As the horrors of Hitler’s Holocaust unfolded, growing in scope and severity, the United States and other nations failed to take action to save Jews, sending boatloads of Jewish refugees back to their almost certain deaths. The United States even denied refuge to the most well-known Holocaust victim of all, the young Anne Frank, whose father’s desperate efforts to save his family were met with cold indifference.
By the end of the 1930s, Jews in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe had long been outlawed—they were officially declared subhuman, stripped of their citizenship and their wealth, banned marrying or even having sex with Aryans, barred from owning land, blacklisted from many professions and subjected to countless other dehumanizing indignities, large and small. They were forced to wear badges and carry special identification. Boycotts and violence plagued Jewish-owned homes and businesses, which were soon stolen as Jews were rounded up and forced into segregated ghettos where the awaited what turned out to be Hitler’s “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”
The international community at least pretended it cared about the plight of Europe’s Jews. In July 1938, just months after Hitler’s annexation of Austria left some 200,000 Jews stateless refugees, 32 member of the League of Nations convened in Evian, France to consider helping Jews fleeing the Third Reich. But the United States, Britain and many other nations refused to accept any significant number of Jewish refugees, even though Hitler was more than willing to help see them off.
Alas, there would be no escape for millions of European Jews as almost the entire world shamefully shut the door on a people literally fleeing for their lives. By 1941, the fate of the Jews was undeniably clear: “The time is near when a machine will go into motion which is going to prepare a grave for the world’s criminal—Judah—from which there will be no resurrection,” the leading Nazi newspaper Der Stuermer ominously declared in 1940, adding in 1941 that “now judgment has begun and it will reach its conclusion only when knowledge of the Jews has been erased from the earth.” Mass exterminations in concentration camps and elsewhere had begun in earnest.
Despite all this, the United States did not open its arms or its doors to Jews fleeing the Holocaust. Quite the opposite was happening, as the fate of the Jews aboard St. Louisillustrates. The transatlantic liner had sailed from Hamburg, Germany for Havana in May 1939 with 937 Jewish refugees aboard. Most of them had applied for American visas and planned to stay in Cuba until they could enter the US. The St. Louis sailed so close to American shores that her passengers could see the lights of Miami in the distance. But both Cuba and the United States denied entry to nearly all of the Jews aboard. The tragedy of the St. Louis was repeated around the world as increasingly desperate Jews were forced to return to Europe, where the gas chambers and firing squads awaited them.
Among the countless Jews denied refuge in the United States were the Frank family of Amsterdam, as personal letters discovered in a New Jersey warehouse in 2007 revealed.
“I am forced to look out for emigration and as far as I can see USA is the only country we could go to,” Otto Frank wrote to friend Nathan Straus Jr., who headed the federal Housing Authority and was friends with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. “It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for. Our own fate is of less importance.”
However, as Frank would later write to Straus, finding refuge in America “is getting more complicated every day.” Great efforts were made on the Franks’ behalf. For nine months, Frank and his American connections tried in vain to secure a US visa. Jewish refugee advocacy groups were of no help. Nor were affidavits from potential employers. Straus even contacted the State Department.
Even with powerful connections and money, American barriers to entry proved too much for most Jews to overcome. As the Holocaust accelerated, so did Frank’s efforts to save his family. He decided to try to gain entry into Cuba but by July 1941, Straus had written back to Frank that “I am afraid, however, the news is not good news.” The situation was hopeless. Although Otto Frank was granted a Cuban visa on December 1, 1941, it was canceled just days later after Germany declared war on the United States.
“I believe that all Germany’s Jews are looking around the world, but can find nowhere to go,” Anne Frank’s mother Edith wrote to a friend as storm clouds gathered.
Not only did the United States have prohibitively restrictive immigration quotas in effect at the time, the Roosevelt administration shamefully went above and beyond existing law to ensure that even those paltry quotas—around 27,000 German and Austrian immigrants were allowed into the country each year—were chronically under-filled. As one senior State Department official said, American consular authorities made sure to “postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas” to refugees. A new restriction was added: no refugee with close relatives in Europe could be granted US entry. This was due to fears that the Nazis might imprison those relatives to force the refugees to spy for Germany.
During the darkest days of the Holocaust, as 6 million Jews were mercilessly exterminated, only around 10 percent of US quotas for Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe were filled. There were ill-fated attempts to admit more Jewish refugees. The proposed Wagner-Rogers bill, drafted in the wake of the Kristallnacht attacks on German Jews, would have allowed 20,000 Jewish children into the US in 1939 and 1940. Anne Frank and her sister Margot could have been among those children, but nativist and isolationist—as well as antisemitic—forces scuttled the bill. Said Laura Delano Houghteling, wife of the US immigration commissioner: “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.”
