Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Dr Claudia Rei discusses her recent paper on Jewish Holocaust refugees

Header image for article

Dr Claudia Rei discusses her recent paper on Jewish Holocaust refugees

Dr Claudia Rei discusses her recently published paper and upcoming research papers

Tell us a bit about your background and how long have you been at Warwick?

I am originally from Portugal where I did my undergraduate studies in Economics. I worked for a couple of years before I went to grad school in the US, after which I got a job at Vanderbilt. I worked there for 8 years before I arrived at Warwick last September.

Your recent paper on Holocaust refugees was published as the lead article on the European Review of Economic History – could you give a brief overview of your findings?

This is joint work with Matthias Blum (Queen's University Belfast). We study the last wave of Jewish refugees to escape Europe after the outbreak of the Second World War, all of whom travelled from Lisbon to New York City between 1940 and 1942, when Lisbon became the last major port of departure. Leaving Europe before 1940 was troublesome but there were still several European ports providing regular passenger traffic to the Americas. After 1940, emigration was increasingly difficult and getting to Lisbon was both a matter of wealth and luck; by mid-1942 it was nearly impossible for Jews to leave Europe due to mass deportations to concentration camps in the East. We use average height as a key indicator to assess health and human capital of these wartime migrants.

Our findings show these migrants belonged to a higher social background when compared to the populations in source countries, that is, all migrants in our sample were positively selected from the original population. This pattern is stronger in females than males. Even so, non-Jews were more positively selected than Jews regardless of gender. The height gap between Jews and non-Jews is not associated with skill or wealth differences, and it disappears once we control for migration initiative as measured by the timing of migration and prior migrant status. That we still find positive selection in refugees leaving long after the seizure of power by the Nazis' in Germany is more likely an indication that they had good reasons to stay behind, than the simple lack of migration initiative. If you work on a contract and you lease an apartment, the decision to leave is relatively easy: you just have to quit your job and terminate your lease. If you own a factory or a shop and you employ people in your own business, you will hold out until the last minute when you leave everything behind and run for your life. The latter seem to be more prevalent in the last wave of World War II refugees that we study in our paper.

What issues were you faced with when conducting this research

The data for this project is accessible on, but scraping the information from that website infringes copyright laws. We had to extract the data from ship manifests directly from the original source: the New York Passenger Arrival Records located at the United States National Archives in Washington DC. The collection is comprised of 9,567 microfilm rolls with passenger lists on every (sea or air) vessel arrived in the Port of New York between 1820 and 1957 originating in any port in the world. Our time frame and single port of origin limited the spectrum of search to 243 microfilm rolls. This particular collection is directly accessible to registered users who can themselves get the microfilm boxes, load the film in the reading machine, visualize it on a computer screen, and save the relevant images on a flash drive. A week and 3,000+ picture files afterwards we had the data in hand. Then we entered the transcription stage into excel spreadsheets, a process that took much longer.

Are there any follow-up plans to your research?

Yes. We are interested in understanding the transformation of economic migrants into war refugees so we focus on European migration into the United States from the post-open door policy period up to World War II (1925-1940). We have liaised with Alex Wulfers (Oxford) who studied 900,000 migrants departing Bremen to the Americas between 1920 and 1939, and with Ariell Zimran (Vanderbilt) whose work on Italian migrants into the United States between 1907 and 1925 provides a glimpse of one of the last groups to migrate before the imposition of any restrictions on migration. Together, we have applied to the US-based genealogy organization FamilySearch to get data on all arrivals into the United States between 1925 and 1940, so to understand how these migrants differed from migrants going elsewhere and how the composition of US migrants changed with the historical developments in Nazi Germany. Unlike the German records, the United States Immigration Services kept records on individual height allowing for a comprehensive anthropometric study.

Do you have any working papers/research coming through in the next year?

I have a couple of projects on historical state capacity, that is the presence of the state in the nineteenth century when modern European states emerged. The objective is to understand if places with access to state services historically are any different presently from places that did not experience such services in the past though they may have gained access to them at a later stage. Does historical exposure to the state affect current outcomes? The first project studies the relationship between postal presence in Portugal in 1875 and voter participation in democratic elections post-1975. The historic presence of postmen is associated with higher voter turnout in any election, but lower participation in local relative to national elections suggesting more concern for the national than the local government. The second project involves the extraction of biographical information of all members of parliament in the Portuguese constitutional monarchy (1834-1910). In that context, state presence is measured by the arrival of the telegraph, which changed access to information in nineteenth century Portugal: places adopting the telegraph earlier were potentially more informed about the candidates they elected. The goal of this project is to understand the determinants behind the selection of the political class, not just in nineteenth-century Portugal but also in fledgling democracies today.

What do you see yourself doing in 5 years’ time?

Hopefully I'll continue working on exciting research projects where the search for answers is not trivial and I still get surprised with the outcomes

What do you like doing when you are not studying/researching?

I like hiking and going to the movies but I do those activities very differently wherever I locate. At Vanderbilt I had a hiking group, which I organized weekly and I always had company to hike on Sunday mornings, but I mostly went to the movie theatre on my own. At Warwick it's the exact opposite: I send out a weekly movie email to a group of interested cinephiles and I always have company to the movie theatre, but no one seems interested in hiking.

Who has influenced you the most?

Professionally, my masters advisor who saw in me a future researcher before I could see it myself; if I had not been matched to him by the scramble system at NYU, I would not have proceeded into a PhD program and I would be a very different person today. Personally, probably the person that influenced me the most was my father whom, everybody tells me, I take after quite a bit.

Dr Claudia Rei, Senior Teaching Fellow, Department of Economics