U.S. HOLOCAUST MUSEUM TRIES TO RESCUE FDR
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C, recently opened a controversial new exhibit which claims that President Franklin D. Roosevelt did his best to help Jews during the Holocaust. The Washington Post described it as “a posthumous makeover for FDR at the museum.”
Mainstream historians are challenging the museum’s revisionist approach. To explore these issues further, we present the essay “Walls of Paper,” by Dr. Rafael Medoff, which was published in the Spring 2018 issue of PRISM: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators, published by the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education, at Yeshiva University. It is reprinted here by permission of the journal. For a full list of the footnotes from the essay, write to: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dr. Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and author or editor of 19 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust. His latest book is Too Little, and Almost Too Late: The War Refugee Board and America’s Response to the Holocaust.
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PART 1: KEEPING THE JEWS OUT
“It is a fantastic commentary on the inhumanity of our times,” wrote journalist Dorothy Thompson in 1938, “that for thousands and thousands of people, a piece of paper with a stamp on it is the difference between life and death.”
For over a century, the United States had an open-door immigration policy, welcoming newcomers from around the world in almost unlimited numbers. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, however, a number of prominent American anthropologists and eugenicists began promoting the idea that Anglo-Saxons were biologically superior to other peoples. This racialist view of society reshaped the public’s view of immigration in the years following World War I.
The shift in attitudes took place at the same time that Americans were becoming increasingly anxious about Communism, as a result of the establishment of the Soviet Union. The combination of racism, fear of Communism, and general resentment of foreigners created strong public pressure to restrict immigration.
CLOSING THE DOORS
In 1921, Congress passed—and President Warren Harding signed into law—the Immigration Restriction Act. This legislation stipulated that the number of immigrants admitted annually from any single country could not exceed 3% of the number of immigrants from that country who had been living in the US at the time of the 1910 national census. If, for example, there were 100,000 individuals of Danish origin living in the United States in 1910, the maximum number of immigrants permitted from Denmark in any future year would be 3,000.
The Johnson Immigration Act of 1924 tightened these regulations in two important ways. The percentage for calculating the quotas was reduced from 3% to 2%, and instead of the 1910 census, the quota numbers would be based on an earlier census, the one taken in 1890. The restrictions were intensified in order to reduce the number of Jewish and Italian immigrants, since the bulk of Jews and Italians in the US had arrived after 1890.
The sponsors of the legislation made no secret of their motives. The Johnson Act was submitted to Congress with a report by the chief of the United States Consular Service, Wilbur Carr, that characterized would-be Jewish immigrants from Poland as “filthy, un-American, and often dangerous in their habits…lacking any conception of patriotism or national spirit.”
A BAD SYSTEM MADE WORSE
In the public debates over immigration that took place in the 1920s, Franklin D. Roosevelt came down squarely on the side of the restrictionists. As the Democratic nominee for vice president in 1920, Roosevelt gave an interview to the Brooklyn Eagle in which he expressed concern that immigrants tended to concentrate in urban areas and retain their ethnic heritage: “The foreign elements…do not easily conform to the manners and the customs and the requirements of their new home.”
The solution he proposed was dispersal and rapid assimilation: “The remedy for this should be the distribution of aliens in various parts of the country.” Writing in the Macon Daily Telegraph in 1925, FDR said he favored the admission of some Europeans, so long as they had “blood of the right sort.” He urged restricting immigration for “a good many years to come” so the United States would have time to “digest” those already admitted.
The immigration system that was adopted in the 1920s was made even more restrictive by President Herbert Hoover in 1930. Responding to the onset of the Great Depression, Hoover instructed consular officials to reject all applicants who were “likely to become a public charge,” that is, dependent on government assistance. It was left to the consuls to make that determination on a case-by-case basis.
