America and the Holocaust: The Past as Prologue

There are two kinds of evil-doers:  those who kill, rape, beat, and brutalize others, and those who let this happen.

The story of American and British indifference to the fate of Jews during the Second World War still makes for disturbing reading.   It’s worth revisiting the subject for three reasons:

1)  The abandonment of the Jews -- the title of David Wyman’s comprehensive study -- is the ultimate rationale for the creation of the state of Israel.  There will be no second Hitler in Europe -- though he has many apprentices in the Middle East.  But when the West turned its back on Hitler’s victims (with exceptions discussed below), many Jews who were not committed Zionists were persuaded that the survival of their people depended on its having a state of its own, and an army to defend it.  “There are two sorts of countries in the world,” Chaim Weizmann had concluded in the late ‘30s, “those that want to expel the Jews and those that don’t want to admit them.”

2)  America’s response to the Holocaust helps explain the seemingly perverse attachment of American Jews to open borders -- a policy that permits an influx of immigrants who are considerably more antisemitic than European-Americans, apart from other consequences that negatively impact all Americans.  (Even second-generation Hispanics are twice as likely as whites to have strong Judeophobic beliefs.)  It helps explain also the seemingly irrational attachment of Jews to a party with a significantly less favorable attitude toward them and which is far less supportive of Israel than its rival.  Fully 83% of Republicans sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians; only 48% of Democrats do so.

3)  The most important reason, though, has to do with the Iran nuclear agreement.  A lot of things were taken off the table at Geneva:  a renunciation of terrorism (responsible for 1,100 American combat deaths in Iraq), an effective means of verifying Tehran’s compliance, even the return of four American hostages -- a token gesture on the mullahs’ part.  Never on the table was regime’s determination to annihilate Israel, its chief objective in acquiring a nuclear arsenal.  The fact that the administration’s new Middle Eastern ally is bent on genocide was irrelevant.  The Obama administration’s abandonment of the Jewish state in 2015 was prefigured by the abandonment of European Jews in the ‘40s. 


Hitler didn’t waste any time persecuting Jews and political opponents.  Within three months of coming to power in January 1933, the Nazis had fired nearly all Jewish government employees and judges, and disbarred many lawyers from practicing.  Jewish doctors, dentists, and professors would soon join the ranks of the unemployed.  The purging of the professions was accompanied by random arrests, beatings, and murders of Jews and political opponents.  There were about 2,000 assassinations during the year.  This practice didn’t begin with the notorious Night of the Long Knives in June 1934.  Concentration camps at Dachau and Oranienburg were opened and cities and towns vied with each other to pass laws restricting Jews.   American consuls were appalled at the brutality, and sent back detailed reports. 

The violence culminated in Kristallnacht on the night of November 9, 1938.  Jews had already been stripped of citizenship by the Nuremberg Laws of September 1935.  Now every synagogue in the Reich, which included Austria, was vandalized, burned, or destroyed.  Ninety-one Jews were killed, 30,000 arrested and sent to concentration camps, and Jewish shops and homes were invaded and looted.

There was outrage in the West.  The pogrom was headline news, and Roosevelt denounced it.  This kind of medieval savagery was supposed to have ended centuries earlier in Europe, with the exception of hopelessly backward Czarist Russia.

It was one thing to condemn the violence.  But what would the West do? 

The Evian Conference, three months before Kristallnacht, did not augur well.  There were expressions of sympathy for the now stateless German Jews, but little commitment to accept the refugees.  (Britain admitted 10,000 children in the Kindertransport and the Dominican Republic, alone among the 32 participating nations, flung open its gates, agreeing to accept 100,000.  Dictator Rafael Trujillo reportedly wanted to lighten the complexion of his people.)

In the U.S., the obstacle was the 1924 immigration law.  This capped immigration at just under 154,000 per year, set quotas at 2% of the 1890 population of each European nationality, and barred Asians.  Four times as many immigrants were permitted from the U.K. and Ireland as from Southern and Eastern Europe combined.  Supporters of the legislation made the case that it was important to preserve the traditional ethnic composition of the U.S. and that time was needed for the immigrants admitted between 1890 and 1914 to assimilate.  Most Americans were persuaded.

Would the quotas be loosened in the wake of Krisallnacht?  The answer came the following year. 

