City Church: Spirituality and Segregation in Gary

City Church, 1929, courtesy of Sometimes Interesting.

On the corner of Sixth Avenue and Washington Street stands a complex forged out of Indiana limestone. Plants creep through shattered windows, “UR MOM” is spray-painted across a balcony, and the scorched roof opens up into the heavens. The remains of Gary’s City Church represent very different things to onlookers. For some, they symbolize the unfulfilled promise of industrial utopia. For others like Olon Dotson, professor of Architecture and Planning at Ball State University and a Ph.D. candidate in Purdue University’s American Studies Program, “The remains of the structure serve as a monument to racism and segregation.” For most, it is simply the backdrop for a scene in Transformers 3. Few would disagree, however, that City Church embodies the rise and fall of Steel City.

The church’s history is as nuanced as the feelings its remains inspire. The First Methodist Episcopal Church of Gary, was established in 1906, the same year the United States Steel Corporation gave birth to the city. The company converted acres of swampland and sand dunes, and soon Gary—named after U.S. Steel founding chairman Elbert Henry Gary—found itself dominated by steel mills. The expanding market for steel shaped the city’s built environment and encouraged population growth there. Between 1906 and 1930, increasing numbers of European immigrants, Black Southerners, Mexicans, and white migrants flocked to the region looking for work in the steel industry.

Bulkhead end Main West sewer coke ovens at channel openings, Gary, Indiana, November 13, 1909, accessed U.S. Steel Gary Works Photograph Collection, 1906-1971.

Historian James B. Lane contended that “Because of U.S. Steel’s limited concept of town planning, two strikingly different Gary’s emerged: one neat and scenic, the other chaotic and squalid.” Businessmen, as well as skilled plant operators and managers, settled North of the Wabash Railroad tracks. They resided in Gary Land Company’s subdivisions among paved streets, quaint homes, and lush rows of trees. Northsiders relaxed in limestone restaurants and club rooms after a long day of work. The cost to live in this area precluded many newcomers, primarily African Americans and immigrants, from settling there. They instead lived on the Southside, often in tarpaper shacks, tents, and barracks that lacked ventilation. Lane noted that because the Gary Land Company largely neglected this area, landlords “took advantage of the housing shortage and absence of health regulations or building codes by charging inflated rents and selling property under fraudulent liens.” This marshy region, deemed the “Patch,” attracted “mosquitos, and the pestilential outhouses, unpaved alleys, damp cellars, and overcrowded dwellings were breeding grounds for typhoid, malaria, and tuberculosis.”

Polish children by settlement houses, Gary, Indiana, ca. 1915, Joan Hostetler Collection, accessed The Indiana Album.

Lane noted that immigrant families on the Southside organized into “shanty” communities, where they “stuck together but adjusted their old-world lifestyles to new circumstances.” Sometimes various ethnic and racial groups socialized, and even learned from one another, as Black residents taught immigrants English and vice versa. Lacking access to the opportunities and amenities of the Northside, rampant crime and vice arose as “laborers entered the omnipresent bars armed and ready to squeeze a few hours of action into their grim lives.” Segregated from its inception, Gary’s social construction ultimately resulted in its implosion.

Reverend William Seaman, accessed Flikr. This image also appears in The Gary Post-Tribune, October 1, 1926, 9.

In the burgeoning metropolis, the aforementioned First Methodist congregation met in local schools, businesses, and an abandoned factory before constructing a church on the corner of Adams Street and Seventh Avenue in 1912. With rapid socioeconomic and demographic change taking place in Gary, the church, under the vision of white pastor William Grant Seaman, initiated plans in 1917 to move into the heart of the city. A native of Wakarusa, Indiana, Seaman earned his B.A. from DePauw University and his Ph.D. from Boston University. After ministering and teaching in various states, the pragmatic pastor relocated to Steel City in 1916 at the request of Chicago Bishop Thomas Nicholson.

Seaman, nicknamed “Sunny Jim” for his disposition, contended that Gary’s Methodist church had an obligation to ease the challenges faced by the:

industrial worker . . . often suffering injustice;

the foreigners within our boundaries . . . They represent some fifty different race and language groups;

our brothers in black, coming from the Southland in a continuous stream;

our own white Americans, who come in large numbers from the village and the farm.

He noted that this ministry was especially important, given that many urban churches had relocated to Gary’s outskirts as the city grew more congested. According to historian James W. Lewis, Reverend Seaman felt “the modern city was plagued by a breakdown of traditional community and social control, resulting in an anonymous, mobile, materialistic, hedonistic population.” He therefore believed that it was the church’s responsibility “to develop programs which would provide some of the support, guidance, and satisfaction characteristic of traditional communities.”

Worker at Tin Mill, American Sheet and Tin Plate Co., January 28, 1921, accessed U.S. Steel Gary Works Photograph Collection, 1906-1971.

Compassionate and industrious, Seaman felt called to meet the “religious and creature-comfort need[s]” of the laborers and their families who poured “in great human streams through the gates of these mills.” However, his beliefs about the city’s newcomers, particularly the African American population, are problematic by today’s standards. He felt that white church leaders were best qualified to uplift the growing Black population, writing in 1920 that “colored people are very ignorant, and to a surprising degree morally undeveloped, and this fact is true of a very large number of their preachers.” Seaman justified the need for white leadership by citing rumors that Black-led denominations “are cultivating in their people a sense of being wronged.” Like Gary’s Stewart Settlement House (on which he served as a board member), Seaman’s intentions seem two-fold: to implement social control in a diversifying city and to provide humanitarian aid.

Lewis noted of Seaman and other white leaders:

Although their perception of the cause was often flawed and their service of it often mixed with other motives, their actions revealed their conviction that the church should be a prominent force for good, even in the modern city.

While Seaman held a paternalistic view of the Black community, his efforts to combat racism drew the ire of the Ku Klux Klan. Seaman opposed showing the film Birth of a Nation, which reinforced stereotypes about the supposed inherent savagery of African Americans. He also tried unsuccessfully to convince the Methodist Hospital to admit Black patients.

Top: Construction of City Methodist Church; (L) ceremony to lay the church cornerstone (R) Bishop Frederick D. Leete speaking at ceremony (Rev. Seaman sits in light hat), 1925, accessed DePauw University Archives.

The ambitious pastor quickly got to work, meeting with leaders of the Centenary of Methodist Missions and the U.S. Steel Corporation to drum up support for a downtown church. His lobbying paid off and both groups donated approximately $350,000 to build an “oasis” that would be open seven days a week. In October 1926, Seaman’s vision was realized when City Church—as the First Methodist Episcopal’s downtown church came to be called—opened to much fanfare. Reporters marveled at the ornate cathedral, which boasted of a social-educational unit, gymnasium, rooftop garden, tennis court, and community hall equipped with a “moving picture outfit” and modern stage. It also contained retail stores and a commercial cafeteria, which generated income for church expenses. This was necessary, Seaman said, because the downtown church ministered to groups having fewer resources with which to support the sanctuary.

Although Sunny Jim sought inclusivity, records indicate that the congregation remained white until the church’s closing. Conspicuously absent from photographs of pews lined with worshippers—hair bobbed and suits pressed—were members of color. While Black residents did not bow their heads in prayer beside white congregants (who likely did not welcome their presence), they did utilize City Church’s amenities. According to Lewis, Seaman was fairly successful in promoting the community hall “‘as a religiously neutral ground for artistic and civic events,’” although “there was little mixing of cultures.”

Gary, City Church
Basketball game at City Church, no date, accessed DePauw University Libraries, Digital Library.

City Church tried to navigate race relations in a polarized city, to some degree, opening its doors to civic, social, and spiritual gatherings. In 1927, the church hosted a race relations service, in which members and pastors of African American churches Trinity M. E. and First Baptist shared in services. Reverend Seaman delivered the principle address, stating “We shall make no progress toward race union . . . until we view each other as God views us, children of the same Father and brothers all.” After toiling in factories, Swedes, Mexicans, and Croatians gathered at City Church to study, worship, and play. Romanian children, “Americanized” at schools like Froebel, congregated in the church gym to socialize and shoot hoops.

Production at City Church, courtesy of DePauw University Archives, accessed Opacity.

When Reverend Seaman left in 1929 under unclear circumstances, the church turned inward and ministered less frequently to Gary’s immigrant and Black populations, especially during the demanding years of the Great Depression and World War II. Unfortunately, Gary’s Negro YMCA closed and African Americans were the first to be let go at the mills, making churches and relief organizations more crucial than ever. Resentment built among Gary residents as they competed for government support, resulting in the voluntary and forced repatriation of Mexican workers on relief rolls. The church did offer programs where weary (likely white) residents could momentarily forget their troubles, hosting Gary Civic Theater plays and an opera by a renowned singer.

Church records from the early Atomic Era denote renewed interest in ministering to the church’s diverse neighbors. The degree to which the church took action is unclear, although advertisements for Race Relations Sunday indicate some walking of the talk.* City Church photographs document an immunization clinic, which served both African American and white children, as well as cooking classes for Spanish girls. It is clear, however, that, despite the efforts of some City Church pastors, members of the white congregation largely did not support, and sometimes opposed, integrated Sunday mornings. With Steel City’s influx of African Americans and immigrants in the 1950s and 1960s, Gary’s white population fled to the suburbs, depleting the urban core of tax revenue. City Church members belonged to this exodus. Tellingly, on a 1964 survey, Rev. Allen D. Byrne appears to have checked, only to erase, a box noting that the church ministered to racial groups. 

Immunization Clinic hosted by City Church, no date, courtesy of Calumet Regional Archives.

This changed temporarily with the leadership of Reverend S. Walton Cole, who perhaps came closest to fulfilling Reverend Seaman’s mission, with his 1964 appointment. Cole wrote frequently in City Church’s newsletter, Tower Talk, about confronting one’s personal prejudices and the role of the church in integrating minority groups. Unafraid to confront social issues, Cole argued at a Methodist Federation meeting, “We are not socialists and communists when we talk about moral problems in our nation. Wouldn’t Jesus talk about poverty if he walked among us today?” Under Cole’s pastorship, the church hired Aurora Del Pozo to work with Gary’s Spanish-speaking population. Such efforts, Tower Talk reported, went a long way in understanding their Hispanic neighbors, noting “we were introduced to the viewpoints and attitudes held by these Spanish speaking people that were a surprise to most of us.”

Cole, addressing the trend of church members to “shut their ears and eyes” and move out of the city, noted in 1966:

Hate is the strongest of all. We hate the Negroes, the Puerto Ricans, the Mexicans, the Irish, the English, the Germans, the French. We hate the Jews, the Catholics, the Baptists, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Republicans, the Democrats, the Socialists. We hate everybody, including ourselves. This is the way of the world, the secular world.

Reverend S. Elbert Cole, accessed DePauw University Archives.

He countered that the Christian way centered around demonstrating love and hope for all. The NAACP awarded Reverend Cole with the first Roy Wilkins award for his work in civil rights. During his pastorship, the church worked to redevelop the downtown area, striving to “maintain a peaceful and developing community by improving race relations.” But this same year, fugitive James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, setting off a string of riots across the country. Riots in Gary’s Midtown section, formerly the Patch, that summer resulted in gunfire, looting, and burning. Gary’s first African American mayor, Richard Hatcher, contended “‘slum conditions in the city and inequalities in education and employment have fostered the tenseness'” that led to the riots.

Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher (arms crossed) and Reverend Jesse Jackson (at the podium) at a press conference for the National Black Political Convention, March 11, 1972, AP/Charles Knoblock, accessed Belt Magazine.

Some of Gary’s African American residents got involved in the Black Power Movement, which arose after decades of educational, political, and housing discrimination. The movement espoused racial pride, social equality, and political representation through artistic expression and social (and sometimes violent) protest. In 1972, Gary hosted the National Black Political Convention, which drew over 10,000 Americans of color. State delegates and attendees—comprised of Black Panthers, Socialists, Democrats, Republicans, and Nationalists—hoped to craft a cohesive political strategy to advance Black civil rights. This event highlighted Gary’s polarization along racial lines, which became so profound that City Church reported in the 1970s: “Evening sessions are difficult without police protection. Most folks are afraid to come downtown.” This schism was perhaps inevitable, given that city planners constructed Gary around the color of residents’ skin. As City Church membership sharply declined, church leaders realized they needed to build meaningful relationships with the local community.

It became apparent they had waited too long. The 1973 Pastor’s Report to the Administrative Board noted:

Most residents in the immediate area will already have found a convenient church where they are welcome . . .  Furthermore Blacks are not likely to come to a church which they ‘feel’ has excluded them for several years. The neighborhood may have continued to change from one social class group to another, so that there is an almost unbridgeable gap between the white congregation and the persons living in the community.

A survey of urban church leaders cautioned in 1966 that, regardless of resources or mission, a white church in a Black neighborhood could only carry on for so long, that the “ultimate end is the same. THE CHURCH DIES!” City Church leaders considered merging with a local Black church, but when community interviews revealed that minority groups did not trust the church, leaders decided to close in 1975. Die it DID.

City Methodist Church, April 26, 2017, accessed City Savvy Imaging.

After decades of decomposition, philanthropic organizations and city leaders have turned their attention to redeveloping the building. After all, as Professor Dotson warns, Gary is in jeopardy of the “eminent collapse under the weight of its own history.” As of now, the most likely outcome involves stabilizing the building and converting it into a ruins garden. A supporter of the ruins concept, Knight Foundation’s Lilly Weinberg, seemingly invokes Reverend Seaman with her statement that “Creating spaces for Gary’s residents to meet and connect across backgrounds and income levels is essential to community building.” Some in Gary oppose this plan, arguing that if the city receives funding it should be allocated to existing African American churches that need structural support, rather than one that ultimately abandoned the Black community.

Regardless of City Church’s fate, Ball State Professor Olon Dotson argues it is crucial that Gary’s legacy of segregation is incorporated into its story “for the sake of the young children, attending 21st Century Charter School at Gary, who look out their classroom windows, or wait for their parents every day, in front of the abandoned ruins of a church, in the midst of abandoned Fourth World space.” If the ruins embody Gary’s past, what is done with them now could signify Steel City’s future.

For a list of sources used and historical marker text for City Church, click here.

* Without the digitization of Gary newspapers, and given the lack of documentation of Gary’s Black residents during the period, it is difficult to give voice to those City Church attempted to reach. Pastor Floyd Blake noted in 1973 that the church conducted over 100 interviews with Black, white, and Spanish-speaking residents regarding their perception of City Church. Although we have been unable to uncover them, they could provide great insight. Please contact npoletika@library.in.gov if you are aware of their location.

History Unfolded Part 8: The “Jewish Badge” and the “Threatening Calamity”

The Holocaust did not start with gas chambers. It started with stereotyping and hateful words, escalated to stigmatization and discrimination, and culminated in genocide, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). Thus the September 1941 order forcing Jews in Germany and occupied territories to wear a yellow star sewn onto their clothes, marked an important shift in the state-sponsored persecution of Jews. The bright yellow star with mock Hebrew lettering clearly identified Jews, marking them for discrimination, violence, and eventually, deportation to concentration camps.

USHMM caption: “A yellow star of David marked with the German word for Jew (Jude) worn by Fritz Glueckstein,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Fritz Gluckstein, accessed https://www.ushmm.org/learn/timeline-of-events/1939-1941/jewish-badge-decreed.

But what did this mean to the average American at the time? The  USHMM is seeking to discover just that through their History Unfolded Project (find out how you can contribute). And at Hoosier State Chronicles, we are using the freely accessible digitized Indiana newspapers to try and determine what Hoosier knew about the Holocaust and how they responded or did not.

In 1939, even before the general order, German authorities in occupied Poland required Jews to wear a blue Star of David sewn on a white armband. By the summer of 1941, Nazis required Jews to wear a yellow star badge in areas of the German-invaded Soviet Union. Indiana newspapers reported widely on the imposition of the badge and the worsening of conditions for Jews in occupied territories.* In July 1941, newspapers published in Munster, Valparaiso, Kokomo, and South Bend, Indiana, ran a lengthy United Press (UP) article by Jack Fleischer, a war correspondent based in Germany, who would later be interred by the Nazis for six months.

USHMM caption: White armband with a Star of David embroidered in blue thread, worn by Dina Offman from 1939 until 1941 while in the ghetto in Stopnica, Poland.

Fleischer reported from Krakow, Poland (which he spelled Cracow). He described taking a tour for foreign correspondents given by General Karl Frank, a high-ranking SS officer who would be executed after the war for his leadership in several massacres in Czechoslovakia. Frank showed off his “beautiful 14th century castle headquarters” and boasted of the improvements in the area since the Nazi occupation. According to Frank, “German experts” were “teaching Polish farmers modern agricultural methods” and had conscripted Polish laborers who were at work “repairing streets and public buildings,” as well as dredging a river and building parks.

Photograph of Jack Fleischer by Jean Graffic for NEA News Service reproduced in the Coshocton (Ohio) Tribune, June 14, 1942, 6, accessed Newspapers.com. When this photo was taken secretly, Fleischer was being held at Bad Nauheim by German Authorities.

Fleischer also reported that he “drove through Cracow’s ghetto several times.” Fleischer wrote that Jews could leave the ghetto during the day to work, but were required to return at night. He continued: “They are required to wear white arm bands bearing the star of David.” He learned that the Jewish population of Krakow “which was 70,000 before the occupation, now is 11,000.” Most were transferred to the Warsaw Ghetto. A year later, German police and SS would begin deportations from Warsaw to the Treblinka killing center. The star badge played an important role in such deportations. According to the USHMM:

When Nazi officials implemented the Jewish badge between 1939 and 1945, they did so in an intensified, systematic manner, as a prelude to deporting Jews to ghettos and killing centers in German-occupied eastern Europe. 

By September 1941, the badge had been implemented systematically throughout the Greater German Reich. Many Indiana newspapers reported the story. The Kokomo Tribune ran a UP report on September 6 under the headline “Oppression”:

Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Berlin secret police, today ordered all Jews over six years of age to wear the star of David in yellow on their coats together with the inscription “Jew” in black.

The following day, the (Richmond) Palladium-Item ran an International News Service report (INS) and the Indianapolis Star ran an Associate Press (AP) report, both from Berlin, providing more information. These wire services noted that the badge was required to be large, “the size of the palm of their hand,” and worn on the left side. The paper reported that, starting September 19, Jews would not be allowed to leave their districts without police permission. The report concluded by noting that this decree was ordered just days before Rosh Hashanah, a time of introspection for Jews, but also a celebration of the year completed. At any other time, most Jews in Berlin would have been preparing prayers and baking challah.

USHMM caption: “Elsa Eisner Wearing the Compulsory Jewish Badge in Prague,” Elsa Eisner, marked with a Jewish badge, walks down a street in Prague. She, her mother, twin sister and other members of the family were deported to Auschwitz in July 1942. Prague, Czechoslovakia, ca. 1941. Accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

Also on September 7, the South Bend Tribune ran a more extensive UP article, reiterating most of the information given by the other newspapers and adding more alarming details. This article reported that German authorities had already “banned exit permission from Germany.” The UP reported that the decree was accompanied by severe penalties, large fines and imprisonment, for failure to wear the badge. The writer concluded that the order was “the sharpest official measure against Jews since those introduced following the anti-Semitic outbreaks of November 9, 1938,” referring to Kistallnacht.

The (Indianapolis) Jewish Post ran an editorial by Rabbi Saul E. White on September 19, which attempted to comfort American Jews by explaining to them why the antisemitism that had manifested in Europe could never take root in the United States. He argued that (1) the U.S. lacked respected antisemitic writers or historians that could influence the nation’s thinking; (2) no political party espoused antisemitism as part of their platform; (3) there was no repressed minority seeking a scapegoat for problems because the Roosevelt administration had rescued the economy; (4) no churches were sympathetic to antisemitism; and (5) the U. S. was built on religious freedom and racial tolerance.

Meanwhile, newspapers and radio broadcasts carried the vitriolic antisemitic messages of Father Charles Coughlin who defended Nazi violence against Jews and gave a platform to Charles Lindbergh who blamed Jews for conspiring to bring the U.S. into the war. Many members of the U.S. State Department and several  congressman worked to block Jewish refugees from seeking safety in the United States. Respected organizations such as the American Legion actively worked to keep Jewish refugees out, even children. African Americans struggled for basic civil rights, while the U.S. government would soon begin imprisoning its own citizens of Japanese descent in concentration camps.

Rabbi White encouraged his readers not to worry and even chided Jewish activists who combatted antisemitism with education, as well as those who shared reports of the tragedies occurring in Europe with increasing regularity. Rabbi White sarcastically rebuked those Jewish activists who “have turned amateur detectives and go about with an air of knowing it all and occasionally hint at a threatening calamity.” Rabbi White would later become an important force in fighting antisemitism and an active participant in the civil rights movement. However, it is clear from his 1941 column that despite the extensive coverage in newspapers, many American Jewish newspaper readers had no idea that the “threatening calamity” had already arrived.

