Response to the Holocaust 1933-1945
“Give me your tired, your poor,Emma Lazarus
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. . .”
The American response to the Nazi assault on Jews between 1933-1945 continues to be the subject of contentious debate. While there is no doubt that the United States played a dominant role in the ultimate defeat of Germany, questions remain about the government’s reluctance to offer haven to Jewish refugees or take steps to aid Hitler’s victims. Although individual Americans and some organizations reacted to reports of Nazi atrocities with outrage, President Franklin Roosevelt, for the most part, turned away from the moral challenge. He condemned Nazi anti-Semitism but maintained that the defeat of Germany was the only way to put an end to its genocidal policies.
The involvement of American Jews in rescue efforts has also been debated. Did they do enough to aid their co-religionists in Europe? Although many were indifferent or cautiously silent, others worked tirelessly to arouse public opinion, implement rescue operations, and obtain visas for relatives and strangers. Even the most ardent activists however, were thwarted by circumstances beyond their control. Unprecedented levels of anti-Semitism and organized opposition to immigration presented almost insurmountable obstacles.
This exhibit traces American reaction to Germany’s persecution of the Jews and the triumphs and failures of Jewish individuals and organizations in their attempts to rescue Hitler’s victims. It is a story of remarkable activism and dismal indifference. A chapter of it took place in San Antonio, Texas.
WHO WE WERE
Politics and Prejudice
“The dove flew
Over all the world
And saw a lovely land
But the land was locked
And the key was broken.”From a children’s rhyme printed in “Children of a Vanished World” by Roman Vishniac
During the 1930s, the majority of American Jews were immigrants themselves, having come to this country between 1881-1924. Their children were entering the mainstream but were not completely assimilated or accepted. They often experienced discrimination in employment, housing, and higher education.
The mood of the country was unwelcoming. Americans, focused on the severe economic problems caused by the Great Depression, were generally opposed to immigration and resisted involvement in overseas issues. Jews who sought to bring attention to Nazi crimes were often vilified publicly and castigated as warmongers, a chilling accusation in isolationist America.
American Jews found themselves in a tenuous position, forced to protect their own status at a time when their aid and support were needed in Europe. Some were intimidated; others worked individually or joined rescue and relief groups.
A small but unprecedented number of Jews held positions in the Roosevelt administration but, with few exceptions, they did not attempt to influence decisions related to the Jewish crisis.
There were many Jewish organizations that represented a broad spectrum of religious and secular viewpoints. In 1933, the American Jewish Congress, the B’nai Brith, Jewish War Veterans, and the American Jewish Commit- tee attempted to establish a boycott of German products, but it proved to be ineffective.
That same year, the American Jewish Congress, under the leadership of Rabbi Stephen Wise, organized a huge protest rally that attracted thousands at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Although they were concerned and active, leaders of Jewish organizations were too often cautious about taking positions that might fan anti-Semitism or antagonize President Roosevelt.
National opinion polls taken during the 1930s indicated that over one-third of American citizens held negative opinions about Jews and 75 percent were opposed to Jewish immigration. Although American anti-Semitism never approached the intensity generated by the Nazis in Germany, it was openly expressed in academia, business, churches, social organizations and the job market. Anti-Semitic statements made by members of Congress were not rare.
A prominent voice of anti-Semitism in the United States was Father Charles Coughlin whose weekly broadcasts reached an estimated 30 million people. His newspaper, The Social Justice Weekly, was distributed to hundreds of thousands of American homes. Gerald L.K. Smith, a minister turned politician, also had a large following. He published The Cross and the Flag, a newspaper that was both anti-Jewish and anti-Black.
There were approximately 100 anti-Jewish organizations in the country, among them the German American Bund, a group of ethnic Germans with strong ties to Nazi Germany. The America First Committee, a major isolationist group that sought to forestall American involvement in European affairs, did not officially espouse anti- Semitism, but many of the country’s most ardent anti-Semites were among its influential members.
Laws adopted in 1921 and 1924 set strict quotas that limited the number of people permitted to enter the country annually. Fearing new-comers would swell the ranks of the unemployed or take jobs from American citizens during the Depression, the administration created a maze of bureaucratic obstacles that disqualified many visa applicants. In 1940, Breckinridge Long, Assistant Secretary of State, a nativist and anti-Semite, who was charged with implementing immigration policies, tightened visa requirements, making it even more difficult to enter the country.
The annual U.S. quota for German immigrants in 1933 was 30,000 but only 1,445 were permitted to enter the country. Less than a third were Jewish. Except for a short period in 1938- 1939, the government blocked the quotas. Some distinguished academics, scientists, musicians, and artists were welcomed, but immigration was held to 10 percent of the quota. The Nazis, openly contemptuous of intellect, drove out 43 percent of Germany’s academics. The effect on Germany was disastrous, but the United States reaped the benefits.
Relative to its population, the United States was less of an asylum for refugees than Britain, France, or the Netherlands.
Nazi Emigration Policy
From 1933-1939, the Nazis encouraged and often forced Jews to leave Germany and Austria, but routinely stripped them of their assets. Approximately 300,000 Jews fled. Under a transfer agreement with the Jewish agency, 50,000 were permitted to settle in Palestine.
In 1941, the Nazis effectively curtailed all Jewish emigration.
As the Nazi menace grew, many European Jews turned to relatives in the United States for help. Letters describing terrible hardships often ended with pleas for assistance in obtaining visas, a process that required relatives to furnish information about their income, a ten-year history of employment and signed affidavits pledging financial responsibility. Americans without adequate means often turned to friends or benefactors for help. Even when all requirements were met, visas were often summarily refused.
The Case of the Scharlack Family
Shortly after Hugo and Blanka Scharlack and their children came to San Antonio from Germany in 1938, they initiated efforts to bring their families to the United States. Over the next three years, they submitted the required affidavits, followed by a flood of letters to the State Department and other agencies pleading for approval of the visas applications. The Scharlacks enlisted the support of Rabbi Ephraim Frisch and Mayor Maury Maverick as well as family and friends who offered financial assistance. They met each visa requirement only to have American consulates in Germany demand additional information or summarily deny entry. Deposits were sent to cover the costs of transportation and every possible place of refuge was explored, but to no avail.
