When learning about the refugee crisis preceding and during the early years of World War II, many observers frequently wonder why America did not respond more effectively. This unit challenges us to think about societal fears and the missed opportunities to intervene alongside the impact of those few individuals who did. By guiding students to reckon with the multiple factors that limited American responses during this tumultuous era, the unit promotes reflection on the role of civic participation in confronting today’s equally complex social and political problems.
Each of the unit’s three lessons, which can also stand alone, prompt students to consider this history in light of the essential question: What does it take to move from knowledge to action? The first lesson, The Refugee Crisis and 1930s America, introduces students to the many factors that influenced Americans’ will and ability to respond to the German Jewish refugee crisis, including isolationism, racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism. The second lesson, The Child Refugee Debate, explores sources from the debate surrounding the 1939 Wagner-Rogers Bill, which proposed admitting 20,000 German refugee children over the course of two years to the United States outside of immigration quotas. The bill ultimately died without ever coming to a vote, but the congressional hearings and public debate surrounding it offer excellent opportunities for students to understand Americans’ various responses to the refugee crisis. Students will also investigate the terms of this debate by analyzing an excerpt from a radio play, “Miss American,” that was produced as a response to the Wagner-Rogers legislation.
In the third and final lesson, Refugees and Rescuers: The Courage to Act, students will explore the intertwined personal narratives of Jewish refugees who attempted to flee to America and the American rescuers who intervened on their behalf. This lesson prompts students to reflect on how circumstances of time, place, and opportunity often limited the ability of Americans to help, while also recognizing the crucial role that individual Americans and organizations played in helping Jewish refugees.