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America and the Holocaust

Between denunciation and indifference

US Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Holocaust Memorial Museum of Washington has developed an important exposition about a complex and disturbing topic, the relationship of the American people with Nazi genocide: what they did, what they knew, what they could have done. It is called Americans and the Holocaust and it tells about motives, awareness and fears.

In 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that “the only thing we should fear is fear itself”. The United States were in their 4th year of Great Depression, with fierce racial segregation and immigration seen as a further threat to their welfare, above all when it came to people with “undesirable” national origin. However, in the Thirties newspapers did read “Germany denies Jews citizen rights”, “The Nazis keep 10,000 political enemies imprisoned”, “Germany burns prohibited books”, “Nazis announce the boycott of Jewish activities”. America’s Jewish leaders wanted to persuade the government to condemn Nazi persecutions, but they disagreed on how to act. Some did organize protests, others did not act, maybe out of fear of an anti-Semitic reaction in the USA.

In the Spring of 1933, Americans signed petitions against Nazi violence against the Jews, hundreds of which were sent to the State Department, which though did not issue any official statement. The American diplomats to Germany, despite evidence, hesitated, and respected the right of the German State to govern. The US Consul to Berlin George Messersmith, in July of that year, warned: “It has been a favorite pastime of the SA men to attack the Jews and one cannot avoid the plain language of stating that they do not like to be deprived of their prey”. In the US cinemas – one of the most important means of propaganda – the initial sponsors said “We don’t want another foreign war”, but also that “democracy in Germany is destroyed” and that, along with it, “Germany would erase international peace”.

In 1939 the German-American Bund, a filo Nazi organization for Americans of German descent put forward a propaganda that reached out to great crowds (even 20,000 people at a time) and established a dozen Summer camps, to indoctrinate the German American kids, where people on the camp wore uniforms of the Hitlerian youth. At the same time, following the annexation of Austria to Germany, the dream of all the persecuted had become that of fleeing to the United States, but the immigration laws required also two years to be able to leave (in the lucky case, in which that was possible). It took nearly a dozen different documents including the birth certificate, the certificate of good health, the list of estate, a clean criminal record, the discharge papers… and, since September 1940, also two financial sponsors in America were demanded, preferably relatives of the migrant, who ensure to take responsibility for the person after his or her arrival in the United States. Not to mention the very expensive tickets for the boat, the interview with the American consul, and the stamps issued by every nation they would cross, in a precise order. A sole mistake might cost to have the practice postponed by the Government Offices, also for many times. "It is a fantastic commentary on the inhumanity of our times that for thousands and thousands of people a piece of paper with a stamp on is the difference between life and death”, said American journalist Dorothy Thompson in 1938.

Thirty-two nations seek Havens for German Jews”, did instead read The San Diego Union some days after the Conference of Evian summoned by Roosevelt – which had to decide how to deal with the steady increase of the refugees desperately trying to escape Nazism. Precisely 32 countries had sent representatives to the conference: the majority of them expressed sympathy with the oppressed, but all offered little help, purporting that a growing immigration would end up damaging their economies. Only the Dominican Republic accepted some Jewish immigrants. In the USA a survey was also carried out, where people were asked: “Should we allow more Jewish exiles from Germany to come to live in the United States?”. 71% answered No. Furthermore, 5 days after the Kristallnacht, the President admitted: “I cannot humanely kick them out”. But then he added that the immigration quotas of the United States would not be changed for this. In February 1939, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt supported the bill draft that would allow 10,000 Jewish children in the United States outside the framework of the laws then in force, but the President never officially issued a comment about the issue.

On 13 May 1939, the German transatlantic MS St. Louis took off from Hamburg headed for Havana with 937 passengers onboard, most of whom were German Jews. When the ship landed in Cuba, passenger discovered that the landing certificates they had bought were not valid, and the Cuban government compelled the ship to leave the port. Heading for Miami, they sent telegrams to their dear ones and the public officers in the United States, asking to be allowed to enter the country. But, without entry visas, they had to go back to Europe. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee aid organization worked together with the American State Department in order to convince four countries – Great Britain, France, the Netherlands and Belgium – to accept the passengers. One year later, many of those refugees found themselves under Nazi occupation, after Germany had invaded their acceptance countries. Out of the 937 passengers of the St. Louis, 254 fell victims to the Holocaust.

