(in response to a bill to admit Jewish children left homeless by Krystallnacht)
“when Pets magazine the following year launched a campaign to have Americans take in purebred British puppies so they would not be harmed by German bombing raids, the magazine was flooded with several thousand offers of haven for the dogs.”
By coincidence Roosevelt and Hitler took office just months apart in 1933, and both died in office days apart in April, 1945. Between these two men rested the fate of hundreds of millions people, the very survival of every Jew alive in the world. Since Roosevelt and Churchill were uncertain of victory for at least a year after the US entered the war, a victory by Germany would likely have meant that the Final Solution to the West’s Jewish Problem would have extended across the Atlantic, also.
In September, 1935
the Reichstag passed a body of laws depriving German Jews of citizenship and protection of the law. And although the Third Reich’s escalating persecution of the Jews was followed by American newspapers (US campus press
also followed the developing persecution) the Nuremburg Laws
elicited little response by the White House. Between 1933 and 1938 Germany systematically intensified its persecution of its Jews, So there was an air of urgency reflected in the press inspiring the need for some kind of action. Hitler’s ploy of “offering” German Jews to any country wanting them put pressure on the “democracies.” Under pressure from Churchill Roosevelt agreed to the idea of a conference. But by agreement both leaders agreed that a commitment to accept refugees would not be its outcome. And the president chose his representative to Evian with care. Not a diplomat knowledgeable about diplomacy and refugees, but a personal friend, a businessman.
Symbolism, not substance, would be the hallmark of American policy towards the Jews and the Final Solution throughout the eventual war, and the Holocaust. The policy was explained and justified by legal restraints imposed by the 1924 Congressional Act restricting immigration of “undesirable populations.
The Conference convened in July, 1938. Jewish leaders asked to attend an plead on behalf of Jewish immigrants, but were turned down. In the end the conference lasted nine days. In the end,
“delegate after delegate
rose to express sympathy for the refugees. But most countries, including the United States and Britain, offered excuses for not letting in more refugees. Only the Dominican Republic agreed to accept additional refugees.”
The fate of the Jews was determined by the president. The United States refusal to accept Jewish refugees set the example for the others.
“Responding to Evian
, the German government was able to state with great pleasure how ‘astounding’ it was that foreign countries criticized Germany for their treatment of the Jews, but none of them wanted to open the doors to them when ‘the opportunity offer[ed].’”
And Hitler was only to happy to oblige. Three months later Germany unleashed a pogrom that included Austria, Germany-annexed Czechoslovakia and Germany itself. Over the two days-long Krystallnacht outrage synagogues burned, Jewish store windows were smashed and looted; nearly 100 Jews murdered. 30,000 men beaten and sent to concentration camps, and 20,000 children were left homeless.
In a radio interview on November 15, 1938 the president expressed “the outrage of a nation,” and announced that he had instructed his ambassador to deliver a protest to Hitler. In response to the pogrom Roosevelt’s “punishment” to Germany’s pogrom was limited to recalling his ambassador for “consultations,” and instructing the State Department to renew the visas of German Jews who just happened to be visiting the United States. Regarding refuge in response to Germany’s escalating persecution the president felt,
“[t]he time is not ripe for that.” Asked if the immigration quota be relaxed, “That is not in contemplation, we have the quota system
The fig leaf provided by the antisemitism-motivated 1924 Congressional Act would serve as Roosevelt''s policy of inaction excuse for the duration of the Holocaust. Yes it can be argued, as FDR-apologists then and today maintain, that the president was unable to accept Jewish refugees because of the mood of the country. So far as the facts of American antisemitism are concerned a case could be made for this. A 1938 opinion poll
“approximately 60 percent of [American] respondents held a low opinion of Jews…41 percent of respondents agreed that Jews had "too much power in the United States," and this figure rose to 58 percent by 1945.”
Hitler gleefully observed:
“It is a shameful example
to observe today how the entire democratic world dissolves in tears of pity but then, in spite of its obvious duty to help, closes its heart to the poor, tortured Jewish people.”
The “entire democratic world” was following the example set by the American president.
The “Voyage of the Damned:” The S.S. St. Louis left Hamburg on 13 May, 1939 for Cuba with 900 Jewish refugees. All had visas purchased in Europe but when they arrived in Havana were not allowed land without a further payment to President Batista of $500, which the refugees did not have. The ship was ordered out of Cuban waters.
Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis in Cuba (Wikipedia)
The ship sailed for Florida where the desperate refugees hoped to be accepted. For three days the St. Louis sailed up and back along the Florida coast in clear view of the lights of Miami; in a telegram to the president they pleaded not to be sent back to the pogroms from which they fled.
“The reply came in the form of a Coast Guard cutter
, dispatched to the scene to make sure the St. Louis did not approach America''s shore… With America''s doors closed, the St. Louis slowly sailed back towards Europe. A Nazi newspaper, Der Weltkampf, gloated:
"We are saying openly that we do not want the Jews, while the democracies keep on claiming that they are willing to receive them - then leave them out in the cold.”
Having failed to convince America to accept the refugees the Joint Distribution Committee turned its attention to convincing England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands to admit the passengers and, for some, succeeded. And then,
“the spring of 1940
, the Germans invaded France, Holland, and Belgium. Nearly half of the St. Louis refugees who were admitted to those countries were murdered in Nazi death camps.”
One notable exception
to Roosevelt’s closed borders policy towards at least some Jewish refugees was the Wagner-Roger Bill
. Two members of congress, a New York senator and a Massachusetts Representative, both from the president’s party, proposed a bill that would provide refuge for the 20,000 children made homeless by the Krystallnacht pogrom. The bill called for admitting them over a two-year period. As antisemitic as when it passed its anti-immigrant 1924 Act, opposed even to allowing endangered children in, the bill died in Congress, the president having remained silent during the debate. As clear from that 1939 opinion poll, most American agreed with, if not inspired, Congress.
“Asked for her opinion
on the bill, Mrs. James Houghteling, wife of the commissioner of immigration, whispers that the only problem with the Wagner-Rogers bill is “that 20,000 ugly [Jewish] children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.” Mrs. Houghteling is Laura Delano Houghteling, President Roosevelt’s cousin.
A stark statistic describing Roosevelt’s policy toward Jews and the Holocaust is that, between 1934 and 1945 only about 1000 Jewish children were admitted to the United States; fewer than “Belgium, France, Britain, Holland, or Sweden
If Jewish children were turned away that was not the case for British children. In 1940, when German bombs were falling on London, with refuge available just a few miles outside of the city American families opened hearts and doors to these children.
Jewish children rounded up for deportation to Chelmno extermination camp, (Wikipedia)
Even dogs “at risk” during the Battle of Britain found a warm welcome in America.
“Ironically, when Pets magazine
the following year [following refuge for British children appeal] launched a campaign to have Americans take in purebred British puppies so they would not be harmed by German bombing raids, the magazine was flooded with several thousand offers of haven for the dogs.”
Recent writings in this Series:
4. Foundations of Holocaust: 1924, Congress decides No More Jews