(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, October 31, 1941, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles. [Mogen-Davids translates to Shield of David.]
On September 21, the South Bend Tribune ran a UP story showing that a glimmer of humanity remained in Berlin. The UP reported that a silent protest had broke out in response to “the new rigid anti-Jewish laws” requiring Jews to wear the star badge. According to the article, non-Jewish Germans “were seen on the streets of Berlin today approaching Jewish acquaintances and ostentatiously shaking hands with them.” This expression of solidarity was “an obvious gesture of sympathy.”

According to the USHMM:

This response was widespread enough that the Ministry of Propaganda and Enlightenment felt compelled to issue pamphlets instructing Germans on how they should respond when encountering neighbors wearing the yellow star.

The Nazi propaganda machine also responded to criticism of the new restrictions with false reports blaming the United States for the new law. These manufactured stories were especially well-covered in Indiana newspapers through AP and UP reports and dispatches received directly from war correspondents. On September 26, the Indianapolis News, Kokomo Tribune, (Richmond) Palladium-Item, South Bend Tribune, and the (Columbus) Republic all reported on the propaganda reports, sometimes on their front pages. The AP relayed reports from Americans in Berlin of “a story going the rounds of the German capital that every German national in the United States has been compelled to wear the swastika, leading to orders that Jews in Germany must wear a yellow Star of David on their left breasts.” American newspaper offices reported that they were receiving “frequent inquiries as to whether the rumor is based on fact” and Americans in Berlin were trying to dispel the rumor as nonsense. Of course, it wasn’t nonsense, it was propaganda. However, the AP reported, “Official [Reich] press officers said the government had nothing to do with the story and insisted they knew nothing about it.” Nonetheless, it was working. According to an AP story published by the Richmond Palladium, the average Berliner believed the rumor. The AP reported, “Whoever launched this whispering campaign a few days ago did a good job of it. It is all over Berlin and people are repeating it everywhere.”

USHMM caption: German Jewish adults and children wearing compulsory Jewish badges are lined up against a building. Weser, Germany, 1941–43. Accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

By October, the (Indianapolis) Jewish Post published a report from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) that German authorities were increasing their antisemitic propaganda output. The JTA wrote that “the Nazi press throughout the Reich is conducting violent anti-Jewish propaganda to back up Hitler’s manifesto to his army that ‘the Jews and only Jews’ are to be blamed for the German soldiers killed on the Eastern front.” However, the JTA also reported that the enforcement of the star badge was having as unintended effect. The article stated:

The change of mood among the German people towards the Jews is reported to be the result of the introduction of the yellow Mogen David [Shield of David] for the Jews in the Reich. This anti-Jewish measure has, according to the report, had an opposite effect than that desired. It has provoked sympathy for the Jews instead of hatred.

According to the report, Christian ministers were especially given pause, pondering publicly: “Who knows? We Christians might soon find ourselves wearing the cross where Jews now wear the yellow star.” This reflection resembles the famous quotation by Martin Niemöller which is part of the USHMM’s permanent exhibition:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

On October 3, 1941, the (Indianapolis) Jewish Post shared a report from Amsterdam via Stockholm, that “Nazi authorities in Holland have issued an order compelling all Jews there to wear a yellow Star of David over their heart” and that the accompanying  restrictions imposed on Jews in Germany prohibiting travel and instilling a curfew would also apply in Holland.

(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, October 3, 1941, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Nazi propaganda machine was at work in Holland as well. German occupying authorities ordered the showing of the 1940 film The Eternal Jew, a horribly antisemitic piece of Nazi propaganda and a pet project of Joseph Goebbels. But also at work was a quiet resistance. The (Indianapolis) Jewish Post reported:

Demonstrating their contempt for the anti-Jewish propaganda which the Nazis are conducting in the Netherlands, crowds of Hollanders flock to the theaters where the Nazi anti-Jewish film “The Eternal Jew” is being shown under orders from Berlin, and sit through the entire performance with their backs to the screen.

USHMM caption: Jews from the Lodz ghetto are loaded onto freight trains for deportation to the Chelmno killing center. Lodz, Poland, 1942–44. Accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

According to the USHMM, the badge was systematically enforced throughout Belgium and the Netherlands by the spring of 1942 and in occupied France by June. In each place the badge was introduced, deportations to ghettos and then killing centers soon followed. The badge was only a piece of cloth. But the intent was to mark Jews as different, less than human, and designate them for deportation and murder. The Nazi imposition of the star badge serves as a reminder that we must confront antisemitism and other forms of hate on contact. According to the USHMM:

More than 70 years after the Holocaust, the horrors of Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Darfur are sobering reminders that preventing future genocides and mass atrocities remains an enormous challenge. Yet genocide is not the inevitable result of ancient hatreds or irrational leaders. As we learn more about the risk factors, warning signs, and triggering events that have led to it in the past, we are also learning ways to prevent it in the future.

The USHMM website has tools for preventing genocide and confronting hate and antisemitism today, including the Early Warning Project: https://earlywarningproject.ushmm.org/

Further Reading:

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Jewish Badge: During the Nazi Era,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/jewish-badge-during-the-nazi-era.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Nazi Propaganda,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/nazi-propaganda.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Ghettos,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/ghettos.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Deportation,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/deportations.

*Note: Researchers for the History Unfolded project found no Indiana newspaper coverage on the imposition of the star badge in the Hancock Democrat or in the Greenfield Daily Reporter.

**Note: For more on the U.S. and Hoosier response to Jewish refugees seeking asylum, see past posts:

Jill Weiss Simins, “History Unfolded Part 7: Child Refugees, Hoosier Resistance,” Indiana History Blog.

Jill Weiss Simins, “History Unfolded Part 6: The Abandoned Refugees of the St. Louis,” Indiana History Blog.

Jill Weiss Simins, “History Unfolded Part 5: Jewish Refugees, Hoosier Rescue,” Indiana History Blog.

Braceros in the Corn Belt Part Two: “Ambassadors of Goodwill”

This post is the second part of a two-part article. Read Part One for background information on labor shortage claims by larger agricultural companies and the work of Secretary of Agriculture Claude Wickard.

Dorothea Lange, “First Braceros,” photograph, 1942, Oakland Museum of California, Online Archive of California, accessed http://www.oac.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft3x0nb000/?order=1

The U. S. government began importing Mexican laborers to work on American farms almost immediately after Secretary of Agriculture (and Carroll County native) Claude Wickard successfully negotiated with the Mexican government to begin what became known as the Bracero Program. The first workers arrived in the fall of 1942 and by February 1943, approximately 4,000 Mexicans were at work on farms in the American Southwest. Thousands more were employed by the railroad industry in the name of war preparedness. East Coast growers and processors soon demanded access to foreign workers and the federal government again complied. By April 1943, the program included Jamaican and Bahamian workers as well. By early 1944 bracero were at work laying railroad tracks and picking and canning produce in the Hoosier state.*

Thus far, histories of the Bracero Program have focused on the West and Southwest, touching on East Coast dairy workers, and neglecting the Midwest altogether. This is not only a gap in historiography, its a bizarre one, considering the Midwest’s role as the corn belt or breadbasket. It’s the region that has long fed much of the United States, and during WWII, the world. As economists, policy advisers, and policymakers look to historians’ studies of the Bracero Program as the root of current immigration and agricultural policies, it’s especially important to include the important agricultural region of the Midwest. Examining the stories available in Indiana newspapers is a good first step toward creating a more complete picture of the issue.

Alternative Labor in the Cornbelt 

Tipton Daily Tribune, August 7, 1942, 1, Newspapers.com

Even before the arrival of the braceros, Indiana newspapers reported on Wickard’s agreement with Mexico and anticipated the effect of the workers’ arrival. The Tipton Daily Tribune focused on the assertion that braceros would be imported “only when domestic workers are not available to meet the demand” and would “not replace other workers.” The article also detailed the guarantees negotiated by the Mexican government intended to protect the braceros: their wages would match prevailing local rates with a minimum wage of 30 cents an hour; they were guaranteed employment for at least three-fourths of their stay in any area; and the U. S. government was responsible for their transportation back to Mexico at the end of their employment.

The Bremen Enquirer added information on living conditions, noting that employers must guarantee “adequate housing, health and sanitary facilities.” This meant only three workers or a four-person family could live in a twelve by fourteen foot space with “facilities for cooking, sleeping, laundry, bathing, and adequate sanitary toilets and means of waste disposal.” Most newspapers reiterated statements on the shortage of workers caused by the war effort [see Part One] and patriotically supported the importation of workers from Mexico to help feed the troops. When the workers actually arrived in their hometown, however, the Hoosier response was mixed.

(Greencastle) Daily Banner, October 12, 1942, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles.

Mexican farm workers first arrived to work on Indiana farms managed by large companies with profitable government contracts. In May 1944, the Argos Reflector reported that the H. J. Heinz Co. had leased a three hundred acre farm north of Argos in Marshall County, “as part of their program to insure delivery of war time food commitments.” According to the Reflector, this was the Heinz Co.’s “largest venture in the country.” The article reported that 114 acres of the farm was planted with cucumbers, “one of the largest items of the company’s list of 57 processed foods.” The Argos reported that the company produced “about half” of the cucumbers provided to the U. S. navy where “pickles are an everyday part of the sailor’s menu.”

“Heinz Building Postcard,” n.d., Private Collection of Joe Coomer, Wabash Valley Visions and Voices, Indiana State University, accessed Indiana Memory.

The Reflector reported that the company was constructing forty “bunk houses” for “an estimated 200 Mexican field laborers.”  The article stated that the workers would harvest the cucumber crop and then would be offered jobs “in the tomato fields.” This Marshall County newspaper described the laborers both as “Mexicans” and “migrant workers” and so it is unclear if they were imported Mexican workers or migratory Mexican-American workers.* However, the fact that the company was building housing, implies that they were fulfilling the contract requirements for government-placed bracero workers.  It’s possible that Heinz was using both migratory labor and braceros. It’s also possible that the Argos Reflector did not or could not distinguish between workers from Mexico and migrant workers of Mexican heritage.

USCIS History Library, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, accessed https://www.uscis.gov/history-and-genealogy/historical-library/library-news/bracero-program-images

While I have yet to uncover WWII-era interviews from Indiana based workers that might tell us about their experience, we can get a feel for how they were living from newspaper coverage. Newspapers reported that the braceros preferred outdoor farm work as opposed to work inside the canneries. The Reflector attributed this to their supposed preference for working outside, as if that were a trait of all Mexican people. Putting such a stereotype to one side, reading between the lines, and placing this information in context, however, we can draw some conclusions about their labor conditions. Peeling tomatoes, canning, and running label machines would have been monotonous and the large boilers likely made the work extremely hot and uncomfortable. Newspapers reported that the “200 field laborers” employed by Heinz were “selected for industrious and good conduct.” It’s highly likely that part of “good conduct” was not complaining about conditions.

“Karl Kae Knecht Cartoon,” August 12, 1943, University of Evansville Libraries, Evansville Vanderburgh Public Library Digital Archive, accessed Indiana Memory. Note the “Help Wanted” exclamations at the top of the cartoon.

In August 1944, the Indianapolis Star reflected the national claim that there were “critical shortages of farm labor” and stated that emergency workers were needed in several Indiana counties. The paper reported that sixty “Mexican workers” arrived in Starke County the previous week “to assist with the pickle crop.” The State Supervisor of Emergency Labor stated that 100 more Mexican workers would be assigned to farms in that county. The Star reported that twenty-five Mexican laborers would soon be at work in Wells County, also in picking cucumbers to be processed into pickles.

The Star made it clear that these were bracero workers and differentiated “Mexican workers” and “migrant workers.” After reporting the statistics for the “Mexican workers,” the paper noted that “further assistance is expected from an estimated 500 migrant families from Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri.” We know even less about the experiences of these Mexican workers. The only thing we know for sure from this Star article is that they made $3.10 to $3.50 per day. However, the official bracero agreement did not put restrictions on hours.

Also in August 1944, an article in the Alexandria Times-Tribune reported that “several truck loaders [sic] of Mexican workers” were arriving in Grant County “to assist with the harvest there.” The Times-Tribune reported a local labor shortage in the “tomato growing belt” and the need for emergency workers. Again, we know little about the workers’ experience. However, the Reflector, the Star, and the Times-Tribune all mentioned the seasonal opening of the canneries in concert with the arrival of Mexican workers. While it is not always clear if the workers were migrant or bracero, it is clear that the Indiana canneries were benefiting from their inexpensive, non-unionized  labor.* In fact, in September 1945, the Elwood Call-Leader reported that “some 20 Mexican workers face deportation in Crown Point.” The men, who had been “employed in and around Kokomo,” were charged with “having failed to comply with regulations under which they were imported as workers.” This failure to “comply” could have been legitimate, but it could also refer to worker complaints about working or living conditions, mistreatment, or unfair pay.

(Elwood) Call-Leader, September 14, 1945, 6, accessed Newspapers.com.
“Alice of Old Vincennes Tomatoes,” Private Collection of William D. Walker, Wabash Valley Visions & Voices Digital Memory Project, accessed Indiana Memory.

An August 29, 1945, an article in the (Seymour) Tribune raises some flags about worker mistreatment. The newspaper reported: “The Vincennes Packing Company here has twelve Mexican farm workers which they secured, and have housed in the building adjoining their plant.” This plant, which also canned tomato products, told the paper that “while these men were secured . . . for the use and convenience of their own growers, these men can be used at other farm work when they are not otherwise busy.” Again, in the same article, the manager of the company stated that while the Mexican workers were employed “to get tomatoes picked, and other canning crops taken care of . . . they can be used at other farm work when not needed for tomato picking.” It was mainly large companies that could afford to transport, house, and pay the guest workers, not small farmers. However, the large company farms and processors of Indiana were surrounded by small family farms. This Tribune article seems like a thinly-veiled advertisement to local farmers announcing that the packing company was willing to hire out their workers. The question begging to be asked is: who made money off this arrangement, the company or the workers? Nothing can be definitively concluded from this article, but the repeated declaration of the workers’ availability does seem suspect.

(Seymour) Tribune, August 29, 1945, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Open Your Hearts”: Railroad Braceros and Hoosier Response

Mexican railroad workers were also essential to the war effort as increased transportation was necessary to ship supplies from the heartland to the front lines. The response to the arrival of Mexican railroad workers by Indiana communities ranged from attempts to run them out of the neighborhood and pin local crimes on them to wholehearted welcome and support.

In Irvington, just east of Indianapolis, a small but vocal group of prominent citizens made it clear that they did not want Mexican laborers living in their neighborhood and especially not in the historic home of an important nineteenth century politician. Ironically, the politician whose home the residents suddenly wanted to save after years of neglect belonged to George Washington Julian, an important abolitionist who advocated for the civil rights of all people regardless of race or gender. In an 1855 speech on immigration Julian stated:

“Let them come . . .  let them have a welcome on these shores. Their motive is a very natural and at the same time honorable one, — that of bettering their lot. . . To proscribe him on account of his birthplace is mean and cowardly as to proscribe him for his religious faith or color of his skin. It is the rankest injustice, the most downright inhumanity.”

Oakland Museum caption: Bracero railroad workers. c. 1944. Unknown photographer. Gelatin silver print. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California. Gift of Jose Cruz.

Irvington residents, however, didn’t internalize the lessons of the man they claimed to revere. The Indianapolis News reported in January 5, 1944 that “Historic Irvington was up in arms” over plans to house Mexican workers of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the  Julian home. W. O. Teufil, local superintendent of the railroad, stated that the company had acquired the property and began renovating it to house twenty workers. He stated, “We certainly will make the property more presentable than it has been. Its historic value will not be destroyed. We simply plan to return it to the livable condition to which it once was.”

Indianapolis News, January 5, 1944, 1, accessed Newspapers.com

An Irvington city councilman, however, claimed that turning it into a boarding house would create a zoning violation, and the president of the Irvington Union of Clubs stated that the organization would “begin an immediate inquiry to learn the details of the plan in the hope that it could be stopped.” Teufil expressed his surprise to the opposition and stated: “These are not to be outlaw workers or anything of that sort.”

Indianapolis News, January 8, 1944,1, accessed Newspapers.com

On January 8, the Indianapolis News reported that the city “began preparing legal action to oust from twenty to thirty Mexican workers for the Pennsylvania railroad from the historic George W. Julian home.” Despite the fact that the railroad had gotten over a thousand dollars worth of permits, the city building commissioner notified the railroad that they had not obtained proper permits for renovation and that they needed to evacuate the workers.

In strong contrast to his neighbors, an Irvington resident named M. B. McLaughlin wrote a statement for the News condemning the behavior of those working to remove the Mexican workers from the Julian home through the false pretenses of zoning ordinances. He wrote:

Whether or not you realize it, you are selling short your sons, brothers, husbands on far fighting fronts by your proposed action in closing the Julian home . . . These strangers have come to do a vital job which, ultimately, may mean life, not death, for your dear ones . . . How proud your service men would be . . . if you would open your hearts and hearths to strangers among you.

(Muncie) Star Press, March 1, 1944, 1, accessed Newspapers.com

Meanwhile, the city prepared legal action, and on February 23, the Indianapolis Star reported that the Pennsylvania railroad was working to repair a local gymnasium to house the workers. More Irvington residents spoke out in support of the workers aiding the Allied cause. A local resident named C. S. Brook wrote the mayor, condemning the actions of his xenophobic neighbors. He wrote: “We would state that these few do not speak for Irvington.” Fortunately for the war effort, those working to keep the Mexican workers in the Julian home won out in the end. The Indianapolis Star reported on March 23:

 It was learned a ‘Good Neighbor’ policy promulgated between city officials, the Pennsylvania Railroad and Irvington residents would permit the Pennsylvania to continue housing 29 Mexican track workers in the old George W. Julian home…

Vidette-Messenger of Porter County, April 14, 1944, 3, accessed Newspapers.com

In a drastically different scene, Mexican workers employed by the Pennsylvania Railroad were heartily welcomed and thanked for their labor by the World War I veterans at an American Legion post in Valparaiso. Charles Pratt Post No. 94 invited thirty-five braceros to a “Pan American Day” celebration on April 14, 1944. The (Valparaiso) Vidette-Messenger of Porter County described the event in detail and extensively quoted its host, Post Commander Franklin Burrus. The celebration began with “the advancement of the colors of both countries while legionnaires and guests stood at attention. The Hoosier attendees broke into the U. S. national anthem and when they were finished, their Mexican guests “responded with their national anthem.” Commander Burrus then welcomed them in a touching speech. He thanked the Mexican workers for their contribution to the war effort and expressed his hope that through their alliance, Mexico and the United States would grow closer in times of peace as well. Burrus continued:

We of the Legion, having served in World War 1, and some in World War 2, probably have a deeper appreciation of the need for inter-American co-operation than many other persons. We realize that you men from Mexico are certainly making an important contribution to the prosecution of this war by your present work in the great industry of railway transportation. We realize that you are away from home, in another country, separated from intimate friends and loved ones and we know what that means. Nevertheless, we hope that your experiences here will all be pleasing to you and that your country and American will both benefit by your having been here.

(Valparaiso) Vidette Messenger, April 15, 1944, 1, accessed Newspapers.com

Luckily, we know a bit more about the workers in this story. They were in the United States for six months as a part of the bracero program’s railroad initiative. From quoted statements by their supervisor, Charles Weiss, we can glean that he greatly respected their work. Weiss told the Vidette-Messenger, “They are really making a great contribution to the war effort.” Weiss also seemed to care about the workers having a positive experience. He stated, “These men like it here and when they return to Mexico they will go as ambassadors of good will.”

“Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program 1942-1964,” The National Museum of American History, Smithsonian, accessed http://americanhistory.si.edu/bracero/introduction (Note: The museum does not list s credit for the poster).

Of course, these are the interpretations of an American supervisor, not a Mexican laborer. While we can’t understand the full experience of the workers from the newspapers, we can get a taste of this one festive evening. Four Mexicans “favored” the audience “with songs of their native country.” They must have performed for some time, as the newspaper reported  the  singing of “solos, duets and ensembles.” Fortunately, the newspaper gave the Mexican musicians’ names, several likely misspelled. These are the only names of Mexican workers that I came across in my research. They are:

Cesario Marquise

Francisco Martinis

Angelo Lopez

J. C. Custro

After the music concluded, the group watched the movie War on the High Seas about the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Vidette-Messenger reported that the evening concluded with “the serving of refreshments, following which Angelo Lopez, formerly a Mexican soldier, put on a demonstration of the manual of arms and playing the drum.”

While this is the lengthiest description of a warm Hoosier welcome for Mexican railroad workers, it is not the only such story. In January 1944, the (Cambridge City) National Road Traveler praised the work of fifty Mexicans residing just east of Cambridge City who were making “the dirt fly,” laying railroad line. The paper also reported enthusiastically on their patronage of local businesses: “The Mexican workmen have been keeping local stores busy caring for their needs while here.” So while they didn’t roll out the red carpet like Valparaiso, Cambridge City was at least accepting and grateful for the economic boost. In June 1944, the (Richmond) Palladium-Item gave an update on the “fifty Mexican young men” living “in a 12-car camp unit near Cambridge City while working on the Pennsylvania railroad line between Indianapolis and Richmond.” The newspaper reported, “Although the boys have only been here two weeks of the six months they contracted to work, most of them already have decided they want to make Indiana their home.” This would not have been true for those Mexican railroad workers stationed in Elkart, however.

