Americans and the Holocaust

When the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was dedicated 25 years ago, Elie Wiesel said that the Museum was not an answer but a question. The Holocaust indeed prompts many questions: Why did it happen? What made it possible? How could it have been prevented? One constant question centers around the role of the United States — could America have prevented the Holocaust? Or stopped it?

Preventing the Holocaust would have required early insight regarding the nature of Nazism and foresight about where it could lead. It would have also required substantially different behavior first by the German people and their leaders and then by the French, British, and Soviets. Those failures at various points made possible the Nazi assumption of power in 1933, Germany’s expansion across Europe that began in 1938, and the mass murder of Jews that began in 1941 and continued until May 1945.

But we’re Americans. We think of the United States as the world leader in the fight for “liberty and justice for all,” and so questions inevitably bring us home. Elie Wiesel felt American behavior was an important question for the Museum to address, writing in its 1979 founding charter that it should “deal with the American role… including American accomplishments… and confront our nation’s failures.”

The focus on America often turns first to President Franklin D. Roosevelt who merits careful scrutiny and judgment. Just a few months into his presidency in 1933, he was confronted with the Nazis’ escalating persecution against the Jews, but his instructions to the American ambassador in Berlin were clear: “The German authorities are treating the Jews shamefully and the Jews in this country are greatly excited. But this is also not a governmental affair.” FDR’s primary concern was fulfilling his election promise to end the Great Depression.

Over the years, the growing threat of Nazism would add to his concerns. But, although FDR increasingly saw fascism as a danger to American democracy, most Americans only cared about economic recovery and avoiding yet another catastrophic European war.

Culminating years of antisemitic persecution, the nationwide pogrom in Germany in November 1938 — Kristallnacht — appeared to be a pivotal moment. The world’s shock was reflected in banner newspaper headlines, such as the LA Examiner’s “Nazis Warn World: Jews Will Be Wiped Out Unless Evacuated by Democracies.”

FDR recalled our ambassador to Germany. He allowed 12,000 refugees who were in the US on temporary visas to stay, telling the media, “I cannot, in any decent humanity, throw them out.” He went even further, telling the American people: “I myself could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a twentieth century civilization.” But when asked by a reporter about relaxing immigration restrictions — the one thing that could have made a significant difference at that moment — FDR said, “This is not in contemplation; we have a quota system.” He was referring to the system that capped the number of people allowed into America from each foreign country per year, as delineated in the 1924 immigration act. (Today’s legal distinction between refugees as those fleeing persecution as opposed to immigrants seeking a better life did not yet exist.)

Congress and the general public agreed with FDR. In February 1939 Democratic Senator Robert Wagner of New York and Republican Congresswoman Edith Rogers of Massachusetts sponsored a bill to allow, over two years, 20,000 refugee children into the US outside existing immigration quotas. It aroused significant opposition, including proposals to implement a five-year ban on all immigration.

Democratic Senator Robert Reynolds of North Carolina expressed a typical sentiment: “My heart goes out in sympathy for the refugee children, but, I repeat, my heart beats in sympathy first for American sons and daughters in preference to the children of fathers and mothers of any other nation in the world.” In a first for her, Eleanor Roosevelt asked FDR if she could publicly support the bill. He agreed, but as for himself: “It is best for me to say nothing.”

FDR and Congress took positions that reflected public sentiment. Broad segments of the nation were xenophobic, racist, antisemitic, anti-Catholic, and isolationist — as well as fearful of communism and Nazism.

“Isn’t it about time some voice was raised in defense of the native born American child, whose future is menaced by the entrance of these 20,000 German refugee children. It is Europe’s problem and there is no reason the United States should assume their responsibility,” read a letter to the New York Herald Tribune

Another to the Washington Post stated: “There are many times 20,000 children in this country with no future! Help the American child. He deserves our help more than the German child.”

Public opinion polls showed how widespread these views were:

April 1938

Sixty-five percent of Americans thought the persecution of the Jews was partly or entirely their own fault. Twelve percent favored a similar campaign against the Jews of America.

November 1938

Ninety-four percent of Americans disapproved of the Nazi treatment of Jews. Yet 71 percent felt the US should not let more exiles into the US.

May 1939

Twenty-nine percent of Americans thought there was likely to be widespread action against the Jews in the US. Twenty percent were sympathetic to such action.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that it would have been easier to save Jews before World War II began with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. During this period, almost 800,000 Jews lived in lands controlled by the Nazis (Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia). That number rose dramatically when three million Polish Jews came under Nazi domination.

For the Jews of Europe, the war spelled disaster. For the American public, it intensified concerns about the infiltration of Nazi spies and a national debate about keeping America out of the war. Always attuned to public opinion, FDR pledged to keep the country neutral. In a May 1940 poll, 93 percent of Americans agreed that he should.