There were moments of hope in the Scharlacks’ daily crusade to save their families but mostly, there was anguish and despair. Correspondence from relatives in Germany ended abruptly in 1941.
WHAT WE KNEW
The Press and the Public
“It has brought to them the final catastrophe, which threatens to leave them little except a nameless terror in their hearts. Beginning with the new year, all Jews find themselves destitute and without any chance of making a living . . . The only hope for most Jews in Germany lies in emigration. . .”
Baltimore Jewish Times, December 1938
What Did We Know and When Did We Know It
Even before Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933, information about Nazi anti-Semitism appeared in the American press.
The media gave broad coverage to the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses, the Kristallnacht riots, and Cuba’s refusal to allow Jewish refugees on the S.S. St. Louis to disembark. After World War II began, less attention was focused on the fate of the Jews. Americans were consumed by the escalating conflict in Europe.
American Response to Kristallnacht
Thousands of Americans were outraged by Kristallnacht, the government-instigated riots against Jews in Nazi Germany and Austria in November 1938. President Franklin Roosevelt condemned the violence and extended temporary visas to 15,000 Germans who were already in the United States. Many were Jews. His action roused sharp criticism from immigration foes and anti-Semitic individuals and organizations who had already labeled Roosevelt’s New Deal “The Jew Deal.”
Six days after Kristallnacht, 500 Harvard and Radcliffe students staged a protest rally that led to the formation of the Harvard Committee to Aid German Student Refugees. With endorsements from the presidents of both schools, the group launched a fund drive to pay for living expenses for matriculating European students. Fourteen young refugees from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia were enrolled at Harvard and two more were admitted to Radcliffe College. The initiative generated national publicity and spread quickly to other campuses. Their efforts, however, were thwarted by immigration restrictions that limited the number of students permitted to enter the country.
Following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, information about mass kill- ings and atrocities filtered into American news agencies but was given minimal attention. Reports were often relegated to the inner pages of newspapers or folded into general accounts of the war. Some periodicals, most notably The Nation and The New Republic, ran articles about the persecution of the Jews, as did some Catholic and Protestant publications.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency provided accurate coverage about Nazi atrocities to Jewish community newspapers. In San Antonio, information appeared in The Jewish Press, published by Jacob Riklin, and The Jewish Record.
HOW WE REACTED
Indifference and Involvement
“We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the U.S.. . . by simply advising our counsels to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence, to resort to various administrative devices which would post- pone and postpone and postpone the granting of visas.”Breckinridge Long, Assistant Secretary of State, 1940.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Although most American Jews viewed Roosevelt as a friend, he took few specific measures to come to the aid of European Jewry. Periodically, he condemned Nazi persecution but ignored pleas to offer haven to refugees. Jewish leaders who petitioned him to take bolder action were told that the only way to save Jews was through victory in the war.
Although his response may have reflected the anti-Semitic attitude of his time, Roosevelt was undoubtedly impacted by the political climate. Faced with isolationism in Congress and general hostility to Jews, Roosevelt made few moves that might jeopardize him politically. His reluctance to act had dire consequences, but must be viewed against the backdrop of his successful wartime presidency. He recognized the Nazi threat long before other American leaders, bolstered the British when they were near defeat and prepared the country for war despite strong opposition. According to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the Nazis might well have triumphed had it not been for Roosevelt’s bold leadership.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt cared deeply about the tragedy of Europe’s Jews. She became an activist for increased immigration, but never publicly challenged her husband’s policies.
In 1938 with political pressure growing from both anti- and pro-immigration factions, President Roosevelt convened an international conference in Evian, France to address the growing refugee crisis. Delegates from 32 nations expressed sympathy, but with few exceptions, were unwilling to offer sanctuary. The United States agreed only to fill its regular quotas. Britain matched the American offer but refused to increase the number of Jews allowed to settle in Palestine. The failure at Evian did not go unnoticed. Realizing that the rest of the world was indifferent, the Nazis felt justified in their anti-Jewish policies.
The Wagner-Rogers Child Refugee Bill
In the spring of 1939, New York Senator Robert Wagner and Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts introduced legislation calling for an extra quota admission of 20,000 Jewish children over a two-year period. Immigration opponents were successful in blocking the legislation despite support from both parties, humanitarian groups, organized labor, clergy, newspapers, and prominent civic leaders. Some opponents argued that child refugees would place a burden on the government and result in a reduction of services for American children. Others argued that the U.S. should not become a dumping ground for minorities who could never become loyal Americans. A year later, a proposal to allow British children to enter the United States was greeted with enthusiasm.
Emergency Rescue Committee
Varian Fry, an American editor at The New Republic, volunteered to go to Vichy, France in 1940 on behalf of the New York based Emergency Rescue Committee, an organization launched by a group of concerned Americans to help Jewish intellectuals and renowned artists and writers escape Vichy, France.
For one year, Fry directed clandestine operations that resulted in the rescue of 1,500 Jews and provided support for 2,500 others. The government refused to renew his passport, forcing Fry to return to the United States. He continued to write about the impending massacre of the Jews, and became an outspoken advocate for increased Jewish immigration.
Harry Bingham IV, a member of the U.S. Diplomatic Service, was posted to Marseilles, France in 1939. Although the State Department ordered him to block immigration applications, Bingham granted over 2,500 visas to refugees, many of them Jewish. He sheltered Jews in his home, obtained forged identity papers that helped them escape Europe, and contributed to their expenses out of his own pocket. Viewed as a maverick by his superiors, he was eventually forced out of the diplomatic corps.
James G. McDonald, the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, recognized the threat Nazism posed to Jews and the free world after he met with Adolf Hitler in 1933. He addressed his concerns directly to President Roosevelt and the Vatican and later served on the President’s Advisory Committee for Political Refugees. An early advocate for the establishment of the State of Israel, McDonald was the first U.S. Ambassador to the Jewish State.
