Why FDR Decided to Rescue Jews from the Holocaust in 1944

As mentioned in my last blog post, President Franklin Roosevelt showed little interest in the fate of Europe’s Jews until January 16, 1944. On that date he had a meeting with officials from the Treasury Department, including Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and a man in his thirties named John Pehle. These men presented to FDR a report which detailed the State Department’s attempts to “stop the obtaining of information concerning the murder of the Jewish people of Europe.” The report revealed that State Department officials blocked cables about Nazi atrocities that reliable informants tried to send to the U.S.

 

Henry_Morgenthau,_Jr.1947

Henry Morgenthau, Jr. 1944

Fortunately for Morgenthau and Pehle, FDR was receptive to a report of State Department wrongdoing. A major reason for this was the recent testimony of Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long. The House of Representatives was debating whether to ask FDR for a refugee rescue agency that would be separate from the State Department. Congress held private hearings with witnesses testifying for and against the new agency.

Breckinridge Long testified that another agency was not needed because “we have taken into this country, since the beginning of the Hitler regime and the persecution of the Jews, until today, approximately 580,000 refugees.” Most members of the House initially believed Long’s story. Then Long made a mistake by allowing his testimony to be published. A few news outlets and Jewish organizations pointed out the inconsistencies in Long’s statement. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the number of Jews who came in under national quotas between January 1, 1933 and June 30, 1943 totaled only 166,843–far from Long’s claim of 580,000.

The press made Long a laughingstock, and members of Congress who supported the new agency were more determined than ever. The Senate planned to put the rescue agency to a vote, and polls showed it would pass.

FDR hated the idea of a scandal, especially in an election year like 1944. Long’s false testimony and the Treasury Department’s report on State Department duplicity were enough to convince FDR to create the War Refugee Board. He made his decision in his twenty minute meeting with Henry Morgenthau and John Pehle.

American Politicians and Immigration Policy: A Troubled History

Inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty are these words: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” The poet should have put an asterisk after these lines that read “unless politicians find it inconvenient to admit certain refugees; in that case the door is closed.”

U.S. IMMIGRATION POLICY DURING WORLD WAR II

In the 1930s and 1940s, the door to the United States was closed to Jewish immigrants fleeing the Nazis. With the exception of the work done by the War Refugee Board in 1944 (by which time most of Europe’s Jews were dead), President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration stood by while 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

U.S. State Department excuses for not loosening immigration quotas included the possibility that Jews might be acting as spies for the Nazi government. Despite this theory, the record indicates that only one enemy agent entered the country as a refugee, and that refugee was not Jewish.

In order to enter the U.S., Jewish refugees had to endure so much government red tape that by the time the State Department approved a visa, the applicant had often been deported to a concentration camp. Even a congressional bill to accept 20,000 Jewish children was rejected because, as President Franklin Roosevelt’s cousin Laura Delano stated, “twenty thousand charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”

Women_and_children_among_Syrian_refugees_striking_at_the_platform_of_Budapest_Keleti_railway_station._Refugee_crisis._Budapest,_Hungary,_Central_Europe,_4_September_2015._(3)

Syrian Refugees at Budapest Railway Station, 4 Sept. 2015. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov

CURRENT U.S. POLICY ON IMMIGRATION

At the moment, Syrian refugees are the most unpopular group in the United States. A few months ago, Mexican immigrants, all of whom politicians like Donald Trump seem to think are rapists or drug dealers, were enemy Number One, but opinions change quickly. The terror attacks in France gave U.S. politicians who did not want immigrants entering the country the perfect excuse to say, “We do not want Syrian immigrants in America. They are coming to attack us.”

Yet out of 784,000 refugees that have entered the U.S. since September 11, 2001, only three were arrested for planning terrorist activities. Only one of the three spoke of targeting the U.S., and even he had no specific plan. People risking their lives to get out of their country (and plenty, including young children, have died in the attempt) are unlikely to target a country that provides them with food and shelter.

Despite the fact that the U.S has pledged to admit only 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016, even this number is too large for some politicians. Last week in the House of Representatives, 47 Democrats and 242 Republicans voted to put new security limits on those immigrants. Apparently these representatives are unaware that the security screening process is already so complicated that it takes 18-24 months (more than a year) before a refugee from Syria can ever enter the U.S.

In contrast to the reluctance of the U.S. to admit Syrian refugees, Germany is projected to take in 800,000 refugees by the end of this year. Germany–a country Jewish refugees tried to flee from in the 1930s and 1940s–is now taking in hundreds of thousands more refugees than the U.S. ever planned to welcome.

