After the fall of France to Germany in 1940, the “best avenue of escape” for those fleeing the Nazis from the southern part of the country was by boat from Marseilles to Martinique, which was a French colony at the time. Conditions were harsh. The Russian intellectual Victor Serge, who eventually made it to Mexico with his son, described the voyage across the Atlantic as an “ersatz concentration camp of the sea.” Even with paperwork in order, refugees were still subject to harsh interrogation upon arrival on the island. Internment was common.
According to scholar Eric T. Jennings, the Martinique route was initially encouraged by the foreign ministry of the collaborationist government of German-occupied France, known as Vichy. The ministry was eager to expel refugees, especially Jewish refugees. Jennings calls it a “Janus-faced” policy, “alternating humanitarian and xenophobic imperatives.” In the grim realities of the war, the antisemitism of expulsion saved some from the antisemitism of extermination.
But while the foreign ministry wanted to get rid of more people, the Vichy Ministry for the Colonies didn’t want more refugees “dumped” on them. They worried that German and Austrian anti-Nazis, Spanish Republicans, and Jews would mix with Martinique’s Black population and find common ground in opposition to the Nazis. In the worst-case scenario, this would lead to anticolonial synergies.
The luckiest of refugees would continue on their way to North, Central, and South America—wherever they had gotten visas. Anna Seghers and her family bounced around the Caribbean before making it to New York City, where they were denied entry; they eventually found refuge in Mexico. Others, however, would languish in camps on Martinique, some until the island was taken over by Free French forces on July 14, 1943.
The route to Martinique was shut down by the Allies by the summer of 1941. The British and Americans wanted to stop Vichy shipping for two reasons. They worried that Nazi spies, “fifth columnists,” and other “undesirables” were using French ships to infiltrate the Western Hemisphere. They also didn’t want boats filled with supplies from the Caribbean going back to the Nazis.
Although not formally at war until December 1941, the United States worked with the British to sever “all maritime, commercial, and even postal links between the French Caribbean and the metropole [France]” during the summer of 1941, according to Jennings. The thousands still waiting for rescue in Marseilles were collateral damage, left to the mercies of the Gestapo and the Vichy police.
The last refugee ship out of Marseilles was the Arica in late May of 1941.