The United States and the Holocaust, 2: Roosevelt before Auschwitz

“20,000 charming [Jewish] children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler took office months apart in 1933. Both died in office days apart in April, 1945. And between them rested the fate of hundreds of millions lives, including those of every Jew alive in the world. Mere chance, the defeat of the Reich in the Second World War, limited the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem to the continent of Europe.
In September, 1935 the Reichstag passed a group of laws depriving German Jews of citizenship and protection under the law. And although the Third Reich’s escalating persecution of the Jews was followed by the US press beginning in 1933 (US campus press also followed the developing persecution) the Nuremburg Laws elicited little response by the White House. Responding to an international call for a conference to address the growing refugee problem the president chose not a government representative, but a businessman friend to represent the US at Evian.
The Evian Conference convened in July, 1938 and continued for nine days with nothing concrete regarding refuge for the Jews. “[D]elegate 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.”
“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].’”
A more substantive response by Roosevelt would have to wait for a more dramatic escalation in persecution.
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, and nearly 100 Jews were murdered. 30,000 men were beaten and sent to prison camps, and 20,000 children were homeless.
The president responded in a radio interview on November 15, 1938. He announced that he had instructed his ambassador to deliver a protest to Hitler; he was also recalling the ambassador temporarily for “consultations.” And finally, he announced, he had instructed the State Department to renew the visas of German Jews then visiting the United States. Regarding refuge from Germany’s escalating persecution the president felt, “The time is not ripe for that.” Could the immigration quota be relaxed, “That is not in contemplation, we have the quota system.”
Neither was the president alone in opposing refuge for Jews. A 1938 “opinion poll revealed that 82 percent of Americans still opposed admitting large numbers of Jewish refugees into the United States.”
Hitler gleefully rubbed the West’s collective nose in its hypocrisy. “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 justifying his program for the Jews.
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 told they would only be allowed land upon payment of a $500 bond. When it became apparent the refugees were without funds the ship was ordered to leave or be forced out by the Cuban navy.
Jewish refugees aboard the SS St. Louis in Cuba (Wikipedia)
The ship sailed for the US hoping that the American president, with a reputation for compassion, would allow them to land. For three days the St. Louis sailed back and forth along the Florida coast, in clear view of the lights of Miami. In desperation the passengers sent a telegram to the White House pleading they be allowed to land, that "more than 400 are women and children.”
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.”
“At the same time, however, the Joint Distribution Committee [having failed to convince Cuba or the United States to accept the refugees] was negotiating with the governments of England, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and convinced them to each accept a portion of the St. Louis passengers. For a time, it seemed that the refugees were saved… 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.”
The Wagner-Roger Bill: I note above that 20,000 Jewish children were made homeless by the Krystalnacht pogrom. Two members of congress, a New York senator and a Massachusetts Representative from the president’s party proposed a bill that would provide refuge for the children 14. An overwhelming majority representing two-thirds of Americans polled by Gallup opposed the bill. Even the president’s cousin, wife of the U.S. commissioner of immigration made no effort to conceal her antisemitism. "20,000 charming children,” she wrote, “would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults." The bill never reached the floor. When the president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, asked permission to make a public statement in support of the children he replied, "You may, but its better that I don''t for the time being.” In the end, “[h]e signed an internal memorandum on the [Roger-Wagner Bill with the instruction]: ‘File. FDR.’” And the bill was killed.
If Jewish children were turned away that was not the case for British children. In 1940, when German bombs were being dropped on London American families opened heart and door to British children. “The type of British child most typically requested by American families was "a six year old girl, preferably with blond hair."
 Jewish children rounded up for deportation to Chelmno extermination camp (Wikipedia)
And even dogs “at risk” during the Battle of Britain found a warm welcome. “Ironically, when Pets magazine the following year [following refuge for British children, above] 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. The Final Solution: Extermination as first and last resort, Part 2