Hitler's threats about annihilating European Jewry were not especially credible in early 1939 because a comparatively small number of Europe's Jews--fewer than 400,000--were directly under Nazi domination as 1939 began. With time's passage, however, those numbers soared. As they did, Hitler's Reichstag threats, though still far from being implemented, became more plausible. Steps in that direction took place on March 15, when Czechoslovakia disappeared from the map of Europe.
Already in the autumn of 1938, Nazi Germany had annexed parts of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland. Six months later Hitler engineered Slovakian secession from Czechoslovakia and the establishment of a Nazi puppet government in the new state of Slovakia. Then, on March 15, he sent the German Army into the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, declaring them a protectorate whose ethnic German inhabitants would become Reich citizens. Two days later British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain publicly proclaimed that his government would resist any further German aggression. Unfortunately, that vow came too late for the 118,000 Jews of Bohemia and Moravia, who were now subject to German control. Another 90,000 Jews lived in the highly antisemitic puppet state of Slovakia.
Trying to flee the enlarging Nazi web, Jews found restrictions and obstacles increasingly in their way as 1939 unfolded. On May 17, for example, the British government issued a document known as the White Paper. It restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine, which a League of Nations mandate had placed under British rule following the First World War.
Other doors remained closed to Jewish refugees. On February 9, 1939, Senator Robert Wagner of New York and Representative Edith Rogers of Massachusetts introduced legislation in the United States Congress. The Wagner-Rogers Child Refugee Bill would grant entry to 10,000 refugee children under the age of 14 in each of two years, 1939 and 1940. These girls and boys would be beyond the number of immigrants allowed under the German quota. However, the often-amended bill became bogged down in committee. Lacking support from President Franklin D. Roosevelt as well, the Wagner-Rogers Bill was put aside early that summer.
Earlier that spring, having played his winning Czechoslovakian card, Hitler turned his attention toward Poland. Undeterred by Britain's promise to defend Polish borders, which was affirmed on March 31, Hitler issued important orders on April 11: The Wehrmacht should prepare "Operation White," the code name for Nazi Germany's forthcoming attack on Poland.
Before that attack could be launched, the Germans needed to check potential opposition from the Soviet Union. When Hitler opened negotiations with Joseph Stalin, he found the Soviet dictator receptive. On August 23 the foreign ministers of Nazi Germany and the USSR--Joachim von Ribbentrop and Viacheslav Molotov, respectively--signed the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. Beyond guaranteeing that the two countries would not attack one another, this treaty contained a secret provision: It stipulated the spheres of influence that would belong to each side in case of war. Specifically, Poland would be partitioned.