France, the country with the most recent terror attacks and the country that gave the U.S. the Statue of Liberty, has promised to continue accepting immigrants from Syria. America, the nation of immigrants, is becoming the nation of exclusion.

Josiah DuBois and the Creation of the War Refugee Board

On Christmas Day 1943, a young US Treasury Department employee wrote something that would change the lives of more than 100,000 Jews in Europe. Josiah DuBois worked on this document despite the fact that he was risking his job and had little time to spend with his family on the holiday.

US Treasury Department photo by Roman Boed

US Treasury Department photo by Roman Boed

The document was entitled The Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews. It accused the US State Department “of gross procrastination and willful failure to act” and “willful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.” DuBois’ report showed that State Department officials not only followed the United States strict immigration laws, but tried to prevent Jews from immigrating to the US altogether.

Visas for potential refugees were delayed because of State’s requirement that refugees produce two letters of reference from American citizens who could either help support the refugees or who could prove the refugees could take care of themselves. In addition, visa applicants were often turned away if they had close relatives in Europe. The theory, or excuse, for not admitting them was that the enemy might persuade immigrants to become Nazi spies.

As DuBois pointed out in his report, the new immigrants would not threaten national security.  If President Roosevelt was concerned about potential spies, refugees could be placed in internment camps “and released only after a satisfactory investigation… Even if we took these refugees and treated them as prisoners of war it would be better than letting them die.”

In DuBois’s mind all human beings worth saving. Sadly, from late 1941 to early 1945 only 10% of the small quotas from Axis controlled countries were filled.

Yet DuBois did accomplish something by turning his report into his boss Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau. By outlining State’s lack of concern for people fleeing from the Holocaust, DuBois showed that immigration issues shouldn’t be handled by the State Department. A new agency was needed to help people in Europe who were trying to escape from Hitller. This new agency would become known as the War Refugee Board.

The Detroit Race Riots of 1943

The riot that broke out on the evening of June 20, 1943 at a popular beach park wasn’t the first sign of racial tensions in Detroit. During World War II, Detroit, a town already known for its manufacturing plants, produced one-third of America’s military equipment. The demand for blue-collar workers grew, and thousands of Southern African Americans flooded the city. They wanted better pay and better treatment than they received in the South’s sharecropping system.

By the early 1940s, one major problem existed: the manufacturing plants provided jobs but not housing. Where would the new migrants live? White workers made it clear that they didn’t want to live next door to African Americans. Across town signs like “we want white tenants in our white community” were put up. Detroit Mayor Edward Jeffries finally succeeded in obtaining some additional housing for blacks, but his efforts required a show of force. Blacks moved in to their new neighborhood only after the Detroit police and the National Guard escorted the new tenants.

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Life Magazine printed an article in August 1942 that predicted a larger clash between whites and blacks. The article said, “If machines could win the war, Detroit would have nothing to worry about. But it takes people to run machines and too many of the people of Detroit are confused, embittered and distracted by factional groups that are fighting each other harder than they are willing to fight Hitler. Detroit can either blow up Hitler or it can blow up the U.S.” The article proved to be prophetic.

On a hot summer day in 1943, tensions between the two races boiled over again. To escape the heat, over 100,000 Detroit residents went to an integrated beach called Belle Isle. The majority of the beachgoers were black. At first, small fights broke out among black and white teenagers. Black youths mugged whites, and white and black teens got into fistfights. By evening, however, the situation escalated. People tried to leave the island for the mainland, causing traffic jams. Stuck on the Belle Isle Bridge, a fight started between 200 blacks and white sailors. On the mainland, thousands of whites threatened blacks trying to cross. Though the Detroit police arrested dozens, rioting had already spread to other parts of the city.

Rumors only made the riots worse. Among whites, a rumor spread that blacks had murdered a white woman on the bridge. Among blacks, a similar rumor claimed that whites threw a black woman and her baby off the bridge. Whites attacked patrons exiting a theater patronized by African Americans. Streetcars filled with black people trying to go to work were stopped and passengers were thrown out. African Americans smashed windows of white owned stores and attacked anyone with white skin, including a doctor responding to an emergency call.

After nearly twenty-four hours of chaos, Michigan Governor Harry Kelly finally asked President Franklin Roosevelt to send in National Guard troops. Federal troops arrived the following morning and restored order. The riots left twenty-five African Americans and nine whites dead. Almost 1,000 people were injured.