by Rafael Medoff
Teenage Holocaust diarist Anne Frank died in Bergsen-Belsen a month earlier than was previously known, according to researchers at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. They say their new finding is significant because it dispels the widespread notion that Anne lived almost until the day of the Allies’ liberation of the camp.
But the real question is not how close Anne came to seeing the victorious Allied troops. The real question we should be asking is why the Frank family’s repeated attempts to immigrate to the United States before the war were rebuffed.
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 the Roosevelt administration was in no mood to take them in.
After World War One, Congress had enacted restrictive immigration quotas. The combined 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.
Sadly, the administration went above and beyond the existing law, to ensure that even those meagre 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. As Professors Richard Breitman and Alan Kraut pointed out in a 1987 book, Roosevelt administration officials “devised and carried out adjustments to immigration regulations that had a major effect upon the level of immigration to the United States.”
Otto Frank, Anne’s father, dutifully 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 Nazis’ mass murder of the Jews, from late 1941 until early 1945, barely ten percent of the quotas from Germany and Axis-controlled European countries were actually used. A total of nearly 190,000 quota places sat unused–representing almost 190,000 lives that could have been saved, even within the existing quota system.
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; 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 they were considered undesirable. One year later, however, President Roosevelt opened our country’s doors to several thousand British 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.
The reason why Jewish children, including Anne and Margot Frank, did not survive was not just because of their bad luck that the Allies arrived at Bergen-Belsen a few weeks too late. It was also because of a conscious decision by the Roosevelt administration to prevent all but a small number of Jewish refugees from finding haven in America.