by Rafael Medoff
Saplings from the tree outside the home where Holocaust diarist Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis are being planted at eleven schools and other sites in the United States in the days ahead, in a poignant gesture that will help promote Holocaust and tolerance education.
But the gesture is also a sad reminder of the little-known fact that Anne’s family sought refuge in the United States before the war, and were stymied by the obstacles that the Roosevelt administration set up to discourage and disqualify would-be immigrants.
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 horizon 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, Congress had enacted restrictive immigration quotas. The quota for Germany and Austria was 27,370 annually–far fewer than the hundreds of thousands of German and Austrian Jews seeking haven from Hitler.
But the Roosevelt administration went above and beyond the law, to ensure that even those meager quota allotments were almost always under-filled. American consular officials abroad made sure to “postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas” to refugees, as one senior State Department official put it. They created a bureaucratic maze to keep refugees like the Franks far from America’s shores.
Otto Frank, Anne’s father, filled out the small mountain of required application forms and obtained supporting affidavits from the family’s relatives in Massachusetts.
But that was not enough for those who zealously guarded America’s gates against refugees. In fact, in 1941, the Roosevelt administration even added a new restriction: no refugee with close relatives in Europe could come to the U.S., on the grounds that the Nazis might hold their relatives hostage in order to force the refugee to undertake espionage for Hitler. That’s right: Anne Frank, Nazi spy.
During the period of the Nazi genocide, from late 1941 until early 1945, only ten percent of the quotas from Axis-controlled European countries were actually be used. A total of nearly 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 same year, refugee advocates in Congress introduced 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. Former First Lady Grace Coolidge announced that she and others in her hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts, would personally care for twenty-five of the children.
Even though there was no danger that the children would take jobs away from American citizens, nativists and isolationists lobbied hard against the bill. 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 kept out because there were too many people like Laura Delano Houghteling, who considered Jewish refugees undesirable. One year later, however, President Roosevelt opened our country’s doors to British (Christian) children to keep them safe from the German blitz. And an appeal by “Pets” magazine in 1940 resulted in several thousand offers to take in British purebred puppies endangered by the war. But there was no room for Jewish children.
From the cramped attic where she hid from the Nazis, Anne Frank lovingly wrote in her diary of the chestnut tree in the courtyard outside that she could occasionally glimpse. Hopefully, the saplings from that tree, which will take root at schools and other sites from Indiana to Arkansas, will also serve as reminders–both of the bigots who helped keep Anne and other German Jewish children out of America, and those of generous spirit who tried, but sadly failed, to change their government’s harsh policy.