The Holocaust: America’s First Refugee Crisis Essay

This essay will evaluate how America perceived refugees during WW2, and how the Holocaust changed this perception.During 1930″1933, the mood in Germany was grim. Their defeat in WWI had brought both shame and economic downturn to the country. The worldwide economic depression, which was worsened by the Versaille Treaty, had hit the country hard, and millions of people were out of work, homeless, and, with inflated food prices, starvation and famine quickly followed. To make matters worse, there was continuous social unrest: men who had returned from the war were now competing with women for factory jobs, masses of injured war veterans who needed to be taken care of flooded the streets and.

In 1919, the newly formed Weimar Republic (The German Government), on the verge of wild inflation, bankruptcy, and political chaos, discovered that it was suddenly responsible for some 2.7 million disabled veterans, 1,192,000 war orphans, and 533,000 widows. Unsurprisingly, revolts ensued, Germans perceived the parliamentary government coalition as weak and unable to alleviate the economic crisis.

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economic misery, fear, and perception of worse times to come, as well as anger and impatience with the apparent failure of the government to manage the crisis, became widespread. The people wanted a savior, someone who would return Germany to its glory days, who would reverse the provisions of the unjust Versaille Treaty, someone patriotic, determined and wholeheartedly dedicated to Germany’s success. In the chaos where many other political parties either fled or bickered between themselves, one tapped into the anger and helplessness felt by a large number of voters, promised to restore German cultural values, put the people back to work, and restore Germany to its rightful position’ as a world power – the Nazis.From 1929″1930, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi Party for short) was a small party on the radical right of the German political spectrum, meaning they were extreme nationalist and conservationists. In the Reichstag (parliament) elections of May 2, 1928, the Nazis received only 2.6% of the national vote. By 1932 the Nazi Party, led by Adolf Hitler, became the largest parliamentary faction of the Weimar Republic.Hitler had fought in WWI and, unable to stomach the humiliating defeat, bought into the myth that Germany was stabbed in the back’: Jews and communists had betrayed the country and brought a left-wing government to power that had wanted to throw in the towel. Throughout his speeches he promoted these antisemitic ideas, amassing hatred towards Jews. Furthermore, he believed in a human hierarchy determined by races in which the Aryan race, consisting of only white, Christian Germans, were superior and all other races were inferior. He believed the only solution to Germany’s situation was to filter’ it to a purely Aryan society. Between 1933 and 1941, the Nazis sought to make Germany judenrein (cleansed of Jews) by making life so difficult for the approximately 600,000 German Jews that they would be forced to leave the country. Some time within 1945, Adolphus Hitler had commenced one of the most heinous acts of the 20th Century, his Final Solution of the Jewish Question, the mass genocide of all Jews within reach, better known as the Holocaust. Throughout history, this period has been romanticized as a time when foreign nations came together to fight against the unfair oppression of Jews. However, the reality is starkly different. By 1938, about 150,000 German Jews, one in four, had already left. After Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, an additional 185,000 Jews were brought under Nazi rule. Many Jews were unable to find countries willing to take them in. In this time many tried to escape to the United States. However, The economic devastation of the Great Depression (1929-1939), combined with a new commitment to neutrality after WWI and deeply held prejudices against immigrants, limited Americans’ willingness to welcome refugees. The United States had effectively become an isolationist nation. A series of acts and quotas, that were put into place that limited the number of immigrants allowed per year.On May 24, 1924, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act or the National Origins Act. Americans act was meant to limit the immigration of Europeans and reflected the growing American fear that people from southern and eastern European countries not only did not adapt well into American society but also threatened its very existence. It created new quotas, which heavily favored England and northern Europe and set much lower quotas for immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who had made up the majority of more recent immigration. The new law reflected anti-Catholic, anti semitic sentiment in the country as many Americans believed Jews used the excuse of persecution to immigrate to the United States. The 1924 law capped quota immigration at 164,667 people per year. Immigrants from the Western Hemisphere, needed for US labor, were non-quota arrivals, exempted from the quota system. The Johnson-Reed Act also mandated that potential immigrants present their paperwork and receive US immigration visas at consulates abroad, prior to leaving for the United States. The State Department, therefore, became responsible for enforcing the quota law meaning that some Jews would have to seek admittance from Nazi-Germany and Nazi-occupied Territories.In 1929, immigration was further limited to a total of 153,879 and the new quotas were re-calculated using complicated math based on the existing national origins of the population as reflected in the 1920 census and the new immigration cap. As a result, the quota for the British Isles rose from 34,007 to 65,721, while the quota for Germany fell significantly, from 51,227 to 25,957. Other countries fared worse: Poland, with a prewar Jewish population of 3.5 million, had a quota of 6,524, and Romania, with a Jewish population of nearly a million, had a quota of 377.In the early 1930s, Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe were consistently referred to as refugees. However, this term had no legal meaning under US law, save for a theoretically exempting these immigrants from having to pass a literacy test. Throughout the 1930s, most Americans opposed changing or adjusting the Johnson-Reed Act, fearing that immigrants, including those fleeing persecution, would compete for scarce jobs and burden public services. (Later on, they would see them as a potential national security risk.) Consistent with overall anti-immigrant sentiments in the country, the State Department viewed the quotas as limits, rather than goals, and did not seek to fill the quotas. Between 1933 and 1941, for example, roughly, 118,000 German quota slots that could have been used went unfilled.Despite its efforts, the United States could not put the ever-increasing issue of the refugee crisis unto its allied nations. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, responding to mounting political pressure, called for an international conference to facilitate the emigration of refugees from Germany and Austria, and to establish an international organization to work for an overall solution to the refugee problem. In early July 1938, delegates from 32 countries met at the French resort of Evian on Lake Geneva. Roosevelt chose Myron C. Taylor, a businessman, and close friend, to represent the US at the conference. This meeting, now known as the Evian Conference was an astounding failure. During the nine-day meeting, delegate after delegate rose to express sympathy for the refugees. But most countries, including the United States and Britain, offered excuses for not letting in more refugees. Only the Dominican Republic agreed to accept additional refugees. This offer came as President Rafael Trujillo, (Former President of the Dominican Republic), sought both to rehabilitate his reputation following his government’s massacre of black Haitians in 1937 and to bring white wealth into his country. The conference attendees created the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (ICR), charged with approaching “the governments of the countries of refuge with a view to developing opportunities for permanent settlement” and seeking to persuade Germany to cooperate in establishing “conditions of orderly emigration.” The ICR received little authority and virtually no funds or other support from its member nations. Its achievements were minimal until September 1939 when the beginning of World War II largely ended all efforts. Rather than providing a solution for Jews, this meeting highlighted the hypocrisy of its members: They criticized Germany’s treatment of Jews but were unwilling to open their doors and do anything about it. By the late 1930s to early 1940s, anti-immigrant and anti-semitic views had not changed. After war began in Europe in September 1939 and, more specifically, after the German invasion of Western European countries in the spring of 1940, many Americans believed that Germany and the Soviet Union were taking advantage of the masses of Jewish refugees to send spies abroad. The State Department cautioned consular officials to exercise particular care in screening applicants. In June 1941, the State Department issued a relatives rule, denying visas to immigrants with close family still in Nazi territory. The negative perception towards Jews were reflected in polls taking during the time period. A Gallup poll that was taken on November 24″25, 1938, (two weeks after Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass) asked Americans: Should we allow a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany to come to the United States to live? 72% responded no. On February 9, 1939, the Wagner-Rogers Bill, an effort to admit 20,000 endangered Jewish refugee children, was not supported by the Senate in 1939 and 1940. The bills, sponsored by Democratic Senator Robert Wagner of New York and Republican congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts, specified that 10,000 children each fiscal year (1939 and 1940) would enter the United States and not be counted against the existing immigration quota laws. Although the bill did not indicate that the German refugee children would mostly be Jewish children, the realities of the refugee crisis in Europe made this an obvious and understood the fact. The bill specified that when the refugee children reached the age of eighteen, they would either be counted against that year’s German immigration quota or would return to Europe. Weeks before the Wagner-Rogers Bill was introduced, a public opinion poll asked Americans whether they would favor a proposal to permit 10,000 refugee children from Germany to be brought into this country and taken care of in American homes. Only 30% of respondents favored this idea; 61% opposed it.Additionally, On May 13, 1939, 935 people ” significantly fewer people than those proposed in the Wagner-Rogers Bill and almost all German Jews ” set sail from Hamburg, Germany on a ship called the St. Louis. The St. Louis was headed for Cuba, but for most of the Jews aboard, the ultimate destination was the United States. Most of the passengers had applied for US visas, and were planning to move from Cuba to the US once a visa became available for them.n the meantime, the passengers had arranged documents before their trip that allowed them to enter Cuba. But shortly before the St. Louis left Hamburg, Cuba suddenly changed its visa policy ” and declared that the old admissions documents wouldn’t be accepted, effective immediately.US-based Jewish organizations tried to negotiate with the Cuban government to let the passengers in. The US itself, however, felt that it was a “specific and internal matter of Cuba,” and didn’t feel any need to intercede on the refugees’ behalf; the head of the State Department’s Visa Division declared the US wouldn’t pressure Cuba to accept the refugees. (US diplomats “informally” urged Cuba to take them, but steadfastly avoided doing anything formally.) In early June, negotiations stalled and the St. Louis was ordered to leave Cuban waters. It turned toward Miami instead. US officials had already announced that the ship would not be allowed to land. And when the St. Louis got within a few miles of Miami’s harbor, the Coast Guard started tailing the boat. Eventually, the ship would be forced to sail back the Atlantic oceans and the refugees split throughout Europe. The US could have agreed to allow the passengers of the St. Louis to land and wait in America for their visas to be processed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who called for the Evian Conference, who a few years later would use an executive order to round up tens of thousands of Japanese Americans