From the cover of “The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and a Village Caught in Between” by Michael Dobbs
From the cover of “The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and a Village Caught in Between” by Michael Dobbs

New books: Detailed looks at WWII Jewish refugee crisis, and FDR

For students of American Jewish history, few topics are as haunting and controversial as the Roosevelt administration’s response to the oppression and annihilation of European Jews. It is a topic that continues to be elucidated and argued, and two new books add to our understanding.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency paralleled the Nazi era, with his inauguration occurring just a month after Hitler’s appointment as Germany’s chancellor in 1933. As conditions worsened for German Jews, many American Jews called for their government to act.

But — as historian Rafael Medoff demonstrates in “The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust” — Roosevelt’s record on saving European Jews was deeply problematic.

TCover of “The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust” by Rafael Medoffhere is much disagreement about how the United States might have impeded Germany’s campaign against European Jewry. What is less debatable, however, is that the United States could have taken in more refugees.

As tens of thousands of German Jews spent years on waiting lists for U.S. immigration visas throughout the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration kept the number allowed to enter the country at just a fraction of the already restrictive quotas that had been enacted by Congress in 1924.

For example, in 1936, the year following the adoption of the Nuremberg Laws that stripped German Jews of their citizenship, only 6,307 German immigrants were admitted into the country, less than a quarter of the quota.

Many defend the president’s resistance to admitting more Jews as a political necessity. Roosevelt was aware of his need to maintain broad support, particularly as he brought the nation into the war. Because most Americans in the 1930s opposed more immigration, for reasons ranging from widespread anti-Semitism to Depression-era fears about unemployment, authorizing an increase was perceived as risky. However, Medoff holds that Roosevelt would have risked little damage by bringing the number of visa approvals up to the quota.

For Medoff, who has long been one of Roosevelt’s harshest critics among historians, the president’s inaction was not simply a matter of bowing to public opinion but a reflection of his own lack of enthusiasm for welcoming more Jews to the United States. In fact, in some cases, he aggravated anti-immigrant sentiment, as when he pronounced at a 1940 press conference that “in some of the other countries that refugees out of Germany have gone to, especially Jewish refugees, they found a number of definitely proven spies.” Medoff writes that Roosevelt’s allegation, with its insinuation that Jewish immigrants could constitute a fifth column, was an invention.

The unique angle of this book is its attention to the interplay of Roosevelt and Rabbi Stephen Wise. Wise was one of the most significant Jewish leaders in American history. Born in Hungary to a rabbinical family and raised in Brooklyn, he presided for four decades over the independent synagogue he established in Manhattan. He also became increasingly focused on political activity, leading both the American Jewish Congress and the Zionist Organization of America.

Wise played a leading role in the anti-Nazi rallies and boycotts of the 1930s and, upon gaining access to the White House, sought to convince Roosevelt to act on behalf of German Jews. However, Medoff demonstrates that Wise, continually torn between defending Jews and defending Roosevelt, was not only ineffectual but was ultimately used by Roosevelt both to shield the president from Jewish critics and to do the administration’s bidding.

For example, when a congressional resolution was introduced in 1943 calling for the establishment of a government body to help rescue European Jews, Wise, echoing the administration’s opposition, did not lend his support. That resolution would ultimately lead to the creation of the War Rescue Board, which audaciously attempted to save Jews at the 11th hour.

Cover of “The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and a Village Caught in Between” by Michael DobbsIn “The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and a Village Caught in Between,” Michael Dobbs depicts the impact of U.S. immigration policy a continent away, focusing on Jews from the small town of Kippenheim in the state of Baden in southwestern Germany.

Following Kristallnacht in 1938, Kippenheim’s Jews applied for visas to enter the United States, but with little success. Expelled from Germany along with all of Baden’s Jews in late 1940, most were deported to camps in Vichy France. Using letters, diaries and other archival sources, Dobbs recreates their harrowing years of desperately attempting to find a safe haven.

Dobbs also turns his attention back to Washington, D.C., to explain the factors preventing Jews from receiving visas — offering a more sympathetic portrayal of Roosevelt than Medoff’s, but illuminating the anti-Semitic culture of the State Department.

Chillingly, in the same year that the Kippenheim Jews were deported from Germany, United States Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long sent a memo suggesting that consuls “put every obstacle in the way” of granting visas to German Jews. With nowhere to go, many of Kippenheim’s Jews eventually were murdered in Auschwitz.

Dobbs’ and Medoff’s books complement each other, depicting both the halls of power and the desperation of the powerless. The added strength of “The Unwanted” is that, in focusing on the stories of a small community, it helps us understand how policy decisions affect real people.

As the world faces its largest refugee crisis since the end of World War II, it is especially instructive to look at past tragedies and to remember not only the numbers but the lives and deaths they represent.

Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.