THE TURNING POINT
Response to Genocide
“Visas! We began to live visas day and night. When we were awake, we were obsessed by visas. We talked about them all the time. Exit visas. . . entrance visas. Where could we go? During the day we tried to get the proper documents, approvals, stamps. At night in bed we tossed about and dreamed about long lines, officials, visas, visas, visas. . .”
In August 1942, American diplomats received the first confirmation of the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews from Dr. Gerhart Riegner, the World Jewish Congress representative in Switzerland. Although the State Department tried to suppress the information, American Jewish leaders learned about it from colleagues in Britain. Finding sanctuary for Jewish refugees became an urgent priority. Zionist groups pressured Britain to permit settlement in Palestine, while others sought relaxation of American immigration restrictions.
In March 1943, eight mainstream Jewish organizations created the Joint Emergency Committee on European Affairs (JEC), which sponsored A Day of Mourning and Prayer in the United States and in 29 other countries. The JEC urged the president and congress to implement plans for rescue and sponsor a high-level conference on the Jewish crisis.
When news of the mass murder of the Jews was released, leaders in Britain and the United States were pressured to take action. A meeting between representatives of both governments was convened in Bermuda in April 1943. Jewish organizations were not permitted to attend. Ostensibly, the purpose of the meeting was to develop a plan to save those Jews who had not yet been sent to camps and gas chambers, but the true purpose was to forestall any action. Representatives of both countries decided that any at- tempt to save Jews might result in an unwelcome flood of refugees. After twelve days, they issued a weak statement and referred immigration issues to the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees, a nearly defunct organization.
The Bermuda Conference was a victory for State Department opponents of Jewish immigration, and for the British Foreign Office. For Jewish leaders desperately seeking a way to rescue the last remnant of European Jewry, the conference was a disastrous failure.
Rabbi Stephen Wise, an ardent Zionist and activist, was the first Jewish leader in the U.S. to be officially notified of the “Final Solution.” At the request of the government, he did not disseminate the information immediately. When the news became public, he met with government officials to urge action and planned massive protests that attracted thousands of people. As the head of the American Jewish Congress, he organized the “Stop Hitler Now” demonstration in New York City that attracted 75,000 people to hear speeches by labor leaders and other non-Jewish groups. Although Wise was a tireless advocate for European Jewry, his loyalty to President Roosevelt ultimately inhibited his willingness to take bold positions on critical immigration issues.
The Bergson Group
Peter Bergson, a resident of Jerusalem whose real name was Hillel Kook, came to the United States to raise support for a Jewish army in Palestine to fight with Allied troops against the Nazis. In 1942, when he learned about the extermination of Jews, Bergson redirected his efforts to rescue. Unwilling to work behind the scenes, Bergson and his supporters placed ads in more than 200 newspapers and lobbied Congress for American intervention on behalf of Hitler’s victims. As a result, Congress introduced a resolution recommending the establishment of an agency to rescue refugees fleeing the Nazis. In 1943, in response to a report that the Romanian government was prepared to ship 70,000 Jews to a safe haven as long as the Allies covered the expense, the Bergson group took out an attention- grabbing advertisement. Under the shocking headline FOR SALE TO HUMANITY 70,000 JEWS, GUARANTEED HUMAN BEINGS AT $50 A PIECE, the group demanded that the United Nations “immediately appoint an inter- governmental committee” to devise plans to end the Holocaust.
The Bergson Group staged a pageant in cities across the country. We Will Never Die attracted more than 100,000 people, including some government officials. Bergson drew support from many prominent Americans including Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Bob Hope, Groucho and Harpo Marx, Paul Robeson, and Walt Disney.
Bergson’s overall strategy to attract public attention aroused strong opposition from the Jewish establishment. Wary of anything that might inflame anti-Semitism or anger Roosevelt, main- stream Jewish leaders tried to discredit Bergson. Discouraged but undeterred, he continued to speak out and attract support from many Americans. His campaign led to the Rabbi’s March on Washington, in October 1943, the only public demonstration held in Washington during the war. Four hundred Orthodox rabbis met on the steps of the Capitol to read a petition imploring the government to save European Jews. Roosevelt declined an invitation to meet with them.
The forceful activities of Bergson’s Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe were partially responsible for Roosevelt’s establishment of the War Refugee Board in 1944. It also influenced the British who agreed to allow The Jewish Brigade in Palestine, a unit of 5,000 Jews, to serve with the British army. After the war, Bergson turned his attention to Jewish statehood, drawing support from both Democratic and Republican leaders. The importance of Bergson’s achievements, unrecognized during his lifetime, is increasingly valued today.
American Zionism: The American Jewish Conference
In 1942, the British turned the Struma, a small ship carrying 769 Jews, away from Palestine. After a request for permission to land in Turkey was refused, the vessel was forced out into the open sea where it sank. All but one of the passengers died. The news brought outraged response from many Americans.
The sinking of the Struma and the failure of the Bermuda Conference strengthened the resolve of American Zionist leaders who believed that the establishment of a Jewish state in the ancient homeland held out the only hope of Jewish survival.
In August 1943, determined to strengthen their influence, Zionist organizations united to sponsor the American Jewish Conference in New York City, an event that attracted 500 delegates and thousands of spectators. Controversy arose between those who wanted to press the British to increase Jewish immigration to Pales- tine immediately and those who wanted to delay refugee efforts until after the war. Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver delivered a message that swayed the delegates to adopt a resolution stressing post-war plans for a Jewish state. He emerged from the conference as the voice of the American Zionist movement.
British White Paper
During World War I, Britain pledged to create a Jewish state, but failed to do so after the League of Nations granted them a mandate for Palestine in 1922. Despite opposition from Arab leaders, Jews continued to settle there, enlarging an already established community.
In 1939, bowing to Arab pressure and violence, Britain issued a White Paper limiting the number of Jews permitted to enter Palestine to 50,000 over a period of five years. No further immigration was to be allowed.
To European Jews who viewed Palestine as their only hope of sanctuary, the White Paper was a bitter blow. Thousands attempted to enter illegally. If apprehended, they were arrested.
After World War II, the British continued to deny legal immigration to Holocaust survivors.
