Emanuel Celler, the 39th Dean of the US House of Representatives who served for almost 50 years (Courtesy New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division).
(photo credit: WM. C. GREENE / WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Representative Emanuel Celler (D-NY, 1888-1981) was the longest-serving Congressman from New York (1924-1965). During his first term in the House, Celler was present when Congress completed legislating the highly restrictive “national origins” system limiting immigration to the United States to under 400,000 a year based on country of origin. The goal of the legislation was to keep America an Anglo-Saxon country. Celler spent the next 40 years seeking to overturn the Johnson Acts and finally did so in 1965 as a co-sponsor of the Hart-Celler Act.
A classical Democratic Liberal, Celler’s indefatigable work on rescuing Jews during the Holocaust and then helping them settle in the United States after World War II is a largely unknown story. Indeed, of all the American elected officials during and after the Shoah and its aftermath Celler stands out as the most determined rescuer of Jews and others. In an age of increasingly divisive immigration politics, his story needs to be told and his humanitarian efforts recognized as stellar, if not unique.
Emanuel “Manny” Celler was born in Brooklyn, NY on May 6, 1888. Although he lived in Washington, D.C. for much of his adult life, he felt he “never left Brooklyn.” His father, Henry, made whiskey in the basement of his childhood row home. Celler had three Jewish grandparents. His mother’s father was Catholic He did not attend synagogue but was raised as a cultural Jew. When he was 8, his father took him to hear William Jennings Bryan speak and it changed his life. Later, he attended Boys High School, Columbia and later Columbia Law.
During World War I, Celler became a Zionist after reading Herzl. was later recruited by the Democratic Party to run in his home district (10th Congressional) while working on a draft appeal Board in NYC. He ran on an anti-Prohibition platform and was elected for the first time in 1923. Known for his humor, Celler once remarked that to be a successful Congressman “one must have the friendliness of a child, the enthusiasm of a teenager, the assurance of a college boy, the diplomacy of a wayward husband, the curiosity of a cat and the good humor of an idiot.” He never really grew to like the culture of the Hill in Washington where he lived at The Mayflower Hotel.
Celler’s involvement in the politics of rescue began with the Evian Conference of July, 1938. At first, he was content to work on fulfilling the existing quotas. That situation changed with Kristallnacht in November of the same year. He supported the failed Wagner-Rogers Act to allow 20,000 German Jewish children under the age of 14 to come to the United States. He then unsuccessfully lobbied President Roosevelt to challenge the British blockade of the coast of Palestine. He also lobbied Secretary of State Cordell Hull to establish full diplomatic relations with the Vatican, a process which finally succeeded 45 years later. In part, Celler hoped the Holy See could help with rescue efforts. Celler actively supported the anti-Nazi demonstrations held at Madison Square Garden and elsewhere.
Six months after Pearl Harbor and the American entrance into World War II, at the May 1942 New York Biltmore Conference the collective American Jewish leadership agreed to prioritize their efforts as follows: 1. win the war 2. pursue Jewish statehood in Palestine and 3. rescue survivors. Celler could not abide by this decision and refused to downgrade his rescue efforts. At first, he worked on trying to rescue French Jews. He was particularly incensed by the efforts of another New York Jewish Congressman, Sol Bloom who represented the City’s Upper East Side and later worked toward establishing the United Nations. Bloom worked tirelessly against “rescue” at the Bermuda Conference in April, 1943. Celler referred to the Conference as a “blooming fiasco” and was publically critical of FDR’s lack of interest in rescue until the President’s death in office.
Toward the end of 1944, Celler also began calling for the resignation of Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long who played a major role in obstructing the settlement of Jews in America during the final years of the war. Although vocal and steadfast in his calls for rescue, the New York Congressman enjoyed little success during the actual war years although he did support the establishment of the War Refugee Board. With both the war in Europe and the mass killing of Jews finally over, Celler turned his attention to the resettlement of the survivors. In this regard, he enjoyed greater success but over a long period of time as a function of dogged persistence.
It was not until after 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel that Celler had his first albeit small success in amending American immigration law. Already in 1946, “The Luce-Celler Act” allowed 100 Phillipinos and others to come to the United States. It was the first crack in the dam along with a report submitted by Dean Earl G. Harrison on conditions in Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Europe. In 1949, Celler became Chair of the powerful House Judiciary Committee, a position he held for 11 terms until 1973. He also had an ally in President Truman who vetoed efforts to reinforce the Johnson Acts of the 1920s during his term in office but then was overruled by Congress. Led by Celler, DPs were increasingly admitted to the United States despite occasional Congressional opposition. By the time the Hart-Celler Act was adopted in 1965, approximately 600,000 Holocaust survivors had settled in the United States due, in part, to the Congressman’s efforts. Approximately the same number of survivors settled in Israel.
As Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Celler was able to link immigration reform to Civil Rights legislation with the help of Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Signed into law by President Johnson in 1965, the Hart-Celler Act abolished the national origins system of the 1920s. It was co-authored by Senator Philip A. Hart, D-Michigan. The Bill was signed into law at the foot of the Statute of Liberty. Hart-Celler did impose restrictions on immigration from the Western Hemisphere and homosexuals, it did allow for “special immigrants” and immigrants with unique labor skills. By 1970, the rate of immigration to the United States began to rise. To a certain extent, much of the current debate in the United States about immigration centers on provisions of the Hart-Celler bill. Ironically, its leading supporters vainly tried to make the case that their bill would not change the nature of immigration to America. It did.
Celler was defeated by Elizabeth Holtzman in 1973 having failed to support the rising feminist movement in the United States and because he ran a lackluster campaign. “She’s nothing but a hangnail,” he said infamously, “and I’ll bite her off.”
In retirement, Celler remained active in the Jewish community and was a proponent of building The Semitic Division of the Library of Congress. He was acutely aware of his accomplishments in changing American immigration law. Once, he commented that “on the one hand, we publically pronounce the equality of all peoples. On the other hand, in in our immigration laws, we embrace and practice the very theories we abhor and verbally condemn.” And finally, in an interview conducted just after he was voted out of office, he said, “I fought against the unjust restriction of immigration into the United States.”
That fight began for Celler in 1923, intensified between 1933 and 1945 and concluded in victory in the 1960s. Lessons from the Holocaust were not wasted on Congressman Celler. Whether those lessons will continue to inform American policy in the future is now up for debate again.
Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D. is the Senior Rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, Elkins Park, PA and Chair-Elect of the Board of Governors of Gratz College, Melrose Park, PA. Gratz College (est. 1895), where Sussman has also taught Jewish history, is the oldest non-denominational Jewish school of higher learning in the United States. Among its many programs, its offers an online Ph.D. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies
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