 1900s. MacRae had originally recruited farmers from Holland to establish models of intensive agricultural techniques, but it had quickly failed and they had long since moved away. MacRae knew Alvin Johnson and sold him the land to help the effort.
Most of the Jewish refugees knew nothing about farming. “Problems soon emerged, as the resettlement of urban sophisticates with little farm experience to rural North Carolina proved challenging. Crops suffered. There were snakes and mosquitoes,” said Michael Hill, supervisor of the Research Branch of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History.
Hill continued, “They made the best of a bad situation, and as historian Leonard Rogoff has written, “Burgaw was not Berlin.” However, Klinger points out that, “Johnson had the fortitude to fight the State Department. Businessman Hiram Halle had the money. Hugh MacRae had the land in North Carolina. The community in Pender County received the unlikely Jewish “farmers” and helped them as much as they could.”
Plans were to save 100 families before the Nazis closed the borders to Jews. “For those who came to North Carolina, as few as they were, North Carolina and non-Jews did what no one else would or could do. They proved, if good people wish to do the right thing, there was a way,” Jerry Klinger concluded.
Pender County Public Library would like to thank the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center for digitizing Susan Taylor Block's 1995 book Van Eeden. Block's book provides details about how Alvin Johnson and Hugh MacRae planned the community and lobbied in Washington for the project, and riveting oral histories of life at Van Eeden from settlers that Block was able to interview. You can view details about the book here, or read the book online using the button below.