Why Roosevelt Administration Refused to Recognize Ketubahs

by Rafael Medoff 

Franklin D. Roosevelt probably never saw a ketubah in his life.

Yet the traditional Jewish marriage certificate, hand-lettered in Hebrew and Aramaic and presented by the groom to the bride under the wedding canopy, was one of the unlikely tools by which the Roosevelt administration suppressed Jewish refugee immigration to the United States in the 1930s.

When he entered the White House in early 1933, FDR inherited laws, enacted a decade earlier, that restricted immigration and set a quota for immigrants from each country. In 1930, in response to the onset of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover tightened the immigration system further, by instructing consular officials abroad to reject applicants who were “likely to become a public charge,” that is, dependent on government assistance.

The Roosevelt administration took a harsh system and made it worse. Even as large numbers of German Jews urgently looked for countries that would shelter them from the Nazis, U.S. consular officials in Germany urgently looked for ways to reject their applications.

By crafting a maze of bureaucracy and rigorous requirements, the consuls ensured that most Jewish refugees would remain far from America’s shores. With good reason did Prof. David S. Wyman characterize these restrictions as “paper walls” in his 1968 book of the same name.

The German quota was 25,957. Barely five percent of the quota places were used in 1933, Hitler’s first year in power. The following year, less than 14 percent of those spaces were filled. The German quota was filled in only one year out of Roosevelt’s twelve years in office, and in most of those years, it was less than 25 percent filled. The president was kept fully informed of the immigration situation and knew that the German quota was regularly “under-issued,” as once he put it.

The subject continues to arouse controversy among historians. In a recent letter to the Journal of American History, Professors Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman presented a revisionist perspective, claiming that the unfilled quotas in Roosevelt’s time were all the fault of Hoover, not FDR: “The failure to fill the German quota during FDR’s first term did not result from ‘extra requirements and regulations’ that [the Roosevelt administration] ‘piled on.’ Rather it resulted from an executive decision by former president Herbert Hoover in 1930…”

In an earlier book, however, Prof. Breitman took the opposite position. In his American Refugee Policy and European Jewry (1987), he described how FDR’s administration implemented a policy based on “intent of exclusion.” It excluded refugees not by adding new laws to the Hoover system, but by “altering bureaucratic procedure.” He named key Roosevelt administration officials as the culprits: “Assistant Secretary of State Wilbur Carr [1933-1937], George Messersmith, Breckinridge Long, Commissioner of Immigration Daniel MacCormack, and many other officials at lower levels of authority devised and carried out adjustments to immigration regulations that had a major effect upon the level of immigration to the United States.”

Why Prof. Breitman reversed his position is unclear; he has declined requests for comment. But the historical record indicates that he had it right the first time. The reasons cited by the Roosevelt administration’s consular officials in Europe to reject visa applicants ranged from absurd to maddening. A sampling:

— Dozens of Jewish refugee students were awarded scholarships by American universities, but were prevented from entering the U.S. because they could not prove they had “permanent residences” in Nazi Germany to which they would return.

— Hermann Kilsheimer, 19, presented the American consulate in Stuttgart with affidavits from his brother-in-law and two cousins, all gainfully employed residents of the U.S., that they would ensure he would not become a ‘public charge.’ The cousins’ affidavits were rejected on the grounds that they were not ‘close relatives,’ and the brother-in-law was deemed to earn too little to both provide for his own family and pay for Hermann’s tuition if he chose to attend college.

— The U.S. consul general in Stuttgart objected to affidavits of support from the multimillionaire Hollywood mogul Carl Laemmle, on the grounds that Laemmle was 71 and therefore might not live long enough to assist the refugees whom he was promising to help.

— A young woman refugee who applied for a visitor’s visa (easier to obtain than an immigration visa) was told that she had to provide proof there was a country that would admit her when she concluded her stay in the United States. When she soon returned with a letter to that effect from a German government official, she was rebuffed by the U.S. consul on the grounds that the speed with which she acquired the letter indicated she might be a Nazi agent.

And then there was the matter of the ketubahs.

Bar-Ilan University historian Bat-Ami Zucker, a leading expert on U.S. immigration practices in the 1930s, has uncovered a remarkable document about the unlikely role played by ketubahs in the Roosevelt administration’s policy.

In November 1933, Max Kohler, an American Jewish attorney involved in immigration issues, wrote to Labor Department solicitor Charles Wyzanski about problems facing German Jews who were applying for permission to immigrate to the United States. Evidently some applicants had presented their ketubahs as proof of marriage, because they had wed in a religious ceremony only. Kohler reported to Wyzanski that consular officials refused to recognize the validity of a ketubah as proof of marriage.

The result, Kohler wrote, was that the consular official thus considered the applicant’s wife and children to be “illegitimate” and rejected their applications.

Just how many applications were rejected because of the ketuba issue will never be known; few original visa applications from that period have survived. But it is clear from the Kohler-Wyzanski letter that in at least some instances, the ketubah became a weapon in the hands of ill-intentioned bureaucrats.

For Jews, the ketubah is a cherished symbol of a young couple starting a new life together. For the Roosevelt administration, it represented another convenient excuse to shut America’s doors in the face of those who most desperately needed a haven.

November 2014