Why America Closed Its Doors to Anne Frank

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Anne Frank’s family tried to escape the Nazis by immigrating to America–but they were turned away.

This extraordinary new chapter in the teenager’s tragic saga emerges from seventy-eight newly-discovered documents from the correspondence of Anne’s father, Otto Frank. They detail his efforts, in 1941, to gain permission to bring his family to the United States.

At the time of the correspondence, the Franks were living in exile in Holland, having fled their native Germany after Hitler’s rise to power. By 1939, with antisemitism spreading throughout Europe, the Franks began thinking about how to get to America. Otto had already lived in the U.S. from 1909 to 1911, working as intern at Macy’s Department Store, in New York City.

But by 1939, it was a different America. After World War One, in response to the public’s intense anti-foreigner sentiment, Congress had enacted restrictive immigration quotas. The quota system was structured to reduce “undesirable” immigrants, especially Italians and Jews. The original version of the immigration bill had been introduced in Congress with a report by the chief of the United States Consular Service, Wilbur Carr, characterizing Jewish immigrants as “filthy, un-American, and often dangerous in their habits…lacking any conception of patriotism or national spirit.”

The new annual quota for Germany and Austria allowed a maximum of 27,370 immigrants–far fewer than the hundreds of thousands of German and Austrian Jews searching for haven from Hitler.

Remarkably, even those meager quota allotments were almost always under-filled. American consular officials abroad were directed by Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long to “postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas” to refugees. They created a bureaucratic maze — “paper walls,” to borrow the phrase of David S. Wyman– to keep refugees far from America’s shores.

And so, during the period of the Nazi genocide, from late 1941 until early 1945, only ten percent of the quotas from Axis-controlled European countries would actually be used. Almost 190,000 quota places remained unused–representing almost 190,000 lives that could have been saved, even under the restrictive quotas.

Anne’s mother, Edith, wrote to a friend in 1939: “I believe that all Germany’s Jews are looking around the world but can find nowhere to go.”

In May 1940, the Germans conquered and occupied the Netherlands. Emigration was forbidden, and the Franks’ hopes of going to America appeared to be dashed.

But they didn’t give up. In 1941, Otto began writing to his American friends and relatives, and to U.S. officials, in the hope of securing permission to immigrate. But at the same time the Franks were seeking shelter in America, State Department officials were seeking new ways to shut the nation’s doors even tighter. In the summer of 1941, Breckinridge Long implemented new procedures to further reduce the number of immigrants.

Long had the full backing of President Roosevelt. When refugee advocate James G. McDonald appealed to FDR against Long’s policies, the president dismissed his pleas as “sob stuff.”

As a result of the new restrictions, less than half of the German-Austrian quota places were used in 1941.

Otto and Edith Frank, and their daughters Margot and Anne, were turned away by the United States that year. Not because the quotas were full. Not because this successful middle-class couple and their two young daughters would have been a burden to American society. But simply because so many Americans considered Jewish refugees undesirable, and because too many politicians feared losing votes if more Jews were admitted.

Today, Anne Frank has become the best-known victim of the Holocaust to people all over the world, especially as the subject is taught to schoolchildren. Anne’s diary of the two years that her family hid in an attic to elude the Germans is the centerpiece of classroom instruction about the Nazi genocide. The betrayal of the Franks, and their final months in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, provide the grim climax to a story which represents the fate of millions of Jewish victims.

But now a new chapter must be added to the Anne Frank saga. The new correspondence presents an opportunity –and an obligation– to tell the rest of the story. Every sixth-grade student in America needs to know that Anne’s death was not inevitable. The Franks were turned away from America by callous bureaucrats and politicians even though there was room in the immigration quotas.

We need to teach our children why America cast aside its proud tradition of welcoming “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and closed its doors. Only then can we hope that such moral failures are not repeated by the next generation.

February 2007