The United Nations War Crimes Commission (WCC)
In 1942, at the urgent request of Jewish leadership, the British and U.S. governments led efforts to establish the WCC to collect evidence to be used in post-war trials of Nazis and their collaborators. Lack of cooperation among participating countries, and lack of support from the State Department hindered the effectiveness of the commission. Nonetheless, top Nazi leaders were brought to trial after the war on three charges: crimes against humanity, war crimes, and conspiracy to commit war crimes. None
of the indictments referred explicitly to crimes against Jews.
War Refugee Board (WRB)
In early January 1944, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. presented a report to President Franklin Roosevelt charging the State Department with suppressing information about the Holocaust and using its power to impede the rescue of Jews.
With Congress on the verge of passing the Rescue Resolution recommending action to save the remaining Jews, Roosevelt established the WRB. On paper, the WRB was given impressive powers and was promised the cooperation of other government agencies. In practice, it received inadequate funding and very little sup- port. As a result, the WRB was funded in large part by American Jews.
Led by John Pehle, the WRB focused its rescue efforts primarily on Hungarian Jews. The operation included evacuation from Nazi- occupied areas and identification of safe sites in neutral countries. Some false identity papers were secured with the help of Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, who later became Pope John XXIII.
With the help of The Joint Distribution Committee, the WRB attempted to supply food to prisoners in Nazi camps through the Red Cross and provided funds for Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat credited with saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews.
The WRB succeeded in rescuing approximately 200,000 people. Overturning State Department policies, Pehle instructed all U.S. embassies and consulates to take action to pre- vent the deportation of Jews to Nazi extermination camps. His determination and dedication to saving human lives was not recognized until 2006 when he was awarded a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal for his rescue work.
When the Nazis occupied Hungary in 1944, deportation of Jews to Nazi camps began immediately. At the urging of the War Refugee Board, President Roosevelt issued a statement, warning the Hungarian government that citizens who participated in Nazi atrocities would be held responsible after the war. In response, the Hungarian head of state offered to allow emigration of Jewish children under the age of ten who had exit visas and Jews of all ages who had certificates to Palestine. The British and American governments delayed their response for 30 days. When they finally agreed to accept responsibility for finding safe haven, it was too late. The Nazis had blocked all points of exit. Seventy thousand children who might have been saved were lost.
Emergency Refugee Camp in Oswego, New York
The Allied invasion of Italy in 1943 opened a new escape route for refugees, making it imperative to find shelter for those who could flee. Several countries offered to admit them as temporary guests. With public opinion decidedly in favor of rescue, President Franklin Roosevelt announced the opening of an emergency camp to receive refugees at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York on June 1, 1944. Because government assistance was inadequate, dozens of Jewish and non-Jewish organizations provided essential services. The refugees were supposed to return to their homes when the war was over, but President Harry Truman, defying political opposition, permitted them to remain in the United States.
RESCUING THE FUTURE
Organized Efforts to Save Refugees
“I always remember my reaction to the Statue of Liberty. . .While I didn’t know much about it, I heard people say, ‘That’s the entrance to the promised land.’”
Nida Lederk Remer
German Jewish Children’s Aid (GJCA)
“The problem was not one of getting out – the problem all of us faced was to find a country that would let us in.”
Richard Schifter, U.S. diplomat rescued by GJCA
Within weeks of assuming power in 1933, the Nazis issued a series of anti-Semitic decrees that effectively banished German Jews from public life. As a crescendo of repression and violence swept through Germany, American Jewish organizations turned their attention to the plight of Jewish children. Believing the United States would look more favorably upon juvenile refugees than adults, the American Jewish Congress, B’nai Brith, and American Jewish Committee created the German Jewish Children’s Aid in 1934 to facilitate the rescue of more than a thousand children.
After months of difficult negotiations, the government agreed children could enter the country under the regular immigration quota system provided they were placed in supervised foster homes, attended school to the age of 16, and were not gainfully employed until that age. By American law, children could only be placed with families of their own religion. The GJCA was required to post bonds for the children so they would not become dependent on public aid, arrange for payment of their travel expenses to the United States, and care for them after arrival. Cecilia Razovsky, a social worker who had vast immigration experience, was appointed GJCA director. She was assisted by Lotte Marcuse who coordinated the rescue operation with Kate Rosenheim, her counterpart at the Children’s Section of the Central Organization of German Jews in Berlin.
The first group of nine boys arrived in 1934. Although the GJCA tried to minimize press coverage, stories about the children appeared in the newspapers and the rescue operation came under immediate attack from immigration foes.
The GJCA faced many obstacles. There were few families willing to take refugee children into their homes, but even those who were eager to help faced stumbling blocks. By law, foster homes had to be able to provide a separate bed for each child and no more than two children were permitted to share a bedroom. With the United States in the throes of an economic crisis, many families did not qualify. Appeals to eligible families through Jewish publications and synagogues could have been fruitful, but they were ruled out because of fear of an anti-Semitic backlash.
Because funding proved to be a problem for GJCA, the National Council of Jewish Women assumed much of the financial responsibility for the organization, underwriting operating expenses and providing subsidies for foster families. Over $200,000 was collected from local sections including the one in San Antonio for the project. In addition, NCJW members throughout the country welcomed children assigned to their communities and checked on their welfare regularly. Even after 1941, when financial responsibility for the children was shifted to the National Refugee Service, NCJW members continued to provide money and services for children.
By the spring of 1938, 351 children had been settled in the United States, but events unfolding in Europe brought the refugee issue into sharper focus. The Nazi occupation of Austria and the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, the deportation of thousands of Polish Jews from Germany, the abysmal failure of the Evian refugee conference, and Kristallnacht created a new sense of urgency that further intensified when World War II began in September 1939.
The number and scope of Jewish and non- Jewish organizations dealing with refugee children increased during this period. Anti-immigration forces remained strong, but prominent Americans, including Eleanor Roosevelt, began to support rescue efforts. As a result, American public opinion regarding refugees, particularly children, began to soften somewhat.
Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, a strong advocate for liberalization of immigration quotas, was an effective ally in the rescue of children.
