Home > Uncategorized > America and some troubling Holocaust questions – posted 2/20/2022

America and some troubling Holocaust questions – posted 2/20/2022

There are some Holocaust-related questions which have long piqued my interest. When did Americans become aware of the genocide being conducted by the Nazis? What efforts were made to grapple with it? Why were the efforts to respond so pitifully weak?

From the vantage point of 2022, it is hard to get a picture of what the European world then looked like to Americans. There was no internet or even TV. Radio and newspapers were the dominant forms of mass communication.

A new book by Daniel Green and Edward Phillips, Americans and the Holocaust, provides a wealth of helpful information. The authors collected primary sources including newspaper stories, government reports, Gallup polls, photographs, and cartoons from the 1930’s-1940’s. They offer a view of what information was publicly available to Americans as well as a window into public thinking.

Some might think that the Spring of 1945 when U.S. troops first encountered the Nazi death camps in Europe was when large numbers of Americans first became aware of the Nazi genocide. That is not the case.

There was much public information available about much of what the Nazis were up to long before 1945. In 1933, there were over 2,000 daily newspapers in the U.S.. Many households received one. Just a review of publicly available newspapers and magazines is clarifying.

The cover of Time Magazine on July 10, 1933 featured a large picture of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels above the caption “Say it in your dreams: THE JEWS ARE TO BLAME”.

In March 1933 American newspapers reported the Nazis were putting 10,000 political prisoners in concentration camps. Also in that month, the United Press reported on a nationwide boycott against Jews in Germany carried out by the Nazis. The Associated Press reported that Nazi storm troops cleared the Berlin law courts of Jewish judges and lawyers.

In May 1933, the Associated Press described mass book burnings carried out by German university students throughout the country. Books by famous American authors like Jack London and Helen Keller were pitched into huge bonfires. Any world literature that was deemed to “contravene German spirit” got torched.

Even as early as 1933, Americans in Germany started getting physically assaulted on the street. Members of the Nazi Party SA militia attacked Americans at least 35 times during 1933 alone. The U.S. counsel general in Berlin reported the attacks were unprovoked but it was thought they were brought about through the assumption those attacked were Jews.

In November 1938 mobs of Nazis launched pogroms against Jews all over Germany. The Nazis destroyed hundreds of synagogues and thousands of Jewish-owned shops. Nearly 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and were sent to concentration camps. These events were widely covered and came to be known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass..

A Gallup poll in November 1938 found an overwhelming percentage of Americans (94%) disapproved of the Nazi treatment of Jews in Germany. However, awareness of mistreatment did not lead to any willingness to act on behalf of Jewish victims. When asked if a larger number of Jewish exiles from Germany should be allowed to come to the United States to live, 72% said “no”. Only 21% of Americans favored admitting more Jews into the U.S..

The 1924 Immigration law greatly restricted Jewish immigration to America. There was only a small quota allowed in every year. That gap between awareness of Nazi evil and unwillingness to support immigration reform remained a constant throughout the war. Undergirding the law was a vicious anti-semitism that was entrenched in America during the period.

Influential “scientific” racists like Madison Grant and Edward Ripley saw Jews as one of the most racially inferior European immigrant groups coming to America. Their view that Jews were a “deficient” race of immigrants was widely shared. Grant raised the spectre that Americans of “Colonial stock” could be replaced by racially inferior people.

A February 1939 bill jointly sponsored by Democratic Senator Robert Wagner of New York and Republican Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts proposed admitting 20,000 German refugee children under the age of 14. I am assuming the bill sponsors believed children would be the most sympathetic potential immigrants. The bill got nowhere and never made it to the floor of Congress for a vote.

Opponents of increasing Jewish immigration argued that more refugees would cause Americans to lose jobs. In the case of children, they argued that America’s first duty was to feed, clothe and educate the millions of children living in poverty here.

As the Nazis expanded the war in Europe, they made it harder for reporting to occur in the areas they occupied. They banned Western press. Still, some stories emerged about Jews being forced to wear badges as well as their being concentrated into walled ghettos. It was not until late 1942 that word of the physical extermination of Jews seeped into public consciousness.

After Japan attacked the U.S. on December 7, 1941, public attention shifted to the broader war effort against the Axis powers. What later became known as the Holocaust became a background event set against broader carnage.

There was some superb reporting. In the December 22, 1942 issue of the New Republic, Varian Fry wrote an article entitled “The Massacre of the Jews”. He accurately depicted the genocidal project and exactly how it was being carried out. But Fry was an isolated voice. Reports coming from Fry or the handful of Jews who escaped were discounted as unreliable. As Fry noted, “There are some things so horrible that decent men and women find them impossible to believe”.

In a war in which fifty or sixty million died, the death of six million Jews did not register as a central event. A Gallup poll from November 1944 asked Americans to estimate how many people may have been murdered by Germans in concentration camps. 36% answered 100,000 or less. Another 16% guessed between 100,000 and a million. 11% guessed two million to six million. 5% guessed six million or more.

Efforts by the Jewish community, led by Rabbi Stephen Wise, a founder of the American Jewish Congress, failed to gain much traction. President Roosevelt would not commit to supporting any rescue operation. He remained worried about domestic repercussions for a policy perceived as pro-Jewish. No efforts were undertaken to bomb crematories or death camp facilities.

William Shirer described the American frame of mind as “a silly sort of super-cynicism and super-skepticism”. There was a failure to grasp the truth of the genocide.

Call it fatalism, anti-semitism, xenophobia or dehumanizing the other – all were at play. Inside the honorable struggle against fascism was the tragic abandonment of the Jews of Europe. Americans, broadly speaking, failed to connect the dots about fascism’s crimes, leading to devastating inaction.

There are no death camps now but when desperate people from Latin America seek asylum, we still use exactly the same excuses that Americans used in the 1940’s to keep out the Jews who were trying to escape persecution. You have to wonder how much we have learned, if anything.

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  1. February 28, 2022 at 4:06 pm

    Is your use of the phrase, “the tragic abandonment of the Jews,” an allusion to David Wyman’s 1984 book, “The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941–1945?” Wyman, who also wrote “Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-1941,” published in 1968, documented the failure of the USA and allies to aid Jewish migration from Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe despite their knowledge of the Nazi atrocities. Wyman lived for a number of years in Canterbury, NH.

    • February 28, 2022 at 5:43 pm

      It was. That was a book I knew from my parents.

    • February 28, 2022 at 5:46 pm

      Arnie, I did not know Wyman ever lived in Canterbury. My parents were not big readers but that book stood out.

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