The Roosevelt administration inherited this harsh system and made it worse. When Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany in 1933, large numbers of German Jews urgently began looking for countries that would shelter them from the Nazis —and US consular officials in Germany urgently looked for ways to reject their applications. By crafting a maze of bureaucracy and unreasonably rigorous requirements, these officials ensured that most Jewish refugees would never reach America’s shores. Prof. David S. Wyman characterized those restrictions as “paper walls” in his 1968 book of that name.
Those walls ensured that the quotas would almost never be filled. The German quota was 25,957. Just 5.3%, or 1,375, of the quota places were used in 1933, Hitler’s first year in power. Of the next 12 years, the German quota was filled in only one. Places that were unused at the end of the year did not spill over into the next year; they simply expired. In 1934, a total of 3,515 immigrants filled 13.7% of the quota; the next year, 20.2% of the quota was filled (4,891 immigrants); and in 1936, the total was 24.3% (or 6,073 immigrants).
In most of those 12 years, less than 25% of the quota was filled. As the Nazi persecution of Jews intensified, the US quota system functioned precisely as its creators had intended: It kept out all but a relative handful of Jews.
THE PAPER WALLS
The visa application form, which had to be filled out in triplicate, was more than four feet long. Its length, however, was the least of the difficulties applicants faced. To begin with, the “likely to become a public charge” clause posed a kind of Catch-22. The applicant had to prove he would have a means of support in the US—but foreigners were not permitted to secure employment while they still lived abroad.
Typically, the way to satisfy this requirement was to provide an affidavit from an American citizen guaranteeing financial support until the immigrant found work. Obviously, many German Jews did not have American relatives or friends. Even for those who did, however, not just any relative would do. When New York Governor Herbert Lehman asked FDR in 1935 about the seemingly extraneous visa requirements, the president replied that guarantees offered by anyone other than a parent or child would be treated skeptically, because “a distant relative” might not feel any “legal or moral obligation toward the applicant,” as closer relatives presumably would.
In the case of 19-year-old Hermann Kilsheimer, for instance, three relatives did not suffice. He presented the American consulate in Stuttgart with affidavits from his brother-in-law and two cousins, all gainfully employed American citizens, pledging to support him. The cousins’ affidavits were rejected on the grounds that they were not close enough relatives, and the consul decided that Hermann’s brother-in-law earned too little to both support his own family and pay for Hermann’s tuition if he chose to attend college.
The reasoning behind other rejections of visa applications ranged from absurd to maddening. Numerous German Jewish refugee students, for example, were admitted to American universities but were prevented from entering the United States. As Raymond Geist of the US consulate in Berlin explained in turning down a student who had been accepted by Dropsie College (Philadelphia), “He is a potential refugee from Germany and hence is unable to submit proof that he will be in a position to leave the United States upon the completion of his schooling.”
Faculty members at accredited European universities who were offered positions at American universities were eligible for non-quota visas. However, when the Hebrew Union College established a college-in-exile and began inviting European Jewish scholars to its faculty, the Roosevelt administration threw up an array of roadblocks. One distinguished German Jewish scholar was disqualified on the grounds that he was primarily a librarian rather than a full-time professor.
The State Department also accepted the Nazi regime’s downgrading of the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies, the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, from Hochshule (an institute of higher learning, or college) to Lehranstalt (a lower-level institution of learning; an academy), which made its faculty members ineligible for non-quota visas because their home institution no longer was considered to be at the level of a university.
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PART 2: THE INCONVENIENCE OF RESCUING JEWS
When the world-famous German Jewish chemist Fritz Haber approached US Ambassador to Germany William Dodd in July 1933 to ask about “the possibilities in America for emigrants with distinguished records here in science,” Dodd told him (according to Dodd’s diary) “that the law allowed none now, the quota being filled.” In fact, the German quota was 95% unfilled that year.
