KRISTALLNACHT

    Three months after Anschluss, the predicament of the Jews in the Greater German Reich became even worse. On November 8-9, 1938, the Nazis burned synagogues, plundered Jewish stores and homes, and arrested an estimated 30,000 Jewish men (those with visas were released). The glass littering the streets from the smashed windows of Jewish stores gave the pogrom its name: Kristallnacht, or Night of the Broken Glass. As a result of Kristallnacht, the refugee crisis became even more acute. In the U. S., however, government policy on the refugees remained the same. At his weekly press conference, President Roosevelt expressed his outrage at the latest Nazi atrocities.
 

    But when he was asked if the U. S. intended to allow more European Jews into the country, the president replied, "That is not in contemplation. We have a quota system."
    Even advocates of refugees did not propose raising the quota. The representative of "American Friends Service Committee" said, "To our knowledge, no one is trying to change the quota. It is considered highly dangerous to attempt such a step, and might jeopardize even the present quota."

WAGNER-ROGER'S BILL

    In the Greater German Reich, an estimated 20,000 children had been left both homeless and fatherless by the Kristallnacht destruction and the imprisonment of Jewish men. In the U. S., Senator Wagner and Representative Rogers proposed the Wagner-Rogers bill that would allow these children to immigrate into the U. S. outside of the existing quota. The bill would permit the admission of only these children. It would not permit the admission of other children at a later date. It was a one time only affair. According to a Gallup poll conducted at the time, two thirds of the American public opposed the bill. In the end, the bill did not even reach the floor of Congress for debate. It was squelched in committee. During the debate on the Wagner-Roger's bill, President Roosevelt remained silent. Once, when the president was on a cruise in the Caribbean, his wife Eleanor Roosevelt telegraphed him to ask if she might state publicly that both of them supported the bill. The president answered, "You may, but it's better that I don't for the time being." The "time being" did not change. The president never voiced an opinion, one way or the other, on the Wagner-Roger's bill. He signed one memorandum on the bill, "File. FDR."

    In 1940, when Nazi Germany attacked western Europe and German bombs began to fall on England, great numbers of Americans offered refuge to British children who had been displaced by the bombings. This was in great contrast to the lack of refuge offered to Jewish children just two years before. The type of British child most typically requested by American families was "a six year old girl, preferably with blond hair."

    So fraught with adverse consequences was the subject of refugees that when refugee ships arrived in the U.S., the agencies organizing the rescue made a deliberate effort to downplay the Jewishness of the refugees and to avoid publicity altogether. Newspapers were discouraged from reporting the arrival of refugee boats. "Behind this strategy," historian David Wyman has written, "lay anxiety that the public, exposed to story after story of ships unloading refugees, would believe the flow of immigrants really was a flood, particularly a Jewish flood."

THE ST. LOUIS

    In May 1939, one month before the outbreak of World War II, the ocean liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, bound for the U. S. with several hundred Jewish refugees, none of whom had visas. The refugees figured they had nothing to lose and willingly took the chance. The St. Louis sailed up and down the Atlantic coast of the U.S. but was not permitted to dock at any port. It then sailed to Havana, Cuba, but the refugees were refused entry. In the end, the St. Louis sailed back to Europe. Its passengers disembarked at Amsterdam, Holland. Less than a year later, the German armies swept across western Europe and the former refugees of the St. Louis were swept up in the Holocaust. For his efforts to save the Jews on his ship, the German captain of the St. Louis was later named a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial organization in Israel.

    In only one place in the world were Jewish refugees permitted to land without a visa: Shanghai. It became a refuge for thousands of Jews who otherwise would have perished.

THE AMERICAN PUBLIC IN 1938

    In 1938, four different polls indicated that between 71% and 85% of the American public opposed raising the quota to help refugees. An estimated 67% of the American public wanted to keep all refugees out of the country.

REIGNER'S TELEGRAM

    "All those unused visas, all those unheeded appeals, all those useless screams."
-- Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate

    In late 1941, the murder of European Jews entered a new phase, a phase in which the death camps were utilized. Hitherto, the Jews of eastern and central Europe had been subject to disease, starvation, and random violence in the Nazi ghettos. In fact, an estimated 20% of Polish Jewry died in the ghettos. With the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, mobile squads of Nazi murders known as Einsatzgruppen swept the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) as well as Ukraine and Bylorussia. The Einsatzgruppen commanders included a former opera singer, a university professor, a Protestant pastor, and a large number of lawyers. In excess of one million Jews were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen. Typically, the Jews (men, women, and children) were shot in the back of the neck and dumped in ditches the Jews themselves had been forced to dig. There was, however, a problem with German soldiers killing unarmed Jews (who were labeled communists, partisans, or simply "enemies of the Reich"). It had a devastating psychological toll. The Jews were dead, but the men who killed them were also, in a sense, dead. As well, the expenditure of millions of bullets was not a trifle to the economic-minded Germans. There had to be a change if Hitler's instructions for "a final solution of the Jewish question" was to be realized. The decision was taken to establish death camps in which Jews were destroyed by, first, carbon monoxide, and, subsequently, by Zyclon B, a poisonous gas whose original purpose was the extermination of rodents.