In February 1939, Sen. Robert Wagner and Rep. Edith Rogers introduced a bill that would have admitted 10,000 Jewish children outside of the quota, matching the Kindertransport, and another 10, 000 in 1940.  The bill faced stiff opposition, was not supported by Roosevelt, and died in committee.

In May, refugees from Germany aboard the St. Louis were turned away from Cuba, though they had visas valid at the time they were issued.  The captain, Gerhard Schröder, took the ship up the coast of Florida, but his pleas to be permitted to disembark his passengers were rejected.  Britain, France, Belgium, and Holland agreed to admit the refugees.

One hundred fifteen patriotic societies lobbied against the Wagner-Rogers bill, and a Fortune poll showed 83% of Americans opposed increasing the number of European refugees -- Jews and opponents of Hitler. 

Those who purposed rescue schemes ran up against a deep and pervasive antisemitism.  In another 1939 poll, 53% of the respondents agreed with the statement “Jews are different and should be restricted.”

It’s not easy for those born after World War II to realize the extent of Judeophobia between 1920 and 1945.  It wasn’t confined to country clubs, resorts, and upscale restaurants.  Antisemitism was much more widespread and damaging, particularly as it affected employment opportunities.  Want ads routinely listed “Christian” as a job requirement, abbreviated “Chr.”  Corporations seldom hired Jews for white-collar positions -- the big three auto companies, major insurers, pharmaceuticals, manufacturers, and commercial banks.  Among the few established law firms accepting them as associates, they could not be made partners, and they were excluded from the staffs of most hospitals.  The country’s many Mt. Sinai Hospitals were built not out of clannishness, but because Jewish doctors were unable to hospitalize their patients in most cities.  With very few exceptions, no Jews were permitted to teach in colleges and universities.  The liberal arts were virtually off limits.  Until the 1920s, admissions were based mostly on academic achievement.  Jews comprised 20% Harvard undergrads in 1919, 20% of Brown’s, nearly 25% of Penn’s, and 40% of Columbia’s.  This door was slammed shut in the name of regional diversity and “character,” acquired at private schools.

The great appeal of the New Deal for many Jews was not ideological, but simply that its new agencies and programs provided work they were excluded from in the private sector, apart from creating jobs for those who had lost them in the Crash of ’29.

Counterintuitively, as the situation grew direr for nearly all of Europe’s Jews, antisemitism in the U.S. increased.  Jews placed third, behind Japanese and Germans, in a poll in February 1942 that asked “what nationality, religious or racial groups in this country are a menace to Americans?”   By June 1944, they were in first place, with 24% of those surveyed believing they posed a threat to the country.

Three things contributed to the Judeophobia of the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s 

1).  The number of Jews admitted between 1899 and 1924 (over 1.8 million, chiefly from Russia, Galicia in Austria, and Romania) and their obvious foreignness. 

2)  Their success nonetheless in certain fields:  retailing, the liberal professions, the media, and especially, the film industry. 

3)  The association of Jews with Bolshevism and socialism.  The movies, as well as musicals and songs by Jewish writers, were unabashedly pro-American before the late 1960s, and there were fewer than 400 ethnic Jews among 23,000 Bolsheviks at the time of the 1917 Revolution.  Nearly all of those in leadership positions were purged in the ‘30s.   But Jews were, and are, predominantly on the Left.  Just as many immigrants had been radicalized by the repression in Russia, so antisemitism in the U.S. made attractive a party that pledged, in principle, to eliminate discrimination.

4) The eclipse of religious by racial antisemitism, a transformation that began in Germany in the 1880s.  This provided more plausible grounds for Judeophobia than the belief that Jews had killed Christ or that they used the blood of Christians on Passover.

But the problem for German Jews, and then Jews in most of the rest of Europe, were not attitudes among the general public, but at Foggy Bottom.

In 1933, with 26,000 places reserved for all Germans, only 1,798 were admitted.  The following year the total was 4,716 and the year after 5,117.  As desperate German Jews swarmed the American consulates, the State Department placed insuperable obstacles before would-be immigrants.  Consuls rigorously enforced a requirement that applicants provide a certificate of good character from the police, not easy to come by for German Jews.  The provision that repeatedly barred the path was the stipulation that the émigré not become a “public charge.”  This was interpreted with incredible strictness.  In one of many similar cases, the application of a young physician and his wife, with $1600 in cash (the average annual salary in the U.S. was $1,370), and affidavits of support from relatives with good jobs and valuable property, was summarily rejected.