Ten year-old Herbert Friedman was denied permission to accompany his mother and brother to the United States in 1936 after an examining physician at the Stuttgart consulate claimed he had tuberculosis. Tests all proved negative, and an array of German and American specialists who reviewed his X-rays likewise concluded that he did not have the disease. Yet the consulate would not budge. The family eventually managed to enlist the help of Albert Einstein, who, in a letter to the surgeon general about the case, reported:
“I have spoken to a reliable young man who recently emigrated from Germany; when I told him about the Stuttgart Consulate’s refusal to issue the visa for the child, without giving the young man the reason for the refusal [that is, Einstein did not tell him about the claim of tuberculosis—RM], he immediately said, ‘That is an old story. Tuberculosis!’ This shows clearly that this case is not an isolated case but that it is becoming a dangerous practice. “
THE KETUBAH DILEMMA
Some applicants in Germany ran into trouble when they presented a ketubah, the traditional Jewish religious wedding certificate, as evidence of their marital status. Some of these Jews had been married in a religious ceremony only, and not according to civil law, while others simply found it impossible to obtain evidence of their marital status from a Nazi government office, or else had been married in Russia before the Soviet takeover and could not enter the USSR to retrieve documentation.
US consular officials refused to recognize a ketubah as proof of marriage and therefore deemed the applicants’ children “illegitimate” and rejected the family on the grounds of low moral character. In these cases and many others, consular officials used their discretionary abilities to achieve what one consul characterized as “the Department’s desire to keep immigration to a minimum.”
In late 1936, there was a modest increase in the number of German Jews admitted to the United States. By the end of 1937, a total of 11,127 immigrants from Germany had arrived, representing 42.1% of the available spaces. Consuls in Germany had complained that they were short-staffed, so Foreign Service Inspector Jerome Klahr Huddle was sent to Germany to assess the situation. In his report, Huddle recommended that more-distant relatives could be relied upon to provide support, because they undoubtedly felt genuine sympathy for their persecuted family members. Eliot Coulter of the Visa Division agreed, in an internal memorandum, that “the Jewish people often have a high sense of responsibility toward their relatives, including distant relatives whom they may not have seen.”
Yet the majority of the German quota remained unfilled. John Farr Simmons, chief of the State Department’s Visa Division in the 1930s, was proud to note, in 1937, “the drastic reduction in immigration” that “was merely an obvious and predictable result of administrative practices.”
Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938 (the Anschluss) marked a significant intensification of the Jewish refugee crisis. Now a second major European Jewish community was in need of a haven. The well-publicized scenes of anti-Jewish brutality accompanying the German army’s entrance into Austria, including Jews being forced to scrub the streets with toothbrushes, showed that the problem was reaching crisis proportions.
Although polls showed most Americans still opposed relaxing immigration restrictions, a handful of members of Congress and journalists began urging US intervention. Senior State Department officials decided to—in the words of the department’s internal year-end review—“get out in front and attempt to guide” the pressure before it got out of hand. They conceived the idea of an international conference on the refugee problem, to create an impression of US concern while coaxing other countries to assume responsibility for the bulk of the refugees.
On March 24, 1938, President Roosevelt announced he was inviting 32 countries to send representatives to a conference in the French resort town of Évian-les-Bains. FDR emphasized in his announcement that “no nation would be expected or asked to receive a greater number of emigrants than is permitted by its existing legislation.” He did permit the German and Austrian quotas, now combined, to be filled that year, the only year that happened.
With one exception, the delegates at Évian proclaimed their countries’ unwillingness to accept more Jews. Typical was the Australian delegate, who bluntly asserted that “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.” The only exception was the tiny Dominican Republic, which declared it would accept as many as 100,000 Jewish refugees.
Scholars have chronicled the sad fate of that offer. After the first several hundred refugees were settled in the Dominican region of Sosua, the “biggest problem” the project encountered—according to historian Marion A. Kaplan—was the “unrelenting US opposition” to bringing in more refugees and “the State Department’s hostility and obstructionism.” Prof. Allen Wells found that Roosevelt administration officials harbored paranoid fears that some German Jewish refugees entering Sosua would serve as spies for the Nazis and pressured the Dominican haven organizers to refrain from bringing in more Jews.