The roles of antisemitism, xenophobia and general isolationism in the denial of asylum to Jewish refugees cannot be understated. Prominent Catholic priest Charles Coughlin, whose weekly radio program was listened to by as many as 12 million people in a nation of just over 130 million, blamed the Great Depression on an international conspiracy of Jewish bankers and was openly sympathetic toward Hitler. Coughlin and others blamed Nazi crimes, including Kristallnacht, on the Jewish victims and, at a December 1938 New York protest against measures like the Wagner-Rogers bill which would have increased the flow of Jewish refugees into America, the esteemed religious leader led chants of “send Jews back where they came from in leaky boats” and “wait until Hitler comes here!”
A 1939 Gallup poll found that fully two-thirds of Americans opposed allowing 10,000 refugee children into the United States, despite the widespread knowledge of the increasing horrors Jews and others faced under Nazi rule. This should come as no surprise considering a large majority of Americans surveyed at the time expressed beliefs that Jews were “greedy” and “dishonest” and had “too much power.” Throughout the 1940s, Jews were seen as a greater threat to the welfare of the United States than any other national, religious, or racial group. Even after the war, when the full scale and severity of the Holocaust had been revealed, 72 percent of Americans said they did not want to change the law to allow more Jewish and other refugees into the US.
Many of the same dark forces that helped condemn Jewish refugees to mass extermination during World War II have resurfaced in the debate about accepting Syrian refugees. Political expediency has got some Republican presidential hopefuls spewing alarmingly Islamophobic rhetoric—Donald Trump, for example, said he would require a government registry of Muslims and wouldn’t rule out special IDs noting their religion. Ben Carson compared Syrian refugees to dogs. Lesser conservative leaders at the state and local level have called for or endorsed the internment of Muslim refugees in what would essentially be concentration camps.
At a time when Syrian refugees face death, destruction and deprivation from the Assad regime, Islamic State, rebel groups and constant, ferocious aerial bombardment by Syrian, American, Russian, French, Saudi and other warplanes, with more than 200,000 men, women and children killed and millions more forced to flee, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives (with the help of dozens of Democrats) last week passed legislation that essentially bars Syrian refugees from entering the United States. The governors of 31 states, all but one of them Republicans, have similarly slammed the door shut on these desperate refugees—at least the Muslim ones. Some Republicans, including GOP presidential hopefuls Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, have said they would grant asylum only to Syrian Christians.
Just as a majority of Americans opposed saving Jews from the Holocaust in 1939, a majority today are against rescuing Syrian refugees. And just as negative sentiment toward Jewish refugees was rooted in antisemitism, much of America’s opposition to welcoming Syrian refugees is attributable to Islamophobia. Case in point: a recent Public Policy Polling survey, completed before the Paris terror attacks, found that 40 percent of North Carolina respondents favored banning the religion of Islam in the United States.
The rejection of Holocaust refugees was largely due to the same unfounded fears threatening the status and safety of Syrian refugees today. Just as there was little, if any, spying by Jewish migrants, of the more than 745,000 refugees resettled in the United States after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, only two—both of them Iraqis—have been arrested on terrorism-related charges, and their alleged crime of aiding al Qaeda occurred in Iraq, not the United States.
Auschwitz survivor and step-sister of Anne Frank Eva Schloss says “the world has to help” Syrian refugees.
“These people are sacrificing everything trying to save their lives and the lives of their children,” Schloss told Ham & High. “The world has to help. You must not be selfish and you must share whatever you have and help in a desperate situation. They need help from you.”
Leslie Baruch Brent was one of a relative handful of lucky children to be spared the Holocaust thanks to the Kindertransport, which sent 10,000 children from around Europe to Britain during World War II. Brent roundly rejects the exclusionary ethos of many politicians and pundits in the West.
“We owe this to mankind to help the unfortunate people who are desperate and whose plight we are to some extent to blame for,” he told the Jerusalem Post, a reference to the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, which led to the rise of Islamic State and other destabilizing forces. Brent decried the “horrendously negative and selfish” stance of many in the West who would deny refuge to some of the world’s most desperate people.
America has both warmly welcomed and rabidly rejected refugees throughout its history. Once again, the latest “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” face formidable barriers to entry, mostly because of age-old, deeply-entrenched nativist, racist—and now Islamophobic—panic and prejudices propagated mostly by conservative forces.
“It’s time to wake up and smell the falafel,” Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee—a favorite among Evangelical voters—recently told Fox News. “The Statue of Liberty says bring us your tired and your weary, [not] bring us your terrorists and let them come in here and bomb neighborhoods, cafes and concert halls.”
With fearful—and some say bigoted—attitudes like that prevalent throughout much of contemporary American society, it is all but certain that US policies and actions will condemn untold numbers of Syrians to death and despair.”This is history repeating itself,” said Schloss, the Auschwitz survivor.