Holocaust Controversies Swirl Around America’s Immigration Debate

by Rafael Medoff

As the debate over America’s immigration policy heats up, some supporters of more open borders have been invoking Holocaust-era controversies to buttress their position. It’s the latest example of how, despite the passage of more than 75 years, America’s response to the Shoah continues to influence discussions over the direction of contemporary policy.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein said July 10 that deporting the tens of thousands of children who have been coming across America’s southern border would be like the “boatloads of Jewish immigrants trying to come to this country from Nazi Germany and getting turned back.”

Making the case for granting haven to the Central American children, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick on July 16 reminded his audience: “Once, in 1939, we turned our backs on Jewish children fleeing the Nazis, and it remains a blight on our national reputation.”

Critics of liberal immigration policies reject such analogies on the grounds that Jews escaping Nazi Germany were fleeing from religious and racial persecution, not economic hardship or civil wars. Indeed, today’s haven proponents would be on more solid ground if they focused on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision to shelter more than 2,000 British children who fled the German blitz of London in 1940.

Still, it’s remarkable how the controversies over President Roosevelt and the Holocaust are still on the minds of so many Americans, all these years later. Roosevelt partisans sometimes chide the Jewish community for its continuing interest in FDR’s response to the Holocaust, but it is an issue that evidently concerns many people other than American Jews.

Secretary of State John Kerry, for example. When he appeared before the Senate last September to explain the Obama administration’s concern about the situation in Syria, Kerry pointed to the “moments in history where someone didn’t stand up and act,” such as the “ship [the St. Louis] that was turned away from the coast of Florida and everybody on it lost their lives subsequently to German gas.”

Kerry’s choice of words was somewhat less than precise. Of the St. Louis passengers who were sent back to continental Europe and were unable to escape before the war, about half–not “everybody,” as he put it–were murdered by the Nazis. But his larger point was clear: what happened in those days, and how America responded, is still relevant.

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Meanwhile, some leading historians, too, are sparring over 1930s immigration controversies. The latest flare-up concerns the reasons for a modest increase, beginning in early 1937, in the number of German Jews admitted to the United States.

In 1935 and 1936, the quota for German immigrants to the U.S.–25,957 per year–was less than 25% filled. That was because the Roosevelt administration piled on extra requirements to discourage and disqualify would-be immigrants. In 1937, however, the quota was 42% filled. In sheer numbers, the difference was not earth-shaking: 10,927 were admitted in 1937, as compared to the previous year’s 6,307. The increase of 4,620 was a pittance compared to the hundreds of thousands of German Jews who needed a haven, and the majority of the quota continued to sit unused. Still, why the change?

The mystery was solved back in 1982 by historian Barbara Stewart McDonald, in her landmark study, United States Government Policy on Refugees from Nazism. She described how a State Department inspector’s review of procedures in U.S. consulates in Europe, in late 1936, documented a tendency among consular officials to be unduly skeptical of would-be immigrants’ ability to support themselves in America. Rejecting a German Jewish applicant because his only pledge of financial support was from a distant American relative was unfair, the inspector concluded, because in the case of Jews, even distant relatives typically harbored “a sincere desire” to help their co-religionists.

It was this nod to Jewish ethnic solidarity–or perhaps to antisemitic canards about Jewish clannishness–that resulted in the slightly increased admission of immigrants from Germany in 1937. Neither Prof. McDonald nor other historians of American immigration found evidence that President Roosevelt had any connection to this development.

But the issue was reopened in the recently-published book FDR and the Jews, by Professors Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman. They claimed it was President Roosevelt himself who liberalized the immigration procedures. “FDR broke the bureaucratic logjam on Jewish refugees in late 1936,” they wrote, adding that “FDR left no presidential fingerprints on the new regulations.”

That claim did not sit well with Prof. Bat-Ami Zucker of Bar-Ilan University, author of In Search of Refuge, a study of U.S. consuls in Europe during the 1930s. In a stinging review of FDR and the Jews on the scholarly ListServe ‘H-Judaic,’ Zucker wrote that in her research on the subject, “I could not find any evidence that Roosevelt ‘broke the bureaucratic logjam’…Breitman and Lichtman do not actually cite any documents showing what FDR supposedly did.” Could it be that Roosevelt “left no fingerprints” because his fingers were never on the policy change?

Ironically, Prof. Breitman himself took a very different position in the past. In a 1984 essay in the Journal of American Ethnic History, he wrote that “there is no evidence that Roosevelt issued any instructions” to liberalize immigration procedures in 1936-1937. And in his 1987 book, American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, Prof. Breitman criticized historian Henry Feingold for implying that President Roosevelt had something to do with the immigration increase. What changed between Breitman’s position in 1987 and his new claim in FDR and the Jews? What evidence did he uncover that FDR communicated to State Department officials his secret desire for more Jewish immigration? That remains a mystery, as Prof. Breitman has declined to reply to multiple inquiries about the issue.

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In the swirl of arguments over immigration policy, then and now, the human dimension of the 1930s refugee experience is sometimes forgotten. Charlotte Bonelli’s new book, Exit Berlin (Yale University Press, 2014), draws our attention to the story of Luzie Hecht, a young German Jewish woman who escaped Nazi Germany and struggled valiantly to bring out the rest of her family. What makes this chronicle so compelling is that it is told through Luzie’s own letters from the period. Bonelli’s commentary and explanations of the historical background make the narrative comprehensible without overwhelming the voices of the main characters.

It took years for Luzie’s American cousin, Arnold Hatch, to fight his way through the Roosevelt administration’s bureaucratic maze and provide the necessary financial and other guarantees to bring Luzie to the United States. Once there, Luzie threw herself into the task of trying to bring over her friends and relatives. Her correspondence with them is a chronicle of the plight of Jews in a world that was, as Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann once put it, “divided into places where they cannot live and places where they cannot enter.”

Desperate letters to and from Luzie’s Aunt Dora trail off as Dora is deported to the Gurs concentration camp in Vichy France, where she endured near-starvation. A fellow-inmate described his time there as “three months of Yom Kippur.” Dora never made it out.

The final destinations of other relatives with whom Luzie exchanged frantic letters are grimly familiar:  Lodz Ghetto, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz.

A handful did survive, albeit through the most trying of circumstances. Luzie’s neighbors, the Friedlanders, secured visas to Uruguay, only to be turned away at the port of Montevideo. Likewise rebuffed by Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, the Friedlanders were sent back to Europe, but eventually made their way to haven in Bolivia.

Luzie’s parents and half-brother, Rolf, sailed for Japanese-ruled Shanghai, over the objections of their American cousin, Arnold Hatch, who had read about the overcrowding and rampant disease there. Indeed, Rolf contracted typhoid fever soon after their arrival. Still, the conditions they encountered were far preferable to life in Nazi Germany. After a year in Shanghai, the Hechts were able to join Luzie in the United States.

In the midst of these travails, the quiet, unassuming Luzie secured a position on the staff of the American Jewish Committee. She remained there for nearly forty years, yet never told her colleagues about her experiences as a refugee. It was only after her passing that Bonelli, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s archives, became aware of the box of extraordinary letters that Luzie had kept all those years, which form the core of her remarkable book and remind us of the real lives behind all the numbing statistics.

July 2014