America’s Indifference to Refugees — Even while 6 Million Died

With the fate of refugees in the news, attention has been focused upon the tragic years of the Nazi Holocaust. Although Jews had moved from place to place at many points in history, at no moment was the need for rescue as acute as from 1935-45.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, America had an immigration quota system based upon Country of National Origin. The intent was to preserve America’s ethnic balance as of the 1910 census.  27,000 Christians or Jews annually could be admitted from Germany, but less than 6000 from Poland. During WWII, at the height of the Jewish refugee crisis, only 10% of these quota numbers were put into use.

The context for war-time resistance toward Jewish entry stems from the 1930s. Amid an unprecedented economic depression, competition for jobs led to opposition to the arrival of foreign workers. Negativity was augmented by anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiments among America’s Protestant majority. Jew-hatred was broadcast weekly on the radio to millions of listeners by Father Coughlin, the “radio priest.” The German American Bund promoted neo-Nazi ideology to receptive ears. American “Isolationists” warned against believing “atrocity stories,” alleged fabrications intended to drag the USA into war.

As the persecution of Jews increased, word reached the pages of the New York Times on a daily basis from the time of Kristalnacht [November 9-10, 1938] all the way to the bombing of Pearl Harbor [December 7, 1941]. To counter humanitarian sentiment urging refugee rescue, anti-Semitic State Department officials created “red tape” to impede the use of immigration quotas.

In order to obtain a visa, you had to acquire a Boat ticket. However, purchasing a boat ticket required a visa. An immigrant had to demonstrate that he or she had a job awaiting in America, lest they are “likely to become a public charge.” Yet, if you had secured a US job, you were in violation of the “contract labor provision” [e.g. taking a job away from a citizen]. Additionally, a character reference was mandatory – from the Nazi government!!

Feeling pressure to respond to the massive increase of refugees and stateless people, the community of nations convened the Évian Conference 6–15 July 1938, at Évian, France. The conference was a humanitarian disaster. Delegates from the 32 nations failed to come to any agreement about accepting Jewish refugees. Only Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic increased their quotas., not the USA!

In desperation, Jews tried creative methods for fleeing Europe. Notably, The St. Louis set sail from Hamburg to Cuba on May 13, 1939, carrying 937 passengers, most of them Jewish refugees seeking asylum from Nazi persecution. The St Louis was turned away from landing in Cuba. It headed towards the United States, circling off the coast of Florida, praying for permission to enter. However, FDR was advised to say NO.

When the ship’s Captain considered running aground along the coast, a desperate measure to allow the refugees to escape, US Coast Guard vessels shadowed the ship and thwarted the plan. The St Louis reluctantly returned to Nazi-occupied Europe. More than 250 of the passengers eventually perished.

With the US entry into WWII, anti-refugee ideology increased. Opponents allegedly feared refugees from Germany might become spies on behalf of the enemy. They also claimed that refugees from Eastern Europe might create a “fifth column” of Communist Soviet sympathizers. American “nationalists” warned against diluting the “purity” of American culture.

To obstruct the use of the full quota, the State Department added further obstacles. They instituted a “relatives rule,” e.g. any applicant who had relatives left behind would have pass more stringent tests for a Visa. Refugees from countries at war with America entered the “enemy aliens” category. They had to prove that his or her entry would carry tangible benefit to the USA. To delay the Visa process, additional time-laden steps were added, plus the Visa form became much larger and more complex both for the applicant and for the sponsor in the USA.

As public awareness increased of the mounting refuges crisis, FDR felt pressured to convene a refugees Bermuda Conference, April 19, 1943, through April 30, 1943. The objective was to decide the fate of Jews liberated by the Allied forces yet wandering the European continent. Tragically, the only agreement was that only winning the war and defeating the Nazis would save the Jews. US immigration quotas were not raised nor did the British lift the prohibition upon Jewish refugees seeking refuge in Palestine.

The one war-time success in the rescue efforts was America’s War Refugee Board, established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in January 1944,  to aid victims of the Nazi and Axis powers. The WRB emerged due the courageous lobbying by FDR’s Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. The WRB is credited with rescuing tens of thousands of Jews from Nazi-occupied countries, through the efforts of Raoul Wallenberg and others diplomats. Sadly the WRB represented the only major effort undertaken by the United States government to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust.

With the anguish of Holocaust refugees fresh in our minds and memory, it is natural that American Jews feel compelled to speak on behalf of current-day refugees of all faiths, to aid them within the regions of their distress, to advocate their entry into the USA, and to assist with their “absorption” once they arrive at our shores.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD has been the religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, New Jersey since 1979. From … 1993 to 1995 he served as President of the International Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement. From 2000 - 2005 he was President of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues. He served as Chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel from 2010-2014. He currently serves as the president of Mercaz Olami. He is the author of It All Begins With A Date: Jewish Concerns About Interdating; Preserving Jewishness In Your Family: Once Intermarriage Has Occurred; as well as Alternative to Assimilation: A Social History of the Reform Movement in American Judaism, 1840-1930.