Holocaust

The Event: Systematic attempt by Germany’s Nazi regime to exterminate European Jews

Date: Late 1930’s to mid-1940’s

Location: German-occupied European countries

Significance: During World War II and the years leading up to it, European Jews were the principal victims of German chancellor Adolf Hitler’s genocidal policies. Many fled eastern and western Europe, attempting to enter the United States.

Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis arriving in Belgium in June, 1939

Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis arriving in Belgium in June, 1939, after they were turned away from Cuba. More than one-quarter of the refugees eventually died in the Holocaust. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Between 1933, which saw the Nazis’ rise to power, and Germany’s 1945 surrender that ended World War II, more than 345,000 Jews emigrated from Germany and Austria. Many of them initially fled to countries that were later occupied by Germany, and these Jews subsequently left again or were murdered. Although about 85,000 Jewish refugees reached the United States between March, 1938, and September, 1939, far greater numbers were seeking refuge. However, when U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated in 1933, the United States was preoccupied with the challenges of the Great Depression—high unemployment and widespread social disillusionment—which contributed to public resistance to any relaxation of immigration quotas. Another factor in opposing specifically Jewish immigration was anti-Semitism. Anti-Jewish sentiment was on the rise during the 1920’s; it increased dramatically during the early 1930’s and reached its peak in America during the late 1930’s and early 1940’s.

Failed Attempts to Help the Jews

In 1939, the United States refused to admit more than 900 refugees who had sailed from Hamburg, Germany, on the SS St. Louis. After being turned away from Cuba, the ship appeared off the coast of Florida. After the United States denied it permission to land, the St. Louis returned to Europe. Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium each accepted some of the passengers as refugees. Of the ship’s 908 passengers, 254 are known to have died in the Holocaust. The event was widely publicized.

News of the true extent of the Holocaust began to reach the United States only in 1941—the year in the United States entered World War II. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of State placed even stricter limits on immigration due to national security concerns. The threat of enemy subversion during the war was a legitimate concern, but the State Department exaggerated the problem and used it as a reason for cutting in half the already small immigration quotas. In 1943, 400 Jewish rabbis marched on Washington, D.C., to draw attention to what was happening to Holocaust victims. Only a handful of politicians met with the marchers, but one of them, Senator William Warren Barbour of New Jersey, proposed legislation that would have permitted 100,000 Holocaust refugees to enter the United States temporarily. Barbour’s bill failed to pass, and another, similar bill, introduced in the House of Representatives by Representative Samuel Dickstein of New York, also failed to pass.

In 1944, President Roosevelt, pressured by government officials and the American Jewish community, took action. He established the War Refugee Board to facilitate the rescue of refugees in imminent danger. The American Joint Distribution Committee and the World Jewish Congress worked with the board to help rescue many thousands of Jews in Hungary, Romania, and other European nations. However, government funding for the board was so small that 91 percent of its work was funded by American Jewish organizations. The board conducted a monthlong campaign to persuade Roosevelt to offer temporary shelter to large numbers of refugees, but it yielded only one result. In the spring of that year, Roosevelt established Fort Ontario, New York, as a free port for refugees. However, only a few thousand were allowed to enter, and these were people from liberated countries who were under no immediate threat of deportation to Germany. Roosevelt’s response to Holocaust immigration was strongly influenced by political concerns. During an era of strong antiimmigration sentiment, any move to increase immigration might well have cost him votes in elections.

Change in Immigration Policies

Harry S. Truman, Roosevelt’s successor as president of the United States from 1945 to 1953, favored an immigration policy that was liberal toward displaced persons, but Congress failed to act on his proposals. On December 22, 1945, Truman issued an executive order, called the Truman Directive, requiring that existing immigration quotas be designated for displaced persons. Although total U.S. immigration figures did not increase, many more displaced persons were admitted to the United States. Between the end of 1945 and early 1947, about 22,950 displaced persons entered the United States under the new Truman Directive. About 16,000 of these refugees were Jewish.

Before existing immigration quotas could be increased, congressional action was necessary. Pressured intensely by lobbying on the part of the American Jewish community, Congress passed legislation in 1948 to admit about 400,000 displaced persons to the United States. Nearly 80,000 of those who arrived, or about 20 percent, were Jewish. Other immigrants included Christians from eastern Europe and the Baltic nations who had worked as forced laborers under the Nazi regime. American entry laws favored agricultural workers to such a degree, however, that Truman found the new law discriminatory to Jews, few of whom were agricultural workers. By the 1950’s, Congress amended the law, but by that time most of the Jewish displaced persons in Europe had entered the new state of Israel, which was established on May 14, 1948.

Thanks in large part to the influx of Jews during and after the Holocaust, the United States emerged as the largest and most culturally innovative Jewish center in the world after World War II. Smaller centers of Jewish population worldwide soon turned to the vigorous Jewish establishments in the United States for help and support. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, Jews in the United States had risen to leadership positions in government, the media, entertainment, popular culture, business, labor relations, law, and the arts.

Sheila Golburgh Johnson

Further Reading

  • Abzug, Robert H. America Views the Holocaust, 1933 to 1945: A Brief Documentary History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999. This book tries to shed light on such grave questions as what Americans knew about the Holocaust and how they responded as it unfolded. 
  • Breitman, Richard, and Alan M. Kraut. American Refugee Policies and European Jewry, 1933-1945. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Carefully documented study that argues that U.S. policy regarding the Holocaust was the product of preexisting restrictive immigration laws and the attitude of U.S. State Department leaders who were committed to a narrow defense of American interests. 
  • Novick, Peter. The Holocaust in American Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. Historical overview of American attitudes toward the Holocaust. A highly controversial book that argues against misuses of Holocaust history and tries to show how contemporary consciousness was formed by political conditions. 
  • Wyman, David S. The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945. New York: Pantheon, 1984. Contends that British and American political leaders turned down many proposals that could have saved European Jews from death in German concentration camps. 
  • _______. Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-1941. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1968. Study of the obstacles that the U.S. Congress erected to prevent the immigration of Jews during the Holocaust. 

See also: American Jewish Committee; Angloconformity; Anti-Semitism; Center for Immigration Studies; Congress, U.S.; Films; German immigrants; Jewish immigrants; Quota systems; Refugee Relief Act of 1953; Refugees; World War II.

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