The Quoddy Village Proposal: A Community of Jewish Displaced Persons in Eastport, Maine
by Jaclyn Gronau (April 2011)
The Quoddy Village proposal, formerly known as the Quoddy Village Displaced Persons Project, was a plan designed by New York entrepreneur Frank Cohen in 1947. Cohen’s plan would last over a four-year period and planned to bring 25,000 Jewish DPs and their families from the American occupied zone of Germany to Eastport, Maine. While in Eastport, the DPs would receive vocational training in a trade and manufacturing and educational classes as well. After a 6-9 month period in Eastport the families would be permanently resettled in South America, within the countries of Argentina, Brazil, or Uruguay. Once there, they would use the skills and vocational training they had gained In Eastport to build a new life.
Upon first examining the original Quoddy DP Project document that was found in the Jewish Labor Committee Archives at the Wagner Labor Archive at NYU, I was struck with an initial question of-“how could no one have found this yet?” The timing of the proposal in U.S. history, the 30-page documents’ attention to detail, and the theme of the plan itself seemed too good to be true; it was a perfect match for an investigative Masters thesis topic. After reading through the plan several times and briefly researching the project’s sponsor, Frank Cohen, and the socio-political climate of the United States during this time in regards to immigration and the resettlement of European DP’s in America, I came to two initial conclusions—first, that the plan must have failed largely due to anti-Semitism and secondly, that Frank Cohen’s sponsorship was likely profit-driven, seeking to exploit the Jewish DPs’ labor—I was correct in one of these initial thoughts, regarding Frank Cohen’s motivations for the project.
After months of intensive research I found that the Quoddy DP Project failed for both the aforementioned reason and because of bureaucratic obstacles put in place by the War Assets Administration (the government agency in charge of selling and allocating wartime property), who at the time owned the Quoddy Village facility in Eastport, Maine. However, what is most significant about the study of the plan is what we can learn about the postwar period in America from it. Mainly, that the Quoddy DP Project’s failure runs contrary to the widely held scholarly opinion that xenophobia and anti-Semitism were chiefly to blame for the U.S.’s resistance to refugee assistance, specifically in relation to Jewish DPs. During a period that historians have deemed to be an extremely anti-immigrant and anti-communist social climate in America, the Quoddy DP Project was seemingly untouched by these ideological factors. Perhaps most significant to our conference today is the fact that the community of Eastport, Maine serves as the principal example of how the project contradicts many historians’ belief about the social climate of this period.
The city of Eastport, Maine had an important role to play in Cohen’s project. The city was responsible for acquiring the Quoddy Village property at the public benefit allowance rate, which was essential for the project to even begin. The public benefit allowance meant that the federal government accepted the Quoddy Village facility as a public education building, therefore making it tax exempt and requiring the town of Eastport and Frank Cohen to pay very little for it. What made this stipulation so significant was that neither Cohen nor the town would otherwise be able to afford the facility at the War Assets Administration’s asking price, which reached upwards of $300,000.
If this initial hurtle was overcome by Cohen and the city, then Eastport would also be responsible for providing other amenities to the DPs, such as extra police, fire, medical, education, and public works facilities and personnel. These added expenditures would have certainly cost the already financially struggling local economy and government a hardship. In addition to these various logistical components that the city would be responsible for, it should not be overlooked how important it was for Cohen to have the city and its residents on board with the proposal in the first place. Without the support of the local population it would have been pointless for Cohen to continue campaigning for his project. It is certainly a significant feat that regardless of the additional costs and considerable risk that the Quoddy DP venture meant that the city of Eastport was practically 100% behind Cohen’s project, especially in light of the intense federal debate over DP immigration being waged at the time.
