How Grace Coolidge Almost Saved Anne Frank

by Dr. Rafael Medoff and Cyndy Bittinger

(Dr. Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies; Cyndy Bittinger is executive director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation and biographer of Grace Coolidge.)

Newly-discovered letters written by Anne Frank’s father have revealed that the family sought permission to come to the United States in 1941, but were turned away. What makes the story even more tragic is that just a short time before, former First Lady Grace Coolidge and other humanitarians had campaigned to admit German Jewish refugee children like Anne to enter the country, but their pleas rejected.

The letters by Otto Frank shed new light on a painful period in American history, and at the same time open a new chapter the story of the little girl whose fate has come to symbolize the Holocaust, and whose diary is required reading for millions of American schoolchildren each year.

The Frank family, like many Jewish families, fled their native Germany shortly after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. They settled in neighboring Holland. In 1939, with world war looming on the horizion and Hitler’s persecution of Jews intensifying, the Franks began thinking about moving to America.

But America was in no mood to take them in. 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 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.”

That was the year that Grace Coolidge and other refugee advocates campaigned in support of the Wagner-Rogers bill, which would have admitted 20,000 refugee children from Germany outside the quota system. Anne Frank and her sister Margot, as German citizens, could have been among those children.

Supporters of the bill assembled a broad, ecumenical coalition–including His Eminence George Cardinal Mundelein, one of the country’s most important Catholic leaders; New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia; Smith College president William Allen Neilson; actress Helen Hayes; and 1936 Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon and his running mate, Frank Knox. Mrs. Coolidge announced that not only did she support the bill, but she and others in her hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts, would personally care for twenty-five of the children.

The problem that Grace and her colleagues faced was that most Americans strongly opposed immigration, in part because they feared that foreigners would take away jobs from American citizens.

When it came to the Wagner-Rogers bill, however, that argument was not really relevant, since the legislation would grant admission only to children, who would not be employed.

But nativists and isolationists lobbied hard against the bill anyway. President Franklin Roosevelt’s cousin, Laura Delano Houghteling, who was the wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, articulated the sentiment of many opponents of the bill when she remarked at a dinner party that “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.” FDR himself refused to support the bill. By the spring of 1939, Wagner-Rogers was dead.

Anne and Margot Frank, and thousands of other German Jewish refugee children, were turned away by the United States. Not because the quotas were full. And not because those little girls would have been a burden to American society. Grace Coolidge and others made it clear they would care for their children.

They were kept out because there were too many people like Laura Delano Houghteling, who considered Jewish refugees undesirable. And because too many politicians feared losing votes if more Jews were admitted. One year later, Congress –with strong public support– opened our country’s doors to British (Christian) children to keep them safe from the German blitz.

Laura Delano Houghteling and Grace Coolidge were both well-to-do-New England Protestants, married to powerful public officials. They had similar cultural backgrounds and moved in the same Washington social circles. But the similarities ended there.

Houghteling’s remark about the Jewish refugee children reflected the spirit of narrow-mindedness and bigotry that was, sadly, all too common in those years.

But there was another America–Grace Coolidge’s America. There were many Americans who, like the former First Lady, still revered the principle of welcoming “the huddled masses yearning to be free” –the inscription on the Statue of Liberty which reflected America’s true spirit and noble heritage.

In the years ahead, schoolteachers everywhere will be adding a new chapter to the Anne Frank saga that they teach our children. They will need to recount the Frank family’s efforts to reach America, and explain the reasons they could not enter. The next generation needs to know that Americans had a choice in 1939–so that when choices like that confront them one day, they will not repeat the moral failures of yesteryear.

March 2007