As the debate over America’s immigration policy heats up, some partisans have been invoking Holocaust-era controversies to buttress their position.
US Senator Dianne Feinstein said July 10 that deporting the tens of thousands of children who have been coming across America’s southern border would be like the “boatloads of Jewish immigrants trying to come to this country from Nazi Germany and getting turned back.”
Making the case for granting haven to the Central American children, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick on July 16 reminded his audience: “Once, in 1939, we turned our backs on Jewish children fleeing the Nazis, and it remains a blight on our national reputation.”
Critics of liberal immigration policies reject such analogies on the grounds that Jews escaping Nazi Germany were fleeing from religious and racial persecution, not economic hardship or civil wars. Today’s haven proponents might be on more solid ground if they focused instead on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to shelter more than 2,000 British children who fled the German blitz of London in 1940.
Meanwhile, some leading historians, too, are sparring over 1930s immigration controversies. The latest flare-up concerns the reasons behind a modest increase in the number of German Jews admitted to the US, beginning in early 1937. Just 6,307 had arrived in 1936 – less than 25 percent of the German quota. In 1937, however, 10,927 immigrants, or 42% of the available quota, reached the United States.
Back in 1982, historian Barbara Stewart McDonald pinpointed the reason: In late 1936, an internal State Department review found that US consular officials in Germany had been unfairly rejecting applicants if their only pledge of financial support was from a distant American relative.
The review determined that among Jews, even distant relatives typically harbored “a sincere desire” to help their co-religionists. This State Department nod to Jewish ethnic solidarity – or perhaps to anti-Semitic canards about Jewish clannishness – resulted in the slightly increased admission of immigrants from Germany in 1937.
The debate was reopened in the recently-published book FDR and the Jews, by Professors Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman. They claim it was President Roosevelt himself who liberalized the immigration procedures.
“FDR broke the bureaucratic logjam on Jewish refugees in late 1936,” they write, adding that “FDR left no presidential fingerprints on the new regulations.”
But could it be that Roosevelt “left no fingerprints” because his fingers were never on the policy change at all? Breitman and Lichtman are being challenged by Prof.
Bat-Ami Zucker of Bar-Ilan University, author of a study of US consuls in Europe in the 1930s. In a stinging review of FDR and the Jews on the scholarly ListServe “H-Judaic,” Zucker wrote that in her research on the subject, “I could not find any evidence that Roosevelt ‘broke the bureaucratic logjam’... Breitman and Lichtman do not actually cite any documents showing what FDR supposedly did.”
The irony of this academic dust-up is that back in the 1980s, Prof. Breitman himself wrote that “there is no evidence that Roosevelt issued any instructions” to liberalize immigration procedures in 1936-1937. He even chastised fellow historian Henry Feingold for implying that FDR had something to do with the immigration increase.
In the swirl of arguments over immigration policy, then and now, the human dimension of the 1930s refugee experience is sometimes forgotten. Charlotte Bonelli’s new book, Exit Berlin (Yale University Press, 2014), draws our attention to the remarkable story of Luzie Hecht, a young German Jewish woman who escaped Nazi Germany and struggled valiantly to bring out the rest of her family.
Luzie’s efforts are chronicled through her own letters from the period, supplemented by Bonelli’s commentary and historical background.
It took years for Luzie’s American cousin, Arnold Hatch, to fight his way through the Roosevelt administration’s bureaucratic maze and provide the necessary financial and other guarantees to bring Luzie to the United States. Once there, Luzie threw herself into the task of trying to bring over her friends and relatives. Her correspondence with them provides a grim glimpse of a world that was, as Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann once put it, “divided into places where Jews cannot live and places where they cannot enter.”
Desperate letters to and from Luzie’s Aunt Dora trail off as Dora is deported to the Gurs concentration camp in Vichy France, where she endured near-starvation. A fellow inmate described his time there as “three months of Yom Kippur.” Dora never made it out. Others were more fortunate: Luzie’s parents and half-brother, Rolf, found haven in Japanese-ruled Shanghai, and eventually were able to join Luzie in the United States.
In the midst of these travails, the quiet, unassuming Luzie secured a position on the staff of the American Jewish Committee, where she remained for nearly 40 years.
It was only after her passing that Bonelli, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s archives, became aware of the box of extraordinary letters that Luzie had saved all those years, which form the core of this book.
They remind us of the real lives behind all the numbing statistics that tend to dominate any discussion of immigration, then or now.
The author is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.