In September 1945, a fifteen-year-old white girl named Sally Joan Young was raped and murdered in Elkhart. In the ensuing weeks, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that the Elkhart police and newspapers “fanned” false reports that “the crime had been committed by a Negro.” An African American man picked up on another incident was held in a nearby jail as “practically” guilty. He was “frequently and intensively questioned about the school girl slaying.” According to the Recorder:

Several Mexican railroad workers had also been arrested and grilled, by local police and the FBI, during the six-weeks attempt to pin the crime on a person of a dark-skinned racial group.

Eventually, a white man who was seen  in bloodstained clothes by several witnesses, confessed to the crime. The Elkhart Truth reported:

Incidentally, it will be recalled that, when the crime was committed, there was a quick flareup of suspicion toward members of two dark-skinned races resident in Elkhart. As it turns out, the murderer was neither a Negro nor a Mexican.

Indianapolis Recorder, November 10, 1945, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

In researching this topic, I found only one mention of an interpreter employed for the workers. Thus we can imagine the  fear that the young men experienced as they likely received the same frequent and intensive questioning as the African American suspect by the police and the FBI.

More research is needed to examine complaints of the workers concerning injustices. Again, newspapers give us hints. In 1946, the Indianapolis Recorder reported that the Mexican government would no longer send workers to Indiana. The Mexican Minister of Labor Francisco Trujillo “cited low wages, illegal withholding of wages, poor living conditions and lack of medical care.”

Indianapolis Recorder, February 23, 1946, 10, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Jamaican and Bahamian Workers 

In April 1943, Congress passed Public Law 45 allowing the importation of workers from the Caribbean. Approximately seventy thousand Jamaicans, Barbadians, and Bahamians arrived to work on U.S. farms between the passage of the law and the end of the Farm Worker Program in 1947.

In July 1943, the Greencastle Daily Banner reported that twenty Jamaican workers were “relieving the farm labor shortage in Gibson County.” They were at work “detasseling and hoeing hybrid corn on the 9,800 acre Princeton Farms, [the] largest agricultural unit in Indiana.” The paper reported that the workers lived in a new bunk house with separate building for the kitchen and mess hall where a Jamaican cook provided their meals. In August, the Banner followed up on the July report, stating that the Jamaicans would work for Gibson County orchard growers and then return to Princeton Farms for the corn harvest.

Jamaican Workers in Michigan, photograph, 1943, Detroit News Photograph Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, accessed Virtual Motor City.

Again, there are few reports of their experiences in the workers own words, but we can glean some information about their lives from these newspaper reports. For example, the Banner writer interviewed Hoosiers who worked with the Jamaicans. The farm manager described them as “happy-go-lucky” but also seriously “religious.” He said they complained little as the worked. They disliked only the cold Indiana mornings and the lack of Jamaican rum. These statements reek of stereotyping, but again show us that workers were motivated to not complain because they could be repatriated without pay.

Like they did for Mexican workers, Indiana newspapers generally painted a positive picture of the Hoosier reception of Jamaican workers, relaying that they arrived to help with or even save the harvest, and ease the labor shortage. For example, the Indianapolis Star reported August 8, 1944, that thirty-two Jamaicans would soon arrive in LaPorte County to pick peaches and in nearby counties others were “at work in connection with the canning industry.”

The Alexandria Times-Tribune reported a few weeks later that a large number of Jamaicans arrived in Madison County as “emergency pickers” for the tomato fields. The article also noted that the canneries would soon begin operations, reinforcing the connection noted in Part One between the demand for inexpensive foreign labor and the Indiana tomato canneries. The Daily Clintonian, likewise, reported from Vincennes that “eighty Jamaican and Mexican agricultural workers will arrive in Knox county around May 15 to aid in production and harvesting of the 1945 tomato crop.”

(Greencastle) Daily Banner, August 10, 1943, 2, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

In Martinsville, however, Jamaican workers had a close call with a riotous mob. The Martinsville Reporter told of “a display of mob spirit by a group of trouble makers and agitators . . . directed against the twenty or more Jamaican workers that had been sent into the county to relieve the current labor shortage.” There was apparently enough “loud talk” that the local National Guard unit armed themselves with “tear gas equipment” and sent for the state police. In the face of the show of force, “the loud mouth leaders of the agitators began to have business elsewhere.” And while the situation was diffused, the Reporter noted that “a spark at the right time might have caused grave trouble.”

Response of African American Newspapers

While many Indiana newspapers described these guest workers as saviors of harvests and important contributors to the war effort, African American newspapers saw their arrival through a different lens – the lens of available black workers who have been repeatedly denied similar jobs for a fair wage (as discussed in Part One).

Evansville Argus, April 2, 1943, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Indianapolis Recorder reported that there were plenty of agricultural commodities being produced and that the supposed labor shortage was not affecting production goals. The problem was distribution, not production or labor. The Evansville Argus took issue specifically with the guest worker program. In an editorial for the Argus, journalist Elmer Carter criticized the recent importation of workers from the Bahamas to Florida. Carter wrote,

Indiana Memory caption: Sixteen-year-old Russel Deyo (above), of Sparta, raises sweet potatoes and tobacco on a large farm he cultivates with his father. Russel B. Deyo, Sparta, Va. Jan 19 1947, New Farmers of American Records, University Library Special Collections and Archives, IUPUI, accessed Indiana Memory.

There are a hundred thousand unemployed disinherited black and white share croppers in the South anxious to work in Florida or anywhere else.

He stated that the Southern Tenant Farmers Union offered to send 20,000 share croppers to the area in need, but the Florida growers did not want them. The union workers would have been an integrated labor force of black and white workers, so the growers would have to pay black and white laborers the same wage. Carter says the workers were rejected because the growers did not want to pay black workers the same wage as white. Instead, they wanted Bahamians because they could exploit their labor. Carter called on Secretary Wickard to “examine the motives which have prompted the Florida growers to spurn the offer of unemployed and available American workers.”

As it was correct in assessing the labor shortage myth, the Argus was again correct about the exploitation of workers. Importing foreign workers weakened the bargaining position of domestic workers in their struggle to increase their wages. However, this was not because foreign workers cost less. Employers had to pay a minimum wage and transportation as well as provide housing. The incentive was that foreign workers could not bargain or complain. If they did, they were repatriated. According to historian Cindy Hahamovitch:

The importation program was certainly more palatable to growers than the effort to relocate domestic farmworkers from areas of surplus to areas of scarcity, but it undermined farmworkers’ efforts to lift themselves out of poverty. Farmworkers who struggled to bargain up their wages after 20 years of agricultural depression found themselves thrown into competition with farmworkers from abroad who could be deported for making the very same demands.

USCIS History Library, U.S. Citizenship and Immigrations Services, accessed

According to the Bracero History Archive, the worker safeguards negotiated by the Mexican government worked only in theory. In practice, however, U.S. employers ignored the safeguards and many braceros “suffered while growers benefited from plentiful, cheap, labor.” The U.S. extended the bracero program for decades, using it not only as a supply of cheap labor but as a policy for controlling immigration. Its legacy continued to influence policy making today. Regardless of the intentions of such bureaucrats and agricultural corporations in importing labor, there is no question that these Mexican and Caribbean men made an important contribution to the Allied war effort.

Note

* Indiana farms had used migratory workers for some time. Some of these workers may have been Americans with Mexican heritage or Mexican immigrants who came to the United States of their own accord, both legally and illegally. By using newspaper articles only, not in conversation with government records, it is not always clear if the workers described as “Mexican” were migratory workers or were workers imported by the United States government. I have noted with an “*” where the newspapers are not specific.

Further Reading:

Bracero History Archive. Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Brown University, and the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas El Paso, http://braceroarchive.org/

Calavita, Kitty. Inside the State: The Bracero Program, Immigration, and the I.N.S. (New York: Routeledge, 1992).

Collingham, Lizzie. The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.

Craig, Richard B. The Bracero Program: Interest Groups and Foreign Policy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.

Gamboa, Erasmo. Bracero Railroaders: The Forgotten World War II Story of Mexican Workers in the U.S. West (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016).

Gamboa, Erasmo. Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 1942-1947 (Austin: University of Texas, 1990).

Hahamovitch, Cindy. “The Politics of Labor Scarcity: Expediency and the Birth of the Agricultural ‘Guestworkers’ Program,” Report for the Center for Immigration Studies, December 1, 1999, accessed https//cis.org/Report/Politics-Labor-Scarcity.

 

History Unfolded Part 7: Child Refugees, Hoosier Resistance

(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, December 2, 1938, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Children under eighteen years of age make up more than half of the approximately 22 million people seeking refuge today. [1] We read statistics like this often, and sometimes our empathy for such human devastation of can get lost in the numbers. The problems can feel remote, foreign, and unrelated to our own daily struggles. And that is precisely how many Americans felt just before the outbreak of WWII, as the number of people applying for refuge in the United States multiplied. In 1938, 125,000 asylum seekers applied for the 27,000 visas under the restrictive U.S. quota system. By 1939, that number increased to over 300,000. [2] A Fortune magazine poll from the summer of 1938, showed that 67% of Americans thought “we should try to keep them out.” Only 5% thought the U.S. government should raise the quotas to allow more people asylum. [3]

Fortune, July 1938, reprinted in Ishaan Thardoor, “What Americans Though of Jewish Refugees on the Eve of World War II,” Washington Post, November 17, 2015, accessed Washington Post.

Again, the staggering statistics can be numbing. But even at our most ambivalent, the stories of children fleeing persecution seem to break through our indifference and stir us to act. For example, in 1938, British citizens lobbied their government to act on behalf on  children fleeing Austria and Germany after the Anschluss and Kristallnacht. They agreed to fund the transportation, care, and education of these children and infants. These rescue missions, known as Kindertransport, saved ten thousand children from annihilation.

“Kindertransport,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

Despite the prevailing attitudes towards immigrants in the United States, some hoped their fellow Americans would make an exception for child refugees. Hope came in 1939, in the form of the Wagner-Rogers Bill that aimed to bring 20,000 children escaping Nazi Germany to the United States. Hoosiers both supported and opposed refugee immigration and the bill. Looking through Indiana newspapers for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘s History Unfolded project, we can see what Hoosiers knew about the issue, how they aided, and how they failed these small asylum seekers. (Find out how you can participate in the History Unfolded Project which helps the USHMM determine what Americans knew about the Holocaust.)

USHMM caption: Jewish refugee children, part of a Children’s Transport (Kindertransport) from Germany, upon arrival in Harwich. Great Britain, December 12, 1938, Institute of Contemporary History and Wiener Library Limited, accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

The Wagner-Rogers Bill

(Richmond) Palladium-Item, May 22, 1958, 11, accessed Newspapers.com

Clarence Pickett, an Earlham College professor and leader of Quaker relief organization American Friends Service Committee, led the drafting of the bill in December 1938. Senator Robert Wagner (D-NY) and Representative Edith Nourse Rogers (R-MA) introduced this legislation in both the House and Senate on February 9, 1939. The bill would allow 20,000 children under the age of fourteen to immigrate to the United States (10,000 in 1939 and that same amount in 1940) outside of the established quota. While the bill did not specify that these were Jewish children, “the realities of the refugee crisis in Europe made this an obvious and understood fact. [4] The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) quoted Senator Wagner:

The admission of a handful of unfortunate people means little in the economic life of 120 million people, but it means a great deal for us and the world as a symbol of the strength of democratic convictions and our common faith.

(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, June 2, 1939, 6, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

Support for the bill came from unlikely places. The American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) both supported the legislation, specifying that the children were not a threat to American jobs, an oft-cited fear for those with anti-immigration sentiments. In fact, Pickett argued, they would become consumers, helping the economy. The U.S. Department of Labor agreed, and offered to place the children via their Children’s Bureau.  Leaders from all of these organizations testified before the House Immigration Committee in support of the bill. The (Indianapolis) Jewish Post reported via the JTA that John Brophy, National Director of the CIO “told the committee  that organized labor had no fears of an undue influx of refugees resulting from the Wagner-Rogers Bill.” Eleanor Roosevelt also spoke in favor of the bill, allowing herself to be quoted on a heated political issue for the first time in her six years as first lady, according to the USHMM. She told UP reporters:

I hope very much it will pass. It seems to be a wise way to do a humanitarian thing.

“The Conscience of the American People”

At the same time in Indiana, several notable Hoosiers were at work on grassroots campaigns to rescue German-Jewish children. Prominent Jewish civic leader Sarah Wolf Goodman and the leadership of the (Indianapolis) Jewish Post, among others, raised money to bring refugees to the United States. We examined these efforts thoroughly in post 5 of this series “Jewish Refugees, Hoosier Rescue.” But these were small-scale operations. The sweeping action needed had to come from the federal government.

History Unfolded Post 5: “Jewish Refugees, Hoosier Rescue,” Hoosier State Chronicles Blog.
(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, July 28, 1939, 8, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

On December 16, 1938 Jewish Post Editor Gabriel M. Cohen made a passionate argument for congressional action. Cohen stated that protests against the Nazi perpetrators and prayers for the victims were not enough. It was time for “immediate relief.” Cohen noted that President Roosevelt was not seeking to extend the quota system, but that maybe it was not up to the president to lead the way on this issue. Cohen continued:

USHMM caption: A Jewish refugee girl from Vienna, Austria, upon arrival in Harwich after her arrival in England on a Kindertransport. United Kingdom, December 12, 1938, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD, accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

Possibly such a demand cannot at this time come from the President. It can and should come, however, from the conscience of the American people.

He noted especially the responsibility of communities and leaders of faith. He expressed his confidence in American Jews to take a leading role in the care of these children

We are certain that there are thousands of Jewish families in the United States, who, in the face of the present crisis, will gladly take refugee children into their homes and provide them with food and shelter as long as necessary.

Cohen’s prediction was correct. The JTA reported that at an April 1939 joint committee hearing for the bill, attorney Wilbur Large presented 1,400 letters from citizens around the country offering to adopt a refugee child. In fact, the AP reported that Paul Belsser, head of the Child Welfare League of America testified that there were more than enough homes for the children with twelve applications coming in for every child adopted in America.

Marcus Blechman,, Photograph of Helen Hayes, 1945, Henrietta Alice Metcalf Performing Arts Photographic Collection, Special Collections Research Center, University of Kentucky, https://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog/xt7gxd0qsz74_205_1/

Hollywood actress Helen Hayes offered to adopt a refugee child herself. Hayes told the committee that her grandmother, who had nine children, lived by the motto, “There is always room for one more.” Then, joking aside, Hayes addressed the lawmakers:

There is room in my family for one more. I beg you to let them in.

One senator “heckled” her, according to the Logansport Pharos-Tribune, asking sarcastically, “Do you mean to say you’d adopt a child unseen?” Hayes replied sharply, “I never saw my own child until it was delivered!”

“A Stand Against A Haven”

In his plea for congressional action, Cohen also anticipated and refuted opposing arguments. Echoing Pickett, the Jewish Post editor wrote:

Whatever economic objections and fears of increased unemployment Congress may have with regard to enlarging the existing immigration quota, there can be no such objections to the admission of children.

Also like Pickett, Cohen argued that the children would first be consumers before they would be job seekers. He continued, “Their presence in the community would stimulate business.”

USHMM caption: Children aboard the President Harding look at the Statue of Liberty as they pull into New York harbor. They were brought to the United States by Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus. New York, United States, June 1939, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Steve Pressman, accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

Again, Cohen’s predictions were correct. The bill’s opposition focused on the “economic dangers” of increasing immigration just as the country was climbing out of the Great Depression. Senator Robert R. Reynolds (D-NC) argued that the children would grow up and “undoubtedly keep our own children from jobs and work that they are rightfully entitled to.” Reynolds pledged to “filibuster the plan to death,” according to the Associated Press (AP).

Meanwhile, in Indiana, members of the American Legion‘s Subcommittee on Immigration gathered in Indianapolis to begin a series of meetings on the bill and establish the official position of the national organization. According to a May 3 AP article via the Kokomo Tribune :

Some members of the immigration committee were reported to be favoring the admission of the children for humanitarian purposes while others were opposing it on the grounds American children would suffer by the influx of additional foreigners.

By May 5, 1939, the American Legion made its decision to oppose the bill and adopted a report of their official position. Announcing their decision from their Indianapolis headquarters, American Legion Chairman Jeremiah Cross called the bill “class legislation” because it “would benefit persecuted minorities in only one country.” According to the International News Service via the Hammond Times, Cross claimed that accepting the children would “break up homes and thus be contrary to the American tradition of preserving home life.” National Commander Stephen Chadwick stated that there were too many children at home that needed assistance. Chadwick continued:

We should solve this problem at home before extending a helping hand to foreign nations.

The local Franklin, Indiana, American Legion chapter encouraged the legionnaires gathered at Indianapolis to go further in denying asylum. The Edinburg Daily Courier and Franklin Evening Star reported that the district recommended “a ten-year curtailment of all immigration into the United States” on top of opposing the bill. At the final session of their meetings on immigration, American Legion director Homer L. Chaillaux announced that the powerful organization would indeed back a policy of “curtailed immigration for 10 years to solve the unemployment problem” and “halt the flow of undesirable aliens into this country.” The Evening Star reported that the Legion also reiterated that they were taking “a stand against a haven for thousands of German refugee children seeking admittance to this country, on the grounds that entrance of the children would clear the way for a increased number of parents and close relatives.”

USHMM caption: Soon after liberation, surviving children of the Auschwitz camp walk out of the children’s barracks. Poland, after January 27, 1945, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Lydia Chagoll, accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

The anti-immigration position of the American Legion and other organizations (such as the Daughters of the American Revolution) was translated into policy. The Senate Committee on Immigration proposed admitting the children but counting them against the quota. Senator Reynolds proposed the children be admitted in exchange for an end to all quota immigration for five years. This is exactly what leaders of organizations dedicated to rescue feared. James G. McDonald, chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee (and a former Indiana University professor who has been covered in detail in our History Unfolded series post 4 and post 5)  predicted this response and the death of the bill. Assistant Secretary of State George S. Messersmith recommended to McDonald that his advisory committee not attempt to intervene, as any effort to expand the quota would result in a cutting of the quotas instead. Congress was eager for the chance to respond to American anti-immigration sentiment. McDonald worked behind the scenes to put pressure on President Roosevelt to intervene, but the president declined to act or comment on the issue. McDonald wrote despairingly in a private letter that the settlement of refugees was “dependent upon the attitude of governments which are little influenced by humanitarian factors.” [5]

USHMM caption: A child wears the compulsory Jewish badge. The “Z” stands for the word “Jew” (Zidov) in Croatian. Yugoslavia, ca. 1941, accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

The amendments added by the legislation’s opponents, nullified its intent, and Senator Wagner withdrew his bill on July 1, 1939. The Jewish Post reported that antisemitic groups and publications praised Senator Reynolds. The newspaper also reported on Reynold’s founding of the Vindicators Association, which was “an ultra-nationalist, isolationist, nativist, anti-Semitic, and anti-communist” group, according to the North Carolina History Project. The Post reported via correspondent:

Speaking of refugees, Senator Bob Reynolds, of North Carolina, who sees the overthrow of the republic if 20,000 refugee children are allowed to enter this country in the space of two years, has just opened a new headquarters for his organization, The Vindicators, here in Washington. It’s right behind the Supreme Court Building, and cost $20,000.

The New York Times and other national publications also condemned Reynold’s extreme anti-immigration stance and linked him to antisemitic groups. But the senator continued to advocate for isolationism. The Congressional Record reported his 1941 address to the Senate:

I wish to say — and I say it without the slightest hesitation — that if I had my way about it at this hour, I would today build a wall about the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of this earth could possibly scale or ascend it.

USHMM caption: This photograph taken soon after liberation shows young camp survivors from Buchenwald’s “Children’s Block 66″—a special barracks for children. Germany, after April 11, 1945, Federation Nationale des Deportes et Internes Resistants et Patriots, accessed Holocaust Encyclopedia, USHMM.

Private citizens and charitable organizations continued their rescue efforts (and this series will continue to share the stories of such notable Hoosiers.) However, the immigration quotas remained in effect, denying asylum to those fleeing Nazi persecution. As we reflect this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, remember the 1.5 million children who were killed by Germans and collaborators — not as “unwanted aliens” and not as statistics — but as boys, girls, and even infants who deserved a future. And we can’t help but regret that Cohen’s appeal in the Jewish Post to “Save the Children” went unanswered. In it, he concluded:

Tens of thousands of innocent children are now exposed to a life of torture or to a slow painful death . . . America must do its share. Let us open our gates to their outstretched hands.

Learn more about the  History Unfolded project and about issues facing Refugees Today through the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Notes

  1. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Refugees Today,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/refugees-today.
  2. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Refugees” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/refugees.
  3. Poll: , Fortune, July 1938, reprinted in Ishaan Thardoor, “What Americans Though of Jewish Refugees on the Eve of World War II,” Washington Post, November 17, 2015, accessed https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/11/17/what-americans-thought-of-jewish-refugees-on-the-eve-of-world-war-ii/?utm_term=.2a6a6f677323.
  4. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,” Wagner-Rogers Bill,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/wagner-rogers-bill.
  5. Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg, eds., Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1935-1945 (Indianapolis and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Published in Association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C., 2009), 160-161.

