On November 9-10, 1938, at least 96 Jews in Germany and Austria were murdered, 1,300 synagogues and 7,500 businesses were destroyed and countless Jewish cemeteries and schools were vandalized. Approximately 30,000 Jews were imprisoned in concentration camps. This came to be known as Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” and the world’s inaction following that night set the stage for the Holocaust.
Unlike the atrocities committed in concentration camps, the Kristallnacht pogroms were carried out in plain sight with widespread media coverage. Some Western leaders condemned the violence, but none were willing to take any punitive measures against Germany. Notably silent was President Franklin Roosevelt, who referred questions to the State Department.
The media barons of the time did not demand action from the government because doing so would have “necessitated ignoring two prevailing American sentiments: the necessity to maintain strict neutrality and even stricter bars to increased immigration.” Still, after five days of public outrage, Roosevelt finally recalled the U.S. ambassador from Germany, and declared, “The news of the past few days from Germany has deeply shocked public opinion in the U.S….I myself could scarcely believe such things could happen in a 20th century civilization.” By failing to take any further action against Germany, however, or to mobilize an international coalition to challenge Hitler, the president conveyed the message that no one would intervene to save Jews.
On November 20, 1938, Roosevelt agreed to allow German refugees already in the United States on visitors’ visas to remain. This act saved as many as 15,000 Jews, but he could have saved tens of thousands more if he had increased the immigration quota, combined the annual quota for German and Austrian immigrants, or given Jews a special exemption.
Approximately 7,000 Jewish children escaped the Holocaust when they were sent through the “Kindertransports” to Great Britain. A few thousand more children were taken in by Belgium and Holland, but the United States would not even accept children whose parents were prepared to send them away in the hope of saving their lives.
Congressional legislation would have permitted 20,000 Jewish children to enter the United States on an emergency basis, but two-thirds of the American public opposed the legislation and it died in the Senate in 1939. Opponents argued that Jewish children would flood orphanages; that it wasn’t fair to help foreign children at the expense of American ones; that Nazi or Communist children might slip in and that a precedent would be set for making exceptions to quotas for other countries; and that this would open the door to demands later that the parents be admitted as well. The public overwhelmingly (94%) disapproved of the Nazi treatment of Jews, but opposed admitting large numbers of German Jews into the United States.
If the future of Jews in Germany was not obvious after the pogroms on Kristallnacht, and the subsequent anti-Jewish measures adopted by the Nazis, it certainly was after Hitler declared in January 1939: “If international finance Jewry within Europe and abroad should succeed once more in plunging the peoples into a world war, then the consequence will be not the Bolshevization of the world and therewith a victory of Jewry, but, on the contrary, the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe.” Four days later, Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop envisioned a radical solution to the Jewish question. “It is probably no coincidence,” he wrote, “that 1938, the year of destiny, has not only brought the realization of the concept of Greater Germany, but at the same time has also brought the Jewish question close to solution.”
After the war, apologists for President Roosevelt would justify his failure to save European Jewry by arguing America needed to focus all of its resources on the war effort and that defeating the Nazis was the only way to save the Jews. In 1938-39, however, the war had not yet begun and there was no excuse for failing to save Jews.
When Jews hear the echoes of the Nazi era from leaders today in places such as Tehran, they wonder if America’s leaders will act to prevent genocide or find excuses as they did in 1938.
Mitchell Bard is author of 48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction/Dawn of the Holocaust – An Oral History and After Anatevka-Tevye in Palestine.