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The United States and Holocaust Refugees

Updated on April 15, 2018
Austrian refugees arrive in England.
Austrian refugees arrive in England.

During and before the Second World War, large numbers of later victims of the holocaust - most prominently Jews - tried to escape from Germany, and also various Eastern European countries which were becoming increasingly anti-semitic. Although some Jews would find refuge in Palestine - what would become Israel -, France where a vast number of Eastern European would find their home (tragically to suffer heavily at the hand of the Nazis during the occupation of the country, as did many of the other Jews who found refuge in Western European nations to be conquered by Germany), and some 75,000 Jews would come to find safety across Latin America, a nation long renowned as a home for immigrants failed to take in large numbers : the United States. The United States closed its doors on potential immigrants, and would in fact see a net exodus of people during the 1930s, more people leaving overseas than coming to the US. Thus, many people who might have found safety in the US were unable to do so. What could have the US done instead? Should it have adopted a different policy?

In a discussion concerning the actions of the United States in regard to the holocaust, perhaps one should divide such discussion into two time periods: prior to the event and during Germany’s genocidal actions. The policies which the US was at liberty to apply during these two epochs were different. US policy during the war, while probably incorrect, could be viewed as defensible given the fact that those in the past rarely possess the foresight to know the truths that we now possess : although flawed, there were logical reasons for US actions that were entirely plausible at the time. However, US policy during the war was quite clearly responsible for nothing but denying succor to Jews and other victims of German barbarism, and thus increasing the number of deaths attributable to the holocaust.

Before the war, the policy of the United States towards refugees fleeing from German violence was clearly insufficient. At a time when options for the victims of German militarism were a stark choice between flight or death, they found their route towards one of the countries which might have welcomed them, the United States, blocked by US quotas and restrictive US visas. US laws limited entrance for immigrants from Germany and Austria to 27,370, Poland 6,000, and Romania 300, and furthermore made it exceedingly difficult for those people “likely to become a public charge” to enter the US. Since the Nazi regime stripped Jews of their possessions and assets if they were leaving Germany, the latter was an impossibility for the German Jews. American labor and the vast majority of Americans - - some 80% of them - - both opposed letting in refugees by revising quotas, due to the competition over jobs that immigrants would bring. The St. Louis, a passenger liner with Jewish refugees from Europe, sailed across the American seaboard and was not let in, with its repatriated Jewish passengers returning to Europe (where they were allowed to enter France, England, the Netherlands, and Belgium after public pressure) would later suffer up to ⅓ of their numbers dead in the holocaust. So too, the United States did nearly nothing during the Evian conference to attempt to help refugees. If the US had loosened visa requirements or increased quotas and allowed in refugees with lowered socio-economic status then it could have saved many more Jews (and doubtless many other people who suffered in the Holocaust) from the threatened countries of Europe. For a country of 130 million, the importation of a few hundred thousand extra people from Western and Central Europe (Eastern Europe lying under the USSR seems unlikely to allow foreign emigration) would hardly have been excessively disruptive.

The German ocean liner St. Louis, which was not admitted into the United States when it was some 900 Jewish refugees from Germany.
The German ocean liner St. Louis, which was not admitted into the United States when it was some 900 Jewish refugees from Germany.

During the war years, US policy is more mixed. As Nazi Germany conquered Europe and began to enact its final solution, emigration alone had ceased to be a salvation - - the only way to truly save the many peoples who suffered under the jackboot of Nazi barbarism was through victory over the German war machine. And yet, US policy could have worked to save Jews even during the war through population transfers of detained Germans for Jews, which Nazi authorities were supportive of. Bergen-Belsen, of much infamy later on, was initially a camp in which accommodations were relatively survivable compared to other camps, although it deteriorated later in the war as hopes about Jewish-German detainee exchanges proved illusory. American state department figures, fearful about spies and about the benefits that returning German detainees to Germany would bring, moved tardily and elicited little support for these projects which could have saved tens of thousands of lives.

Could the United States have done more? Quite clearly the answer is yes. Even the State Department itself admitted that its policy was much more based on avoiding embarrassment and loss of prestige rather than on saving lives. Given the knowledge that we now possess, the US could, and should, have increased its intake of Jews from Germany on exchange programs, as its fears over foreign infiltration and its worries about adding German returnees to the German war effort were both exaggerated.

However, in the end the Holocaust could only be blunted and slowed, and not halted, by attempts at bombing train lines and engaging in refugee exchanges. After all, there were sadly always many other ways to engage in extermination available to the Nazi regime than simply death camps, discounting any German abilities to respond to such bombardments. It would take the defeat of Germany to enable the liberation of the Jews under their control and an end to the tragedy of the holocaust, and the Americans time and time again chose a course that prioritized the strategic defeat of Germany over tactical solutions that could only delay the inevitable. If at times they errored, we must remember that they acted without the knowledge of the present. At that time America had no way to know of the exact strength of Germany, nor how deep were its reserves and longevity. Given the information available to them at the time, to return Germans with labor skills or potential spies in 1944 is a decision which instead of being foolish is one that focuses upon concentrating upon victory in the war. As dubious as the notion of mass infiltration is, one must remember that at that time it held a much more prominent position within US policy makers : they were wrong of course, but based on their suspicions, their actions made sense.

Whether the US was right or wrong, in both of these instances its actions - - or more precisely lack of actions - - in both cases resulted in the deaths of many tens of thousands of people who otherwise might have been saved.

© 2017 Ryan Thomas


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