Braceros in the Corn Belt Part One: Secretary Wickard & the Myth of the Agricultural Labor Shortage in WWII

In 1942, headlines in Indiana newspapers warned:

“Acute Labor Shortage Perils Midwest Farms”
(Valparaiso) Vidette-Messenger of Porter County

but also

“No Labor Shortage”
– Indianapolis Recorder

So which was it? An acute labor shortage endangering the farms of the corn-belt, and in turn, the country’s war production? Or no labor shortage at all? The answer is surprising and continues to impact policy today.

John Vachon, “Wheat,” photograph, 1941, Farm Security Administration Photographs, IUPUI University Library, http://ulib.iupuidigital.org/cdm/ref/collection/IFSAP/id/562

The Agricultural Front

Just before U. S. entry into the Second World War, large farming and agricultural processing companies—which had become dependent on the cheap labor that was abundant during the Great Depression—warned of an impending labor shortage. They claimed that there was not a sufficient number of workers available to fill the positions left behind by the men enlisting in the armed forces, or by the men and women who left the farm for war-related industrial work.

At the same time, with the introduction of President Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program (which lent food and supplies to Great Britain and its allies), the U.S. needed to produce more agricultural products than ever before. The battle on the agricultural front would need a larger number of agrarian soldiers. Indiana newspapers worried over how Hoosier farmers would meet production goals as their sons left for the “army camps” and “defense industrial plants.” The Muncie Post Democrat continued:

Now that the sons are gone, the farm operators find it impossible to compete with industrial labor wages for help. This may result in many acres uncultivated this season . . . This condition rates as serious when food production is important in the defense program.

In spring 1942, Purdue University reported that “anticipated shortages of farm labor, resulting from enlistments in the armed forces and attractive industrial wages, have not developed.” However, as the year went on, Indiana newspapers became more frantic in tone. They reported that farmers were selling acreage and animals because they could not find farm hands to help with the work. The weekly industry newspaper, the Prairie Farmer, surveyed eighty-one midwestern counties and reported that  three-fourths of them “were found to be suffering from a shortage of farm hands.”

“Farmers on the Carlin Farm, Monroe Township, Kosciusko County, Ind.,” 1949, Collection of Elaine (Carlin) Brown, Pierceton and Washington Township Library, accessed Indiana Memory.

Indiana Canneries and the “Labor Shortage”

By the fall of 1942, large Indiana agricultural businesses joined the national cry of “labor shortage.” Indiana newspapers gave extensive coverage to the professed concerns of the tomato canning industry.  The Muncie Evening Press ran the headline: “Labor Shortage Hits Tomatoes: Cannery Shutdowns and Crop Losses Threaten.”

The article reported that the “acute war-born labor shortage” would close a dozen canneries and that “picked tomatoes awaiting processing [were] lying idle and periled by rotting.” State government officials and the Indiana Farm Bureau spoke on behalf of the canneries and appealed to local men and women to go to work at the plants. Hasil E. Schenck, president of the Indiana Farm Bureau, stated:

Reduced farm production will be no reflection on the patriotism of farmers, for without manpower they can not produce food and fiber any better than industry can produce ships, tanks and guns without steel.

Indiana Governor Henry Schricker issued “an appeal to housewives and all others available to apply for work at the nearest cannery.” The Evening Press reported that the canneries were already employing WPA workers and were calling for women “peelers” and for school children “packers” to volunteer their services.

“Can label for IT brand Indiana tomatoes packed by R. W. Jones Canning Corporation,” n.d., Trade Catalogs for Indiana Businesses, Digital Images Elkhart Public Library, Auburn Indiana, https://digital.library.in.gov/Record/ISL_p16066coll3-21.

Yes, volunteer. These industry giants, many of whom had profitable government contracts, were asking for women and children to freely donate their labor. A few days after the call for volunteers went out, the Elwood Call-Leader praised the response of school staff and students in the Madison County area while rebuking the “apathetic and uncooperative” attitudes of local women—women who likely had increased workloads at home because of the war effort. According to the article, employment service and local government officials complained that “despite all appeals that have been made throughout the past week, many . . . women still do not realize the seriousness of the situation and are not willing to work, even [though] they are needed only to get through the brief critical period the industry is now facing.”

The Call-Leader added that army officials were “alarmed at the situation” and were “making a check to see whether the army will be able to get the tomatoes it has ordered.” The canneries’ message was clear. Without cheap or free labor, American boys on the front would go without food. Like corporations across the country, Indiana businesses began to demand that the government supply them with an inexpensive source of labor.

African American Newspapers and the “Labor Shortage”

And yet, African American newspapers saw “no labor shortage.” The Indianapolis Recorder reported that the companies need only to “hire negroes.” The Recorder, continued:

Nobody has yet proved there is a labor shortage in this country. . .  There is no need to work a few workers to death while others walk the streets hungry, seeking work. There are still enough qualified workers in this country to allow employers to continue their discrimination against workers because of the race, religion, and nationality of such workers.

Indiana’s African American newspapers reported that thousands of African Americans were looking for work and were willing to travel great distances to take jobs, but employers didn’t want them. For example, in November 1942, the Indianapolis Recorder and the Evansville Argus reprinted a report from Graphic Magazine that 3,000 African American men left “the Deep South” at the request of California farmers for help saving the harvest. When they arrived “there were no jobs for them!”

Graphics Magazine, reprinted as “Editors Expose Abuse of Negro Labor,” in Evansville Argus, October 31, 1942, 4, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles and Indianapolis Recorder, November 14, 1942, 9, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Labor Shortage Myth

The observations of the African American newspapers were correct. There was no labor shortage that the federal government could not meet with domestic workers. However, the myth of the labor shortage had its own power.

Over the previous decade, the Great Depression created a large surplus of workers seeking employment. In 1941, the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Labor reported that farmers had “come to consider this over supply as the normal supply, and to consider any reduction in the surplus supply as a shortage.” These departments concluded, however, that all of the shortages, perceived or real, could be met by moving surplus domestic workers into the areas of need. The catch, however, was that the balanced supply of available workers and demand for their labor required employers to pay a fair wage for agricultural labor.

Spencer Douglass Crockwell, “Work On A Farm This Summer,” poster, 1943, United States Office of War Information, Print Department Collection, Boston Public Library, accessed Digital Public Library of America

A remarkably organized effort of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and the U. S. Employment Service (USES) was prepared to deal with any real “pockets of labor scarcity.” They expanded the New Deal migratory camp program, setting up permanent and mobile camps around the country to bring American workers across the country for harvests. However, because employers had to pay more reasonable wages, they still complained of shortage. In fact, they cited higher wages as evidence of a shortage.

Statistics from the Indiana division of the U.S. Employment Service show that Indiana’s available labor pool reflected the national situation. J. Bradley Haight, the Director of the U.S. Employment Service (USES) in Indiana estimated in 1942 that there were “100,000 individuals in the state seeking employment. He stated, “The job insurance division issued checks to 40,000 persons. This represents a reservoir of labor which is to be tapped.” However, the large growers, dependent on cheap labor, continued to cry shortage even as they were provided with workers by the FSA and USES—workers that they didn’t want to employ because of racial prejudice or unwillingness to pay a fair wage.

So these wealthy, powerful, and organized growers and processors of agricultural commodities demanded that the federal government respond to their manufactured labor shortage by importing foreign workers. The government quickly gave in to their demands. History professor Cindy Hahamovitch, writing for the Center for Immigration Studies, summarized the government’s response to the labor myth:

The officials who created the guestworker program never believed there was a national labor shortage in agriculture. . . They created the importation program, not because it was necessary, but because it was politically expedient to do so, because the nation’s most powerful growers were demanding the preservation of the cheap, plentiful, and complacent labor force to which they had become accustomed over the previous 20 years of agricultural depression.

The federal government complied because the myth was persuasive. A false labor shortage would have the same effect on agricultural production as a real one. No amount of statistics or economic reports could allay the fears of farmers worrying if sufficient help would be available at harvest time. Therefore, farmers anticipating a lack of aid and picturing their produce rotting in the fields, would plant less, and the country wouldn’t meet its production goals—just as if there was a real labor shortage.

Despite their best efforts to meet the real pocket labor shortages with domestic workers and their distribution of reports on the available domestic labor pool, the federal government needed to allay the small farmer’s growing fear of a massive shortage. By 1942, the Roosevelt administration was cornered into responding to the shortage myth by importing foreign workers. As Congress tore apart the Farm Security Administration and its program of migrating workers to areas of need, U. S. Secretary of Agriculture, Claude R. Wickard, left for Mexico to negotiate a deal that would affect agricultural and immigration policy for decades.

Hoosier Dirt Farmer as U. S. Secretary of Agriculture

Claude R. Wickard was a Hoosier dirt farmer through and through. He was born in 1893 and raised in Carroll County on his family’s farm. His father, a staunch democrat named for Andrew Jackson, was a strict disciplinarian who raised his son with every expectation that the farm was his present, future, and legacy. The younger Wickard, however, grew ambitious. He saw that the farm could be more productive and efficient with the application of modern methods. Against his father’s wishes, he enrolled in classes at Purdue, where he learned about scientific farming and got hands-on experience with sanitary hog care and breeding. He soon vastly improved the farm and received recognition from farming organizations as a leader in modern farming methods. His influence in local Farm Bureau organizations grew in the 1920s and he advanced to several leadership positions where he took on the challenges of his fellow farmers.

“Secretary of Agriculture Wickard Tours the Family Farm…” in Dean Albertson, Roosevelt’s Farmer: Claude R. Wickard in the New Deal (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1961), 82. [Claude Wickard on left]
Beginning at Purdue and continuing throughout his career, Wickard remained focused on rural social justice and “the farm problem.” To Wickard, social justice for rural folks meant that farmers should have equal buying power as urban workers. The inextricably related farm problem was what economists called a parity problem, that is, the prices farmers received for their products was not in balance with their expenses. Wickard, like many leaders of the New Deal, spent his early career trying to figure out how the state and federal government could achieve parity for farmers by solving the problem of overproduction.

By 1930, several factors made Wickard a prime political candidate. First and foremost, while most Indiana farmers were Republicans, Wickard was born into a staunchly Democratic family and remained loyal to the party despite the fact that the national party had not prioritized rural concerns through the 1920s. Thus, Wickard was one of the few farmers with influence in the Farm Bureau and other organizations who was also a Democrat. Second, Wickard’s embrace of scientific farming ideas made him open to production control as a method to achieving parity for farmers. Most farmers, who were already barely making ends meet while operating their farms at full production could not imagine cutting down on output. Wickard, however, could see that farmers needed help from the federal government to make the drastic, nationwide economic shift required to give them the same standard of living as the urban people they fed. This way of thinking aligned with the ideas of the men who would soon take over leadership of the nation. Wickard was poised to join them.

His political career began modestly. A group of county organizers convinced him to run for a state senate seat and he reluctantly agreed. Wickard stated in an interview:

I didn’t like politics . . . [but] like all other things, sometimes you’ve got to make your contributions to your community and to the Democratic Party . . . I had a feeling of responsibility toward my fellow citizen.

Wickard was elected state senator November 8, 1932 as Democrats swept elections across the country and Franklin Delano Roosevelt won the U. S. presidency.

In May 1933, the Agricultural Adjustment Act took effect and farmers saw that the new administration recognized their plight. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA or Triple-A), a division of the Department of Agriculture, was tasked with creating parity through taxing companies that used agricultural produce and decreasing production. Wickard was quickly elected chairman of the Corn-Hog Section of the Indiana Triple-A. He soon became the Assistant to the Chief of the National Corn-Hog Division, and in July 1933 Wickard went to Washington.

When he arrived in Washington as second in command of the Corn-Hog Section of the AAA, he was overwhelmed by the job. In his own words, Wickard was “just a farmer” and had to work to understand the complex economic issues the administration faced. And he got frustrated with the pace of bureaucracy. However, he was likeable, earnest, easy to work with, and his ideas about parity aligned with those of Henry Wallace, the Secretary of Agriculture. Most important to Wickard’s rise, however, was that he was known as a loyal Democrat and commanded the respect of midwestern farmers.

When the Department of Agriculture reorganized by region, as opposed to commodity in 1936, Wickard became Assistant Director of the North Central Division. By this point, Wickard was on Wallace’s radar and the secretary saw potential in the Hoosier dirt farmer. Wallace later noted that Wickard was rare in a department of apolitical technocrats and subject experts in that he was actually a Democrat. Wallace stated: “He was about the only one of the whole crowd in agriculture that had any claim to being a democratic politico.” In the fall of 1936, Wallace brought Wickard with him as he stumped for FDR throughout the Midwest. When FDR won reelection, Wickard continued to make himself useful to Wallace at the USDA and was quite successful and well-liked in  his division.

“A Speech to the Nation,”  in Dean Albertson, Roosevelt’s Farmer: Claude R. Wickard in the New Deal (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1961), 340.

In January 1940, Wallace recommended Wickard to FDR for the position of Undersecretaty of Agriculture. After making sure he was not aligned with Roosevelt’s Hoosier adversary Paul McNutt, the president agreed. Wickard was sworn in February 29, 1940. He served less than six months before Wallace resigned as Secretary of Agriculture to run as FDR’s vice president. Wallace recommended Wickard to succeed him and Wickard was sworn in as the U. S. Secretary of Agriculture September 1940.

Wickard, The Labor Issue, and The Bracero Program

With much of Europe dependent on U.S. agricultural production, the Secretary of Agriculture’s job was even more important than in peace time. Meeting war production goals was paramount. Wickard faced many challenges, among them, the increasing claims of a labor shortage.  In December 1941, Wickard testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee:

The farm labor shortage is not as serious as generally believed. Farm production has suffered, of course, from the loss of farm hands who have been drafted or got higher pay in defense plants. But the situation is not alarming.

While he downplayed the labor shortage claims, he did make it clear that farmers would “have to pay more for their help” than they had before the war stimulated the economy and reduced the labor surplus. As the earlier examination of newspaper articles has shown, this was not an option many corporations were willing to consider.

Less than a year later, Wickard had changed his approach to the issue. The (Richmond) Palladium-Item reported :

Secretary of Agriculture Wickard warned that the United States would face a food shortage unless it quickly solves the problem of manning the farms. He estimated the armed forces and factories may drain off approximately 2,000,000 farm workers by the end of 1942 in addition to those who have already gone.

By this point, it seemed like Wickard was treating the labor shortage claims as a legitimate threat to production goals. However, this same Palladium article still noted that “the most mentioned causes” of the shortage “were high wages.” Even at the peak of industry claims of a labor shortage, the crux of the issue was still that companies would “have to pay more for their help,” as Wickard told the House in 1941.

“Photograph [of Wickard] used for a newspaper owned by the Oklahoma Publishing Company,” 1946, Oklahoma Publishing Company Photography Collection, Oklahoma Historical Society, accessed Gateway to Oklahoma History.
While Wickard described his understanding of complex economic issues as limited and his progress in grasping what his statistician colleagues reported as slow and labored, he deeply understood and cared about agricultural issues and maintained a strong moral decision-making process throughout his career. Like most government officials with access to labor statistics, Wickard would have known that, while there was no labor shortage, a fictional labor shortage was just as dangerous to the war effort. It is, however, possible that his tenuous grasp of complex economic issues meant that he thought the shortage was real. (His biographer Dean Albertson implies the second). Wickard’s career record shows that he would not have acted to address the labor shortage had he not believed it was the best thing for the American people. There are many instances during his career when a different vote or decision would have furthered his political career, but he did what he believed to be the right thing for American farmers.*

Dorthea Lange, “Braceros,” ca. 1942, photograph, Oakland Museum of California, accessed Online Archive of California.

Tasked with addressing the issue, Wickard left for the Second Inter-American Conference on Agriculture in Mexico City early in July 1942, to make a deal that would import Mexican workers and ensure the United States met its production goals. Several agencies were involved in creating a plan to import Mexican agricultural workers, but it was Wickard who was responsible for negotiating an agreement between the interests of the Mexican government, the United States government, American farmers, labor organizations, and large farming and processing conglomerates.

Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Evequiel Padilla Peñaloza was reluctant to agree because of U.S. exploitation of and discrimination against Mexican workers in the past. Padilla insisted that any agreement include a number of guarantees for the rights of braceros. Padilla demanded Mexican workers receive the same guarantees of wages and working and living conditions as American workers. Wickard agreed to a minimum wage and work and living standard. However, there were no such guarantees for American workers. Thus, as labor organizations were quick to point out, these workers were guaranteed, at least in theory, more protection by the U. S. government than domestic farm laborers. After ten days of negotiations Wickard formalized the agreement August 4, 1942. In less than a year’s time, Indiana farms were benefiting from foreign labor. Hoosier response to these guest workers was mixed.

In Part Two of this post we will look at the stories of these farmers and foreign workers as told through Indiana newspapers:

Further Reading:

Albertson, Dean. Roosevelt’s Farmer: Claude R. Wickard in the New Deal. New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Bracero History Archive. Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Brown University, and the Institute of Oral History at the University of Texas El Paso, http://braceroarchive.org/

Collingham, Lizzie. The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.

Claude R. Wickard. State Historical Marker. Indiana Historical Bureau, https://www.in.gov/history/markers/4420.htm

Craig, Richard B. The Bracero Program: Interest Groups and Foreign Policy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.

Hahamovitch, Cindy .”The Politics of Labor Scarcity: Expediency and the Birth of the Agricultural ‘Guestworkers’ Program,” Report for the Center for Immigration Studies, December 1, 1999, accessed https//cis.org/Report/Politics-Labor-Scarcity.

Hurt, Douglas R. American Agriculture: A Brief History. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1994.

History Unfolded Part 6: The Abandoned Refugees of the St. Louis

“Mother of Exiles: Hope for Those Seeking Freedom”  . . . This headline ran in a Midwestern newspaper along with a picture of the Statue of Liberty and these relevant words:

Des Moines Register, July 13, 1939, 6, Newspapers.com

At a time when isolation has become a fetish for many, it is fitting to recall some of the evidences of America’s pride as a place of refuge . . . One such landmark, symbolizing the hope of peoples who migrate from their homeland to this foreign shore, is the Statue of Liberty . . . There is a sonnet on the wall at the base of the statue that is worth re-reading today, when so many are again fleeing from the hand of oppression.

And while it seems that this article could run in today’s newspaper, the year was 1939.

The sonnet includes the well-known words:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

The Poems of Emma Lazurus, Vol. I, (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1889), 8, accessed Archive.org.

These words have come to symbolize America as a shining beacon of democracy and a safe harbor for those seeking a better life. However, not everyone knows that these words were written by a Jewish American poet named Emma Lazurus or that the poem was inspired by the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century. In the full poem the statue is named “Mother of Exiles” and she tells the reader:

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

In June 1939, the United States had the opportunity to open that golden door to save the lives of over 900 Jewish refugees. However, the country whose ideals were embodied by powerful words inscribed upon the Statue of Liberty — words specifically written for persecuted Jews in need of America’s asylum — would fail them. Lady Liberty’s golden door was shut by indifference, xenophobia, and antisemitism.

History Unfolded and Alternative Viewpoints

The story of the St. Louis is well-known to many. Recently, however, several historians have attempted to revise the interpretation of the events, absolving the United States and the FDR administration of any responsibility towards these asylum seekers. [1] Thus, it remains valuable to go back to contemporary newspaper sources and decide for ourselves what really happened. And as Hoosiers, it is worth finding out what the average Indiana newspaper reader knew about the events and meditating on the uncomfortable question: Could we have done anything different?

Simply put, the U.S. did not act when the mainly Jewish refugees aboard the German liner St. Louis pleaded for asylum in June of 1939. Most of these refugees had purchased visas that they believed would allow them to live in Cuba while waiting for their turn to immigrate to the U.S. when there was room within the quota. Instead, they were returned to Europe. While they were safe for a time in various host countries, after the Nazi occupation spread through Europe, many of these refugees were killed in ghettos and concentration camps. [2]

Photo and caption accessed USHMM.

In this post, we will look at the incident through articles available in Indiana newspapers to ascertain what the average Hoosier, and by extension, the average American knew about this tragedy. We will place the newspapers in context using secondary source information from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The newspaper articles for this post have been submitted to the USHMM’s History Unfolded initiative which is attempting to find out what Americans knew about the Holocaust through their newspapers. You can join the effort here: https://newspapers.ushmm.org/

Refugees at Sea

By spring of 1939, newspapers were full of reports of the misery faced by Jewish refugees at sea and the refusal of country after country to give them shelter. For example, the Jewish Post, published in Indianapolis, reported on a Greek steamer seized off the Palestinian coast whose refugee passengers were denied entry by the British authorities there:

The sunny Mediterranean has been turned into a watery hell in which thousands of condemned souls – men, women and children – are floating in indescribable misery and physical agony . . . Uncounted Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution are drifting in a state equal to the worst horrors of the Dark Ages . . . they have been wandering for weeks and months on nightmare voyages, despairing of reaching any port except the bottom of the waters…

(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, June 2, 1939, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Post reported on hundreds more turned away from Indian ports, as well as from Manila and Hong Kong. The Indianapolis News reported on another 104 Jewish refugees denied permission to land in Vera Cruz, Mexico. And reports from Bucharest described twenty hopeless Jewish refugees who jumped into the Black Sea rather than remain homeless.

