America and the Holocaust

Where were the United States government and the American Jewish community during the destruction of European Jewry?

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In the last 20 years, Auschwitz, the most infamous of the death camps operating during World War II, has become a symbol of the Holocaust. The name Auschwitz has come to represent not only the horrors of the Nazi genocidal regime, but also the failure of the U.S. government to take appropriate action to prevent the murder of millions of people. What did America know about the situation of European Jewry during World War II? Did American Jews do all they could to help the Jews of Europe?

The rescue of European Jewry was not a priority of U.S. wartime policy. It was part of the problem created by the Nazi menace and could only be solved through the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies. While this was a strategic decision on the part of the Allies, it was affected by the anti-semitism, isolationism, and xenophobia that characterized the United States' refugee policy of the 1930s and 1940s. The U.S. State Department, led by Secretary of State Cordell Hull, made it difficult for refugees to obtain entry visas. Despite reports of the worsening situation in Europe vis-à-vis the Jews, the Congressional National Origins Act, which in 1929 set an annual quota of 150,000 immigrants, was neither amended nor overturned. Rep. Robert Wagner introduced legislation in the United States Congress in 1939 proposing to admit a total of 20,000 Jewish children over a two-year period. The legislation was amended in committee to admit the 20,000 children only if the number of Jewish refugees admitted under the regular quota was reduced by 20,000. The bill died in the House after the sponsor withdrew his support in frustration.

president rooseveltThe story of the S.S. St. Louis illustrates the unfortunate consequences of U.S. immigration policy. On May 13, 1939, the St. Louis set sail from Hamburg bound for Havana. On board were 937 Jewish refugees fleeing persecution from Nazi Germany. Each passenger carried a valid visa for temporary entry into Cuba. As the boat approached Havana, the Cuban government declared the visas invalid and refused entry to the passengers. Subsequent negotiations with the Cuban government to permit the landing ended in failure. Similar attempts to seek entry to the United States also failed. After waiting 12 days in the port of Havana and then off the Miami coast, the boat was forced to return to Europe. A majority of the St. Louis passengers died during the war.

Information regarding the mass murder of Jews began to reach the free world soon after these actions began in the Soviet Union in late June 1941, and the volume of such reports increased with time. During 1942, reports of a Nazi plan to murder all the Jews--including details on methods, numbers, and locations--reached Allied and neutral leaders from many sources, including the underground Jewish Socialist Bund party in the Warsaw ghetto; Gerhard Riegner, the representative in Geneva of the World Jewish Congress; and the eyewitness accounts of Polish underground courier Jan Karski and of 69 Polish Jews who reached Palestine in a civilian prisoner exchange between Germany and Britain in November. On December 17, 1942, the Allies issued a proclamation condemning the "extermination" of the Jewish people in Europe and declared that they would punish the perpetrators.

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Susan D. Glazer is a graduate student in the Department of Comparative History at Brandeis
University. She is writing a dissertation about the activities of a German-Italian insurance organization during World War II.