On Wednesday evening, April 29, Project Witness presented the first in a two-part series on America’s Response to the Holocaust. This series features Dr. Rafael Medoff, author of 20 books on the Holocaust and Founding Director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C.

The event was chaired by Mrs. Blimie Twerski, the Project Witness Conference Coordinator. In her introductory remarks Mrs. Twerski asked the following questions relating to the period spanning 1933-1941 that was the topic of the first webinar: Did America know what was going on?  When did America find out? Was America interested in getting involved? Could it have done so?

In his highly-informative and skillfully-presented lecture, Dr. Medoff answered all of these questions by highlighting America’s immigration policy, U.S. relations with Nazi Germany, the Evian Conference, the U. S. response to Kristallnacht, the voyage of the St. Louis; and the Wagner-Roger Child Refugee Bill. His second session, which will take place this coming Wednesday, May 6 at 7:30 P.M., will deal with what happened from 1941-1945. It is necessary to register for the second session. See below for details.

The rise of Hitler and the first year of President Roosevelt’s term as President of the United States coincided. During the early years of Hitler’s regime, the major crimes he committed were connected to human rights. For the United States during that period of time, the idea of taking retaliatory action, military or otherwise based solely upon violations of human rights was inconceivable. In addition, the United States was going through the Great Depression and the government was therefore mostly involved with domestic issues. At the same time also, the isolationist movement was gaining strength within the U.S. based on the fact that many felt that America should not have become involved in World War I. It is noteworthy that during the 1930’s FDR and his administration maintained cordial relations with Nazi Germany and never publicly criticized Hitler or his actions. Sanctions or diplomatic and economic interventions were not considered.

American Jews did organize a boycott of German goods during this period, but the United States government opposed this idea and allowed Germany to bypass the regulations that would have made the origin of goods easy to identify. It is also true that America could have helped many more Jews legally enter the United States, but the introduction of quotas connected to national origin in the 1920’s limited specific ethnic groups, particularly Jews and Italian Catholics. American Jews were not asking for anything special. All they wanted was that the Roosevelt administration should use the Johnson Immigration Act of 1921 (adjusted in 1924 to make things more difficult for immigrants to enter the United States) to the extent that the law allowed.  

Over the years from 1930-1938 the vast majority of legally available quota certificates were not used because American consular officials, aka the gatekeepers in the potential immigrants’ countries of origin were instructed by the State Department and the Roosevelt administration to keep immigration at a bare minimum. In fact, during the period from 1933-1938 (in 1939 the full quota for that year was finally used), 200,000 quota certificates were unused! When one thinks of the number of Jews who could have been saved from the Nazi inferno, and the number of descendants they could have had, one is just overwhelmed by sadness.  

There were many excuses American officials used to justify immigration refusals. An example quoted by Dr. Medoff referred to a very wealthy elderly Jewish businessman who was willing to sponsor many immigrants, but his guarantees of financial support were rejected because his anticipated life span was considered too short to be sure that his promises would be fulfilled! Another excuse used was the lack of secular marriage certificates. If an applicant could only present a kesuba, but not a secular marriage certificate, then the application was rejected. Immigrants and immigration were unpopular due to anti-Semitism and fears that immigrants would take jobs away from Americans.

Dr. Medoff then proceeded to describe the events connected to the Evian Conference in France in July, 1938. The conference was called for by President Roosevelt to discuss the refugee problem and to deflect growing pressure on his administration to do something for the Jews. While there were members of Congress who clamored for immigration from Germany, no country of the 32 in attendance — except for the Dominican Republic which offered to take in 100,000 Jews — declared willingness to take in Jews.  In the end, only 2000 came to the Dominican Republic due to the fact that FDR discouraged even this action because he was afraid it would affect U.S. relations with Latin America.

After Kristallnacht in November, 1938, there was no possibility of denying German goals. FDR eventually offered a vague condemnation of the pogrom, although it took him 6 days to finally say that the people of the United States were shocked and couldn’t believe such an event could take place in the 20th century. He did not mention the Jews or the Nazis, and he did not blame the German government. He recalled his ambassador to Germany back to the U.S., but there was no change in U.S.-German relations. He did, however, extend the visitors’ visas of German tourists, and consequently 5000 people, some of whom were Jews, had their visas extended.

Although Britain did not commit to taking in refugees at the Evian Conference, it did permit 25,000 people to come to England. 10,000 Kindertransport children and 15,000 women who were taken in as domestic workers and nannies. One of the several ways FDR could have helped was that he could have sent immigrants to the United States Territorial Virgin Islands which had publicly offered to open its doors. This issue came up during the infamous treatment of the refugees on board the St. Louis in the spring of 1939. 930 refugees hovered off the coast of Florida. Despite efforts to arrange for them to go to the Virgin Islands, FDR and Cordell Hull refused the request based on the fact that the refugees didn’t have permanent residences to which they could return. The irony is that because they didn’t have a safe place to return to, they were forced to go back to a non-safe location!

The Wagner-Rogers Child Refugee Bill which was never passed, was an effort to bring in 20,000 Jewish children 16 years and younger from Germany to the United States in 1939. Sadly, the bill was never passed due to anti-Semitism and the belief that the children might grow up to become communists or spies for Germany. FDR took no position, but his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt was sympathetic. A cousin of FDR’s was heard to say about the proposed refugees, “20,000 charming children will become 20,000 ugly adults.”

The second part of this fascinating and informative series will take place on Wednesday evening, May 6, at 7:30 P.M.  Dr. Medoff will discuss: media coverage of the mass murder, opportunities for rescue, American Jewish responses including the Bermuda Conference, the failure to bomb Auschwitz, and anti-Semitism and U.S. policy. Registration is required. For registration, please go to projectwitness.org and you will find the webinar listed under Events. If you have any questions please call Project Witness at 718-305-5244, extension 244.