The Passengers of the St. Louis

The hundreds of disparate people who boarded the German transatlantic liner St. Louis in May of 1939 all had one thing in common. They felt that the only choice left to them was to abandon their homes and loved ones for an uncertain life in a faraway land. Most were German Jews who had been forced from their jobs and sometimes their homes and subjected to increasing persecution by the Nazi regime. Some had even come out of hiding just for this journey. Some used the last of their savings to buy an expensive ticket, pay the “contingency fee” for an unplanned return voyage, and purchase pricey, inflated visas. Some of these individuals had been sent by the collective effort of their families, who pooled all of their money to save just one of their kin. Most were on a list awaiting U.S. visas which were limited by quotas. They hoped to pass time in Cuba until they could start anew in the U.S. [3]

Photograph, USHMM.

Among the 937 passengers aboard the St. Louis were several German Jewish families who we can follow through the historical record thanks to the work of the USHMM assembled into the online exhibition “Voyage of the St. Louis.” Their stories were surprisingly similar at first and tragically different at the close of the war. We will follow four families through this story (introducing the patriarch first only for consistency and ease in following the records). [4]

Heinz and Else Blumenstein, 1940, photograph accessed USHMM.

Franz Blumenstein was a successful businessman living in Vienna with his wife Else, their son Heinz, and his mother Regina. During Kristalnacht, he was arrested and taken to Dachau concentration camp. Else was able to bribe officials for his release under the condition that he leave Germany immediately. He fled to Venezuela and then immigrated to Cuba where he made arrangements for his family to join him. He purchased landing certificates for Else, Regina, and Heinz who then booked passage on the St. Louis.

“Safe Conduct” Pass for Siegred Seligmann, 1941, USHMM.

Siegfried Seligmann, a cattle dealer from Ronnenberg, Germany, was also arrested during Kristalnacht. He was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp for a time but was somehow, likely through bribery, able to secure his release under the condition that he flee. Siegfried was able to purchase tickets on the St. Louis for himself, as well as his wife Alma, and their daughters Else and Ursula.

The Hermanns Family, 1938, USHMM.

Julius Hermanns, a textile merchant from Monchen-Gladbach, Germany, was also arrested, sent to Dachau, transferred to Buchenwald, and released on the condition of immediate emigration. Like Franz Blumenstein, Julius had to leave his family behind. His brother-in-law in New York purchased him a Cuban landing certificate. Julius said goodbye to his wife Grete and his daughter Hilde and boarded the St. Louis.

“Leopold, Johanna, and Martin Dingfelder in front of the meat shop,” USHMM.

Leopold Dingfelder owned a kosher meat shop in Plauen, Germany, where he lived with his wife Johanna and their son Rudi. An older son, Martin, had emigrated to America earlier. After persecution of German Jews intensified, the Dingfelders hoped to join Martin in the United States. They booked passage on the St. Louis to await U.S. visas in Cuba.

Regardless of how they began this journey, they must have boarded with some trepidation. For while the ship was owned by a private German company, it was still flying the swastika flag.

Caption and photograph, USHMM.

The Voyage to Cuba & Hope in the United States

The St. Louis left on May 13, 1939, at 8:00 p.m. Even before they set sail, their landing certificates had been invalidated by the Cuban government. Antisemitism, xenophobia, fear of competition for limited jobs, and Nazi propaganda had turned the Cuban people against further Jewish immigration. Only a few days before the St. Louis departed, 40,000 Cubans attended an antisemitic rally. Responding to this turn in public sentiment and backlash from widespread sale of illegal landing certificates, the Cuban government demanded additional paperwork and money from any potential immigrants.

“Jewish refugees aboard the refugee ship St. Louis,” USHMM.

The passengers were unaware that the tide had turned against them. As they sailed away from the Nazi empire, they likely relaxed a bit. The food was good, the crew showed movies, and children made new friends. The two-week journey was relatively uneventful except for two incidents of which most of the passengers were probably unaware. A man in poor health worsened, died, and was laid to rest at sea. A troubled crew member took his own life by jumping overboard late one night. [5]

The St. Louis entered the Havana harbor on May 27. According to the USHMM, of the 935 passengers, the Cuban government admitted twenty-eight: twenty-two Jewish passengers with valid U.S. visas, four Spanish citizens, two Cubans, and another man who had attempted suicide and needed hospital care.

908 people, including the Blumensteins, Seligmanns, Hermanns, and Dinfelders, were denied entry. The story soon captured the attention of the media around the world. Perhaps, it seemed, sympathetic news stories would lead to their rescue.

What Hoosiers Knew about the St. Louis

The Jewish Post ran a report by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) from Havana reporting that the St. Louis was “barred from landing under the presidential decree,” referring to Decree 937, which invalidated landing permits. Entry would now require written permission from the Cuban Secretaries of Labor and State and a $500 bond posted to ensure the refugees would not become dependent on the state. The passengers did not have this sum.

(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, June 2, 1939, 6, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The Post article also reported on “intervention with the government by Jewish communal and refugee organizations.” The main negotiating force was American attorney Lawrence Berenson who represented the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JJDC). Berenson had previously worked as the president of the Cuban-American Chamber of Commerce and thus had important contacts in both the U.S. and Cuba. However, the Post reported on June 2, the negotiations proved “fruitless.” Cuban President Frederico Laredo Bru ordered the St. Louis to leave Cuban waters if the refugees could not pay the bonds totaling $453,500.

Indianapolis Star, June 12, 1939, 12, Newspapers.com

Meanwhile, the Jewish Post reported, two other ships, one French and one British, arrived with refugees, complicating the situation and increasing the antipathy of the Cuban people. They were also denied entry. The Post reported that the St. Louis passengers were growing “desperate” with some “seeking to commit suicide by throwing themselves overboard.” The Tipton Daily Tribune reported: “Twenty-five police were sent aboard the liner to guard others from any attempted self-destruction after Max Lowe, one of the refugees, slashed his wrists and jumped overboard.” The Indianapolis Star also relayed reports from ship guards who “reported the situation among the refugees as desperate,” that “women and children cried continuously,” and that “calls for meals for the most part went unanswered.”

It became increasingly clear to the passengers that they would not leave the boat. According to the JTA, an editorial in the Cuban newspaper Diaro de la Marino “predicted pogroms against the Jews” if they disembarked. And the Jewish Post reported that “anti-Semitic activities have been increasing.”

Perhaps the most frustrating thing of all for the people on board was just how close they were to safety. Little boats began to encircle the St. Louis, some of them rented by family and friends of the refugees who had previously immigrated. They were close enough to wave and shout to each other, but not to be reunited.

Hammond Times, June 7, 1939, 30, Newspapers.com.

Negotiations continued. The JJDC made an offer to President Bru to pay part of the requested $453,500. He refused to compromise and ordered the ship to leave or the Cuban navy would force it asea. The Indianapolis Star reported that Cuban marines stood at the ready. Buying time for further negotiations, the captain of the liner “aimlessly cruised the Caribbean,” travelling “around the West Indies for a time in hope some country would answer… appeals and offer the refugee[s] a home.” Over the following week, many United Press (UP) and Associated Press (AP) articles ran in Indiana newspapers. The Kokomo Tribune and the Indianapolis News ran the same UP article June 3 with two different but powerful headlines: “Jewish Refugees Adrift in Caribbean Appeal to Many Nations for New Homes” and “Refugee Vessel Appeals for Help.” The articles reported that the St Louis was “appealing by radio to nations of the new world to relieve her of her terrified passengers before there was a wave of suicides.”

Kokomo Tribune, June 3, 1939, 1, Newspapers.com.

One of those countries to which the refugees appealed for asylum was the United States. On June 5, the St. Louis “moved slowly southward into Caribbean waters along the Florida coast.” As the ship moved first north and then turned around and headed south, the passengers could see the lights of Miami. Indiana newspapers widely printed wire articles reported from Miami that the U.S. Coast Guard kept the St. Louis from landing. The Tipton Daily Tribune reported: “A coast guard patrol boat had trailed the ship as it passed near here watching its movements, guarding lest some of its desperate passengers jump overboard and attempt to swim ashore.” One headline from the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier perhaps summed up the situation most succinctly: “Refugee Ship Cruising Off Florida Coast: American Authorities Are Keeping Close Watch on Vessel that Has 907 Unwanted Jews Aboard.”

Columbus Republic, June 5, 1939, 1, Newspapers.com

The article also reported: “For two hours the ship rode at anchor off the Miami channel light, easily visible from shore.” The Lafayette paper’s Miami report also noted, “Two coast guard planes were dispatched from Miami to keep the anchored craft under surveillance” and a “patrol boat hovered nearby.” The ship continued towards the Florida Keys “while negotiators sought to arrange for the refugees’ entry into Cuba, from where many hope to join relatives in the United States.”

Jewish organizations, led by the JJDC, finally raised and offered the entire bond requested by the Cuban president. Cuba, however, was no longer willing to welcome Jewish refugees and the president refused the offer. As the St. Louis turned around to head towards Europe on June 6, the United States was their last hope.

The Kokomo Tribune ran an AP article which reported: “Their hope crushed by the Cuban government’s refusal for the second time to give them asylum, victims of one of the strangest sagas of the sea renewed an appeal to President [Franklin] Roosevelt for last-minute intervention.” The Tribune closed the article by reporting: “Captain [Gustav] Schroeder decided to steer for Germany.” While, the ship ultimately did not land in Germany, for several days, the media reported that the Fatherland was the intended destination. The front page of the Indianapolis Star read: “Refugees Start Back to Germany” and the Kokomo Tribune headline read: “Jewish Refugees Reported Enroute to Germany After Cuba Refuses Landing.” According to the AP service, “The German liner St. Louis informed Tropical Radio at 11:40 o’clock tonight [June 6] that she had set her course for Europe, bearing back to Germany the 907 Jewish refugees who fled that country for Cuba . . . until they could get in the United States quota.”

The “St. Louis,” carrying Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, arrives in the port of Antwerp after Cuba and the United States denied it landing. Belgium, June 17, 1939, Bibliotheque Historique de la Ville de Paris, Caption and Photo accessed USHMM.

Context and Contention

Most scholars agree that the United States, and more specifically President Roosevelt, did not do enough to help these refugees. Recently however, a vocal minority have argued that the blame lies only with Cuba and that FDR could legally have done nothing to help. Without wading into this academic and political mire, we can assert with confidence that the U.S. did little. According to the USHMM, “President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order to admit the St. Louis refugees.” FDR chose not to act because of “general hostility toward immigrants, the gains of isolationist Republicans in the Congressional elections of 1938, and [his] consideration of running for an unprecedented third term as president.” In short, while newspapers printed sympathetic stories and editorials, the cause was not popular enough or politically beneficial enough to justify intervention. [6]

Land and Loss

Fortunately, Jewish organizations, again led by the JJDC, were able to negotiate with four European countries for the placement of the refugees. Great Britain admitted 288; the Netherlands admitted 181, Belgium admitted 214, and France admitted 224 Jewish refugees. [6] The St. Louis unloaded her passengers to these countries between June 16 and June 20. Only those who arrived on British soil would find safety. [7]

Franz Blumenstein, who preceded his family and arranged their passage on the St. Louis, would have watched the ship carrying his wife Else, his three-year-old son Heinz, and his mother Regina turn around and sail back to Europe. They disembarked in the Netherlands and over the following years arranged for visas that would let them join Franz in an agricultural colony in the Dominican Republic. However, by 1940, the Nazis occupied the Netherlands and they could not procure the paperwork necessary to leave the country. Else missed Franz desperately and in 1941 wrote him:

It won’t be long and then we will, with G-d’s help, be re-united; that would be in any event the most beautiful present we could receive. There is some hope that the transport will depart and I am counting on it with all my heart. For two years, I have lived for the day when I will rejoin you, because you alone are my life. I have not lived in the time we have been separated; only our dear child helps me to survive.

Heinz and Else Blumenstein in Heijplaat Quarantine Center in Rotterdam, summer 1939, photograph accessed USHMM,

After deportations of Jews from the Netherlands began in 1942, Regina was arrested by police. She somehow managed to hide Heinz during the arrest. Else and Heinz fled and went into hiding for a time in northern Holland. Despite the efforts of Dutch resistance, Else was arrested and on September 24, 1943. She was transported to Auschwitz. Heinz remained hidden throughout the war and was able to eventually join his father in the United States. Else and Regina died in Auschwitz.

The Dingfelder family of Leopold, Johanna and their 15-year-old son Rudi (their other son previously emigrated to New York) also disembarked in the Netherlands. Like the Blumensteins, the Dingfelders were arrested and deported in 1942. Leopold and Johanna were sent to Auschwitz, while Rudi was sent to Westerbork transit camp. He was forced to labor in an aircraft factory in Holland for a time before he was sent to the Vught concentration camp. After being sent back to Westerbork, he was taken to Auschwitz where he labored in the Siemens-Schuckert factory.

The Siemens-Schuckert Factory, USHMM.

When the Soviets advanced in 1945, the Nazis evacuated Auschwitz. Rudi marched for two-weeks to Buchenwald and sent to another factory outside Berlin. As the Soviets closed in, the SS forced him to join a “death march.” He and four others attempted an escape near Schwerin. Most were shot. Rudi was soon rescued by Allied troops and eventually emigrated to the United States. Leopold and Johanna died at Auschwitz.

Siegfried Seligmann, his wife Alma, and their daughters Else and Ursala disembarked in Belgium and settled in Brussells. When the Nazis invaded in May 1940, Belgian police arrested Siegfried. He was sent to France and imprisoned at Les Milles, a factory converted to an internment camp. Alma and Ursala traveled to France, hoping to find him. They were arrested in Paris and taken to a different internment camp. Somehow, separately, the entire family managed to obtain the visas necessary to leave France. They settled in the United States.

Julius Hermanns, who had to leave his family behind when he boarded the St. Louis to flee Dachau, disembarked in France. He contacted his wife Grete and his teenage daughter Hilde to join him. After France declared war on Germany, Julius was arrested and taken to Saint-Cyprien, an internment camp on the French-Spanish border. Here he joined 50 other passengers of the St. Louis. Julius wrote to organizations and relatives begging for help:

We have written hundreds of letters to all possible places . . . In any event, war wins in every court against defenseless refugees. Everything else is lost irrecoverably.

Hilde Hermann (left), 1930, USHMM.

Grete, Hilde, and several of their relatives were deported to the Riga ghetto December 11, 1941. After several transfers, Julius was sent to Auschwitz in August 1942.

Julius died at Auschwitz while Grete and Hilde likely died at Riga.

Mother of Exiles

Of the 620 St. Louis passengers returned to the European continent, “532 were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe,” according to the USHMM. Of these Jewish refugees who were in sight of the palm trees of Havana and the lights of Miami, and who repeatedly radioed the United States for asylum, 254 died in the Holocaust.

 

As we continue to debate who is and who is not allowed through the Mother of Exile’s golden door, we should consider whether we can improve on her legacy.

Learn how we can confront genocide: https://www.ushmm.org/confront-genocide

[1]Recently, scholars Richard Breitman and Allan Lichtman have argued in their book FDR and the Jews that there was nothing that could be done for these refugees and that President Roosevelt, and the larger United States, do not deserve the condemnation that this incident drew. This position has been hotly contested and thoroughly dissected by Rafael Madoff in “Politicizing America’s Response to the Holocaust,” David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, accessed http://new.wymaninstitute.org/2013/08/politicizing-americas-response-to-the-holocaust/

[2] The main source for secondary and contextual information for this post is “Voyage of the St. Louis,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005267

[3] Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, Voyage of the Damned (New York, 1974); “U.S. Policy During the Holocaust: The Tragedy of S.S. St. Louis,” Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-tragedy-of-s-s-st-louis

[4]  Information on the families of St. Louis Passengers accessed “The Voyage of the St. Louis,” Online Exhibition, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://www.ushmm.org/exhibition/st-louis/story/

[5] Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, Voyage of the Damned (New York, 1974); “U.S. Policy During the Holocaust: The Tragedy of S.S. St. Louis,” Jewish Virtual Library, http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-tragedy-of-s-s-st-louis

[6] Breiman and Lichtman argue that there was no way FDR’s administration could have admitted the passengers because the quota was full. Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies argues that the refugees could have been easily admitted to the U.S. Virgin Islands where the governor and legislature offered asylum. Medoff argues, “The administration was too quick to find technical reasons to keep Jews out; and Breitmann and Lichtman are too quick to find excuses for what they did. See Medoff’s book FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith. Breiman and Lichtman argue that the fact that these refugees founds temporary safety, frees the United States of any blame for their eventual fate. The USHMM study Refuge Denied shows that passengers were desperately seeking menial jobs in Chile to get out of being sent to these “safe” countries.

[7] One St. Louis passenger who arrived in Great Britain died in an air raid. The rest survived the war.

History Unfolded Project Part 4: The Nuremberg Laws and a Hoosier “Advocate for the Doomed”

In this continuing project, we are examining world events through the eyes of the Hoosier newspaper reader.  Because many of these articles were reported through the Associated Press and United Press news services, what we are really seeing is not just what Hoosiers knew, but what the average American knew, about the events leading up to the Holocaust.

www.ushmm.org

Over the next several months, we will be contributing newspaper articles to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘s project titled History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust.  Using digitized newspapers mainly accessible via Hoosier State Chronicles, we are looking at key events suggested for research by the museum to see what Hoosiers knew when. The overall goal of the project is to contribute to the scholarship on how American media reported and under-reported Nazi atrocities.  Anyone can submit their research; find out how at History Unfolded.

In past posts, we asked when Hoosiers knew about the opening of the Dachau concentration camp; the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses and the removal of Jewish leaders from government posts; and the 1933 book burnings. For this post, Part 4, we will find out what Hoosiers in 1935 knew about the Nuremberg Race Laws. We will also introduce James G. McDonald, a brave and tireless Hoosier who worked to help the growing number of refugees from Germany and who tried to warn the world about imminent Nazi plans to annihilate the Jews.

Indianapolis Jewish Post, August 9, 1935, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

In retrospect, it’s hard to understand how the world could possibly not know that the Nazis were planning a horrific “Final Solution” to their “Jewish problem.” The signs were everywhere and the Nazis were not quiet about their intentions, but most people could not have imagined the unprecedented mass murder that would become known as the Holocaust. However, the average Hoosier, like Americans everywhere, had access to more than enough clues in their daily newspaper. On August 9, 1935, the (Indianapolis) Jewish Post quoted this foreboding statement from Joseph Goebbels, director of the Nazi Propaganda Ministry:  “No foreign protest will prevent Germany from annihilating the Jew – the enemy of the German state. The next few weeks will show what we will do to the Jews.” The Post also reported that “Reichministers [Bernhard] Rust and [Karl Hermann] Frank added fuel to the flames with addresses at Essen and Cologne promising that the government will not compromise on its present racial policy and that no let-up can be expected until the Jew is completely eliminated from German life.”

Still from video of Joseph Goebbels speaking at the September 1935 rally in Nuremberg. View the historical footage through the USHMM.

While they did not hide their goal of eliminating the German Jews, Nazi leaders bristled at criticism from the Allied powers who they blamed for many of their problems after WWI. In the same speech in which he spoke of “annihilating the Jew,” Goebbels complained about the treatment of Germany in foreign press. Goebbels stated: “Whenever someone looks cross-eyed at a Jew on the Kurfuerstendamm [a popular street in Berlin], there is a hullabaloo from London to Peiping. But why does the foreign press insist on converging on Germany? Let it cease about the world and it will readily find topics of greater urgency.”

Indianapolis Recorder, September 14, 1935, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

This theme of encouraging the world to mind its own business was often an effective one.  Before the horrors of the concentration camps came to light, some African American newspapers even agreed. After all, black Americans had reason to fear persecution and even lynching by their neighbors and couldn’t trust their own government to protect them. Prominent African American newspapers asked: how could the U.S. throw stones, when it systematically denied rights and opportunities to its citizens based on race?

Indianapolis Recorder, September 14, 1935, 10, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.

On September 14, 1935, the Indianapolis Recorder printed a brief but telling article on this point. The Recorder quoted Julius Streicher, the publisher of an anti-Semitic, Nazi propaganda newspaper, reporting that Streicher “took occasion to advise the Southern States of the American Union to mend their own vicious ways before attempting to point a finger of scorn at the misdeeds of others.” The paper quoted Streicher regarding lynching in the South: “We do not kill Jews in Germany . . . we have other ways of punishing them.” The Recorder then responded to his comments saying that while the “ugly plight of Jews in Germany” should not be discounted, Streicher’s words “should be solid food for thought” for Americans. The Recorder concluded, “Yes, Americans should set about putting their own house in order before telling Germany what to do about her own affairs.” Despite Streicher’s claims, the Nazi party was already moving towards the systematic killing of Jews and the Nuremberg Laws would soon provide them the legal framework needed to intensify persecution by codifying racial antisemitism.

Antisemitism before the rise of the Third Reich can be generally described as discrimination against Jewish people for their religious views. Nazi ideology, however, refocused antisemitism by creating racial theories that defined Jewish people as a race separate from Aryan people. According to this ideology, Jews were now identified not as people subscribing to a particular religion, but as members of a race who could be identified through blood and genealogy.