Several additional opportunities to assist Jewish refugees in 1938 and 1939 likewise were spurned by the Roosevelt administration. The president refused to support the Wagner–Rogers bill of 1939, which would have admitted 20,000 German children outside the quota. The legislation went nowhere, thanks to the sentiments of nativists such as Laura Delano Houghteling, a cousin of FDR and wife of the US commissioner of immigration, who complained that “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.”
In the spring of the same year, 930 German Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis were turned away from Cuba and the United States. The German–Austrian quota was already filled, and any proposal to Congress to admit them likely would have been defeated. However, they could have been admitted as tourists to the US Virgin Islands, as Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., proposed at the time. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, after conferring with the president, rejected Morgenthau’s proposal on the grounds that the passengers could not demonstrate they had permanent residences in Nazi Germany to which they would return after their visas expired.
In the aftermath of the German conquest of France in June 1940, thousands of refugees, including many exiled German Jews, fled to southern France to avoid capture by the Nazis. Many refugee families included members who were prominent artists, scientists, and intellectuals. On June 22, Marshal Petain’s Vichy regime, the ruling authority in the southern part of the country, signed an agreement with the Nazis agreeing to “surrender on demand” anyone sought by the Germans.
In the days to follow, American friends and colleagues of the refugees established the Emergency Rescue Committee, hoping to bring renowned cultural figures to the United States. With help from the First Lady, the committee secured President Roosevelt’s authorization of emergency visas for several hundred artists and intellectuals and their families. The president was receptive to the proposal precisely because it was not a typical request to admit ordinary Jewish refugees. The world-famous exiles in France were the cream of European civilization; the fact that most of them were Jewish was incidental.
American journalist Varian Fry volunteered to lead the mission. He arrived in Marseille in August 1940 with a list of 200 endangered individuals and $3,000 taped to his leg to hide it from the Gestapo. During the months to follow, Fry’s network—which included a dissident US consul, Hiram Bingham IV—rescued an estimated 2,000 refugees, in many cases by smuggling them over the Pyrenees into Spain disguised as field workers.
Catching wind of the Fry operation, furious German and French officials complained to the State Department. Secretary of State Cordell Hull responded with a telegram, in September 1940, to the American ambassador in Paris, instructing him to inform Fry that “THIS GOVERNMENT DOES NOT REPEAT NOT COUNTENANCE ANY ACTIVITIES BY AMERICAN CITIZENS DESIRING TO EVADE THE LAWS OF THE GOVERNMENTS WITH WHICH THIS COUNTRY MAINTAINS FRIENDLY RELATIONS.” Hull also sent a telegram to Fry, pressing him to “return immediately” to the United States in view of “local developments,” meaning the opposition of the Germans and French. When Fry failed to heed that demand, the Roosevelt administration refused to renew his passport, thus forcing him to leave France. It also transferred Bingham to Portugal, then Argentina.
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PART 3: WHY FDR ABANDONED THE JEWS
Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, a personal friend of President Roosevelt, was in charge of 23 of the State Department’s 42 divisions, including the visa section. In a June 26, 1940 memo, Long advised his colleagues:
“We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States…by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices, which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”
The German invasion of Poland the previous September, followed by the rapid conquest of Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, and France in the spring of 1940, provoked a wave of fear—among the general public and within the administration—of Nazi spies reaching the United States. Newspapers frequently published wild stories about Hitler planning to send “slave spies” to the United States. Attorney General Robert Jackson complained to the cabinet that “hysteria is sweeping the country against aliens and fifth columnists.”
The president’s rhetoric fanned the flames. FDR warned about “the treacherous use of the ‘fifth column’ by persons supposed to be peaceful visitors [but] actually a part of an enemy unit of occupation.” In fact, there was only one instance in which a Nazi disguised as a Jewish refugee reached the Western hemisphere; he was captured in Cuba and executed.
Three days after Long’s June 1940 memo, the State Department ordered consuls abroad to reject applications from anyone about whom they had “any doubt whatsoever.” The new instruction specifically noted that this policy would result in “a drastic reduction in the number of quota and nonquota immigration visas issued.” It worked as intended: In the following year, immigration from Germany and Austria was kept to just 48% of the quota.
