American Jews and the Holocaust: History, Memory and Identity

What was the United States’ response towards Jewish refugees and eventually the Holocaust?

What Historians Think

Most Americans did not recognize the moral imperative of Jewish immigration during the 1930s and 40s. Instead, they viewed immigration’s potential impact on the economy. At this time, the United States was coming out of the worst depression ever experienced; jobs were scarce and Americans did not want to compete with cheap foreign labor coming into the country. Most Americans firmly believed that every new refugee admitted into the United States would cost some American their precious job.1 Over 70% of the Jewish immigrants would have been over the age of forty and in management positions.2 Americans thought it would not be wise to have older generation skilled immigrants competing with Americans. One New York Times article said, “The United States cannot be expected to perform today… the historic service it previously performed.”3 Many Americans in general felt strongly that immigration numbers should not increase. Any politician who campaigned for increasing immigration for refugees was condemning himself politically.4 Some American Jews were against immigration themselves, fearing that the new Jews entering into America would do a disservice to the Jews already here.5 They worried new immigrant Jews would disrupt the already complacent assimilated Jewish relationship with the rest of the United States, triggering an anti-Semitic backlash.6 Nativists and anti-immigration advocates, such as the editor of the Defender Magazine, wrote in May of 1938, “Let us stop immigration completely for a while and give our present alien population an opportunity to become Americanized first before they foreignize us.”7

Historian, Peter Novick, claims the reason the American government did not lift the strict immigration law was because no one knew the severity of Jewish plight. Yes, they were escaping religious persecution, but certain death? Novick argues that this ignorance contributed to the enforcement of restrictionist laws despite the urgent exodus from Europe during this period.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein contends the United States should have created temporary havens for Jewish refugees in other countries. Indeed, there were over six hundred resettlement schemes examined by the Roosevelt administration.8 The Wagner-Roger Bill was introduced to allow 20,000 refugee children to enter the United States twice a year. This bill was supported by many Americans because they believed that children, being young and easily influenced, could still Americanize. The bill failed at the committee level and was never passed.9 One newspaper argued against the suggestion to relocate them to the African jungle. The newspaper retorted that settling a population of intellectual urban people into a land of “jungle and wild animals was highly improbable.”10 A Baltimore Jewish Times article suggested to “distribute them throughout the country so they don’t centralize in the urban cities.”11 The Dominican Republic offered to accept 150,000 “political refugees” but only five hundred were able to land near Puerto Plata on the northern side of the island.12 Historian Henry L. Feingold argues that a simple plan -- increasing immigration numbers during the war years and decreasing the numbers in later years -- would have been sufficient to save many European Jews while still allowing the quota system to stay in place.

The turning point in mobilizing American Jewish opinion came in 1939 when the St. Louis, a refugee ship carrying close to a thousand Jews fleeing the Nazis terror in Europe, was denied admittance into the United States.13 Trying to find a harbor at which to dock along the Florida coast and Cuba, they looked without success for a place that would allow them entrance. With no help from the United States, they eventually were able to find refuge in Belgium, Holland, France and England.14

The St. Louis in the port of Havana, Cuba. Havana was one of the many ports that the St. Louis docked at in order to find a home for the many Jewish refugees aboard.

News of this reached American opinion. A New York Times article from June 1, 1939 headed, “Fears Suicide Wave On Refugees’ Ship,” and article, “Refugee Ship Idles Off the Coast of Florida,” informed Americans of the severity of St. Louis ship.15 News of the St. Louis passengers “crying desperately” for admittance and “attempts of suicide by slashing wrists and jumping overboard,” did not change the public’s stance on protecting United States’ borders from immigrants and fleeing refugees.16 Many Americans upheld their anti-immigration attitude due to their nativists and isolationists views; unemployment was at its peak and America was not willing to give an immigrant a job when Americans needed it first. The St. Louis situation was not viewed as a life or death matter at this time; it was merely a domestic issue of upholding American policy.17 There was no knowledge of the extent of the holocaust to come.18 Roosevelt could not allow his policies to appear as being a “tool of the Jews,” for their special interest.19 American national interest must focus on self defense, “not some globalist do-gooding.”20 Hitler mocked the American government about their immigration policy stating,

It is a shameful example to observe today how the entire democratic world dissolves into tears of pity but then, in spite of its obvious duty to help, closes its heart to the poor, tortured people.21