Until 1941, the United States felt entitled to remain outside a conflict, which they deemed as be coming from abroad. It was the attack against Pearl Harbor (7 December 1941) to change things completely, precipitating America into war. Since then, the US propaganda was aimed at letting citizens understand the necessity to fight the enemy. Yet Nazism to them was above all the enemy of American values, not the murderer of Jews. Their assassination was almost never mentioned in the pro war manifestoes.

In September 1942, the news of the “Final Solution” reached Gerhart Riegner, representative of the World Jewish Congress in Switzerland, while nearly a half of the American believed Jews had “too much power and influence” in their countries. Riegner tried to warn the President of the World Jewish Congress, Rabbi Stephen Wise, in New York, but the State Department blocked the message, arguing it was a "rumour of war". Soon afterwards, however, Rabbi Wise received the news from a contact in Great Britain. At the end of November, Wise informed the US press that 2 million Jews had already been murdered as a part of the Nazi annihilation plan.

In July 1943, furthermore, it was the turn of Jan Karski, the member of the Polish resi stance who arrived in the United States to denounce the extermination of Jews. His meeting with Roosevelt was disappointing, and the Jewish judge of the US Supreme Court Felix Frankfurter, said: "I am not saying this young boy is lying, but that I am unable to believe him”. The news of the massacre of Jews in the meanwhile appeared almost always in the American press, but a vast majority of readers could have doubted about their authenticity remembering some “exaggerations” about the German atrocities during the First World War.

In November, a group of members of the American Jewish Congress, influenced by activist Peter Bergson, introduced some resolutions that demanded President Roosevelt to set up a government committee to save Europe’s Jews. In a confidential piece of testimony, before the Congress session, the Assitant State Secretary Breckinridge Long said that the State Department had already accepted 580,000 refugees, a request soon overtly proven false. At the same times, the staff of the Treasure Department of the United Stated studied the delays and obstacles in the sending of aid to the Jewish refugees in Europe and found that the officers of the State Department had deliberately concealed the news about their murder. Roosevelt thus signed an executive order, on 22 January 1944, setting up the War Refugee BoardIt was the first time that the US Governemnt officially took up the responsibility to save the victims of Nazi persecution.

The director of the War Refugee Board, John Pehle, "warmly suggested that the War Deparment consider the opportunity to destroy the gas chambers and crematoria of Birkenau through direct shelling”, but, although the US aviation had decided to shell the factories nearby, the Department said that such assault to Auschwitz-Birkenau would distract the Armi from its main objective: winning the war as soon as possible.

When the Western Allied Armies landed in Normandy, on 6 June 1944, over 5 million Jews had been murdered. The USA could have released information on the Nazi atrocities, put pressure on the other allies and the neutral countries to help the endangered Jews and support the Resistance groups against the Nazis. Before the war, the US government could have eased the quotas or let more Jewish immigrants in… America did a lot to save Europe from Nazism, in terms of money, people and resources. This was though never associated with a commitment to rescuing the persecuted, or rather, that never became a priority.

What do we know today of all this? According to the New York Times, a recent survey released in April 2017 by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany showed that 41% of American adults do not know about Auschwitz.

Despite all this, there have been some American citizens who risked their lives to rescue the Jews to save themselves from the Nazi fury, and some organizations set up to this purpose. You’ll find some of their stories in the Insights box.

25 May 2018

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the genocide of Jews

In the framework of second world war (1939-1945) Europe witnessed the genocide of the Jewish people (1941-1945). The “final solution“, the extermination of six million Jews, was planned by Hitler who had come on power in Germany in 1933. Since the publication of Mein Kampf, Hitler had planned the nationalsocialist revolution based on a racist ideology.
In the memory of the Jewish people and in the verdict that closed the works of the International Military Court, 6,000,000 victims of the extermination are estimated. As a matter of facts, the most reliable scholars including Raul Hilberg estimate about 5,200,000 victims.

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