America and the Holocaust

Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power with an ideology of national and racial superiority. As the Nazis deepened their control over Germany in the 1930s, they implemented policies and passed laws that stigmatized and persecuted many groups of people that they considered to be outsiders and enemies of Germany, including Jews, political opponents, homosexuals, and Roma and Sinti people. Violence against Jews and their property was on the rise. During Kristallnacht in 1938, synagogues, businesses, and homes were burned and thousands of Jews were interned for varying periods of time in concentration camps.

Until 1941, official German policy encouraged Jews to leave the country by making life in Germany increasingly difficult for them. Jews were forbidden from working in certain professions and renting or owning homes in many places; they could not hold on to their financial assets and could not move freely. These policies, together with a campaign of hateful antisemitic propaganda and an increasingly violent climate, made life in Germany impossible for many Jews. Those who had no choice but to flee for their survival and the survival of their families became refugees, seeking safe havens in other parts of Europe and beyond. At first, Jews were allowed to settle in neighboring countries such as Belgium, France, and Czechoslovakia, but as German occupation spread across the continent, these countries were no longer safe and refugees became increasingly desperate to escape. Philosopher Hannah Arendt described Jewish refugees’ predicament in this way:

[The refugees] were welcomed nowhere and could be assimilated nowhere. Once they had left their homeland they remained homeless, once they had left their state they remained stateless; once they had been deprived of their human rights they were rightless, the scum of the earth. 1

This refugee crisis created a dilemma for many nations, including the United States. How would they respond to the refugees’ plight? Would they welcome refugees or refuse them admission?

In July 1938, delegates from 32 nations met in Evian, France, to discuss how to respond to the refugee crisis. Each representative expressed regret about the current troubles of refugees, but most said that they were unable to increase their country’s immigration quotas, citing the worldwide economic depression. The representatives spoke in general terms, not about people but about “numbers” and “quotas.”

In the end, only one country, the Dominican Republic, officially agreed to accept refugees from Europe. (Dictator Rafael Trujillo, influenced by the international eugenics movement, believed that Jews would improve the “racial qualities” of the Dominican population.) Throughout the 1930s, other countries, including Bolivia and Switzerland, as well as the Shanghai International Settlement and the British protectorate of Palestine, admitted Jewish refugees. Still, the number of refugees far exceed the opportunities, both legal and illegal, to emigrate. After the Evian conference, Hitler is said to have concluded, “Nobody wants these criminals.”

Like most other countries, the United States did not welcome Jewish refugees from Europe. In 1939, 83% of Americans were opposed to the admission of refugees.2 In the midst of the Great Depression, many feared the burden that immigrants could place on the nation’s economy; refugees, who in most cases were prevented from bringing any money or assets with them, were an even greater cause for concern. Indeed, as early as 1930, President Herbert Hoover reinterpreted immigration legislation barring those “likely to become a public charge” to include even those immigrants who were capable of working, reasoning that high unemployment would make it impossible for immigrants to find jobs.

Political cartoon entitled “Will the Evian conference guide him to freedom?” in The New York Times, July 3, 1938

While economic concerns certainly played a role in Americans’ attitudes toward immigration, so too did feelings of fear, mistrust, and even hatred of those who were different. Immigration policies were shaped by fears of communist infiltrators and Nazi spies. Antisemitism also played an important role in public opinion. It was propagated by leaders like Father Charles Coughlin, known as “the radio priest,” who was the first to offer Catholic religious services over the radio and reached millions of people with each broadcast. In addition to his religious message, Coughlin preached antisemitism, accusing the Jews of manipulating financial institutions and conspiring to control the world. Industrialist Henry Ford was another prominent voice spreading antisemitism.

Martha and Waitstill Sharp challenged this strong tide of opinion when they agreed to travel to Europe to help victims of the Nazi regime. They were among a small number of Americans who worked to aid refugees despite popular sentiment and official government policies. Many of those involved had friends and relatives abroad. They inundated members of Congress and government officials with letters and telegrams. A smaller number still, including the Sharps, actually traveled to Europe in an attempt to aid the refugees. Most rescue and relief work was done under the auspices of aid groups such as the Unitarian Service Committee (created through the Sharps’ work), the American Friends Service Committee (run by the Quakers), the Committee for the Care of European Children, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Some American government officials also recognized the danger and looked for ways to bring more refugees into the country. At a time when having the right “papers” determined a refugee’s chance of survival, immigration policy was crucial. In 1939, Senator Robert Wagner, a Democrat from New York, and Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers, a Republican from Massachusetts, sponsored a bill that proposed to allow German Jewish children to enter the United States outside of official immigration quotas. The bill caused a loud and bitter public debate, but it never even reached a vote in Congress.

In 1940, members of the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees argued with the State Department to simplify immigration procedures for refugees. This effort was also defeated. Refugees had an ally in First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who supported liberalizing immigration laws, wrote about the refugee crisis in her weekly newspaper column, and worked behind the scenes to effect change. Mrs. Roosevelt’s interventions successfully helped some individual refugees, particularly artists and intellectuals, but she was not able to shift national policies. Those in power in the State Department insisted on enforcing the nation’s immigration laws as strictly as possible. Breckinridge Long, the State Department officer responsible for issuing visas, was deeply antisemitic. He was determined to limit immigration and used the State Department’s power to create a number of barriers that made it almost impossible for refugees to seek asylum in the United States. For example, the application form for US visas was eight feet long and printed in small type. Long believed that he was “the first line of defense” against those who would “make America vulnerable to enemies for the sake of humanitarianism.” Long and his colleagues at the State Department went so far as to turn away a group of Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis in May 1939 when the German ocean liner sought to dock in Florida after the refugees were denied entry to Cuba. Following their deportation back to Europe, many of these people perished in the Holocaust.

Historian David Wyman has described American immigration policies during World War II as “paper walls that meant the difference between life and death.” Despite the many obstacles to immigration, some 200,000 Jews did manage to reach the United States between 1933 and 1945; still, this number is a small fraction of those who attempted to come.


  • 1 : Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1973), 267.
  • 2 : Fortune magazine, April 1939, cited in A Guide to the American Experience Documentary “America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference” (Facing History and Ourselves), 26.

Connection Questions

  1. What does this reading suggest about the way the United States defined its universe of obligation during this period? What factors shape a nation’s sense of responsibility toward the broader world? What do nations consider when making their decisions?
  2. Who in the United States advocated for Jewish refugees to be allowed into the country? Who wanted to keep them out? What arguments did each side offer to support its position? What did each side believe was at stake?
  3. In the late 1930s, journalist Dorothy Thompson wrote that no democratic nation can “wash its hands of . . . [the problems of the refugees] if it wishes to retain its own soul.” She insisted that “democracy cannot survive” if people deny minorities “the right to existence.” 1 How does she define the word democracy? Why does she believe that a democracy must protect the rights of minorities? Do you agree?
  4. What are some of the debates surrounding immigration policy today? What roles do concerns about the economy, security, and national identity play? To what extent are today’s conversations similar to or different from the debates during World War II?


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