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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
By October, the (Indianapolis) Jewish Postpublished 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 Postshared 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.
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 Postreported:
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.
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.
Children under eighteen years of age make up more than half of the approximately 22 million people seeking refuge today.  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.  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. 
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.
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.)
The Wagner-Rogers Bill
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.  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.
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.
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:
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.
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.”
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.”
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.” 
The amendments added by the legislation’s opponents, nullified its intent, and Senator Wagner withdrew his bill on July 1, 1939. The Jewish Postreported 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 Recordreported 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.
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.
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.
“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:
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
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.  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. Louispleaded 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. 
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…
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. 
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). 
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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. 
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.
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 Postreported 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.
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 JewishPost 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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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. 
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.  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. 
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/
 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
 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
 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/
 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
 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.
 One St. Louis passenger who arrived in Great Britain died in an air raid. The rest survived the war.
$360. That was the cost in May 1938 to rescue a Jewish child from Nazi controlled Austria. $360 would pay for her relocation to a new home in Palestine, and care for her for two years. All this for $360. $360 to save the life of a child.
In May 1938, the national Youth Aliyah Committee identified 1,000 Jewish Austrian children who could leave the country with valid visas, but only until September 30 when the passes to leave Austria expired. One Indianapolis woman refused to allow this brief window of opportunity to close without trying to save these young Austrians. After all, Sarah Wolf Goodman was herself a Jew born in Austria who must have felt great empathy for those who shared her homeland. She was not alone. While the U.S. government was slow to act, many private citizens worked to aid refugees fleeing Germany and Austria after the Anschluss in 1938. And some of these notable American activists were Hoosiers.
Over the last year, we have been looking at Indiana newspapers to try and determine how much information Hoosiers received through the press about the events leading up the Holocaust. In the last History Unfolded post (Part 4) we also met the tireless and prescient diplomat, James G. McDonald, who tried to warn the world about the impending atrocities. In this post, we will examine the failed Evian Conference, news articles about the deepening refugee crisis, and editorials about how Hoosiers believed the U.S. should respond. We’ll continue to follow McDonald who attended the conference and we’ll meet Sarah Wolf Goodman, another bold and industrious Hoosier who showed her community what could be accomplished without leaving home.
The purpose of this project is twofold: 1. to contribute Indiana newspaper articles to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s History Unfolded database to help the museum determine what the average American knew about the Holocaust; and 2. to analyze these articles and share with our readers our findings on what Hoosiers knew and how they responded. Hopefully, a greater understanding of the events surrounding the Holocaust can inform our responses to current world crises. Anyone can contribute articles to History Unfolded. Find out how through the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum (USHMM).
In January 1933, Jewish Germans made up about one percent of the country’s total population. The greatest number of Jews resided in Berlin. Over the following years, the Nazis banned Jews from civil service, boycotted Jewish businesses, and stripped away their citizenship rights with the declaration of the Nuremberg Laws. By 1938, the Nazis made life so difficult for German Jews that about 150,000 left the country, according to the USHMM. This was one-fourth of the entire Jewish population. When Germany annexed neighboring Austria in March 1938, many more Jewish people were forced to flee their homes, resulting in a major refugee crisis.
Since the end of World War I, most Austrians supported a union with Germany. However, this consolidation of power was forbidden by the Versailles Treaty. By the mid-1930s, Austria, suffering under a poor economy, saw Hitler as the solution. A bombardment of Nazi propaganda solidified public opinion. Thus, on March 12, 1938, when Nazi troops entered Austria, they were greeted by cheering crowds.
This German-Austrian union, called Anschluss, brought another 185,000 Jews under Nazi rule – all of whom now faced persecution. According to the editors of Refugees and Rescue:*
Austrian anti-Semites, members of the Nazi Party, and police and SS officials immediately attacked, arrested, and humiliated Jews and political opponents in Austria. Confiscation of Jewish property and public scenes such as forcing Jews to scrub sidewalks were everyday occurrences. Hundreds of Austrian Jews committed suicide, and tens of thousands sought to leave as quickly as possible.