Two months later, 71 percent believed Germany had organized a “fifth column” of spies in the US. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wrote, “Every six minutes of a 24-hour day, someone, somewhere reports suspect spy activities to the FBI.”

These security fears combined with the State Department’s existing culture of nativism and antisemitism to prevent thousands of Jewish refugees from getting US visas, even within the limited quota system. Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, who oversaw the visa division, issued very restrictive directives. For example, the State Department began denying visas to anyone with immediate family members living in Nazi controlled or allied areas.

Many accused Long of deliberately blocking refugees from entering the US. The policy was essentially “when in doubt, leave them out.” And they did. Between Hitler’s assumption of power in January 1933 and America’s entry into the war in December 1941, 236,395 immigrants from Germany could have legally entered the US. Only 121,924 were allowed — after exceptionally onerous procedures — to do so.

Nineteen hundred and forty-one was a momentous year. For the European Jews, the German invasion of the Soviet Union meant the beginning of systematic murder — eight long years after Hitler’s assumption of power. For the Americans, it meant finally entering the war against a regime that indeed threatened American freedom. Although made aware of the mass executions of Jews reported in the media, Americans fought primarily to protect our way of life, not to help the Jews of Europe. Winning the war — rather than rescuing the Jews — was, and remained, the priority.

The US government knew about the mass executions of Eastern European Jews almost as soon as they began in 1941. It learned about the Nazis’ plan to murder every Jew in Europe in August 1942, seven months after it was put in place. But the State Department initially called the reports of mass murder “unreliable war rumors.” Confirmation of the veracity of the report that November had little effect: The State Department instructed its staff in neutral Switzerland, an important source of information, to stop sending reports about the murder of the Jews, hoping this would reduce pressure on the US to take action.

On December 17, 1942, the US government finally made a major public statement about the murder of the Jews as part of the Joint Declaration of Allied Nations: “[The Allied Nations] condemn in the strongest possible terms this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination [of Europe’s Jews].” But the statement promised only to punish the perpetrators, not to rescue the victims. By then almost four million Jews had been killed.

In April 1943, American and British officials met in Bermuda to discuss the refugee crisis. Breckinridge Long made sure the US sent delegates who were committed to his policy of restrictive immigration. (Long was later shown to have misrepresented facts about the numbers of refugees admitted during his testimony before Congress.)

Clearly the State Department, indeed our whole government, could have done much more to save lives: taking in more refugees, pressuring other countries to do so, and aggressively supporting rescue and resistance efforts early on.

In spite of these government policies and public opinion, there were a few outliers. Sadly too few.

When officials at the Treasury Department discovered the State Department’s efforts to suppress information and keep refugees out, they prepared a report declaring that the State Department was “guilty of …willful failure to act” and the “acquiescence of this government in the murder of the Jews.” The report reached FDR who then created the War Refugee Board in January 1944. Its suggestion to bomb Auschwitz-Birkenau was rejected by the War Department. In the end, the War Refugee Board’s other efforts helped save tens of thousands of Jews. After the war, its director, John Pehle, lamented that America’s record was “too little, too late.”

In the meantime, a few courageous individual Americans bucked the prevailing passivity:

  • Young Roswell and Marjorie McClelland of New York went to Europe in the midst of war to work for the American Friends Service Committee — the Quakers — to assist refugees. They helped hundreds of children flee to the US, provided relief to inmates in an internment camp in Vichy France, and funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars in relief money into Nazi territory. The McClellands spent almost the entire war doing aid work in Europe.
  • Martha and Waitstill Sharp left their own young children in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to travel to Prague on behalf of the Unitarian Church. Before the outbreak of the war, they helped refugees escape. After the war started, they returned to the US, but in less than a year they went back to war-torn Europe where they organized milk distribution to children and assisted refugees in getting to Britain and the US.
  • Also leaving their children behind were Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus of Philadelphia. They traveled to Vienna, into the heart of the Third Reich, to bring out children. They managed to convince the terrified parents of 50 children to entrust their sons and daughters to strangers who could take them to safety.
  • Lois Gunden, a 26-year-old French professor at Goshen College, a Mennonite institution in Indiana, went to Vichy France. She arranged for children imprisoned in an internment camp to be released to her care and, at great risk, turned away the Vichy police when they came looking for unaccompanied Jewish children. She was later arrested by the Nazis.

These independent thinkers were “moral entrepreneurs.” Many were motivated by faith, all by moral conviction. They were undeterred by the inaction of our government and/or the views of the majority of their fellow citizens. These outliers remind us that as individuals we often have more power than we realize. They are also a reminder that, although events happen at a particular moment in a specific context with competing pressures and motives, it is often enduring moral considerations that render the ultimate judgment of history.

Sara J. Bloomfield is director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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