The restrictive policies were partly a response to the Depression, naturally.  But in July 1941, when unemployment had fallen from a high of nearly 25% to 9.6%, the State Department further tightened requirements.  The Visa Division introduced the “relatives rule,” stipulating that any applicant with a child, parent, or spouse in German, Italian, or Russian territory would be subject to an extremely strict scrutiny involving representatives of five government agencies.  After Pearl Harbor, all refugees from Axis-controlled Europe were labeled “enemy aliens,” increasing the difficulty of obtaining a visa.  Still another paper wall was erected in the fall of 1943:  refugees “not in acute danger” were denied entry.  This barred individuals who had managed to escape to neutral countries.

In an extraordinary memo in June 1940, Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long, in charge of immigration, explained his strategy to his subordinates:  “we can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants…by simply advising our consuls to postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of visas.” 

This was done, and within a year, the number of visas issued had been cut in half. 

Then, as a result of the various obstacles erected by the State Department, between December 1941 and April 1945, only 21,000 refugees were admitted from Axis-controlled territory, a little over 10% of the quota, and not all of them Jewish.

There were legitimate security considerations, of course, but all historians who’ve combed the State Department archives have concluded that these were largely pretexts.  They have also discredited the other frequently mentioned excuse for not accepting more refugees -- a shortage of shipping.  More than 36,000 non-Jewish refugees from Yugoslavia were transported across the Adriatic and Mediterranean, and thousands of troopships returned to the U.S. empty -- just as non-Jewish children (5,000 British in 1941) were welcomed without a murmur.  A third reason frequently given by American, British, and Colonial officials for denying entry was that an influx of Jews would trigger antisemitism.  The line that was repeated ad nauseam was simply that the best way to help Hitler’s victims was to win the war.  This was the conclusion of the notorious Bermuda Conference of April 1943, arranged to placate Jewish organizations protesting government inaction.

The real problem was simply that Jews were not wanted.  As a British official concluded in one memo, “The Foreign Office are [sic] concerned with the difficulties of disposing of any considerable number of Jews should they be rescued from enemy occupied territory.”  The great nightmare for the Allies was that Hitler would permit hundreds of thousands of Jews to leave Europe.

Whitehall, in some instances more sympathetic than the U.S. to the fate of Hitler’s victims, had slammed the door to Palestine in the wake of Arab strikes, riots, and murders between 1936 and 1939.  The White Paper of 1939 restricted Jewish immigration to 15,000 per year for 5 years, after which further immigration would be subject to Arab consent.  British authorities rejected proposals to increase the annual total in 1940 and ’41, with the numbers to be deducted from the quotas for later years.  Naturally, behind British appeasement of the Arabs, then as now, was the West’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil.

The Foreign Office statement came in response to a proposal to rescue 70,000 Jews from Romania.  This attempt would turn the tide in Washington.  It kicked off a bitter fight between Treasury Department officials and their colleagues at State, and a damning investigation by the former.

The effort to buy the freedom of the Romanian Jews had been initiated by an outsider to the Jewish establishment in the U.S., Peter Bergson.  In a series of full-page ads, his organization appealed to Americans to support the attempt, which would be entirely funded by Jewish agencies. (“For Sale to Humanity:  70,000 Jews”)

The State Department stalled the proposal for 11 weeks.  When it finally reached Treasury, whose authorization was needed, it was approved in one day.  When nothing further happened for another 5 months, Treasury officials investigated. 

They then discovered something equally disturbing.  The individual who had transmitted the Romanian government’s proposal, Gerhard Riegner of the World Jewish Congress, was also sending to Washington detailed and accurate accounts of the extermination of Jews.  His most valuable source was an anti-Nazi industrialist, Eduard Schulte, who traveled frequently to Geneva, where Riegner was based.

When his first telegram about the Holocaust arrived at the State Department in August 1942, officials refused to believe it and declined to pass it along to Rabbi Stephen Wise, the leader of American Jewry, as Riegner had requested.  But Wise received the report from the Foreign Office, because the WJC official had telegraphed the news to London as well.