The German-Austrian Refugee Crises
These tens of thousands of Austrian Jews joined those from Germany who felt they had no choice other than to leave their homes. However, many who tried to flee were unable to find a country to accept them. According to the USHMM, “a substantial percentage tried to go to the United States.” However, the Immigration Act of 1924, passed during a period of xenophobia and Klan influence, sharply restricted immigration to the United States. Jews were among the ethnic groups deemed undesirable by the legislation and only a very small number were issued immigration visas in the years following the quota enactment. This did not change in 1938. Even in the face of the mounting refugee crises, the United States government largely turned its back on the Jews of Europe.
Widespread American prejudice and anti-Semitism that extending into federal government service definitely contributed to the lack of action, but there were other issues as well. The Great Depression still affected many Americans who feared further competition for jobs. African Americans faced racism and prejudice in addition to the horrors of lynching. It would be hard for many African Americans to see why they should care about injustices across the Atlantic when they faced injustice at home. For other Americans, it simply seemed like a faraway problem of little practical concern to them. Many people simply had their own immediate struggles and problems to make ends meet. Plus, the United States fought in “the war to end all wars” only twenty years earlier. Many just wanted to stay out of what was viewed as Europe’s problem.
For example, in an editorial for the Indianapolis Recorder, African American writer Fletcher Henderson called the annexation of Austria “interesting . . . headline reading for the American people,” but because Hitler was not threatening America, noted it was “nothing for us to become alarmed about.” He stated succinctly, “While we deplore the rape of any nation, it is none of our affair.” Henderson called for the U.S. government, and especially President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to mind its own business. He stated, “If the administration in Washington would bend all of its efforts to end the depression in the United States, it would not have the time even to read of the happenings in the rest of the world.”
James G. McDonald: Stirring the American Conscience
However, there were Americans of conscience who worked relentlessly to find ways to save the Jews of Austria and Germany, some of them Hoosiers. Starting as early as 1933, former Indiana University professor James G. McDonald shared his fears with world leaders that Hitler would eventually order the execution of all the Jewish people under Nazi rule. (Read more about McDonald in the previous post: Part 4). By the time of the Anschluss, McDonald worked tirelessly and traveled widely to spread this warning and raise awareness for the plight of fleeing Jewish refugees. His diary and letters* tell of the frustrating, often bureaucratic, work he undertook in an attempt to convince government, religious, and philanthropic organizations to work together and to connect those who had authority to act with those who had the means to act.
In March 1938, McDonald spoke to a group of potential Jewish donors in New City about the urgent need to give money to save the Jews of Europe who faced annihilation. According to a summary of his speech, McDonald stated:
The war that the Nazis are waging is not a war against the Jews of Germany, but against all Jews, whose influence must be obliterated and who themselves should either be exterminated or driven out of all civilized lands . . . If you think that because you live in the United States you are immune, you are very foolish. Nothing counts these days except money with which to carry on your work of relief, of emigration, and of service to your fellow Jews. Mass meetings, parades, demonstrations, resolutions, getting nice letters from friendly Christians, are all very well, but they don’t actually save a single Jewish life, feed a starving Jewish boy or girl, train a single youth, pay for his emigration, or enable him to start life anew anywhere else.
All over the country and to all kinds of audiences, McDonald reiterated his earlier statements that the refugee crisis was not a Jewish problem but a human one. McDonald called the Nazi persecution of Jews an “attack upon the principles of civilized society” and expressed his disappointment that all Americans were not rising to meet the crises. In accepting the Professor Albert Einstein Medal for Humanitarian Services, he stated:
Until Protestants and Catholics as well as Jews understand, come to see that the things they hold dear, even as the things Jews hold dear, are threatened – not until then will there be an adequate response to enable refugees from Central Europe to be cared for.