Resettling children who had been separated from their parents required great skill and cooperation. European organizations worked with their American counterparts to identify safe routes and transportation. From 1939- 1945, children reached the United States from England, France, Italy, Portugal, Holland, and Sweden. A few came through Japan and Siberia to San Francisco.
Although many of the first children who arrived were traumatized by the separation from their parents, little time was spent helping them acclimate to their new lives. They were sent almost immediately to assigned foster homes. Children who came later were often badly scarred by wartime experiences and the perilous flight from Europe. Some arrived undernourished and in need of medical care. In contrast to earlier arrivals, they were given time to recover and adjust to the new situation before they were assigned to foster homes.
United Jewish Appeal (UJA)
American Jews created the UJA in 1939 to coordinate fundraising efforts for rescue activities in Europe. Every community, including San Antonio, was asked to contribute.
Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)
A significant portion of the money collected by UJA was funneled to the JDC, which was founded in 1914 to provide overseas relief and rehabilitation. The organization began to help German Jews soon after Hitler took power. It later smuggled food and other supplies into ghettos and camps in Eastern Europe and worked with proxy organizations to provide for Jews who were sheltered in neutral countries.
The JDC also became the hub for Jewish underground activity and armed resistance. Funded entirely by Jewish philanthropy, the “Joint” provided more aid to Jews during the Nazi era than all world governments combined.
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)
The JDC worked with HIAS to help thousands of adult Jewish refugees secure passage to the United States and other safe havens. It also provided strong financial support for the rescue of Jewish children.
The Vaad ha-Hatzala was established in 1939 by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada to rescue rabbinic leaders and faculties and students of Eastern European Talmudic academies. It succeeded in finding refuge for 625 Polish rabbis, students, and their families in Shanghai. Approximately 125 were subsequently permitted to emigrate to the United States. The Vaad also supported Polish Jews who had fled to the Soviet Union by providing them with food, clothing, and cash.
Oeuvre de Secours des Enfants (OSE or OZE)
The OSE, a Jewish health organization founded in 1912 in Russia, moved its headquarters from Berlin to Paris after Hitler came to power. The agency operated children’s homes and clinics in Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. During the 1930s the OSE offered respite and security to Jewish children from Germany and Eastern Europe at summer camps.
After the German invasion of Poland, OSE was active in combating famine and the spread of disease in the ghettos. Operating in Southern France, OSE created shelters for Jewish children whose parents had been deported to Auschwitz and placed thousands in non-Jewish homes where they were safe. OSE, which was partially funded by the Joint Distribution Committee, was later instrumental in bringing children to the United States from southern France.
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)
“Even from today’s perspective, the real problem was one of choice. Who to save. . . there were so many children. How much time to spendAllen Bonnell, AFSC
on one case when you knew it meant sacrificing another.”
The AFSC helped bring 300 children to the
Unites States from Europe in 1941 and 1942.
Most of them were Jewish. Widely respected as a
relief organization, the AFSC had contacts in the
United States and Europe that helped surmount
formidable challenges in securing American
visas, dealing with the governments of Germany and Austria and providing temporary shelter for children as they traveled through France, Spain, and Portugal. The AFSC worked closely with the JDC and the U.S. Committee for the Care of Refugee Children.
“It is probably a matter of life and death for many of these children, and if this project is to be completed it must be done immediately. Changes in the situation here might make it too late at any time. I cannot too strongly emphasize the necessity for speed.”Howard Kershner, AFSC, Marseilles, France
National Coordinating Committee (NCC) The NCC was established in 1934 as an umbrella organization representing Jewish and non-sectarian agencies that were active in assisting refugees from Germany. Originally, NCC provided only English lessons and vocational services but later expanded its range of activities to create a resettlement division.
National Refugee Service (NRS)
Formed in 1939 following a merger of the NCC and the Greater New York Committee on Refugees, the NRS was affiliated with 25 other refugee assistance organizations. Funding for NRS was provided by the United Jewish Appeal.
United States Committee for the Care of European (Refugee) Children (USC)
Established in 1940 to ease resettlement of British children in the United States, the USC later aided children from other countries. Most of them were Jewish. The USC was supported by many prominent Americans and became one of the most influential refugee agencies in the U.S.
The British initiated the Kinderstransport program in 1938, accepting 20,000 unaccompanied children from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. Financial support for the British rescue effort came from Jewish and Quaker welfare organizations. The British government refused a request to allow 21,000 additional children into Palestine. Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, and France also welcomed Jewish children.
IN SAN ANTONIO
One City’s Example
“The sum of $60,000, which has been set as our goal for San Antonio on the (1941 UJA) campaign sounds pitifully inadequate to me. This community and the other Jewish com- munities of America should raise $100,000,000 and even more for the relief of refugees and set before themselves as a sacred task the bigger job of emptying Europe of every last Jew who is in distress, and finding havens of refuge for them wherever possible in the world.”Excerpt of letter to congregants from Rabbi Ephraim Frisch, Temple Beth-El
Beginning in 1933, Rabbi Ephraim Frisch addressed civic and church groups in the city about the developing crisis in Europe. He brought in national speakers to alert members of the Jewish community to their responsibilities and became a voice of conscience in the community.
Help for Incoming Immigrants
Jewish immigrants arriving in the United States were in dire need of help. National organizations assigned incoming refugees to communities throughout the country and local coordinating committees were created to help the newcomers. Jewish Social Service Federations and other groups provided a broad range of services including temporary shelter, financial aid, medical care, and language classes. They also offered job-training programs and helped the newcomers find employment.
Demands on Jewish agencies, already stretched thin by the effects of the Depression, created problems that were overshadowed by the need to settle refugees quickly. Resettlement was not always smooth. Those who left families in Europe had to cope with anxiety and grief as they struggled to adapt to American life.
San Antonio Jewish Social Services Federation (SAJSSF)
The Board of the SAJSSF, chaired by Hannah Hirschberg, took on the challenges and obligations of resettlement.
Excerpts from Federation Meetings 1933-1945
December 27, 1934 Mr. J.D. Oppenheimer made a motion that San Antonio accept through the National Coordinating Committee (NCC) one male German refugee. Motion seconded and carried.
March 26, 1935 Miss Hirschberg referred to a letter that has been received from the German Jewish Children’s Aid, Inc., asking for an appropriation of $150.00. The motion was made by Mr. Morris Stern to contribute $150.00. Motion seconded and carried.
October 5, 1937 Motion to hear Cecilia Razovsky, Co-director of German Jewish Children’s Aid on October 12th in San Antonio.
November 22, 1937 A motion was made by Mrs. J.M. Frost to consider taking one German- Jewish family. Motion seconded and carried.
April 7, 1938 A letter was read from the NCC requesting a donation. Mr. J.D. Oppenheimer moved we appropriate $500.00 from our Special Donation Fund, it being an emergency at this time. Motion seconded and carried.
July 6, 1939 The placement of refugees was discussed. Mr. J.D. Oppenheimer suggested a committee of ten be appointed to find employment for the 22 units which are to come. The president announced he would appoint a committee.
January 3, 1940 . . .letter from the German Children’s Aid in regard to the placement of children in San Antonio was read. This was referred to the Council of Jewish Women as it is their project.
June 5, 1940 A letter was read from the National Refugee Service asking the Federation to continue receiving two units monthly. A motion was made by J.D. Oppenheimer that we accept our two units a month from the National Refugee Service, if possible. Motion carried.
Because units referred to either families or individuals, there is no way to determine the exact number of refugees who were settled in San Antonio.
Families Who Accepted Children
Foster homes for refugee children were carefully chosen in advance of their arrival. Rigid standards were set for the homes in which children were placed. Poorer families were sometimes disqualified because they could not provide adequate accommodations. Host communities were responsible for checking the children periodically to monitor their needs and their adjustment to new circumstances. The National Council of Jewish Women accepted that assignment.
Families who agreed to take refugee children into their homes accepted enormous responsibilities. The children were often traumatized by the separation from their parents and suffered anxiety about their well-being. Adjustment to a new way of life was not always easy or smooth.
Of the more than 1,000 children brought to the United States by the GJCA, two girls found homes with families in San Antonio.
“Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Meyer and the whole family are wonderful to me and look for every- thing to help me.”Rosa Ledermann Horowitz
When Jacob and Golda Ledermann learned that it might be possible to send one of their children to safety in the United States, they quickly registered their older daughter, Rosa with an agency in Berlin. Their son Franz had already gone into hiding. His whereabouts were unknown. Although the Ledermanns were unable to pay for her passage, Rosa’s application was approved. She said good-bye to her parents and sister Margot in Hamburg and joined 12 other children and a GJCA chaperone on the U.S.S. Manhattan.
Rosa was 12 years old when she arrived in New York City on February 22, 1938. Only hours later, with an identifying tag on her clothes, she boarded a train to San Antonio to meet Meyer and Sylvia Kahn who had agreed to open their home to her. Rosa spoke no English.
From the beginning, the Kahns welcomed Rosa into their family circle and treated her as a daughter. She adapted to American life quickly, determined to learn to speak English well. She attended Paige Junior High School and graduated from Jefferson High School.
Several times, the family initiated efforts to bring Rosa’s younger sister Margot to the U.S., but they were unsuccessful. Rosa continued to write to her parents, believing the family would one day be reunited. It was not to be. Her father was arrested and sent to the Sachenshausen concentration camp where he died. Her mother, sister, and older brother Franz perished in Poland. The last letter Rosa wrote to them was returned unopened.
Although the Kahns never formally adopted Rosa, she assumed their surname. Her ties to the family were further strengthened when Rosa married Meyer’s nephew, Daniel David Horowitz, in 1946.
Two years later the young couple moved to Corpus Christi where they raised two sons, Jerome and Gary.
Alice Schoen Schwartz
“They saved our lives and I will be grateful for- ever.”
When Abe and Bella Rosenberg heard that homes were needed for Jewish children seeking refuge in the United States, they volunteered to accept Alice Schoen from Kassel, Germany into their family.
Alice, age 14, said good-bye to her parents in Germany on May 2, 1938. Twenty-six days later, she arrived in San Antonio, Texas to meet the Rosenbergs.
“Having Alice changed my life. I might have grown up with materialistic ideas, but none of that matters if you can’t live in your home. I learned what is really important in life.”
Miriam Rosenberg Sobel, 2008
Although she understood little English, there was no mistaking the warmth of the Rosenbergs’ greeting. The whole family was there to meet her when she stepped off the train. They took her into their lives as if she were a long lost relative.
The Rosenberg children, Miriam and Stanley, and a host of aunts, uncles, and cousins who treated her with affection and kindness made her adjustment to a new life easier. Alice learned English quickly, was enrolled in Jefferson High School as a sophomore, and attended classes at Congregation Agudas Achim. Her life assumed the normalcy of an American teenager but she constantly worried about her family in Germany. She turned to the Rosenbergs for help. They applied for a visa for Alice’s father and signed affidavits pledging financial support for him. Six months later he arrived, settled in New York with a relative, and found work.
The Rosenbergs helped him apply for immigration papers for Alice’s mother and two brothers. They were able to board one of the last ships to depart Germany before World War II began.
Soon after graduating from high school, Alice moved to New York to help support her family. Her affection for Abe and Bella Rosenberg remained strong. She credits them for saving her and her entire family. Alice remained in New York City and married Albert Schwartz, a survivor. They have raised three daughters, twins Barbara and Frances, and Arlene.
Two More Children Rescued by the GJCA Later Settled in San Antonio
Madeleine Liebmann Wolf
Madeleine Liebmann, one of the 1,000 children who found safe haven in the United States, left Berlin in 1940 at the age of 14 to live with distant relatives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Her parents and brother escaped to the Soviet Union, traveling across Siberia to Kobe, Japan. Eventually they found refuge in Ecuador. Madeleine met native Texan Raymond Wolf in Har- risburg while he was in the U.S. Military. They married in 1944 and lived in Harlingen and Brownsville for 40 years where they raised three children. They moved to San Antonio in 1983.
Renee May Pomper
Renee May was 12 years old when she arrived at Ellis Island with seven other children. Representatives of the National Council of Jewish Women met them.
Renee was sent to a foster home in Delaware. Unhappy with her relationship to her assigned family, Renee was moved to a more compatible home in New York City. She went to school and worked to save money to bring her family to the U.S. They arrived just before the Nazis halted all emigration. Renee’s parents settled in New York in time to attend her high school graduation. Sometime after college, Renee married Curt Pomper, also a German refugee. They had two children. After her husband died, Renee moved to San Antonio.
Others who came were sponsored by area residents. The list is incomplete. There were many more.
Sonja Liwschitz Goldberg, Ruth Liwschitz Goldberg, and Werner (Liwschitz) Lewis
Sponsor: Clara Schwartz
Because they held Russian and Romanian passports, Celia and Gregor Liwschitz were un- able to emigrate from Germany to the United States, but when an aunt, Clara Schwartz of San Antonio, offered to sponsor their children in 1940, they accepted. After a few years in New York City with other relatives, the three siblings moved here to join Clara and her daughter, Mary Planto. Werner, who changed his surname to Lewis, served in the U.S. Army and Navy. Sonja and Ruth married brothers David and Israel Goldberg and raised their children in San Antonio. The Liwschitz parents died in Bergen Belsen.
Sponsor: Julius Seligman
Gerd Miller and his parents immigrated to the United States from Nazi Germany in May 1938. A cousin, Julius Seligman of Seguin, who agreed to accept responsibility for the family un- til they could become self-supporting, sponsored them. Deeply concerned about the worsening conditions in Germany, the Millers immediately began to explore ways to obtain immigration pa- pers for family members who where left behind. With the help of Harry Freeman, they were able to bring an aunt, uncle, and cousin into this country.
Gerd finished high school in Seguin in 1939,
and was inducted into the Army Air Corps in
1942. Because he was fluent in German, he was
assigned to military intelligence. He participated
in the liberation of the Dachau and Mauthausen
concentration camps and was then posted to
Heidelberg, Germany where he helped assemble
evidence for Nazi war crimes trials. Gerd left the
army in 1945 to return to San Antonio where
he married, raised a family, and established the Miller Curtain Company.
Erika and Bruno Rachmann
Sponsor: Julius and Louis Lauterstein
Erika Smoliansky left Germany with her family in 1939, a few months before World War II began. They booked passage on a boat to Shanghai where they were forced to live in an impoverished refugee district. It was there she met her future husband Bruno Rachmann, also a refugee from Germany. When the war was over, Erika contacted relatives in San Antonio, Julius and Louis Lauterstein. With their help, Erika and Bruno were able to immigrate to the United States in 1947.
The Scharlack Family Rescues Twenty
Meyer and Mary Scharlack and son Louis were instrumental in helping over twenty people immigrate to the United States during the 1930s and ‘40s. Among the rescued were Hugo and Blanka Scharlack and their children Ruth, Ellen, and Alex.
Others included Max and Recha Scharlack and four daughters, Joseph and Mata Zobel and two sons, Sophie and Frieda Zobel, Lena Hirsch, Louis Arbetter, Margaret Jacobson and three daughters and two Richmond brothers.
Sponsors: Milton and Sidney Kline
Max Stern was 32 years old when he left Germany to come to the United States in 1938. His cousins Milton and Sidney Kline, residents of San Antonio, had secured his visa with signed affidavits guaranteeing the immigration authori- ties that Stern would not become dependent on government aid. Stern worked for the Klines in their downtown department store until his retirement thirty-three years later. He was able to bring his 15-year-old cousin to this country. The Nazis killed his aunt and another cousin. Stern married Evelyn Passur and they had one son, Paul Stern of Houston.
Max and Hedy Weissman
Sponsor: Nat Goldsmith
Max and Hedy Weissman were refugees from Germany. Their sponsor, Nat Goldsmith, was active on the board of the Jewish Social Service Federation. The Weissmans established a resi- dence in San Antonio and remained here for the rest of their lives.
First Symphony Director
“Until we hear a better symphony, we shall call San Antonio’s the finest developed in this part of the country.”
John Rosenfield, The Dallas Morning News
Max Reiter, a young symphony conductor from Italy, arrived in New York in 1938, to find the city already crowded with fine musicians who had fled Europe. Advised that no positions would be available to him there, Reiter traveled through the South, seeking a community that might want to establish a new symphony orchestra. He met with no success until he reached Waco, Texas, where he was given an opportunity to give a concert at Baylor University. The performance was a triumph. News of his musicianship soon reached San Antonio and a small group of local music lovers traveled to Waco to offer Reiter a position here.
Faced with the monumental challenge of creating the city’s first orchestra, Reiter threw himself into the assignment with vigor and determination. Within months, the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra gave its first performance at the Sunken Garden Theater with 2,500 people in attendance. In the years that followed, Reiter built one of the finest orchestras in the country. In 1945, Newsweek rated the San Antonio Sym- phony among the top 18 in the country.
Reiter took the orchestra on tour, staged an annual opera festival and created a “Music for Youth” program that brought students from first grade through college to monthly concerts de- signed to stimulate their interest and build future audiences.
The refugee who had not been welcomed in Nazi-dominated Europe brought music to unprecedented heights in San Antonio. During his 12th season with the orchestra, Max Reiter suffered a heart attack following a concert he had conducted in San Marcos. He died a week later at the age of 45.
A Texas Legend
Lyndon Baines Johnson
“I wouldn’t be here today, if it weren’t for your husband. He helped me get out.”
Spoken to Lady Bird Johnson at the dedication of Agudas Achim, Houston
Even before he was elected to Congress in 1937, Lyndon Johnson recognized the menace posed by the Nazi party and was concerned about the persecution of the Jews. His first opportunity to act came during his freshman year in the House of Representatives when he opposed legislation calling for the deportation of illegal aliens, among them many Jews.
A year later, Johnson came to the aid of Erich Leinsdorf, a brilliant Jewish musician who was in the United States on a temporary visa. When Johnson learned that Leinsdorf would be forced to return to Nazi-occupied Austria, he arranged temporary refuge for him in Cuba and later secured papers that allowed Leinsdorf to enter the U.S.
In 1939, when Johnson’s friend Jim Novy, an Austin businessman, went to Poland to visit family, he carried with him blank visas provided by Johnson, who then prevailed upon American diplomats in Warsaw to approve the unofficial visas. As a result, 42 Jews reached the U.S. safely.
With the State Department blocking Jewish immigration, Johnson allegedly found temporary haven for hundreds of European Jews in Cuba, Mexico, and South American countries while he obtained papers granting them entry through the Port of Galveston. The National Youth Administration, an organization set up during the Depression to provide assistance and training to young Americans, housed the refugees in Texas, according to unconfirmed reports. Funding for the secret operation was said to have come from contributions from Jim and Louis Novy and the Joint Distribution Committee.
One known incident illustrates Johnson’s ability to accomplish what others were not willing to consider. Johnson was running for Congress when Sam Toubin asked for help in getting his brother Milton into the United States. Milton, who had fled from Lithuania to Cuba, was stranded. None of his petitions to enter the country had been successful until LBJ became involved. Within a short period of time, the two brothers were reunited. Milton settled in El Campo, Texas.
Johnson’s aid to Jewish refugees was ac- knowledged for the first time in 1963 at the dedication of Congregation Agudas Achim in Austin, when Jim Novy spoke movingly about Johnson’s rescue efforts. Johnson did not deny the story. His wife Lady Bird, who was with him at the dedication, later said that person after person plucked at her sleeve that day to say that her husband had saved their lives.
Although some of his rescue efforts have not yet been officially substantiated, those that have been confirmed establish Lyndon Baines Johnson as a man of compassion and ingenuity. While other politicians carefully tailored their refugee policies to avoid conflict with prevailing anti-immigration sentiments in the country, LBJ acted unilaterally to keep the doors to freedom open.
Resilience and Continuity
“Furthermore, when the war came to its end I learned that the governments, the leaders, the scholars, the writers did not know what had been happening to the Jews. . .The murder of six million innocents was a secret. . .the second original sin has been committed by humanity: through commission or omission or self-imposed ignorance or insensitivity, or hypocrisy, or heartless rationalization.”Jan Karski, Polish diplomat, rescuer, Righteous Gentile
Without a Place to Go
The defeat of Germany ended Nazi terror in Europe. Jews liberated from concentration camps and hiding places found themselves in an unfamiliar world, often without homes or family. Stateless and without political influence, approximately 250,000 were held in displaced persons (DP) camps located in former concen- tration camps, Germany army barracks and prisoner of war camps. Within the DP camps, food was scarce and living quarters were crowded and inadequate. The situation improved after President Harry Truman intervened.
Traumatized and in poor health, most survivors refused to return to communities that had participated in their persecution or borne witness to it in silence. Some who attempted to return were greeted with violence and hostility. The British continued to block Jewish settlement in Palestine, the preferred destination for many survivors. There were numerous attempts to defy the British blockage. Fifty thousand succeeded, but thousands of others were turned back.
Approximately 37,000 survivors found homes in Belgium, France, Canada, Britain, and Latin America and thousands came to the United States after President Harry Truman opened the immi- gration quota in 1945 and again in 1948.
Approximately 140,000 made their way legally to the State of Israel after it was established in 1948.
Post War Efforts
American Jews played an important role in the resettlement of survivors. The United Jewish Appeal launched a campaign to raise $50 million to settle survivors in Israel. Fund drives were initiated by Jewish Federations in every community. The San Antonio Jewish Federation contributed its share of $200,000.
In addition, each organized Jewish community accepted a number of the survivors. Seventy-six were settled in San Antonio. Organizations and volunteers worked together to help the newcomers find employment and housing. Medical care, language training, and financial aid were provided as needed.
On January 17, 1947, the local Federation adopted a resolution supporting the resettlement of displaced persons. Members of the Board of Directors included William Sinkin, Jesse Oppenheimer, Gilbert Lang, Jake Karotkin, Nathan Trotter, and Frank Lichtenstein.
Fate of the One Thousand Children (OTC) Rescued by the GJCA
In the year following the end of the war, 200 children living in foster homes were reunited with parents who were admitted into the United States under post-war quotas. A few others were uprooted to join parents in Europe, Israel, and South America. Most learned that their parents had been killed.
Those who remained in America became loyal citizens, keenly aware of the advantages offered them. Some attended college, many served in the U.S. military and others achieved prominence in their chosen professions. Richard Schifter became an American diplomat and at least one, Jack Steinberger, became a Nobel Laureate.
The Sound of Silence
“In a time of moral crisis…silence is betrayal.”Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the face of death, Hitler’s victims must have wondered about the silence of the world. Where were the voices that should have been raised in protest? Where was the family of nations that might have intervened?
By 1941, the Nazi armies occupied most of Europe. Millions of Jews trapped in Nazi camps and ghettos were beyond the reach of Britain, the United States, or the Soviet Union. How- ever, hundreds of thousands were still free or in hiding. Finding asylum was their only hope. If immigration to America and Palestine had been allowed, they might have been saved. For the oppressed, the gates to freedom were firmly shut. American and British leaders insisted that no specific action to help Jews could be undertaken. Victory in the war, they said, was the only hope of Jewish deliverance.
The attention of the American people was firmly riveted on the war in Europe and the Pacific. Nearly everyone had family members serving overseas, many in perilous situations. For most Americans, Hitler’s war against the Jews seemed remote or even unbelievable. Yet, not everyone was complacent. Many reacted to reports of Nazi atrocities with outrage and compassion. They understood that the organized slaughter of an en- tire people, even though it was occurring far from our shores, challenged moral principles and laws that are fundamental to decency and our way of life. They joined American Jews in protest and supported humanitarian aid. Their efforts were a spark of light in an otherwise bleak landscape.
The United States must be recognized as the dominate force in the defeat of Nazi Germany, which was an existential priority. Without American leadership and sacrifice, Hitler may have been victorious. In the final analysis, this country saved civilization itself and in doing so, saved the Jews from extinction.
“. . .Send these, the homeless, tempest-toss’d to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”Emma Lazarus