After the embarrassment due to the lack of Jewish organizations rallying efforts for the St. Louis, Jewish publications, such as the Contemporary Jewish Record, defended America stating that “worldwide unemployment makes it difficult to find places anywhere for impoverished immigrants,” and that this situation, “aggravates immeasurably the situation of the native Jewish populations in the countries to which these emigrants have gone.”22 Historians suggest that the lack of protest by Jewish American leaders was due to the fear that pushing an immigration issue when popular opinion was already anti-immigration, would stir up anti-Semitism.23

After the St. Louis event, Jewish organizations rallied for a single all-inclusive Jewish defense agency. They believed the St. Louis tragedy told the world that American Jews were not integrated and had such division that saving refugees was not attempted. This admission pushed Jewish organizations to come together for the greater cause of saving victims. The Congress Bulletin responded to their plea by arguing, “[The St. Louis incident] was not because the Roosevelt Administration is any less friendly to the Jews. The plain fact of the matter is that the government was simply afraid of the demagogic political agitation of the fascists.”24 Ironically, the Reform Judaism Central Conference of American Rabbis met when the St. Louis was heading back to Europe, and not a word was spoken about the ship.25

President Roosevelt was placed in a precarious situation. Roosevelt faced criticism by anti-Semites, Republicans and other critics claiming he had too many Jews in his cabinet and other anti-Semitic accusations.26 The “Jew Deal” and President “Rosenfeld” were two derogatory labels thrown at his administration.27 Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, was highly criticized for his suggestions to Roosevelt over the course of Roosevelt’s term.28 Even Roosevelt’s administration had many anti-Semites in his cabinet who were educated at universities such as Georgetown University, which were notoriously anti-Semitic.29 FDR was stuck between appeasing the Jewish community but placating the anti-Semites, the nativists and the isolationists with the goal of United States joining the war.

David Wyman, author of Abandonment of the Jews, makes lengthy accusations regarding FDR’s lack of interest and inactivity in the Jewish cause. He mentions Roosevelt’s reluctance to meet with Jewish leaders to discuss the problems. Roosevelt fled the White House when news reached him that Orthodox rabbis were making a pilgrimage asking for his help and guidance. Wyman argues that Roosevelt purposefully took minimal role in the Bermuda Conference which was organized in 1943 to discuss rescue options for the victims. Many prominent politicians and social leaders declined invitations to the conference and although FDR expressed support for relief in letters, he was indifferent at the conference. Roosevelt maintained his stance; if victory at war was possible, then the Jews would have their triumph by the defeat of the Nazi regime.

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  1. ^Lookstein, Haskel, Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers? The Public Response of American Jews to the Holocaust 1938-1944. (New York: Hartmore House, 1985,), 95.
  2. ^Feingold, Henry L., A Time For Searching: Entering Mainstream, 1920-1945. (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 227.
  3. ^Medoff, Rafael, The Deafening Silence: American Jewish Leaders and the Holocaust. (New York, Shapolsky Publishers, 1987), 58.
  4. ^Lookstein, WWOBK, 207.
  5. ^Lipstadt, Deborah E., “Pious Sympathies and Sincere Regrets: The American New Media and the Holocaust From Krystalnacht to Bermuda, 1938-1943,” Modern Judaism, 2, no. 1 (February 1982), 59.
  6. ^Lookstein, WWOBK, 208.
  7. ^Ibid, 95.
  8. ^Ibid.
  9. ^Feingold, ATFS, 231-232.
  10. ^Lipstadt, “PSSR,” 60.
  11. ^Editorial, Baltimore Jewish Times, September 23, 1938, 28.
  12. ^Feingold, ATFS, 130.
  13. ^Medoff, TDS, 59.
  14. ^Novick, Peter, The Holocaust in American Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), 50.
  15. ^“Fear Suicide Wave for Refugee’s Ship” New York Times, June 1, 1939, 16. and June 5, 1939, 1-2.
  16. ^Medoff, TDS, 59.
  17. ^Ibid 60, Novick, HAL, 50-51.
  18. ^Novick, HAL, 50.
  19. ^Ibid, 51.
  20. ^Ibid.
  21. ^Medoff, TDS, 101.
  22. ^Ibid, 60.
  23. ^Ibid.
  24. ^Medoff, TDS, 62.
  25. ^Ibid.
  26. ^Ibid, 102.
  27. ^Novick, HAL, 41.
  28. ^Ibid, 91.
  29. ^Ibid, 49.