McDonald closed his speech by refuting other political leaders’ claims that these refugees who had been stripped of their assets would be a liability and reminded his American audience that they live in a “country of refugees.” In yet another speech, this time to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, he again appealed to his audience’s conscious and pocketbooks:
This problem will require thinking in terms not of a few million dollars, but in terms of tens of millions of dollars. Moreover, the problem is not a Jewish problem. The conscience of America has been stirred.
These Americans, whose consciences has been stirred, placed immense pressure on the U.S. government to act on behalf of those fleeing Nazi persecution. On April 29, 1938, the Jewish Post, published in Indianapolis, reported that “10,000 Americans visited the offices of HIAS (Hebrew Immigration Aid Society) since Anschluss to learn how to bring their relatives to the United States from Austria.” Charitable and religious organizations did not wait for the government to take the lead. For example, the Jewish Welfare Federation advertised a fundraising campaign in the Jewish Post with an $81,640 goal. The ad pleaded for Jewish American aid:
Against the storm, against the fold of misery, against dire suffering there is only one great barrier . . . the barrier erected by American help. Compared with the need, what we can do is perhaps little, But the little is the only hope of MILLIONS of our fellow Jews. So Give! Be glad you can Give! Give even if it means self-denial! Give so THEY may have a chance to LIVE!
Road to Evian
By May 1938, in response to mounting pressure, the U.S. government attempted to organize a solution in the form of the International Committee for Refugees (later Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees). On May 12, the New York Times reported that the U.S. government suggested the creation of an international committee “to facilitate the emigration of political refugees from Germany and Austria.” The article reported that the U.S. State Department had consulted with over thirty other countries and scheduled a meeting for July 6 in Evian, France. According to Refugees and Rescue, President Roosevelt “launched [this] initiative without consulting the state department, inviting a range of other governments” to attend the Evian Conference.**
Meanwhile, President Roosevelt also organized his own group of advisers on the refugee crisis. On May 16, this group, the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees, organized and elected James G. McDonald as chairman. According to an account of the founding meeting by Samuel McCrea Cavert of the Federal Council of Churches, President Roosevelt “opened the conference by remarking that the United States has always been deeply sympathetic with political refugees and that the time had come when our country had another historic opportunity to show this sympathy.” However, the president carefully called the emigrants “political refugees” and avoided the term “Jewish refugees.” He seemed more concerned about public opinion than proposed rescue efforts. According to Cavert, in response to proposals that the government loan money to private organizations in position to effect immediate rescue, President Roosevelt stated that “at least for the present it would be unwise to put forward any proposal which would occasion public dispute and controversy, such as a change in the immigration quotas or appropriations or loans from public funds.” It was clear that raising money would be the key to any successful rescue efforts. And if it were to come in time to help the Jews of Germany and Austria, it would have to come from private organizations, not the government.
As the world awaited the upcoming Evian Conference, the crises mounted. In an article printed in the Indianapolis News in late June, AP Foreign Correspondent, DeWitt Mackenzie described the problems facing the conference. Mackenzie estimated that 450,000 Jews in Austria and Germany were in need of a new country if they were to survive Nazi persecution. However, he speculated that this was perhaps only the beginning of the crisis. Mackenzie wrote:
The anti-Semitic forces in other central and eastern European countries such as Poland, Rumania [sic], Hungary and Lithuania, have been strengthened by events in Germany. Jewish leaders express fear the refugee problem may assume extraordinary proportions if anti-Semitic governments and organizations get the impression that they can solve their Jewish problem by expelling their Jews and trusting the rest of the world to absorb them.
Mackenzie continued by theorizing on how those diplomats about to meet in Evian would handle the crisis. He estimated that they would first attempt to determine the feasibility of convincing the oppressive governments to “diminish anti-Semitic pressure” and allow fleeing emigrants to bring the whole of their property with them. Second, they would try and determine where these refugees would find homes. Like McDonald, Mackenzie made clear that money would be the determining factor in how successful any rescue attempts would be.
