History As It Happens: When America failed the Jews

The Washington Times |

Years before Adolph Hitler obtained power, and decades before the Third Reich brought “the manufacture of mass death to its pitiless consummation,” in the words of the late military historian John Keegan, the seeds were planted for America’s callous and ineffective response to the Nazi persecution of Europe’s Jews.

As director Ken Burns shows in his searing new documentary “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” hostility to immigration coexisted with America’s reputation as a land of opportunity during an era that saw millions of Europeans make their way to Ellis Island. More than a million people were processed there in 1907 alone. And as the scholars Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman detail in “FDR and the Jews,” more than two million Southern and Eastern European Jews fled mistreatment and arrived in the United States between 1880 and 1920.

But a long-simmering nativist backlash combined with the junk science of eugenics to produce federal legislation in 1924 severely restricting emigration to the United States based on nation of origin. Those quotas, which enjoyed widespread public and political support, would prevent hundreds of thousands of Jews from escaping Europe when they had a chance.

In this episode of History As It Happens, author and historian Rebecca Erbelding, an expert on the U.S. response to the Nazi genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and an independent scholarly adviser to the Ken Burns documentary, discusses the ways in which pre-war nativism, antisemitism and isolationism contributed to the failure to save more Jewish lives later on.

“It really starts with questions of race. Look at the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement which restricted immigration from Japan … the door is open for the most part, but there are also restrictions on people with physical or mental disabilities,” said Ms. Erbelding, the author of “Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe.” “As the 20th century begins, this large immigration pool mixes with another phenomenon. [Eugenics] is starting to take a hand in policy.”

By the time President Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated in March 1933 with the U.S. in the throes of the Great Depression, there was little appetite to loosen the quotas. Roosevelt’s first year in office coincided with the Nazi seizure of power, and although Ms. Erbelding says many Americans expressed revulsion at the Third Reich’s increasingly cruel treatment of Jews, they did not want to accept more refugees for a host of reasons, not least the economic crisis of the Great Depression and the dearth of open jobs.

Listen to Ms. Erbelding discuss the American response to the Holocaust, including the decision not to bomb Auschwitz, and the lessons it holds for today’s refugee crises in this episode of History As It Happens.

Source: History As It Happens: When America failed the Jews – Washington Times

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