“20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.” (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 entered office 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 of people, the very survival of every living Jew. Since Roosevelt and Churchill are reported to have been uncertain of victory for more than a year following America’s entry into the war, a German victory would likely have meant that the Final Solution would have crossed the Atlantic.
In September, 1935 the Reichstag passed a body of laws depriving German Jews of citizenship and the protection of the state. And although the Third Reich’s escalating persecution of the Jews was followed closely by American media (US campus press also reported on the developing anti-Jewish persecution) the Nuremburg Laws elicited little response from the White House. Between 1933 and 1938 Germany systematically if gradually intensified the persecution and Jews desperately sought a place of refuge. But Roosevelt rationalized that Germany’s treatment of its Jews was an internal matter of a sovereign nation. Even after Krystallnacht the president expressed “outrage,”
"I myself can scarcely believe that such things could occur in a 20th century civilization,"
recalled his ambassador to Germany, but made no effort to assist German Jews seeking refuge beyond extending the visitor visas of those by chance in the United States.
Hitler seemed to enjoy reminding the president and the world that FDR’s “outrage” was limited to words. On several occasions he offered to allow German Jews to emigrate if they could find a “country of refuge. And to each challenge the president fell back on excuse that his hands were tied: the United States is a country of laws and the 1924 Immigration Act was the law.
In mid-1938, possibly to put pressure on Hitler over Czechoslovakia, Churchill suggested an international conference to study Germany’s persecution of the Jews. But even before the Evian Conference was to meet its sponsors, the United States and Britain agreed that “refuge” would not be its outcome. As if to underscore this Roosevelt chose a businessman with no diplomatic experience to represent the United States.
Symbolism, not substance would remain throughout the Holocaust the hallmark of American policy. Jews facing imminent death would not move the White House “bound” by the 1924 Act. How thin the excuse is repeatedly demonstrated by Roosevelt circumventing even the law when it suited. When, as one example, Congress blocked his New Deal legislation he increased the size of the Supreme Court and stacked it with justices known loyal to his policies.
The Evian Conference convened in July, 1938. American Jewish leaders seeking permission to address the conference were barred. The conference lasted nine days and, 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 hinged on, and was determined by the president. America’s refusal to accept Jewish refugees set the example that the others were content to follow.
“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].’”
Three months later Germany unleashed a pogrom across Austria, Germany and now-annexed Czechoslovakia. For two days synagogues burned, Jewish businesses were looted and their windows smashed (Krystallnacht: night of the broken glass). In the end one hundred Jews were murdered, 30,000 beaten and sent to concentration camps; and 20,000 Jewish children were 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, recalled him for “consultations.” As a gesture the president instructed his State Department to renew the visas of German Jews already in the United States on visitors visas. But regarding refuge for the victims, 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 [italics added].”
The 1924 Immigration Act would remain Roosevelt’s fig leaf covering his administration’s do-nothing policy for the duration of the Holocaust. It is possible to argue, as FDR-apologists then and now do that he was unable to accept Jewish refugees because of the mood of the country. And certainly America was deeply antisemitic as reflected in 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.”
As for Hitler, he again pointed to the hypocrisy:
‘It is a shameful spectacle to see how the whole democratic world is oozing sympathy for the poor tormented Jewish people, but remains hard-hearted and obdurate when it comes to helping them.’
The “whole democratic world” followed the example of the United States and its president, and six million Jews were to die.
The Voyage of the Damned
The M.S. St. Louis left Hamburg for Cuba on May 13, 1939 with 900 Jewish refugees. All had valid visas bought with bribes at the Cuban Embassy in Europe. Arriving at Havana President Batista demanded another personal bribe of $500 from each to be allowed to enter Cuba. What little money already spent on Cuba’s European ambassador and passage, the St. Louis was ordered out of Cuban waters and sailed for Florida.
Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis in Cuba (Wikipedia)
For three days the ship sailed sat off the Florida coast in clear view of the lights of Miami not allowed to dock. As a last resort they sent a telegram directly to the president.
“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 with America the Joint Distribution Committee, the main Jewish social service organization, turned to England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands to accept the passengers, and succeeded for some. But in,
“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 challenge to Roosevelt’s closed borders policy 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 Krystallnacht. The bill called for admitting the children over a two-year period. It failed in Congress and without the support of the president it would die.
Jewish children rounded up for deportation to Chelmno extermination camp,(Wikipedia)
Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, urged her husband to support the bill but he was non-committal and it was eventually filed, unsigned.
“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 children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.”
“Mrs. Houghteling” was Laura Delano Houghteling, cousin of the president.
A stark statistic describing Roosevelt’s policy toward Jews and the Holocaust is that, between 1934 and 1945 approximately 1000 Jewish children were admitted to the United States; fewer than “Belgium, France, Britain, Holland, or Sweden.”
If Jewish children, known destined for murder were turned away, that was not the case for British children. Threatened by German air raids in 1940, with safety but a few miles outside London, Americans opened hearts and homes to these children.
“The type of British child most typically requested by American families was "a six year old girl, preferably with blond hair."
Even dogs “at risk” during the Battle of Britain found a warm welcome in America:
“Ironically, when Pets magazine the following year [following the 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.”