“An instructional chart used to aid German citizens in the determination of racial status,” accessed USHMM.

Nazis had to use genealogy (that is determining whether a person had Jewish ancestors) to define a person as a Jew because there is no science behind identifying Jews racially. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), “the Nazis had long sought a legal definition that identified Jews not by religious affiliation but according to racial antisemitism” because “Jews in Germany were not easy to identify by sight.” While some Jewish Germans continued traditional religious practices and wore distinctive clothing, most Jews in the 1930s looked the same as any other modern German man or woman. However, if they could codify this racial antisemitism by passing it into law, Nazis would have “the legal framework for the systematic persecution of Jews in Germany.”

“Massed crowds at the Nazi party rally in Nuremberg. Nuremberg, Germany, 1935,” accessed USHMM.

This was Hitler’s goal in September 1935 when he called the Reichstag, or Nazi Parliament, to convene in Nuremberg in the midst of a Nazi party rally. Newspapers across Indiana announced the convening of the Reichstag, albeit without the illuminating quotes published by the Jewish Post. However, an AP article that ran September 13, 1935 in the (Columbus) Republic noted that the Reichstag’s meeting during the Nazi party rally meant that “the party and the state are identical.”

(Columbus) Republic, September 18, 1935, 2, accessed Newspapers.com
Hammond Times, September 13, 1935, 11, accessed Newspapers.com.

In other words, the Nazi party was now the German government. In a move that symbolized this solidification of party and government, Hitler prepared to declare the “nazi swastika flag . . . the one and only flag of the Third Reich” at the Reichstag meeting, according to an International News Service (INS) article published by the (Hammond) Times. The article continued to report that Hitler wished to demonstrate “the complete unity of the German state and the nazi party.” Thus, by the fall of 1935, there were no longer any government officials with the power to defend the rights of the Jewish people of Germany.

“Die Nurnberger Gesetze” (Nuremberg Race Laws), US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Hillel at Kent State, accessed USHMM.

On September 15, 1935, Hitler announced the two laws, which together are known as the Nuremberg Race Laws: the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor. According to the USHMM, the Reich Citizenship Law declared that only people of “German or kindred blood” were German citizens. The law also declared that “Jews were a race defined by birth and by blood,” not religion. Anyone, even Christians, with Jewish grandparents or parents was considered Jewish. The law declared that they were no longer German citizens and had no rights, but were instead “subjects of the state.” The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor outlawed marriage and sexual relationships between “Aryan” Germans and Jewish Germans. Violating this law was condemned as “race defilement” and punishable with imprisonment or deportation to concentration camps. (Read the complete text of the laws through the USHMM here).

Kokomo Tribune, October 1, 1935, 6, accessed Newspaper.com.
“Poster advertising a special issue of a Nazi newspaper about “race defilement” and the Nuremberg Laws,” US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Deutsches Historisches Museum GmbH, accessed USHMM.

Indiana newspapers printed wire service articles on the announcement of the laws, but many missed their significance. For example, the Daily Clintonian (from Clinton, Indiana) ran a United Press (UP) article that focused on the promises of peace made by Hitler in his speech before the Reichstag. The article stated: “From the world standpoint his reference to peace was of paramount importance. It appeared to say plainly that Germany would not encourage Benito Mussolini’s ambitions and would adopt an attitude of neutrality similar to the United States.” However, in the same speech where he promised peace, Hitler threatened Lithuania. The article also naively interpreted the exclusion of Jews from German society as an opportunity for them, stating that “Germany’s new, drastic restrictive laws against the Jews will make it possible for them to have their own community life in Germany.” However, even this misguided article clearly printed the new laws, noting that Jews were no longer German citizens with rights but instead “state subjects.”

(Seymour) Tribune, September 16, 1935, 1, accessed Newspapers.com

On the same day, the (Seymour) Tribune printed an Associated Press (AP) article that more accurately conveyed the significance of the Nuremburg Laws under the headline “Jews Placed in Medieval Status.” The newspaper reported on the specifics of the laws and that “Aryan citizens . . . will be separated sharply from ‘belongers to the state.’” Perhaps most foreboding, the article mentioned that Nazis hoped the rest of their ideology would become law in a similar manner. The article stated: “These acts inspired Der Fuhrer’s followers with the hope that the rest of the Nazi tenets would be translated into practical politics, step by step, just as fast as political expedience permitted.” To that end, the Reichstag gave Hermann Goring (the highest ranking Nazi official after Hitler) the power “to summon it into session at will” to create new laws. According to an AP article ran by the Kokomo Tribune also on September 16, Hitler concluded his speech by threatening “to enact even more stringent laws if today’s legislation fails to solve the Jewish problem.”

(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, September 20, 1935, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles.
(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, September 20, 1935, 1, accessed Hoosier State Chronicles

For the most part, Indiana newspapers were quiet in the days following the announcement of the Nuremburg Laws. The Indianapolis Jewish post was not. On September 20, 1935, in an article for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, writer and editor Boris Smolar criticized other newspapers for putting a positive spin on Hitler’s address to the Reichstag and for focusing on Hitler’s orders to Nazi officials prohibiting “individual acts of terrorism against Jews” as opposed to the real message of the address: Jews had lost even basic rights. Smolar’s criticism could be directly applied to the aforementioned UP article in the Daily Clintonian which posited that Jews would be able to have their own community now that they were officially separated from the rest of Germany. However, while Hitler was promising protection for Jews, the Nazis were in reality relentlessly persecuting them. Smolar wrote:

[Later photo of Boris Smolar], Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, June 6, 1952 p. 8, accessed Newspapers.com

The press generally hails the new laws relegating the Jews back to the medieval ghetto and warns the Jews not to make the necessary revision threatened by Hitler in his address to the Reichstag. Newspapers point out that these laws give the Jews official protection . . . Meanwhile, reports indicate that the campaign to deprive the Jews of food is going ahead apace . . . In other fields too, the campaign to segregate the Jews goes on relentlessly.

Smolar’s greatest fear however was that “the Jews will be held as hostages” if foreign countries including the United States continued their economic boycott.

“Nuremberg Laws Proclaimed,” [Still from historical video footage of declaration of the Nureumberg Laws], accessed USHMM
In the same issue, the Jewish Post reprinted an editorial from the Indianapolis News bluntly stating that Hitler’s address to the Reichstag cleared up many misconceptions that might remain about separation between Germany and the Nazi party or any thoughts that Hitler would tone down the anti-Semitism or become more moderate once his power was established. The News stated:

Such doubt as recently existed as to whether the Nazi swastika was to be regarded as the German national emblem has been removed by the Reichstag’s declaration Sunday that the Nazi swastika is to be the flag of the Reich and nation. Whatever doubt existed as to whether Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitism was as great as in the earlier days of his rise to power was also removed. . . The speech of Hitler to the Reichstag, however, and the measures promptly adopted at his urgence, give little support to those who had hoped for moderation. By these new enactments citizenship is denied the Jews. . . These enactments and the fanatical declarations so often made by Hitler and repeated by him Sunday, attributing virtually all of Germany’s troubles to the machinations of a race singled out for opprobrium can hardly tend to create confidence in the prospective sanity of a government completely under his control.

Eugenics poster entitled “The Nuremberg Law for the Protection of Blood and German Honor,” accessed USHMM.

Other Indiana newspapers seemed slow to grasp the significance of the Nuremberg laws or even report on the announcement. For example, the Hammond Times did not report on the laws until November 15, two months after their enactment. However, Indiana newspapers did continue to report on the growing threat of Hitler’s Reich and on the debate over whether the United States should participate in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. What very few Hoosiers or Indiana newspapers were talking about, however, was how to help the people seeking refuge from the oppressive Nazi regime.

(Connellsville, PA) Daily COurier, October 30, 1933, 4, accessed Newspapers.com

Not everyone remained silent, however. Hoosier James G. McDonald worked for most of his life to awaken the world’s conscience to the plight of German Jews seeking aid and refuge. In meetings and in letters to foreign leaders, the League of Nations, high-ranking diplomats, leading businessmen, newspaper editors, and President Franklin Roosevelt, McDonald expressed his fears for how the Nazis were planning to solve the “Jewish problem” and pleaded the case of German refugees. Fortunately his letters and journals from this period (published by Indiana University and the USHMM as Advocate for the Doomed and Refugees and Rescue) can be combined with newspaper articles to help us understand the work of one brave Hoosier at this time of crisis.

“James and Ruth (Stafford) McDonald pose outside the Stafford family home in Albany, Indiana, on their wedding day,” [photograph], August 25 1915, accessed USHMM
James Grover McDonald grew up in Albany, Indiana, attended Indiana University and Harvard, and returned to IU to teach from 1914-1918. In 1919, he became chairman of the League of Free Nations Association which worked to encourage the United States to join the League of Nations. The League of Free Nations Association soon evolved into the Foreign Policy Association and McDonald remained at its head until October 1933 when he accepted the position of High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations. He was given the almost impossible task or finding homes for refugees from Germany.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, October 31, 1933, 9, accessed Newspapers.com

During regular trips to Germany and meetings with high ranking Nazi officials, McDonald gleaned enough to suspect that the Nazis might be planning a tragic solution to the “Jewish problem,” though he could not have predicted the extent of the coming horrors. In a trip to Berlin in 1933, McDonald had a surprising amount of access to leading Nazi officials and policy information through Hitler’s press secretary at the time, Ernst Hanfstaengl. On April 3, 1933, McDonald wrote in a letter to the Foreign Policy Administration (published in Advocate for the Doomed) about a disturbing conversation with Hanfstaengl on the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in retaliation for a foreign boycott of Nazi goods. McDonald wrote:

Eventually we reached the subject of the Jews, especially the decree just announced for Monday’s boycott. He defended it unqualifiedly, saying: “When I told Hitler of the agitation and boycott abroad, Hitler beat his fists and exclaimed, ‘Now we shall show them that we are not afraid of international Jewry. The Jews must be crushed. Their fellows abroad have played into our hands.’”

McDonald wrote that he tried to explain to Hanfstaengl that there was no international Jewish conspiracy, but that the Nazi then “launched into a terrifying account of Nazi plans.” McDonald’s letter continued to quote Hanfstaengl:

The boycott is only a beginning. It can be made to strangle all Jewish business. Slowly, implacable it can be extended with ruthless and unshakable discipline. Our plans go much further. During the [first world] war we had 1,500,000 prisoners. 60,000 Jews would be simple. Each Jew has his SA [storm trooper]. In a single night it could be finished.

Here McDonald added his own thoughts in response to Hanfstaengl’s diatribe. He wrote: “He did not explain, but I assume he meant nothing more than wholesale arrests and imprisonments.” At this point, anything more was unimaginable. Still, he was kept awake that night with an impending sense of doom. He concluded his letter by describing a late-night walk through the beautiful but troubled city:

I reached my hotel before midnight. But there could be no thought of going to bed. So I walked alone to the Unter den Lindedn (a boulevard) and the Tiergarten (a park)  – a beautiful night, spring-like, bright stars, many lovers in the park, a world seemingly at peace and yet these ghastly hatreds breeding such shocking plans for heartless oppression of a whole section of the people.

Any illusion that the Nazi’s were planning anything other than the literal destruction of the Jewish people would soon disappear. Only a month later McDonald responded to a reporter-friend’s question on what he thought would happen “if there were a Franco-Polish occupation of Germany” with the answer: “Of course, I don’t know, but my guess is that the first thing would be a wholesale slaughter of the Jews” (May 16, 1933 diary entry in Advocate for the Doomed). What had happened over the previous month to change McDonald’s outlook? On April 7, 1933 he wrote in his journal:

I was at the Chancellery at 12:30 to keep my appointment with Hitler.

“Nuremberg Race Laws 1935,” {video still} September 10-28, 1935, Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives & Records Administration, accessed USHMM.

McDonald asked Hitler directly about the Nazi party’s policies towards the German Jewish people and recorded Hitler’s response in his journal entry for that date. Hitler responded defensively, stating that they weren’t only attacking Jews, but also communists and socialists. Hitler said that unlike the United States, Germany had previously accepted such people and therefore “cannot be blamed if we now take measures against them.” Hitler continued, “Besides, as to the Jew, why should there be such a fuss when they are thrown out of places, when hundreds of thousands of Aryan Germans are on the streets? No, the world has no just ground for complaint.”

Later, when he returned to the United States, McDonald gave more details of this meeting to the prominent Rabbi Stephen Wise. McDonald told Wise of a chilling threat from Hitler. Hitler had stated: “I will do the thing that the rest of the world would like to do. It doesn’t know how to get rid of the Jews. I will show them” (Advocate for the Doomed, 48, fn 73).

Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, November 9, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com

Over the next several years, in his role as High Commissioner for Refugees, McDonald worked hard to alert the world of the impending catastrophe and find people willing to help the refugees. However, while the Commission was organized by the League of Nations and affiliated with it, the League provided no financial backing. He pleaded with international government leaders, religious and charitable institutions, and individuals for aid and funding. For example, On May 11, 1934, after visiting ten European and Eastern European countries and meeting with leaders encouraging them to accept refugees, McDonald told the London Jewish Chronicle:

“James G. McDonald poses on the deck of the SS Paris on his way to Geneva to take over his new duties as League of Nations High Commissioner for German Refugees from Germany.” [photograph], circa 1933, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of James McDonald, accessed USHMM.
I think we have made a beginning. There is a clearer recognition of the difficulties involved, and, at the same time, of the acute urgency of finding a solution promptly . . . If only the governments could be made to realize that the refugees would constitute advantages to the material, moral and spiritual wealth of their new homes, the task of securing the necessary permission for the refugees to stay in the older countries or to enter into the newer countries would be immeasurably easier.

McDonald’s public statements were more positive and encouraging than his private reflections and letters. By 1935, he was completely overwhelmed by the need to help the growing number of refugees, by the inadequate response by the United States and her allies, and by the worsening crisis in Germany as epitomized by the Nuremberg Laws. Since the laws went into effect in September, he had been disheartened by increasingly bleak accounts of what faced the German Jews. Speaking with prospective British financial investors in October about a possible reorganizing of the Committee and plans to secure more funding, he saw little hope. He wrote in his diary:

He [a British banker] confirmed stories I had heard from other directions about food and medical shortages, the probability of radical action in implementing the Nuremberg Laws, and the waiving of all favors on behalf of the front-line soldiers or their children. In short, he sees the situation as hopeless . . .

He was equally disheartened that private organizations, especially Jewish ones were not responding adequately in contributing to refugee aid campaigns. In a letter to New York Governor Herbert Lehman which the governor forwarded to President Roosevelt, McDonald wrote:

The Jewish communities, particularly in Great Britain and in the United States, must at last realize the truth, bitter and terrible though it is, which you and I and some of the rest of us have tried to drive home to them for more than two years – there can be no future for Jews in Germany.

Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg, eds., Advocate for the Doomed: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1932-1935 (Indianapolis and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Published in Association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C., 2007), photographs between pages 564 and 565.

The Nuremberg Laws were the last straw for McDonald. As a protest against the failure of the world to act on behalf of Jewish refugees, McDonald resigned his post as High Commissioner in a letter to the Secretary General of the League of Nations dated December 27, 1935. His lengthy letter of resignation ran in the New York Times on December 30, 1935 and was widely reprinted and commented on in the international press. (Read the entire letter.) In future posts here and at the Indiana Historical Bureau’s blog, Blogging Hoosier History, we will look closer at the important work McDonald dedicated himself to, but here we will end with an excerpt from his resignation letter in order to convey the significant turning point that was the Nuremberg Laws.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 30, 1935, 15, accessed Newspapers.com

McDonald explained that since the laws had reclassified Jews as a separate race, along with the increasing intensity of their persecution, the critical problem was no longer placing Jewish refugees (as important as this still was to him) but instead intervening politically with the German state to stop the persecution. This was beyond the capabilities of an unfunded committee tenuously aligned with the League of Nations. It was time for the League and its member countries to confront Germany, peaceably but sternly “in the name of humanity and of the principles of the public law of Europe.” McDonald concluded his resignation letter thusly:

(Wilmington, Delaware) Morning News, December 30, 1935, 1, accessed Newspapers.com

. . . I gave in my former office frequent and tangible proof of my concern that justice be done to the German people. But convinced as I am that desperate suffering in the countries adjacent to Germany, and an even more terrible human calamity with the German frontiers, are inevitable unless present tendencies in the Reich are checked or reversed, I cannot remain silent . . . When domestic policies threaten the demoralization and exile of hundreds of thousands of human beings, considerations of diplomatic correctness must yield to those of common humanity. I should be recreant if I did not call attention to the actual situation and plead that world opinion, acting through the League and its member States and other countries, move to avert the existing and impending tragedies.

Photo clipping from the New York Times, Photogravure Picture Section, October 21, 1934, depicting James G. McDonald, League of Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, attending a groundbreaking ceremony on October 3, for a new village, Werkdorp Wieningemeer, on the Zuyder Zee in the Netherlands.United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of James McDonald, accessed USHMM.

James Grover McDonald continued to speak out on behalf of those persecuted by the Nazis, eventually serving as Chairman of the President’s Advisory Commission on Political Refugees under FDR. Check back here and at Blogging Hoosier History for more on McDonald’s life’s work. Please visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s summary of the Nuremberg Laws for more information, photographs, and the personal stories of Holocaust survivors. Don’t forget that you can also participate in the History Unfolded project. Hoosiers can also learn more about the Holocaust and its survivors through CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, Indiana.

References:

Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg, eds., Advocate for the Doomed: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1932-1935 (Indianapolis and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Published in Association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C., 2007).

Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg, eds., Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1935-1945 (Indianapolis and Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Published in Association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington D.C., 2009).

“Nuremberg Laws,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed USHMM.

See also:

Read the previous post contributing to the History Unfolded Project on Nazi Book Burnings.

You can submit research to the USHMM’s History Unfolded project as well. Visit: https://newspapers.ushmm.org/

Kenneth Rexroth: Poet, Pacifist, Radical, and Reluctant Father of the Beat Generation

For the exciting tale of Rexroth’s turbulent Hoosier upbringing and the mischief he got into along the way, see part one: The Midwestern Making of Kenneth Rexroth.

Photo accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 120.
Kenneth Rexroth, Portrait of Andree Rexroth, accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 122.

After a period of hitchhiking their way towards the West Coast, camping, and living on cold food, the twenty two-year-old burgeoning poet Kenneth Rexroth and his new artist wife Andrée, arrived in San Francisco in the summer of 1927. Rexroth biographer, Linda Hamalian, referred to them as “forerunners of the flower children who flocked to Northern California during the fifties and sixties.” In San Francisco they found exactly what they had been hoping for: a rich cultural environment without the pretense they sensed in the East Coast artistic community.

Montgomery Block, photograph, 1906, accessed Peter Lawrence Kane, “Bohemian Grave: The Montgomery Block,” San Fransisco Weekly, July 9, 2015, courtesy of archives.sfweekly.com

They quickly met other artists and writers and found jobs painting furniture. They moved into an apartment on the Montgomery Block, often called the Monkey Block, that had long housed artists and writers, including the Hoosier author Ambrose Bierce. Rexroth wrote that they had little money, but “limited needs” and were able to live “the kind of life that I’ve lived almost always since, a sort of semi-monastic life devoted to writing and painting.”

Andree and Kenneth Rexroth, “Bathers,” oil on canvas, n.d., accessed Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 120.

The young couple also spent time enjoying the lush and varied natural environment surrounding San Francisco which Rexroth wrote “kept me in California all these years.” They swam and hiked and noted the unique flora and fauna. This love for nature deeply influenced Rexroth’s writing and he worried about destruction of the natural world by developers. In later years, he described himself as a sort of early environmentalist writer:

My poetry and philosophy of life became what it’s now fashionable to call ecological. I came to think of myself as a microcosm in a macrocosm, related to chipmunks and bears and pine trees and stars and nebulae and rocks and fossils, as part of an infinitely interrelated complex of being. This I have retained.

Reprint of the WPA Guide to California (Pantheon Books, 1984) accessed Amazon.com.

By the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, Rexroth was employed by the Work’s Progress Administration (WPA) contributing to the “American Guide” series of handbooks for each state. Rexroth and several other local poets and writers created the California guide and were able to inject information on natural conservation and  into the otherwise standard guidebook.

While he had contributed scattered “cubist poetry” to what Hamalain described as “ephemeral publications” upon his arrival in San Fransisco, by the 1930s he was regularly writing and publishing work in journals and small volumes of poetry. Much of this poetry combined natural imagery with his radical leftist political beliefs and strong anti-war sentiment. For example, his poem “At Lake Desolation,”  published in the magazine The New Republic in 1935, contrasted the stillness of nature with the horrors of war. The poem begins:

Kenneth Rexroth, “Requiem for the Dead in Spain,” New Republic, March 24, 1937, 201, accessed ebscohost.com;

The sun is about to come up and the regiments lie
scattered in the furrow their large eyes
wet in the pale light and their throats cut

He explored similar themes in his poetry throughout the 1930s and became a staunch pacifist. In 1937, the New Republic journal published Rexroth’s poem “Requiem for the Dead in Spain,” lamenting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. He began the work by describing his walk through the beautiful Sierra Mountains under the stars, the tone changes as he suddenly feels sick thinking about the war. He laments:

I see the unwritten books, the unrecorded experiments,
The unpainted pictures, the interrupted lives,
Lowered into the graves with the red flags over them.
I see the quick gray brains broken and clotted with blood,
Lowered each in its own darkness, useless in the earth.
Alone on a hilltop in San Francisco suddenly
I am caught in a nightmare, the dead flesh
Mounting over half the world presses against me.

James Laughlin, ed., New Directions in Poetry and Prose (New York: New Directions, 1937), photograph accessed via Amazon.com.

That same year, the influential independent publisher James Laughlin included Rexroth’s work in his second annual New Directions in Poetry and Prose, a publication the Academy of American Poets referred to as “pivotal.” In 1940, Macmillan published Rexroth’s first major collection, In What Hour. The work was considered wholly original and cemented his place at the forefront of the San Francisco literary movement.  A reviewer for the Oakland Tribune wrote: “Rexroth is wholly and essentially a poet in the new manner. Usually a poet’s first work, and this is Rexroth’s first book, enables the acute reader to name his literary progenitors. But Rexroth’s poetical parents, if he has any, are not known.”  The critic continued, “Despite this break with tradition, or it may be, as the apostles of the modern poetry claim, because of this independence, Rexroth’s book is important and tremendously interesting.” Hamalain wrote that the poems that make up In What Hour “demonstrate his remarkable ability to render plausible the possibility of spiritual presence and a sense of unity in the natural world” despite the threats of the modern age.

Oakland Tribune, September 1, 1940, 18, accessed Newspapers.com.
Kenneth Rexroth, Marie Rexroth, wax, silica, and pigment on board, c. 1936, collection of James S. Jaffe Rare Books, LLC., accessed jamesjaffe.com

While his writing career was taking off, his marriage was dissolving.  Rexroth moved out and began a relationship with Marie Kass, a “whipsmart” nurse, who would become his second wife in 1941. While he was happy with Marie, he was devastated when Andrée died October 17, 1940 from a seizure.  He wrote of Andrée in a poem published in The Phoenix and the Tortoise:

I know that spring again is splendid
As ever, the hidden thrush
As sweetly tongued, the sun as vital —
But these are the forest trails we walked together,
These paths, ten years together.
We thought the years would last forever,
They are all gone now, the days
We thought would not come for us are here.

This idea, that love and nature could serve as spiritual refuge in troubled times, became even more significant with the outbreak of World War II and the entry of the United States into the conflict in 1941. Rexroth maintained his pacifist stance and applied for conscientious objector status February 19, 1943. Throughout the war, Rexroth worked with pacifist organizations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the American Friends Service Committee, and the local branch of the National Committee for Conscientious Objectors. He wrote that at one point he received a notice from his draft board that his status had been changed from 4-E, conscientious objector to 1-A, available for armed service.  He wrote, “I immediately appealed. The process dragged on for over a year while the FBI investigated the claim as by law they were required to do . . . There was no question that I was a bona-fide Conscientious Objector.”

Executive Order 9066, February 19, 1942; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives accessed https://www.archives.gov/.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, some Americans began questioning the loyalty of Japanese Americans, a large number of whom lived on the West Coast. In February 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 which relocated Japanese Americans, including native born citizens, inland, away from the coast (which had been identified as the Pacific military zone) and confined them to internment camps. Thousands were forced to leave their homes and businesses.  However, some Americans, including Rexroth, opposed internment as racist and unconstitutional.

National Archives caption: Registration in San Francisco, California. Residents of Japanese ancestry file forms containing personal data, two days before evacuation, at a Wartime Civil Control Administration station. National Archives Identifier: 536056 accessed https://catalog.archives.gov/id/536056
National Archives caption: Posting of Exclusion Order at First and Front Streets in San Francisco, California, directing removal of persons of Japanese ancestry from the first section in San Francisco to be affected by the evacuation.
National Archives Identifier: 536017 accessed https://catalog.archives.gov/id/536017

Rexroth wrote in his autobiography that even before the U.S. declared war on Japan, that he worried Japanese Americans would face persecution. He wrote a letter and sent it to various pacifist groups and religious groups, stating that when war was declared, “the persecution of Japanese and Americans of Japanese ancestry, because they are marked by their color and features, will be worse than that of the German-Americans of the First World War.” He wrote in his autobiography, “I managed to persuade them to set up a committee with the absurd title of the American Committee to Protect the Rights of Americans of Oriental Ancestry.” When Rexroth and other members of the Friends Service Committee got word from a “contact in the White House” about the order for internment, they “immediately got on the phones,” and urged each person they called to call five more people. They also called university and political contacts and civil liberties organizations. While perhaps an aggrandizement, Rexroth credited this work with mobilizing opinion in the Bay Area against internment.

National Archives caption: Waiting for Evacuation in San Francisco, California. With baggage stacked, residents of Japanese ancestry await a bus at the Wartime Civil Control Administration station, 2020 Van Ness Avenue, as part of the first group of 664 to be evacuated from San Francisco on April 6, 1942. Evacuees will be housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration.
National Archives Identifier: 536065, accessed https://catalog.archives.gov/id/536065

Rexroth took more direct action as well. Again according to his autobiography, Rexroth explained a scheme that saved several Japanese-Americans, including a personal friend, from internment.  He contacted the Midwest Art Academy in Chicago, which he called a “phony correspondence school” that advertised scholarships “in cheap pulp magazines” for classes on “photo retouching, art, dress design, and knitting.” He convinced the school to sign registration papers for Japanese American students for a fee. He then contacted the “colonel in charge” of evacuation in San Francisco who agreed to provide educational passes for such students despite the school’s organization being “kind of a racket.”  He located funding through Jewish residents of San Francisco and worked with Quakers to “set up a student relocation program.” In this way, Rexroth wrote, “we started shoveling people our of the West Coast on educational passes.” The poet Robert Duncan wrote that both Kenneth and Marie were also “working in the camps . . . taking messages back and forth.”

Kenneth Rexroth, The Phoenix and the Tortoise (New York: New Directions, 1944).

Rexroth’s practice of Buddhism, Taoism, and yoga also influenced his pacifist views and actions. He incorporated this worldview, along with a belief of the transcendental power of love, into his writing. In 1944, New Directions Press published Rexroth’s The Phoenix and the Tortoise, a rumination on history and humanity’s major failings: war and its threat to the natural landscape. In this lengthy poem, there is still hope for humanity in nature and through love. While the tortoise represented the earthly and the mortal, the phoenix represented the transcendent, sublime, and immortal power of love. Likewise, the ocean symbolized nature’s power to transform and serve as sanctuary in a world threatened by war.  Literary critic John Palattella explained, “Nature’s indifference to human death is not a threat but a source of consolation, since the ocean’s one unchanging characteristic is that it changes everything.”

W.G. Rogers, “Author of the Week,”Waco (Texas) Herald Tribune, December 25, 1952, 25, Newspapers.com

While Rexroth and a small number of avante-garde writers flourished in the San Francisco area for several years, the end of the war in 1945 saw an influx of new artists and writers. Many of these new voices were drawn to the area because they had read Rexroth’s works and heard about the creative coterie he had organized: a group of rebellious writers who were exploring anti-establishment and far left politics in their literature along with other cultural critiques. Rexroth believed it was the war itself that created this cultural climate. He wrote in San Francisco Magazine:

Just as London under the buzz bombs enjoyed a literary renaissance and a profound change of social relationships . . . so San Francisco during the War woke up from a long provincial sleep and became culturally a world capital.

Rexroth also maintained what Beat scholar John Tytell called “a sort of western salon, a weekly literary gathering,” where Rexroth introduced poets to each other and hosted readings. Out of this meeting of minds came “an entirely new cultural synthesis,” which produced new movements in theater, art, and poetry. One newspaper described this literary gathering in 1948 as “the San Francisco bay area poetry forum,” but the broader movement became known as the San Francisco Renaissance. Rexroth considered the combination of political discussion, poetry, and jazz to be the foundation of the movement. Over the following decade, this San Francisco Renaissance ushered in the rise of the Beat Generation. Rexroth’s role as bandleader of the San Francisco movement was responsible for his gaining the title “Father of the Beat Poets,” though he would later reject the title and the movement.

Webster Schott, “Writers Dig the Beat Generation,” Kansas City (Missouri) Times, February 27, 1958, 34, accessed Newspapers.com.

According to the Academy of American Poets, “Beat poetry evolved during the 1940s in both New York City and on the West Coast, although San Francisco became the heart of the movement in the early 1950s.” The Beat Generation rejected mainstream culture and politics and expressed themselves through new and non-conventional forms of poetry. Beat scholars point to the salon-type meetings organized by Rexroth as essential to bringing the Beats together. In the gatherings, the Beats would explore and embrace influential themes in Rexroth’s prolific writings like anarchism, pacifism, mysticism, and environmentalism. Beat scholar Ann Charters also credits Rexroth’s writings on Asian philosophy as influencing the Beat writers’ interest in “Buddha consciousness.”

“Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bruce Lippincott, and Kenneth Rexroth Performing at the Cellar,” photograph, 1957, accessed Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Rexroth also helped establish jazz as an essential element of Beat poetry. During this period, Rexroth gained fame for combining his poetry with the music of local jazz groups. In San Francisco, he often performed at the Cellar, which became known for jazz and poetry performances and at the Blackhawk club with jazz bands like the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Two such performances were released on vinyl in 1957 and 1959.

Kenneth Rexroth, Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk, 1959, Fantasy Records, accessed garagehangover.com

Rexroth toured the country, performing regularly in New York City. According to the Academy of American Poets:

Rexroth was among the first twentieth-century poets to explore the prospects of poetry and jazz in tandem. He championed jazz and its musicians, publishing appreciations of players like Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman, defending jazz in print against critics who deemed the music less than serious, and most importantly, he played in a jazz band himself, helping to define a role for the poet in the jazz world and a role for jazz in the poetry world.

“American Poet Kenneth Rexroth Reads One of His Poems as Three Musicians Play Instruments Alongside Him,” photograph, January 1, 1960, accessed Getty Images.

In the liner notes for his 1959 recording Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk, Rexroth wrote that jazz poetry “takes the poet out of the bookish, academic world” and returns the poetry to the realm of public entertainment. Rexroth believed that combining music and spoken word connected the audience and poet directly (as opposed to the mediation of the written word) and restored poetry to oral tradition.

“Poet Kenneth Rexroth Reading a Book at a Poetry Reading,” photograph
February 1, 1957, Getty Images, accessed gettyimages.com.uk

Mainly, however, it was his rejection of mainstream culture that aligned Rexroth with the Beat movement early on. For example, in 1951, in a syndicated review of Rexroth’s poem “The Dragon and the Unicorn” one critic noted that these rebellious writers were reacting to the post-war period with disgust. He stated that though in their writing style, they break with tradition, but their rebellion makes them part of a long tradition of creativity.

Six Gallery Poster, Allen Ginsberg Project, accessed ginsbergblog.blogspot.com.

On October 7, 1955, at a poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, Rexroth introduced Allen Ginsberg who read his revolutionary poem “Howl.” Scholars often point to this as the culminating event of the San Francisco Renaissance and solidification of the Beat movement. Charters described the movement as “awakening a new awareness in the audience (at the Six Gallery) of the large group of talented young poets in the city, and giving the poets themselves a new sense of belonging to a community.”

Rexroth championed many of the new writers in a 1957 article for The Nation, including high praise for Ginsberg. He described the scene at the height of the movement:

Poetry readings to large and enthusiastic audiences are at least weekly occurrences – in small galleries, city museums, community centers, church social halls, pads and joints, apartments and studios, and at the very active Poetry Center at San Francisco State College, which also imports leading poets . . . Poetry out here, more than anywhere else, has a direct, patent, measurable, social effect, immediately grasped by both poet and audience.

Fred Danzig, “‘Beat Generation’ Got that Way through Draft, Missiles, Hydrogen Bombs, Wars,” (Elwood) Call-Leader, April 28, 1958, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

Rexroth argued that the Beat movement started as a radical literary movement, but quickly turned into a “hipster lifestyle,” that is, the pursuit of fashionable trends and not larger truths. He soon distanced himself from the movement because he felt the East Coast Beats, and especially Jack Kerouac, were opportunists seeking fame and mainstream acceptance. Rexroth was quoted by a reporter in 1958 as saying, “This beat thing, which is a publicity gimmick in the hands of Madison Avenue, will die away.”

“Poet Kenneth Rexroth Reading a Book,” photograph, February 1, 1957, Getty Images, accessed gettyimages.co.uk

Regardless, Rexroth had directly influenced the Beat movement probably more so than any other poet.  In 1958, one reporter astutely wrote that Rexroth “seems to fix the entrance requirements.” Charters explained that Rexroth was one of a handful of writers who had “sown the seeds” for the flowering of the Beat movement. She refered to Rexroth as a “mentor” for the younger Beats and “the dominant force in the cultural life of San Francisco for more than half a century.”

The “Classics Revisited” series was compiled into book form, first edition in 1968. Image: Kenneth Rexroth, Classics Revisited (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1986)

Although the Beat movement melted into the counterculture movements of the sixties and rock and roll became the dominant outlet for rebellious youth, Rexroth remained a central figure in American literature. He continued to write poetry and extensive cultural and literary criticism. In addition to his original contributions, his translations of foreign poetry and his writings on literature such as his “Classics Revisited” column in the Saturday Review increased his importance to the literary world.

Kenneth Rexroth, The Alternative Society (Herder and Herder, 1970).

Writing for the Chicago Review, Rexroth scholar Ken Knabb looked back on the over 800 columns that Rexroth wrote for the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and San Francisco Magazine during the 1960s and 1970s.  Knabb wrote in admiration of the diversity of topics that Rexroth covered: reviews of jazz and classical concerts, operas, films, Chinese theater, performances of Shakespeare; discussions of art, literature, fishing, architecture, drugs, wine, Civil Rights, war, and politics; observations from his world travels; arguments for the women’s liberation and ecological movements; and criticisms of the past cultural movements through which he lived and participated. Knabb concluded that “as an ensemble . . . they add up to a social document and critical commentary of remarkable range.”

Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung, The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China (McGraw-Hill 1972)

While Rexroth had begun translating poetry from other languages in the 1950s, he dedicated more and more of his time to the task later in life. He paid special attention to translating the work of women poets starting in the 1970s in works such as The Orchid Boat: Women Poets of China (1972) and The Burning Heart: The Women Poets of Japan (1977).  By this point, his own work incorporated imagery and meter learned through decades of translating Chinese and Japanese poetry.

In his review of Rexroth’s collection The Morning Star (1979), critic Emiko Sakurai praised these poems especially as “extraordinary poems, rich and sensuous, always immediate, febrile and powerful” and called Rexroth “a poet of the first rank.”  However, Sakurai had a hunch about Rexroth. He noted that “The Love Poems of Marichiko” were “ostensibly” written by a young Japanese woman. Indeed, they were actually written by Rexroth from this imagined perspective. Critics noted the transformative power his work as a translator had on his own original work and his ability to write convincingly from the a feminine perspective of his invented character.

Wolfgang Saxon, “Kenneth Rexroth, 76, Author; Ffather Figure to Beat Poets,” June 8, 1982, D26, accessed ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

Upon Rexroth’s death in 1982, the New York Times described this “poet, author, critic and translator of Chinese, Japanese and classic Greek poetry” as greatly influential on later generations of writers. The Times obituary noted that he received acclaim from both radical literary and political circles as well as “honors and awards from more orthodox literary corners,” such as Guggenheim fellowships and a prestigious grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964.

Although he came to despise being called “Father of the Beats,” Rexroth created a cultural movement that influenced the voice and  worldview of some of America’s best poets. Frankly, there would be no Ginsberg or Kerouac without Rexroth. However, it is his own unique voice that will forever hold his place in this country’s literary canon. Perhaps the best summary of his significance comes from poet and publisher James Laughlin, who described his friend Kenneth Rexroth aptly as “an American cultural monument.”

Left to right: Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, and James Laughlin. Image is detail of photo by D. Sorenson, City Lights in North Dakota Conference, March 18, 1974, accessed Allen Ginsberg Project.

Further reading:

Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991).

Ann Charters, ed., The Portable Beat Reader (New York: Penguin Books, 1992).

History Unfolded Project Part 3: Book Burnings

We are continuing to examine world events through the eyes of the Hoosier newspaper reader.  Because many of these articles were reported through the Associated Press and United Press news services, what we are really seeing is not just what Hoosiers knew, but what the average American knew, about the events leading up to the Holocaust.

Over the next several months, we will be contributing newspaper articles to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘s project titled History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust.  Using digitized newspapers mainly accessible via Hoosier State Chronicles, we are looking at key events suggested for research by the museum to see what Hoosiers knew when. The overall goal of the project is to contribute to the scholarship on how American media reported and under-reported Nazi atrocities.  Anyone can submit their research; find out how at History Unfolded.

USHMM caption: At Berlin’s Opernplatz, the burning of books and other printed materials considered “un-German” by members of the SA and students from universities and colleges in Berlin, Germany, May 10, 1933, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed ushmm.org

For this post, Part 3 of our History Unfolded project, we examine Indiana newspapers to find out when and what Hoosiers learned about the book burnings staged by German students and Nazi officials. In our previous post, we looked at articles reporting the removal of Jewish leaders from government and institutional positions by the Nazi Party in March and April of 1933.  By this time, Nazi authorities were also working to remove Jews from cultural organizations and to “synchronize” the goals of these organizations with that of the Nazi Party.  According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM):

USHMM caption: Joseph Goebbels, German propaganda minister, speaks on the night of book burning. Berlin, Germany, May 10, 1933, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed ushmm.org

In 1933, Nazi German authorities aimed to synchronize professional and cultural organizations with Nazi ideology and policy (Gleichschaltung). Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, began an effort to bring German arts and culture in line with Nazi goals. The government purged cultural organizations of Jewish and other officials alleged to be politically suspect or who performed or created art works which Nazi ideologues labeled “degenerate.”

(Greencastle) Daily Banner, January 17, 1933, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

By 1933, Goebbels had coordinated with the influential National Socialist German Student’s Association to “synchronize” German literature.  According to the USHMM, “German university students were among the vanguard of the early Nazi movement.” This younger generation was resentful of what they saw as the humiliation of Germany through disarmament and sanctions imposed at the end of World War One. They saw National Socialism as an outlet for their anger and feelings of nationalism and antisemitism.  An article published in the (Greencastle) Daily Banner on January 17, 1933, gives some insight into the students’ hostility.  In this article, United Press Staff Correspondent Richard D. McMillan reported the sentiments of one German student:

We did not make the last war.  Even if it is accepted that Germany was guilty for plunging the world into the greatest carnage of all time — and we dispute this question of war guilt — we, the younger generation, were not responsible. Why, then, should we suffer the humiliation and indignity of our present situation.

This generation, however, would be responsible for much greater carnage. On April 6, 1933, the student association’s propaganda office declared a nation-wide purge of “un-German” literature. Local chapters of the Nazi German Student Association published articles and lists of blacklisted works, created press releases and radio announcements, and organized book burning events with Nazi speakers.

Theodore Dreiser, photograph, 1931, New York World-Telegram and Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2002735853/

Black listed authors included socialists, communists, and “corrupting foreign influences.”  They condemned several American writers including Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, and Indiana author Theodore Dreiser. A Terre Haute native, Dreiser was targeted because of his socialist convictions and because of his role in defending political radicals, many of whom were union leaders that he believed were denied social justice. Interestingly, Dreiser’s books were also ordered to be burned for their socialist content in 1935 by the library trustees of Warsaw, Indiana, where he went to high school.

Considering the action of burning books runs counter to American ideas about freedom of the press and speech, we expected to see strong denunciations of the purge in Indiana newspapers.  In actuality, we found little.  Unfortunately, the (Indianapolis) Jewish Post is not available for most of the year 1933 in Hoosier State Chronicles.  On the other hand, most Indiana residents would not have had access to that newspaper.  So what did the average Hoosier newspaper reader know about the Nazi-orchestrated book burnings?

“Nazi Troops Active,” (Greencastle) Daily Banner, May 2, 1933, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

By searching the (Greencastle) Daily Banner we can see that Indiana readers had at least some knowledge of Nazi attempts to align their values with that of various institutions. (See Part 2 for information of removal of Jews from various positions of leadership as well as from universities.)  On May 2, 1933, the Daily Banner ran a United Press (UP) article reporting that Nazi storm troops had seized all German trade unions.  The article stated that Nazis “arrested the upper officials of each union and assumed charge” and “announced labor was being ‘harmonized’ with the Nazi regime.”