    On December 8, 1941, the Nazis opened the first death camp at the village of Chelmno, in western Poland. Here the Jews were murdered in gas vans (the size of large moving vans) by carbon monoxide. The bodies were burned in pits at a nearby forest. In the spring of 1942, the Nazis established death camps in eastern Poland outside the villages of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. In June 1942, the Nazis established Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest and most infamous death camp. It was located approximately thirty-five miles west of the Polish city of Krakow.

    In July 1942, a German industrialist living near Auschwitz-Birkenau learned of the camp's existence through friends and contacts in the Nazi high command. The industrialist, Dr. Eduard Schulte, also learned of Hitler's determination to destroy all of the Jews in Europe. In the effort to alert the leaders of the western democracies about the genocide, Schulte traveled to neutral Switzerland (ostensibly on war-related business). In Geneva, he relayed information (through an intermediary) about the destruction of Jews to Gerhardt Reigner, an official of the World Jewish Congress. Reigner transmitted Schulte's information (by way of the American consulate in Geneva) to the British Foreign Ministry and to the U.S. State Department. Reigner specifically requested the State Department to forward the information to Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the World Jewish Congress. In August 1942, Reigner's telegram describing Schulte's information reached both London and Washington. Before this information reached the west, it was generally believed that terrible atrocities had been perpetrated against the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. However, no one understood that the terrible atrocities were a prelude to the total destruction of the Jews. Hence the importance of Schulte's message: he provided the western leaders with the information that there was a Nazi plan at the highest levels to eliminate all Jews and that all the deportations and ghettos and other individual measures were only steps along the way to total extermination. It was to be "a final solution" for all of the Jews of Europe.

    When Reigner's telegram reached the State Department in Washington, officials described its contents as "fantastic allegations" and refused to pass on the information to Rabbi Wise. In an interview, Richard Breitman, author of Breaking the Silence, has said that the State Department officials felt that forwarding the information to Rabbi Wise would cause Jewish officials "to react in ways which the State Department did not think helpful. That is to say, to put pressure on the government to do things they believed not in the government's interest to do. In other words, to try to save Jewish lives."
 

        Later, a State Department official wrote an internal memorandum explaining U.S. policy regarding refugees: "There was always the danger that the German government might agree to turn over to the United States and to Great Britain a large number of Jewish refugees."
    For three months, the State Department refused to publish the information contained in the Reigner telegram. Indeed, the State Department instructed the American consulate in Switzerland to stop transmitting information about the destruction of the Jews because "it would expose us to increased pressure to do something more specific to aid these people."

    By the late autumn of 1942, sources in Europe had confirmed the contents of Reigner's telegram. One source was the Polish underground courier Jan Karski. He entered both the Warsaw ghetto and the Belzec death camp to witness the Nazi policies so that he could authoritatively report that Jewish destruction is not a rumor and that he saw it himself. Karski then smuggled himself out of Nazi-occupied Poland and to Britain from which he traveled to America. He informed western governments of what was happening to the Jews in Poland.

    On November 24, 1942, Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles informed Rabbi Wise, "I regret to tell you, Dr. Wise, that these (documents) confirm and justify your deepest fears" about the annihilation of European Jewry. The same evening, Rabbi Wise gave a press conference in which he detailed the destruction of the Jews in Europe based upon information the State Department had confirmed. Wise estimated that two million Jews had already been murdered. Sadly, that estimate was less than the actual number of murdered Jews. The following day, November 25, 1942, the New York Times published an account of Wise's press conference. Rabbi Wise was quoted as saying: "The State Department finally made available today the documents which have confirmed the stories and rumors of Jewish extermination in all Hitler-ruled Europe." The article, describing the U.S. government's first acknowledgment of the Holocaust, appeared on page 10 of the New York Times. It is of note that only five of the nineteen most widely circulated newspapers in the U.S. put the story of Jewish destruction on the front page. None of the articles in any of the nineteen papers were prominently placed. Two of the nineteen papers did not include information about Rabbi Wise's press conference.

    During the three months between the arrival of the Reigner telegram in Washington and the confirmation of the Holocaust by the State Department, an additional one million Jews had been murdered.

THE BERMUDA CONFERENCE

    On April 19, 1943, the very same day as the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt, British and American diplomats (of a relatively low rank) met on the island of Bermuda ostensibly to discuss what might be done to relieve the plight of European Jews. It should be noted that tens of thousands of Jews were still alive in countries beyond the reach of the Germans: Bulgaria, Spain, Hungary, and Rumania. The Bermuda Conference was held largely as a result of growing public pressure in England.

    However, as historian David Wyman has said, "Rescue was not the purpose of Bermuda. The purpose was to dampen growing pressures for rescue." In a phrase, Bermuda was "a facade for inaction."

    The first task of the U.S. diplomats was to locate a prominent American who would be willing to represent the U.S. at the conference. Myron Taylor, the U.S. representative at the Evian Conference five years before, and the American with the most experience on the refugee issue, was rejected by President Roosevelt. Associate Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts rejected the offer, a rejection to which President Roosevelt lightheartedly replied, "I fully understand, but I am truly sorry that you cannot go to Bermuda, especially at the time of the Easter lilies! After my talk with you, the State Department, evidently decided (under British pressure) that the meeting should be held at once instead of waiting until June." The president of Yale University at first accepted the offer to represent the U.S. at Bermuda, but then rejected it under pressure from his board of directors. Finally, the president of Princeton University, Harold W. Dodds, accepted the appointment. Wyman caustically observed, "It was not a good spring for finding distinguished Americans who could devote time to the tragedy of the Jews of Europe."

    Bermuda was selected as the site of the conference because travel to the island was strictly limited under war-time conditions. There would be a few (hand picked) reporters and no nettlesome Jewish representatives hovering over the shoulders of the diplomats, who stayed at the Horizons Oceanside resort "set among hibiscus and oleander and lilly fields in bloom for Easter." The State Department made it very clear to the diplomats at Bermuda that there would be no special emphasis placed upon the suffering of the Jews. This was "strictly prohibited." In addition, it was made clear that the Roosevelt administration did not have the power to relax or to rescind the immigration laws. It was not mentioned, however, that the administration did have the power to permit the quota to be filled to its legal limit. During the Second World War, the U. S. quota was virtually untouched: 21,000 refugees, most of them Jews, were admitted into the country. This number constituted ten percent of the allowed quota. In other words, nearly 190,000 openings went unfilled while the slaughter of Jews continued unabated. The State Department appointed two congressmen to head the U.S. delegation to Bermuda. Neither of the men had any prior experience with the refugee problem, the very subject of the conference.

    Senator Scott Lucas, a Democrat from Illinois, said that he was "not acquainted with the refugee problem but intended to study it carefully." Sol Bloom, a Yiddish speaking vaudevillian comedian who became a New York congressman and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, was widely recognized on Capitol Hill as no friend of the Jews in Europe. Bloom, who was Jewish, "was a sycophant of the State Department," said Emanuel Celler, one of the seven Jews in Congress. The diplomats at Bermuda did not reach any conclusions regarding the rescue of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. Perhaps because of the "poverty" of their results, the diplomats did not issue a final report.

    Representative Sol Bloom said, "Winning the war is our first step. We as Jews must keep this in mind." "The job of the Bermuda conference apparently was not to rescue victims of Nazi terror," said Rabbi Israel Goldstein, "but to rescue our State Department and the British Foreign Office." "Not even the pessimists among us expected such sterility," said Sam Dickstein of the House of Representatives.
 

        Several months after the Bermuda Conference, the Jewish newspaper "the Frontier" wrote, "The Warsaw ghetto is liquidated. The leaders of Polish Jewry are dead by their own hand, and the world which looks on passively is, in its way, dead too."

A WHITE HOUSE MEETING

    In March 1943, one month before the Bermuda Conference, Secretary of State Cornell Hull, President Franklin Roosevelt, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, and British ambassador to the U.S. Lord Halifax, met at the White House. At one point in the wide ranging discussions, Secretary of State Hull raised the subject of the 70,000 Bulgarian Jews and the possibility of their rescue from the Nazis.
 

        According to the transcript of the meeting, Eden replied, "The whole problem of the Jews in Europe is very difficult. We should move very cautiously about offering to take all the Jews out of a country like Bulgaria. If we do that then the Jews of the world will be wanting us to make similar offers in Poland and in Germany."
    In an interview, historian David Wyman offered this comment: "Eden was afraid that large numbers of Jews would be saved. This was his fear and everybody in that room knew then what was the fate of the European Jews. They had known for four months. In that room were the foremost leaders of the two great western democracies with the one exception of Winston Churchill. As far as the record shows, nobody objected to that statement."

Continue or
Return to Index