By: Rafael Medoff and Benyamin Korn
Bad history, bad timing.
The White House last week issued a statement strongly suggesting that America opened its doors to Jews fleeing the Holocaust. And it made the statement on the seventieth anniversary of the infamous “voyage of the damned,” when the United States turned away the S.S. St. Louis, a ship carrying more than 900 Jews seeking a haven from Hitler.
It all began innocently enough. President Barack Obama declared May to be Jewish American Heritage Month, in recognition of Jewish contributions to American life. It’s a symbolic gesture that the Jewish community will certainly appreciate. Ordinarily the statement accompanying this sort of presidential proclamation consists of inoffensive generalities. This one, however, stumbled badly.
In the course of briefly summarizing the history of the U.S. Jewish community and its contributions to American society, the proclamation described how “Jewish immigrants have departed familiar lands to pursue their own American dreams for more than 300 years.” The statement then noted that during some times, Jews came to the United States to seek better economic opportunities, while during other periods, “Jews sought refuge in the United States from the horrors and tragedies of persecution, pogroms, and the Holocaust.”
It is obviously true that many Jews fleeing “persecution” and “pogroms” did find a haven in the United States, particularly those fleeing Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s. That is something for which Jews will always feel profound gratitude. It is also true that Jews “sought refuge” in the United States during the Holocaust years —but precious few found it.
America’s immigration quota system severely limited the number of immigrants who could come from countries such as Germany and Poland during the Hitler years. But even those meager quota allotments were almost never filled, because the Roosevelt administration imposed a series of bureaucratic obstacles to discourage would-be immigrants.
Prof. David S. Wyman has described those obstacles as “paper walls.” In fact, the man whom President Roosevelt chose to take charge of refugee immigration matters, State Department undersecretary Breckinridge Long, instructed U.S. consular officials to “postpone and postpone and postpone” the granting of visas to Jews trying to escape the Nazis.
As a result, during the period of the Nazi genocide, from late 1941 and until early 1945, only 10 percent of the already miniscule quotas from Axis-controlled European countries were actually used. That means almost 190,000 quota places were unused–almost 190,000 lives that would have been saved even under the existing immigration restrictions.
Thus relatively few Jews seeking to escape Hitler found haven in the United States. The nation with the tradition of welcoming “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” for the most part turned a blind eye in Jewry’s most dire hour of need.
Last week’s text announcing the ‘heritage month’ gesture might be regarded as boiler-plate stuff, crafted by some junior level speechwriter or public relations person on the White House staff.
Yet while some might write off a proclamation of this sort as a routine matter that is not expected to generate significant scrutiny, the fact remains that it is issued in the name of the President of the United States. Moreover, it constitutes a statement, for the record, of important facts about American history. Those facts need to be double-checked before the White House secretary presses her “send” button.
The day the heritage proclamation was issued, May 13, was seventy years to the day that the St. Louis set sail from Hamburg. After being turned away from Cuba (to which the passengers had entry visas) and then the the United States, the St. Louis was forced to return its refugees to Europe. Hitler’s propagandists had a field day. One Nazi publication asserted: “We are saying openly that we do not want the Jews,while the democracies keep on claiming that they are willing to receive them–and then leave the guests out in the cold. Aren’t we ‘savages’ better men after all?”
That, one might say, is the tragic flip side of honoring the contributions of Jewish Americans. For in recognizing what Jews contributed when they were allowed to enter, we must also consider the tragic consequences of America’s refusal to grant haven to so many others.