(Columbus) Republic, May 10, 1933, 2, accessed Newspapers.com

On May 10, the day of the scheduled event,  several Indiana newspapers picked up the story via the Associated Press (AP).  The (Columbus) Republic, the (Richmond) Palladium-Item, and the Muncie Evening Press were among the newspapers that ran the same article announcing the burning of books for the sake of saving “kultur,” a Nazi term referring to native, superior German culture. The AP article reported:

USHMM caption: Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (at podium) praises students and members of the SA for their efforts to destroy books deemed “un-German” during the book burning at Berlin’s Opernplatz. Germany, May 10, 1933, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed ushmm.org

Blacklisted books from private as well as public libraries were piled high today on ‘Kultur’s altars’ throughout Germany for public burning tonight. Schoolboys enthusiastically rushed final preparations for the huge bonfires. Nazi student committees of action have been working at top speed more than a week arranging for the great purging of the libraries of ‘un-German influences.’ Government recognition is to be lent to the occasion in a rallying speech shortly before midnight by Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Nazi minister of public enlightenment.

(You can watch footage courtesy of the National Archives of Goebbels speaking to students at Openplatz in Berlin as books burn in front of the Nazi flag.)

USHMM caption: German students gather around books they regard as “un-German.” The books were publicly burned at Berlin’s Opernplatz. Berlin, Germany, May 10, 1933, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed ushmm.org

The AP article reported that 20,000 books had been piled up in Berlin to be lit on fire at 11:00 that night. The article stated that “All books of a socialistic, Jewish or pacifist trend are especially marked for destruction.” In place of the blacklisted books the students would reportedly be reading Alfred Rosenburg, a Nazi ideologue who penned some of the central dogma of the party, and the Nazi newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter.  Some works, however, were mandatory.  The article continued: “Among books compulsorily introduced is Chancellor Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ . . . There must be two to ten copies in each library.”

(Muncie) Star Press, May 11, 1933, 2, accessed Newspapers.com

On May 11, descriptions of the book burning appeared in several Indiana newspapers.  The (Muncie) Star Press ran an AP article reporting from Berlin:

University young men and women, pronouncing judgment on world literature considered as contravening German spirit, started huge bonfires of the volumes shortly before midnight.  Dr. Joseph Goebbels, minister of public enlightenment and propaganda, pronounced the government’s blessing and declared that “the period of Jewish intellectualism now has ended.”

The AP article continued to describe the scene:

The weird glow illuminated Opera Square opposite Berlin University as the students, garbed in the picturesque costumes of their fraternities, the Nazi brown or the steel helmet gray, threw a thousand torches on the pyre, then seized the books from trucks and hurled them onto the blaze amid cheers.

The (Greencastle) Daily Banner ran a similar article from the United Press, describing the event in Berlin.  The UP reported:

Ten thousand singing and shouting students marched around a blazing bonfire in Opera square until the early hours of today, jubilant at destroying books representing ideas and doctrines considered hostile to Nazi Germany.

The UP reported that in addition to books by the authors previously mentioned, the students destroyed All Quiet On The Western Front, a work describing the horrors of the First World War, from which the students were distancing themselves.

“Nazi Students in Celebration,” (Greencastle) Daily Banner, May 11, 1933, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In the days following the purge, we expected to find editorials condemning the book burning and exalting the American principles of free speech and press. As previously mentioned, our search suffers from lack of access the (Indianapolis) Jewish Post for these dates.  However, we were hoping to find a strong statement such as the editorial by the African American newspaper the Indianapolis Recorder condemning the boycott covered in our previous post in this series. However, we found little local response to the event.

Indianapolis Star, May 17, 1933, 8, accessed Newspapers.com

On May 17, the Indianapolis Star ran an editorial originally published by the Baltimore Sun titled, “Book Burning an Evidence of German Nazi Stupidity.” The writer asserted that this event was part of a long history of book burnings by “underlings” of authoritarian governments who have been convinced to hate what they cannot understand. The editorial stated: “German education . . . must subordinate scholarship to a mass of ill-digested preconceptions about Nordics, ‘blond men’ and ‘heroic steely romance.'” By eradicating all writings that challenge party doctrine and erasing historical context, governments have been able to manipulate and influence their followers.  In Nazi Germany, this had devastating consequences. The editorial ended by predicting that someday volumes of works would be written about the “Influences of the Blond Nordic Myth on the Revolt of the Illiterate.”

On May 22, the (Greencastle) Daily Banner ran a group of photographs and a caption almost certainly from a wire service (though none is credited) showing images from the book burning. The headline, “Scene at Nazis’ Literary Holocaust,” seems chillingly prescient of the genocide to come.

“Scene at Nazis’ Literary Holocaust,” (Greencastle) Daily Banner, May 22, 1933, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The caption reads:

Made in Berlin during the recent Nazi drive on what they considered anti-German literature, these pictures show the destruction of more than 20,000 books and pamphlets adjudged inimical to culture as interpreted by Chancellor Adolf Hitler and his followers. Upper photo shows cheering Nazis hailing Hitler as the books went up in smoke, while in lower panel are young Nazis feeding the literary Holocaust.

While the articles stopped appearing in Indiana newspapers, the book burnings continued. Nazis burned books in thirty-four university towns across Germany.  There were more burnings over the following days and another wave on June 21. The Berlin event was broadcasted throughout the country.  According to William L Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of Third Reich, Joseph Goebbels had “put German culture into a Nazi straight jacket” (page 241). The night of May 10, 1933, Goebbels stated, “These flames not only illuminate the final end of an old era; they light up the new.”

USHMM caption: Crowds gather at Berlin’s Opernplatz for the burning of books deemed “un-German.” Berlin, Germany, May 10, 1933, Wide World Photo, accessed ushmm.org

Despite Goebbel’s assertions, the “new” era only grew darker. As German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote in an 1821 play which was among the works burned that night, ” Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.” According to the USHMM, the oppression of culture was just one of many ways in which the Nazis worked to “purify” Germany.  The annihilation of the Jewish people would be next.

Please visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s summary of the book burnings for more information, photographs, and the personal stories of Holocaust survivors. Don’t forget that you can also participate in the History Unfolded project. Hoosiers can also learn more about the Holocaust and its survivors through CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Check back over the next few weeks as we share our research into Indiana newspaper coverage of the Nuremberg Race Laws, the annexation of Austria, and the struggle of Jewish refugees.

History Unfolded Project Part 2: Jewish Businesses Boycotted / Jews Removed from Government

For this project, we are examining world events through the eyes of the Hoosier newspaper reader.  Because many of these articles were reported through the Associated Press and United Press news services, what we are really seeing is not just what Hoosiers knew, but what the average American knew, about the events leading up to the Holocaust.

Over the next several months, we will be contributing newspaper articles to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum‘s project titled History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust.  Using digitized newspapers mainly accessible via Hoosier State Chronicles, we are looking at key events suggested for research by the museum to see what Hoosiers knew when. The overall goal of the project is to contribute to the scholarship on how American media reported and under-reported Nazi atrocities.  Anyone can submit their research; find out how at History Unfolded.

Jewish Post, March 1933, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

In Part 1, we asked: When did Hoosiers learn about the opening of the Dachau concentration camp?  For this post, Part 2, we are looking into Indiana newspapers to find out when and what Hoosiers learned about the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses and the removal of Jewish leaders from government posts during the spring of 1933.

Members of the Storm Troopers (SA), with boycott signs, block the entrance to a Jewish-owned shop. One of the signs exhorts: “Germans! Defend yourselves! Don’t buy from Jews!” Berlin, Germany, April 1, 1933, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed ushmm.org

On April 1, 1933, Nazis organized a boycott of Jewish-owned businesses throughout Germany. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the boycott, “marked the beginning of a nationwide campaign by the Nazi party against the entire German Jewish population.”  The Nazis presented the boycott as retaliatory, but we know this was not the case.  What did Hoosiers know at the time, considering they were reading United Press and Associated Press articles which sometimes repeated propaganda compiled by Nazi communications directors?

To get the whole story, we need to start at least a month before the boycott.  According to the USHMM, “In March 1933, the SA (Storm Troopers) attacked Jewish-owned department stores in German cities in an attempt to segregate Jews from the rest of society.” Additionally, SA members took Jewish lawyers and judges from courtrooms into the streets and publicly humiliated them.  The international press and organizations condemned these acts, which Nazis denied despite evidence, and called for a boycott of German goods.  Nazi leaders claimed the press was biased against them and blamed Jewish German citizens for reporting false stories.  The Nazi Party called for a nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses.

(Indianapolis) Jewish Post, March 10, 1933, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The earliest article that we located directly tied to this rising storm, was published in the very first issue of the new (Indianapolis) Jewish Post on March 10, 1933.  The short article on the second page of the paper reported that Nazi Storm Troops arrested Jewish business owners in Annaberg, Germany, and closed their shops. Unfortunately, this is also the only issue of the Jewish Post currently available in Hoosier State Chronicles for the year 1933, so we don’t know what other information Jews in Indianapolis received about the situation. Most Indiana residents would not have had access to this newspaper, however, so looking at newspapers that published articles from press associations tells us even more about what the average Hoosier knew.

Greencastle Daily Banner, March 24, 1933, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

On March 24, 1933, the Greencastle Daily Banner printed a United Press (UP) article titled, “Boycott by Jews is Seen in Germany: Dictator Adolf Hitler Centers Attention on This Matter.” This one short article shows the powerful Nazi propaganda machine in motion, along with the muted threat of censorship and hints of violence. The article reported from Berlin that Hitler was focused on “the twin problems of answering atrocity reports abroad and meeting threats of an economic boycott by Jewish business men in foreign lands.” Reportedly, Hitler supporters were working to “disprove reports of Jewish persecution,” though no mention was made of how this would be accomplished. The same article reported that the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter announced that “the government would take drastic measures against newspapers disseminating such reports and against their Berlin correspondent.”

On March 27, the Banner ran another UP article announcing “Jews To Be Ousted from High Posts.”  Again reporting from Berlin, the article quoted the “chief of the foreign press section” of the Nazi organization, Ernst Hanfstaengl.  He told the press that Jewish leaders would be ousted from government and “influential” positions “until the house is cleansed.” Hanfstaengl claimed that Jewish leaders and government officials were removed because they abused their positions “morally, financially and politically,” resulting in the crumbling of the German people.  He claimed they were trying to “smirch Germany’s renaissance.” Hanfstaengl also denied reports of widespread atrocities against the Jewish people in a manner that still managed to be threatening.  He stated, “If we wanted to conduct a pogrom against the Jews it would all have been over now.”

Sign on truck carrying Storm Troopers (SA) urges “Germans! Defend yourselves. Don’t buy from Jews.” Berlin, Germany, April 1, 1933, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed ushmm.org

Another short UP article on the same page reported: “Retaliatory measures against Jews in Germany were decided on by the Nazi party today to balance the ‘atrocity propaganda’ being circulated in foreign countries.” It is interesting that those creating Nazi propaganda were calling the international criticism of Nazi treatment of Jews “atrocity propaganda.” The article continued: “Retaliation will take the form of a boycott of Jewish goods and shops, a sharp reduction of the number of Jewish students permitted at German universities, and curtailment of the licenses granted to practicing Jewish physicians and lawyers.”

This attitude was much different than that of only a few years before, and would get much worse within a few years.  According to the USHMM, before 1933:

Jews held important positions in government and taught in Germany’s great universities. Of the thirty-eight Nobel Prizes won by German writers and scientists between 1905 and 1936, fourteen went to Jews. Marriage between Jews and non-Jews was becoming more common. Although German Jews continued to encounter some discrimination in their social lives and professional careers, most were confident of their future as Germans.

On March 29, 1933, the Columbus Republic ran an AP article that mainly focused on the arrest of members of the “steelhelmets,” a paramilitary organization. However, the second half of the article, addressed the boycott and the continued effort to deny reports of atrocities. The article reported: “The Nazi ‘anti-lie’ campaign to offset widespread reports of persecution of the Jews has taken the form of a general boycott of Jewish shopkeepers and professional men.”  The article also reported that the German government, still somewhat separate at this time from the Nazi Party, would not interfere.

Alexandria Times-Tribune, March 29, 1933, 1, accessed newspapers.com

On March 29, 1933, the planned boycott made front page headlines of at least a few Indiana newspapers. The Alexandria Times-Tribune reported on an alleged split in the Nazi Party concerning the boycott and the treatment of Jewish citizens.  The article, titled “Elimination of Jews in Trade Causes Rioting” reported: “The radical element of the Nazis demanded boycott measures which amount to the practical extermination of Jews or their reduction to a position of serfdom.” The use of the word “extermination,” even here in reference to their position in society, is haunting. This article, clearly regurgitating Nazi propaganda, naively positions Hitler as a moderate within his party and distances him from the boycott. The article continued, “Chancellor Hitler and his close advisors, while of a determination to curb Jewish influence in politics and industry and commerce, took a more liberal view of the problem.”  The article ponders whether the “liberal” Hitler would be able to curb the “radical” Nazis without dividing the party. The article went on to describe the plan for the April 1 boycott:

The boycott plan, put forward by the Nazi radicals, calls for the clamping down the lid on all Jewish business and professional activities on April 1. Unless the government is able to forestall it, no phase of Jewish life, judging from the proclamation issued at National Socialist party headquarters in Munich will be spared. Jewish merchants, doctors and lawyers will be targets of the campaign as well as Jewish children, to whom the Nazi pronunciamento would bar certain professions and even would prevent extensive attendance by Jewish children in the schools.

According to the same article, a terrifying communique issued from Nazi headquarters in Munich titled, “For the defense of the Nazi party against the atrocity propaganda” explained that committees would be formed to carry out the boycott.  It included the statement: “These committees will see to it that the innocent do not suffer, but they must not spare the guilty.”

Greencastle Daily Banner, March 19, 1933, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

The aforementioned article from the (Alexandria) Times-Tribune and another from the (Greencastle) Daily Banner on the same day (March 29)  reported to Hoosiers on the “spontaneous” boycotts, business closings, and violence leading up to the official April 1 boycott.  The Times-Tribune reported:

  • “In one Silesian town Jews were forced to close their stores and pay two months wages to their employes [sic].”
  • “At Bitterfeld, near Berlin, Nazi groups closed up Jewish market stalls and ordered their proprietors out of town.”
  • “Unidentified men swinging clubs damaged a store at Neumünster which opened after having been closed for two weeks by the police. They drove out customers, broke windows, and upset counters.”
  • “Boycott demonstrations extended to the offices of Jewish lawyers. At various places these lawyers were ordered to pay off their employes [sic] and closed their doors.”

The Daily Banner reported:

  • “In Wittenburg and the province of Brandenburg, Hitler’s storm troops picketed Jewish shops and forced them to close.”
  • “All stores owned by Jewish proprietors were closed in Darmstadt.”
  • “Jews of Gleiwitz voluntarily closed during the morning and found their places of business officially closed by the dictator’s storm troops when they sought to open them in the afternoon.”
Greencastle Daily Banner, March 31, 1933, 2, Hoosier State Chronicles.

On March 31, the Banner ran another AP article on the impending boycott, reporting: “Twenty-four hours before their scheduled nation-wide boycott of Jewish industry and commerce, Nazi storm troopers mobilized today for mass action in every city of Germany.” The article reported that the German government stated that the boycott was not a government activity but a Nazi Party action. Those party members who also held a government position could not participate. They were to be replaced by “thousands of civilian party members… summoned to ‘duty’ . . . wearing distinguishing armbands with the party’s swastika emblem.”  The article also reported that in some towns, patrons who ignored the boycott and shopped at a Jewish business, would have their photograph taken and published in their local newspaper and their names and addresses recorded by the SA.

Seymour Tribune, March 31, 1933, 1, accessed newspapers.com

That same day, the Seymour Tribune ran an AP article reporting that attempts to persuade the Nazi Party to abandon the boycott “seemed only to add fuel to the fire today.” Instead of backing down, the party released a defiant statement.  The article reported: “A new proclamation defined the action as the beginning of a war on the entire Jewish race of the world.” According to the article, Jewish business owners had been instructed to identify their stores by hanging yellow signs in their windows. The Nazi newspaper reported “World Jewry will receive a blow from which it will not easily recover. German Jewry will be done for morally and commercially. No pardon will be given; no compromises made.”

Boycott poster. Berlin, Germany, April 1, 1933, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, accessed ushmm.org.
Greencastle Daily Banner, April 1, 1933, 1, Hoosier State Chronicles.

On April 1, 1933, the day of the official boycott, several Indiana newspapers covered the day’s events.  The Greencastle Daily Banner ran an UP article stating that the “Nazi boycott of Jewish industry was reported 100 per cent complete in Berlin at noon today” and “the stoppage of all trade with proscribed elements of the population had been completed in many other cities as well as Berlin.” The atmosphere was described as being similar to that of a “holiday” and as “orderly.” However, the description of the Nazi party members stationed outside of stores was more menacing.  SA members were stationed in pairs in front of Jewish businesses and held signs with slogans such as “defend yourselves against Jewish atrocity propaganda.” One sign even read: “Dangerous to life to buy here.”

An SA member instructs others where to post anti-Jewish boycott signs on a commercial street in Germany. A German civilian wearing a Nazi armband holds a sheaf of anti-Jewish boycott signs, while SA members paste them on a Jewish-owned business. Most of the signs read, “Germans defend yourselves against Jewish atrocity propaganda/Buy only at German stores.” Germany, ca. April 1, 1933, National Archives and Records Administration, accessed ushmm.org.
Columbus Republic, April 1, 1933, 1, accessed newspapers.com/

An AP article from the day of the protest and published by the Columbus Republic had a different report.  The article titled “Boycott Opens But Some Jews Ignore Orders,” claimed that while some Jewish businesses closed under pressure, others defied Nazi orders.  The article reported: “Many Jewish stores remained open after the nation-wide boycott on their business began at 10 a.m. this morning despite anti-Semitic signs pasted on their windows by enthusiastic young Nazi storm troops.”  Nonetheless the Nazis were out in force. The article described the scene in Berlin:

“Brown shirted Nazis busily moved to and fro pasting signs of identification on Jewish stores, standing guard or picketing before shops and driving through streets in motor cars displaying boycott signs. On many public squares and market halls the Nazi brass bands made the air reverberate with snappy military marches. The Nazi Swastika and Imperial flags were displayed on all streetcars. Shops whose owners were Nazi party members, flew especially large Swastika banners.”

As with the earlier, nonofficial boycotts, the article reported that lawyers, physicians, and judges were also targeted.  The article closed by stating that the Nazi Women’s Federation appealed to every German woman “to join the movement for the destruction of Jewry.”

Also on the day of the boycott, the Kokomo Tribune ran an AP article that can perhaps be read as more insightful than some of the other articles, especially the UP articles. The article titled “Shops Closed, Trade Halted by Hitlerites,” reported that although the German government was able to hold the Nazi boycott to one day, much permanent damage had been done. The AP stated, “Only a small comfort was derivable from the present limitations for a half million distracted German Jews who to all practical purposes already are ostracized.”  The article also decried the removal of Jews from the courts and legal practices, of Jewish doctors from hospitals, and of Jewish leaders from other institutions. “Doors were being closed to them all around,” the article continued. Joseph Goebbels, the recently declared minister of Nazi propaganda, also threatened Jewish allies abroad, stating that if the English and Americans joined a Jewish-led boycott of German goods, Germany would “take its gloves off.”

Articles on the boycott and the removal of Jews from positions of leadership dwindled over the next several days and weeks.  Several Indiana newspapers, including the Greencastle Daily Banner, ran the following photograph and caption:

Greencastle Daily Banner, April 14, 1933, 3, Hoosier State Chronicles.

During our digital newspaper search, we discovered only one editorial in an Indiana newspaper responding to the reports. In a scathing denunciation of Nazi persecution of German Jews, the Indianapolis Recorder, the leading Indiana African American newspaper, stated on April 8, 1933:

“Indiscriminate persecution of Jews throughout the so-called Republic of Germany has aroused the indignation of the entire civilized world. The anti-Jewish boycott imposed by the Nazi party was enforced in a spirit of savage spite by Hitler’s storm troops and other disciples of Germany’s administration . . . What took place at the behest of Germany’s Gentiles against the Jews of that troubled country was virtually a revolution on a mild scale.  It was plainly a burst of long pent up race hatred, prejudice and treachery . . .it was a bold mockery of civilization; a slap in the face of common justice and fair play. By participating in what is now regarded throughout the world as their official and totally unnecessary reign of terror against the Jews of their native land the German people have committed a crime against society, the consequences of which they are bound the suffer eventually . . . World peace was never in such jeopardy as it is today, and since the assumption of power of Germany’s dictator. Treatment of Jews in Germany by its Nazi party headed by Hitler is condemnable to the core.” (Read the entire editorial through Hoosier State Chronicles).

Indianapolis Recorder, April 8, 1933, 4, Hoosier State Chronicles.

According to the USHMM, the official boycott only lasted one day, but it was the beginning of a systematic campaign against the Jewish people by the Nazi Party.  Over the following weeks, several laws were passed officially removing Jews from civil service, government work, schools and universities, courts, and hospitals.  Jews feared first for their livelihood, then for their lives. According to William L. Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by the time the boycott was organized, Hitler had “publicly declared a thousand times, Jews were not Germans” [page 203].  It was not long before they were not only not considered citizens, but also not considered human.

Please visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s summary of the boycott for more information, photographs, and the personal stories of survivors. Hoosiers can learn more about the Holocaust and its survivors through CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Check back in February for Part 3 on our History Unfolded project for a new post on the May 10, 1933 book burnings.