The State Department now resolved to silence Riegner.  Disturbing reports about what was happening to Jews in Europe might lead to calls for action.  Riegner had been permitted to send his messages from the U.S. legation in Bern.  A cable was sent instructing the American Minister not to transmit any more messages for private individuals or non-government organizations.

Treasury officials learned about this cable and asked to see a copy of it.  State sent an altered version.  The Treasury officials had been shown the original, and were angered by the duplicity of their colleagues.  These officials, three non-Jews, Randolph Paul, Josiah DuBois, and John Pehle, decided to alert the Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau about State Department sabotage, and press him to inform FDR.  On Christmas Day 1943, DuBois wrote a searing 12-page memo “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of Jews.”

Morgenthau was reluctant to confront his friend Roosevelt, but did so after changing the memo’s title, cutting the indictment, and bowdlerizing its language.  Congress had meanwhile begun its own investigation.  In testimony before a House committee, Breckenridge Long lied about the number of German immigrants allowed into the U.S. (Plus ça change.)  Faced with a political crisis -- public exposure of the State Department’s machinations and lies -- FDR took pre-emptive action.  He authorized the creation of a War Refugee Board, to be headed by John Pehle and to be funded almost entirely by Jewish agencies.

The Board worked hard and had some significant successes.  It subsidized the rescue of 120,000 Budapest Jews by Raoul Wallenberg and his staff.  But it was repeatedly thwarted by the President and by government departments.

Pehle hoped to set up refugee camps in the U.S.  He was permitted just one, in Oswego, New York, for fewer than 1000 Jews.  These refugees were to be repatriated, like the 425,000 German POWs who were housed in 700 camps -- for whom shipping had been found.  Pehle’s proposals to bomb Auschwitz and the rail lines from Hungary were repeatedly rejected by the War Department.  He was told fighters couldn’t accompany the bombers that distance from Britain.  In fact, bombers from Foggia, Italy twice struck the synthetic oil and rubber plants at Monowitz (Auschwitz III), just five miles from the gas chambers. 

As for censoring Riegner’s reports, the State Department need not have worried.  News of the extermination of Jews never made the front pages.  The official confirmation of the killing centers in November 1942 (four months after Riegner had informed the State Department) was relegated to page 10 of the N.Y. Times and page 6 of the Washington Post.  No wonder Eisenhower was shocked when saw the camps in Germany:  “it was almost unbelievable,” he said.


John Kerry has called Israel’s reaction to the Iran deal “way over the top,” and warned that attempts to lobby Congress will make the Jewish state “more isolated and more blamed” by the international community.  Obama has repeatedly attacked Netanyahu for criticizing the deal.

More déjà vu.  The correspondence of both British and American officials in the ‘40s is filled with references to the Jewish penchant for exaggerating their problems and to their excessive self-pity.  “A disproportionate amount of the time of the Office is wasted on these wailing Jews,” a Foreign Office official concluded.

Antisemitism has morphed once again.  Having shifted from religious to racial grounds, it is now incited against nationality.  The Jewish state and its supporters are subject to a pathological hatred.  On the grounds that it’s a white, colonialist power oppressing native people of color (never mind that half of Israelis are Middle Easterners driven from places they’d called home for 2,500 years, and that tens of thousands of “Palestinians” arrived in 1920s and ‘30s), the Left has joined Islam in calling for Israel’s annihilation.  For Muslims, the loss of .2% of the land conquered from the Turks by the British is anathema.  One advantage of the new antisemitism is that permits Jews who wish to think well of themselves to take part.

The indifference to the threat Iran poses is eerily familiar.  “The Jews Were Expendable” is the title of one study of government policy in ‘40s.  They still are.  But the Roosevelt administration at least recognized the threat that Hitler posed to the U.S., though the Führer was not nearly as interested in attacking us as are the ayatollahs.   We will all be paying for the pathway to nuclear citizenship guaranteed Teheran by the current administration.


illustration by Odysseus

Sources:  L. Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America; S. Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews, v. 1; M. Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies; T. Hamerow, Why We Watched; A. Morse, While Six Million Died; M. Ostrow (director), America and the Holocaust; M. Penkower, The Jews Were Expendable; B. Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe; D. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews