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
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.
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 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.
"All those unused visas, all those unheeded appeals, all those useless
-- 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
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