The main resource I used to obtain the majority of information on Eastport, Maine and how the local population reacted to the project and worked with Frank Cohen was through the Eastport Sentinel newspaper. While researching in the extensive collection of Sentinel newspapers at the University of Maine I read through every available edition of the paper from the end of 1946 through mid-1948. However trivial the Quoddy DP project’s mention was at times, nonetheless the proposal received a great deal of press attention, particularly from June 1947 through September of that year when the project “peaked.” Through the Sentinel’s extensive coverage of the proposal I was able to decipher the now undeniable fact that the city of Eastport, apart from one isolated incident in a city hall meeting, did not appear to have a single ideological problem with the prospect of 25,000 Jewish German DP families emigrating to their small, working class fishing town to live and work. For Eastport residents, the project was welcomed as a humanitarian and economic opportunity.
In the midst of my research it was refreshing to be able to take a step back, realize, and appreciate that during a time in history that has been coined by many to be overwhelmingly xenophobic and widely anti-immigration (particularly towards Eastern and Southern Europeans) that a small community in the eastern most point in the United States would accept the potential immigration of Jewish DPs with such open arms, even though they stood to economically benefit from them.
The Eastport Sentinel did have some flaws in its press coverage of the project though. The intricate details of the plan that I uncovered in the notes of Cohen, correspondence between him and Maine Senator Owen Brewster and Mayor of Eastport Roscoe Emery, and the plan’s original document as well, were never mentioned in the Sentinel. The major issue with this is that it is difficult to interpret how much information locals had on the plan and what it entailed. The paper provided the basic outline of the plan, but focused largely on how it could economically benefit the region. With that being said, this fact does not take away from what I have already said about the city’s lack of prejudicial ideologies, however, it does beg the question of “how much did Eastport residents actually know about Cohen’s project?”
By the end of September 1947, the Quoddy DP Project was dead in the water. The War Assets Administration had flatly refused to sell the property to the city for the public benefit allowance rate and although Cohen repeatedly tried to purchase Quoddy Village on his own, his bids were far below the exorbitant asking price of the agency. As for Cohen’s personal motivations for sponsoring the project, it is certain that he had mixed intentions. Cohen was both a cunning businessman and a generous philanthropist, particularly towards Jewish relief efforts and education funding. Though in short, the Quoddy DP project was a logistical nightmare and an extremely unsustainable potential endeavor. It was seemingly an opportunity for Cohen to assist Jewish DPs, but also make money through funding the project completely on donations and having the DPs be vocationally trained, manufacturing products for a company he owned. Therefore, it is not unfounded to say that the city of Eastport perhaps dodged a major bullet by the project not coming to fruition.
It is also significant to note that there were a number of other proposals for the Quoddy Village facility during this period. The War Assets Administration received purchasing bids from single buyers and companies alike. Many were interested in buying the property to purely resell it at a higher rate, but others were interested in utilizing the facility. Interested buyers in the property included proposals to create an all-boys school, a fishing and packing company, a shoe factory, and perhaps the most competitive bid for the Quoddy DP project, a University for Baltic DP students from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, sponsored by the Lithuanian War Relief Fund. However, none of these bids were ever accepted by the War Assets Administration and the 232-acre Quoddy Village facility continued to stay vacant for years to come.
In conclusion, what was lost with the failure of the Quoddy DP project? This is a question I struggle to answer with certainty because I believe the failure of the project was two-sided for the city. It is possible that the Eastport community lost out on a great opportunity for economic recovery with the project’s loss. It could have been a chance for a new industry to be established, the city to receive national recognition for a DP settlement initiative and to increase support for local businesses and the economy. Although, as previously mentioned, the plan represented an incredible risk for the city as well. It is possible that the project could have crippled the local economy, wiped out the little financial stability the city government had, and made the city a national laughing stock for attempting such a lofty plan that did not necessarily have the Jewish DPs best interests at heart.
Regardless of the project’s failure and what could have been for the city of Eastport and the Jewish DPs, one significant finding from the research of this thesis remains—that in the midst of ethnic and immigrant-based prejudices in American society at the time, that the city of Eastport remained a tolerant and unbiased community, prepared to welcome the economic prospect of the Quoddy DP project and the large number of Jewish immigrants it would bring.