JEWISH SPIES FOR HITLER?
In the spring of 1941, with Roosevelt’s approval, Long devised what has come to be known as the Close Relatives Edict. On June 5, 1941, he instructed all US consuls abroad to reject visa applicants who had a “parent, brother, sister, spouse, or child” in any territory occupied by Germany, Italy, or the Soviet Union. The rationale was that the relatives might be taken hostage in order to force the immigrant to become a Nazi or Soviet spy.
Refugee advocates were horrified. The political weekly The Nation (July 19, 1941) denounced the new regulation as “brutal and unjust.” The October 1941 issue of Workmen’s Circle Call, a Jewish immigrant laborers’ publication, described it as “cruel and unimaginative.” B’nai B’rith’s National Jewish Monthly (December 1941) asserted that the new policy could be called “Keep Your Tired, Your Poor”—a reversal of the famous poem inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.
Protests were to no avail: The administration refused to budge. Actualization of the quota from Germany fell to less than 18% in 1942; only 14% of the quota for immigrants from German-occupied Poland was filled that year. In 1943, less than 5% of the German quota was used, as was only 16% of that for German-occupied France. A total of almost 190,000 quota places from Axis-controlled European countries were left unused during the Hitler years.
What motivated senior State Department officials to take such positions regarding Jewish immigration? Antisemitism certainly played a role. Wilbur Carr, an assistant secretary of state in the Roosevelt administration, wrote in a 1934 diary entry that he preferred a particular summer resort because it was so “different from the Jewish atmosphere of the Claridge.” Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle confided to his diary in 1940, “The Jewish group, wherever you find it, is not only pro-English, but will sacrifice American interests to English interests…It is horrible to see one phase of the Nazi propaganda justifying itself a little.” Undersecretary of State William Phillips, in his diary (on May 18, 1923), once described a Soviet official as “a perfect little rat of a Jew.” It is no exaggeration to say that antisemitism was rife in Roosevelt’s State Department.
Such sentiments also were common among the consular officials in Europe who directly decided the fate of visa applicants. Prof. Bat-Ami Zucker, in her book In Search of Refuge, the definitive study of US consular officials in Nazi Germany, found that the consuls “often commented on the danger of permitting a flood of Jewish immigration into the US,” warned of “its potentially dangerous impact on American society,” and suspected “a Jewish conspiracy in the United States to pressure the administration into facilitating immigration.”
In a similar spirit, William Peck, at the US consulate in Marseilles, wrote to a colleague that he “deplore[d] as much as anyone the influx into the United States of certain refugee elements.” He was open to immigration by “aged people,” because they “will not reproduce and can do our country no harm.” On the other hand, “the young ones may be suffering, but the history of their race shows that suffering does not kill many of them.”
However, antisemitism within the State Department alone does not suffice to explain US immigration policy, because it was President Roosevelt, not Breckinridge Long, who was the final authority. Ignorance was not the issue: President Roosevelt’s correspondence makes clear that he was aware the quotas were underfilled. Many references in the correspondence and diaries of Breckinridge Long allude to his regular briefings of the president on immigration policy, to which FDR responded positively.
Some historians have explained Roosevelt’s strict policy as anticipating the likely electoral consequences (that is, the strong public opposition to immigration) and congressional opposition to liberalizing the immigration quotas, but those factors do not reflect that what is under discussion here is immigration within the existing quotas, not any effort to change the immigration system. An unpublicized instruction from the White House to the State Department to permit the existing German quota to be filled would have saved numerous lives while likely causing only the tiniest of political ripples.
