America and the Holocaust

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

Print this page Print this page

Questions of guilt, both personal and national, abound in contemporary memory and scholarship about the Holocaust. When did the Allies know about the Nazi's Final Solution? When did the world Jewish community know? What could have been done, if anything, to change the outcome? The following article addresses the knowledge and responses of the United States government and the American Jewish community to Nazi anti-semitism and genocide in the 1930s and 1940s.

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.

Regardless of the information that the U.S. government had about the "extermination" of the Jewish people in Europe, the State Department had insisted that the best way to save victims of Nazi Germany was to win the war as quickly as possible. The Allies were concerned, moreover, with the immediate refugee problem caused by the war. By 1943, the war had created millions of refugees in Europe. The Bermuda Conference, jointly sponsored by the United States and Great Britain in April 1943, discussed potential solutions to the refugee problem, but failed to settle on a single plan. In 1943, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau presented a report to President Roosevelt providing details about the Final Solution. It was not until January 1944, however, that the President responded by establishing the War Refugee Board, an independent agency charged with rescuing the civilian victims of the Nazis. The refugees helped by the War Refugee Board were not from Nazi-occupied areas but rather from liberated zones.

By the spring of 1944, the Allied governments knew of the mass gassings at Auschwitz-Birkenau. For some time, Jewish leaders had begged the U.S. government to bomb the gas chambers and railways leading to the camp, to no avail. From August 20 to September 13, 1944, the U.S. Air Force bombed the Auschwitz-Monowitz industrial complex, less than five miles from the gas chambers in Birkenau, but it did not bomb the railways used to transport prisoners or the gas chambers themselves. However morally reprehensible it may seem to us today, the U.S. government's decision not to bomb Auschwitz-Birkenau was in accordance with U.S. wartime policy.

Recently, American Jewry has been criticized for not continually or strongly pushing for rescue efforts. During the war, however, organized American Jewry did press for rescue in a variety of ways, but in general, rescue was not a high priority for major American Jewish organizations. American Jewry feared that agitation for rescue would exacerbate domestic anti-semitism, or compromise the strong connection that they held with the Roosevelt administration. Moreover, Jewish organizations often placed the creation of a Jewish state above rescue efforts on their list of priorities. The establishment of a Jewish state would settle the Jewish refugee issue and would provide a place where Jews could be safe as Jews. Also, the Roosevelt administration seemed to be more supportive of the creation of a Jewish state than initiation of the wartime rescue efforts.

Ultimately, American Jewish rescue efforts were dependent on U.S. wartime policy. Since U.S. policy did not place rescue as a priority, the efforts of American Jewish organizations and leaders to push for rescue often fell on deaf ears. The issue of whether the U.S. government and American Jews could have done more to help Jewish victims of National Socialism, however, continues to be a hotly debated topic even today.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.