The Failure to Provide a Safe Haven for European Jewry

  • Richard Breitman
Part of the The Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute Series on Diplomatic and Economic History book series (WOOROO)


Virtually all of the specialists on American reaction to the Holocaust agree that America collectively paid little attention to Nazi persecution of the Jews and failed to offer refuge to most of those Jews who might have escaped a Nazi-dominated continent. These conclusions have both moral and political dimensions: Government policies that saved lives would have served U.S. national interest as well. (I will concentrate in this chapter on government policies, and on the works primarily about government policies, rather than on the role of Jewish organizations.) Yet the handling of the moral dimension poses problems for the historian, for moral sensibilities often differ.1


Jewish Organization Refugee Resettlement Public Charge Political Refugee Jewish Refugee 
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  1. 2.
    David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941–1945 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Ibid., 327.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Detailed investigation of congressional attitudes is lacking in all of the studies of American refugee policy, including mine. There is some useful material on Congress in Roland Young, Congressional Politics in the Second World War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1956). Leonard Dinnerstein has done very good work on Congress in the period following World War II. See “Anti-Semitism in the 80th Congress: The Displaced Persons Act of 1948,” in Leonard Dinnerstein, Uneasy at Home: Anti-Semitism and the American Experience (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 197–217, and, more generally, Dinnerstein, America and the Survivors of the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982). Saul S. Friedman, No Haven for the Oppressed: United States Policy toward Jewish Refugees, 1938–1945 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1973); Monty N. Penkower, The Jews Were Expendable: Free World Diplomacy and the Holocaust (Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1983); Haskel Lookstein, Were We Our Brothers’ Keepers? The Public Response of American Jews to the Holocaust, 1938–1944 (New York: Hartmore House, 1986); and Aaron Berman, Nazism, the Jews, and American Zionism, 1933–1948 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990) all deal with government policy to some extent but focus on the activities (and failures) of American Jewry in the struggle for rescue and relief, without persuasively demonstrating that more Jewish pressure could have budged the government. Of considerably lower quality is Rafael Medoff, The Deafening Silence (New York: Shapisky Publishers, 1987).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Richard Polenberg, One Nation Divisible: Class, Race, and Ethnicity in the United States since 1938 (New York: Penguin Books, 1980), 31–45. FDR quietly lobbied the governor of Alabama to commute the sentences of the African American Scottsboro youths unjustly convicted of raping two white women, but did not speak out. Similarly, the president watched a filibuster send an antilynching bill to defeat in the Senate without taking a stand. Ethnic divisions contributed to the public hysteria regarding the Fifth Column threat in 1940–1941. The government took measures to curb aliens (and reduce immigration) but also did a good deal to check the hysteria and reassure the public, according to Polenberg.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Fortune 18 (July 1938), 80, cited by Judith Tydor Baumel, “The Jewish Refugee Children from Europe in the Eyes of the American Press and Public Opinion 1934–1945,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 5 (fall 1990), 296–297. Daniel Yankelovich, “Re-creation of the American Public’s Perception of the Events from 1933–1945” (paper presented at “The Holocaust and the Media,” Harvard Divinity School-WCBV-TV Conference, 19 May 1988); Dinnerstein, Uneasy at Home, 179. Generally on polls, see Charles Stember, ed., Jews in the Mind of America (New York: Basic Books, 1966).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 7.
    Typical here is David S. Wyman, Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938–1941 (Amherst: University of Massachusets Press, 1968), vii: “If in the crucial years from 1938 to 1941, the world had opened its doors to the victims of persecution, the history of Europe’s Jews from 1942 to 1945 would have been significantly different.” See also Arthur D. Morse, While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy (New York: Random House, 1967); Henry L. Feingold, The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, 1938–1945 (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1970 and New York: Rutgers University Press, 1980); and the works cited in note 2 and note 4 above. Some more recent literature has emphasized the continuities in Jewish efforts to escape Germany from 1933 on. See Herbert A. Strauss, “Jewish Emigration from Germany: Nazi Policies and Jewish Responses” (I) and (II), in Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 25 and 26 (1980 and 1981), 313–361 and 343–409, respectively; Irving Abella and Harold Troper, None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933–1948 (New York: Random House, 1983); Michael Blakeney, Australia and the Jewish Refugees, 1933–1948 (Sydney: Pergamon Press, 1985); and Judith Tydor Baumel, Unfulfilled Promise: Rescue and Resettlement of Jewish Refugee Children in the United States, 1934–1945 (Juneau: Denali Press, 1990). On a related subject, see Deborah E. Lipstadt, Beyond Belief The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933–1945 (New York: Free Press, 1986). Also noteworthy in its “early” start is an older work by A. J. Sherman, Island Refuge: Britain and Refugees from the Third Reich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).Google Scholar
  7. 19.
    George S. Messersmith’s attitude and role were not constructive here. In addition to Breitman and Kraut, American Refugee Policy, 60–61, see Jesse H. Stiller, George S. Messersmith: Diplomat of Democracy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), 123–124, 131–132.Google Scholar
  8. 20.
    Richard Breitman, The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution (Hanover, N.H.: Bodley Head, 1992), 59–62.Google Scholar
  9. 23.
    On the increase in refugees, see a survey in Michael R. Marrus, The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 189–203. On the inability to recognize the Final Solution, see Walter Laqueur, The Terrible Secret: Suppression of the Truth about Hitler’s “Final Solution” (Boston: Litde, Brown, 1980).Google Scholar
  10. 25.
    John Fox, “The Jewish Factor in British War Crimes Policy in 1942,” English Historical Review 92 (January 1977), 82–106; David Engel, In the Shadow of Auschwitz: The Polish Government in Exile and the Jews, 1939–1942 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1987), 191–202; Tony Kushner, “Rules of the Game: Britain, America, and the Holocaust in 1944,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 5 (winter 1990), 384.Google Scholar
  11. 26.
    Richard Breitman, “The Allied War Effort and the Jews, 1942–1943,” Journal of Contemporary History 20 (January 1985), 135–157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 31.
    David S. Wyman, “Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed,” Commentary 5 (October 1980), 39–44. This subject consistently raises public interest at lectures, conferences, and in the form of letters to the editor in newspapers and magazines. The National Air and Space Museum held a conference on this topic on 30 April 1993.Google Scholar
  13. 32.
    Wyman, Abandonment of the Jews, 291–304; Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981), 299–336. Dino A. Brugioni and Robert C. Poirier, The Holocaust Revisited: A Retrospective Analysis of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Extermination Complex (Washington, D.C.: United States Printing Office, 1979). Kai Bird, The Chairman: John J. McCloy, the Making of the American Establishment (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992), 212–222, has McCloy choosing not to believe in the authenticity of eyewitness reports of extermination at Auschwitz-Birkenau and chary of getting the military involved in bombing missions for rescue. Nonetheless, Bird does not regard McCloy as anti-Semitic.Google Scholar
  14. 34.
    Frank W. Brecher, “David Wyman and the Historiography of America’s Response to the Holocaust,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 5 (winter 1990), 423–446, presents an even sharper critique of Wyman’s moralism as well as his emphasis on the achievements of Bergson’s organizations.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute 1996

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  • Richard Breitman

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