On July 2, 1938, just a few days before leaving for the Evian Conference, McDonald served as a sponsor for a Youth Aliyah benefit in New York. “Aliyah” is the Hebrew word for a Jew immigrating to Israel. The Hadassah-sponsored organization aimed to rescue young Jewish refugees and find them new homes in Palestine. The New York Times reported that the proceeds would be used to transport German, Austrian, and Polish refugees to Palestine on 1,100 British visas available until they expired in September. While James G. McDonald worked in New York to raise the $360 per child needed for transportation and two years of care, another Hoosier was hard at work for the same cause back in Indianapolis.
Sarah Wolf Goodman’s “Immediate and Wholehearted Action”
Sarah Goodman was a fixture of Indianapolis society, a prominent Jewish civic leader and supporter of the arts. She was born in Vienna in 1886 and came to St. Louis as a young child. She moved to Indianapolis after her marriage in 1924 to Jack A. Goodman, founder of the Real Silk Hosiery Mills. She was smart, ambitious, and well-connected. She commanded respect and could sway public opinion. In May 1938, she did exactly that.
Goodman devised a plan to address the same issue that faced McDonald: raising enough money for Youth Aliyah to transfer child refugees to Palestine before the September 30 deadline. Goodman shared with the readers of the Jewish Post on May 20 a letter she received from a fourteen-year-old girl who started a “little club of girls, all of about her age” and raised $10 “energetically baking and selling cookies.” The girls sent the money to Goodman asking her to “please accept the enclosed check for $10 and send it on to help save the lives of these poor children” of Austria.
These selfless girls inspired Goodman. She wrote that she believed that young Jewish people in Indiana wanted to help those their age who were suffering Nazi persecution:
In a few weeks many of these eager youngsters will be confirmed or will be graduated from grade school, high school, or college. We, their relatives, will show our love for them by showering them with gifts, some of which will be useful, some of which will never be looked at . . . Children appreciate gifts and the thoughts they express, but more important this year is the fact that they want to share with the Austrian children who have nothing.
Goodman’s plan was simple. She encouraged the families and friends of graduates to make a donation in the name of the graduate, in lieu of a gift, which she would send to the Youth Aliyah fund. The graduate would then receive a “fine” card. She wrote that any amount was acceptable but “only immediate and wholehearted action will suffice,” as the visas expired in a matter of a few months. Goodman stated, “Every one unused represents an opportunity lost forever to snatch a boy or girl from the hell that has been made of a fair country.” The country where she was born.
It is to be hoped that Mrs. Goodman’s plan will be seized upon and carried through one hundred per cent. Let the card Mrs. Goodman described become so fashinable [sic] and popular that the tie or book as a gift will become outmoded and in its stead a symbol of Jewish charity on its highest plane – the salvaging of the life of a child will take its place as the finest present possible.
The Indianapolis Star briefly mentioned a lunch fundraiser for Youth Aliyah on its society page, but made no mention of Goodman’s plan. Other Indiana newspapers were silent.
The Evian Conference
Meanwhile, the world waited on the Evian Conference. New York Times reporter Clarence K. Streit wired a report from Evian back to New York on the eve of the parlay. His impression was that the gathered representatives of the world’s democracies were not taking the issue seriously enough and compared the atmosphere to a poker game.
Streit began his report with a reminder to the attendees that the refugees have lost everything “because of their refusal to recant what democrats believe to be true” or because they were born Jewish. He said he repeated this well-known fact in the article because “it seems to be in some danger of being lost at the start.” He took issue with the fact that the negotiations were starting from the perspective of viewing refugees as a burden; their humanity was being lost among the poker-like game of negotiating how that burden would be shared. His impression was spot on.