THE JAPANESE AND THE JEWS
A more plausible explanation is Roosevelt’s attitude toward minority groups that he regarded as unassimilable. FDR in general exhibited little sympathy for immigration, expressed concern about what he saw as immigrants’ resistance to assimilation, and harbored racist sentiments about the dangers of “mingling Asiatic blood with American blood.” His conviction that the Japanese were biologically different, undesirable, and untrustworthy made Roosevelt was receptive to the proposal by some of his military advisers, after Pearl Harbor, to incarcerate Japanese Americans lest their “undiluted racial strains” inspire them to secretly assist the Japanese war effort. By order of the president, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up throughout California and shipped to internment camps in Arizona, Wyoming, Arkansas, and elsewhere in 1942, even though there was not a single documented case of a Japanese American spying for Japan in World War II
Roosevelt’s private remarks about Jews in many ways echoed what he wrote and said about Asians. Jews, he believed, tended to overcrowd specific geographical locations, dominate certain professions, and exercise undue influence. At a White House luncheon in May 1943, FDR told British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that “the best way to settle the Jewish question” would be “to spread the Jews thin all over the world.” According to Vice President Henry Wallace’s account of the conversation, Roosevelt said he had “tried this out in Marietta [Meriwether] County, Georgia, and at Hyde Park…adding four or five Jewish families at each place. He claimed that the local population would have no objection if there were no more than that.”
Roosevelt resented what he perceived as excessive Jewish representation in a variety of institutions. As a member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers in 1923, he helped institute a quota to limit the number of Jews admitted to 15% of each class, and still boasted about doing so two decades later. In 1941, FDR remarked at a cabinet meeting that there were too many Jews among federal employees in Oregon.
The president was concerned about Jewish influence abroad, too. In 1938, FDR privately suggested to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the era’s most prominent American Jewish leader, that Jews in Poland were dominating the economy and were to blame for provoking antisemitism there.
In the same spirit, President Roosevelt remarked at the 1943 Casablanca Conference that in governing the 330,000 Jews in North Africa, “the number of Jews [allowed to enter various professions] should be definitely limited to the percentage that the Jewish population in North Africa bears to the whole of the North African population,” which “would not permit them to overcrowd the professions.” He said this “would further eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany, namely, that while they represented a small part of the population, over fifty percent of the lawyers, doctors, school teachers, college professors, etc., in Germany were Jews.”
Certain individual, assimilated Jews could be useful to FDR as political allies or advisers, but the presence of a substantial number of Jews, especially the less assimilated kind, was, in his view, undesirable. Roosevelt’s private views help explain the otherwise inexplicable policy of suppressing refugee immigration far below the legal limits. His vision of America was of a nation that would be overwhelmingly white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant, with no room for any substantial number of others.
WHAT OPTIONS EXISTED?
Realistically, what options existed for President Roosevelt to assist Jewish refugees without endangering his political position or risking a difficult, and probably unsuccessful, clash with Congress?
First, filling the existing quotas. The policy of almost never allowing the quotas to be filled “cost Jewish lives directly,” and “the restrictionist policy also played a crucial role in Nazi Germany’s decision to solve its ‘Jewish problem’ by more radical means,” Prof. Henry Feingold has argued; “The visa system became literally an adjunct to Berlin’s murderous plan for the Jews.”
Next, permitting more non-quota immigration. The existing law permitted professors, college students, and members of the clergy and their families to enter the United States outside the quotas. Yet from 1933 to 1941, the US admitted only 698 students identified as “Hebrews,” 944 professors (not all of them Jews), and 2,184 “ministers” (not all of them rabbis). With a more humane attitude, the administration could have taken advantage of this legal loophole and granted haven to many more endangered Jews.
Finally, offering temporary admission to US territories. The determination as to whether an applicant for a tourist visa had a valid return address was strictly arbitrary; a more generous approach would have looked past that technicality and granted Jewish refugees temporary haven in an American territory, such as the Virgin Islands, whose governor offered to take them in, a move that would likely not have provoked any substantial domestic opposition.
Tragically, the Roosevelt administration opted to turn its back on traditional American attitudes toward the downtrodden and chose instead, as Albert Einstein wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, “to make immigration impossible by erecting a wall of bureaucratic measures.”