and put them in concentration camps, could have ordered that 900 German Jews be allowed to stay. He did not do so, and the majority of Americans supported his decision. Although Franklin D. Roosevelt and the U.S Government had successfully silenced the voice of Jewish immigrants; They could not silence Jewish-Americans. in August 1942 news of the Holocaust broke out, Dr. Gerhart Riegner, the representative of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, Switzerland, learned what was going on from a German source. Riegner asked American diplomats in Switzerland to inform Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, one of America’s most prominent Jewish leaders, of the mass murder plan. But the State Department, characteristically insensitive and influenced by anti-semitism, decided not to inform Wise. Their excuse being, that they did not want to dedicate themselves to a situation they could not handle. The rabbi nevertheless learned of Riegner’s terrible message from Jewish leaders in Great Britain. He immediately approached Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, who asked Wise to keep the information confidential until the government had time to verify it. Wise agreed and it was not until November 1942 that Welles authorized the release of Riegner’s message. Wise held a press conference on the evening of November 24, 1942. The next day’s New York Times reported his news on its tenth page. Throughout the rest of the war, the Times and most other newspapers failed to give prominent and extensive coverage to the Holocaust.The Treasury Department staff also discovered a series of cables from January and February 1943, showing that the State Department had deliberately attempted to stop information about the mass murder of Jews from reaching the United States. By the end of 1943, the staff at the Treasury Department, led by General Counsel Randolph Paul and head of Foreign Funds Control John Pehle (who would later become the War Refugee Board’s first director), gathered enough information to present to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr – who was Jewish and a long-time supporter of Roosevelt. Under Morgenthau’s direction, Treasury officials prepared a scathing 17-page memo entitled Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews. Morgenthau presented the report to Roosevelt and requested that he establish a rescue agency and on January 1944, the War Refugee Board was established.This organization, nominally headed by the Secretaries of State, War, and Treasury, was tasked with carrying out an official American policy of rescue and relief. The War Refugee Board (WBD for short) staff worked with Jewish organizations, diplomats from neutral countries, and resistance groups in Europe to rescue Jews from occupied territories and provide relief to Jews in hiding and in concentration camps. They organized a psychological warfare campaign to deter potential perpetrators, opened a refugee camp in upstate New York, and released the first details of mass murder at Auschwitz to the American people. It was only when the people saw the true atrocities of the Holocaust, when Jews suffering appeared on the front pages of the Times and not the 10th, did they have sympathy and space for Jewish refugees. The WBD, along with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, also sponsored the work of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish businessman sent to Budapest as a diplomat to assist Hungarian Jews. Wallenberg helped save thousands of Hungarian Jews by distributing protective Swedish documents. Because Sweden was a neutral country, Germany could not easily harm those under Swedish protection. Wallenberg also set up homes, hospitals, nurseries, and soup kitchens for the Jews of Budapest. However, The establishment of the board did not resolve all the problems blocking American rescue efforts. For example, the War Department repeatedly refused to bomb Nazi concentration camps or the railroads leading to them. If Estimates indicate that the WRB may have saved as many as 200,000 Jews. One can only imagine how many more might have been saved had the WRB been established in August 1942, when Gerhart Riegner’s message reached the United States. As John Pele said the WBD was little and late. During WW2 and especially during the Holocaust, It’s not that the United States wasn’t interested in helping Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s. The government helped set up an international committee to try to figure out a place to settle them. But the US simply didn’t think it was obligated to take in Jews itself.After World War II, that changed. The international community recognized the importance of helping refugees.The UN set up its office of the High Commissioner for Refugees in 1950, and the Refugee Convention was passed the next year. But even before the UN got its act together, the US was engaging in refugee programs during the 1940s in the aftermath of the war. In 1945 President Harry S. Truman favored a liberal immigration policy toward displaced persons(DPs). Faced with Congressional inaction, he issued a statement, known as the “Truman Directive,” on December 22, 1945, announcing that DPs would be granted priority for US visas within the existing quota system. While overall immigration into the United States did not increase, between 35,000″40,000 DPs, most of whom were Jewish, entered the United States between December 22, 1945, and July 1, 1948, under provisions of the Truman Directive.On December 1946 The International Refugee Organization (IRO), a temporary specialized agency of the newly established United Nations, was created to replace the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (IGC) and in 1948 Congress finally officially passed a Displaced Persons ActThis wasn’t just a shift in policy. It was a shift in attitudes. After World War II, the US started believing it had a moral obligation to help people fleeing persecution. It became something for Americans to be proud of. It became a value people saw in America itself.America had spent 70 years atoning for its sin by becoming the most welcoming country in the world for refugees. Half of all refugees who are permanently resettled in new countries are resettled in the United States. You could say America’s refugee legacy, the Holocaust legacy is what has made it into what it is today.

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