The conference began July 6, 1938 at a lavish resort on Lake Geneva. Delegates from thirty-two countries attended. President Roosevelt sent Myron C. Taylor as the U.S. representative and James G. McDonald to advise him. Taylor was a wealthy businessman with little previous diplomatic experience. The U.S. agenda for the conference, as determined in a series of June meetings between U.S. State Department representatives and the President’s Advisory Committee chaired by McDonald, represented a weak compromise between their opposing visions. The U.S. would allow political refugees from any country (not just Germany as argued by the State Department) but only within existing quotas (to the chagrin of McDonald and the committee). They would tread carefully on the subject of Palestine to not upset the British delegation, which controlled the region. McDonald was cautiously optimistic that the conference would encourage other countries to accept Jewish refugees. He would be disappointed.
Myron C. Taylor addressed the conference on the opening day. He expressed sympathy for the plight of the refugees but noted that all of the countries present were dealing with a depressed economy and widespread unemployment. He noted that the assembled governments must act “promptly and effectively in a long-range program” to aid the refugees, but also noted that “the problem of political refugees” was “thrust upon them by the policies of some other governments.” He reviewed a world history of voluntary migration and then stated:
Now we have a form of compulsory migration, artificially stimulated by governmental practices in some countries which force upon the world at large great bodies of reluctant migrants who must be absorbed in abnormal circumstances with a disregard of economic conditions at a time of stress.
Taylor stated that the problem was so large, the conference could do nothing more than “put in motion the machinery, and correlate it with existing machinery.” He meant well, but his hands were tied by a U.S. government afraid of public criticism for easing quotas. Again, citing the enormity of the problem, he tried to focus the conference on addressing only German and Austrian refugees (despite the position of McDonald and others on the Advisory Committee). He spent a good amount of his address pondering how the participating governments would document the refugees, and of course, how this immigration would be funded. He offered no solutions other than advising delegates to speak to McDonald about his knowledge of aiding and financing refugees. The other countries followed Taylor’s lead. According to the USHMM:
During the nine-day meeting, delegate after delegate rose to express sympathy for the refugees. But most countries, including the United States and Britain, offered excuses for not letting in more refugees. Only the Dominican Republic agreed to accept additional refugees.
A New York Times article from July 14, succinctly summed up the Evian Conference. The reporter stated that the delegates “did not find a landing place for the thousands of refugees cast upon the world” and that “no doors were thrown open to the involuntary exiles.” The Times writer concluded: “All the delegates professed a sincere desire to do what they could, but none offered to relax the quotas and restrictions that every country has put on immigration.”
Before the conference even ended, McDonald turned his attention to gaining approval and support from the Vatican on addressing the human crisis. He left for Rome immediately after the conference closed. He did not even record his reaction to the Evian Conference in his diary. (Check back for Part 6 which will look at the widely varying Catholic response to the events leading up to the Holocaust and McDonald’s work to influence the Vatican.)
Goodman and “The Dignity of Man”
With little encouragement from world events, Sarah Goodman continued her campaign in Indiana to raise funds for the rescue of children from Austria. In all, she was able to save two children, with a total of $750 dollars raised, through her plan to collect donations in lieu of graduation gifts. This might not seem like much. However, this was in the midst of the Great Depression. The average income was just over $1,000 a year. Thus, Goodman raised almost a year’s salary for the effort. Additionally, she received no promotion for her idea from any newspapers beside the Jewish Post. Her plan, however, managed to spread. Cincinnati, Nashville, Memphis, Miami, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Washington followed suit.
In September, the Jewish Post enthusiastically reported:
Out from under the blighting shadow of the Nazi swastika over Austria, Jewish boys and girls are sailing away to a life of opportunity and human service in Palestine as the result of a plan translated into action by Indianapolis’ own Mrs. Jack Goodman.
On Thanksgiving Day, appropriately, Goodman shared the thanks of two children with the readers of the Post. She wrote:
On this our Thanksgiving weekend I have been instructed to transmit to all of you the heart-felt thanks of two young people whose lives will be forever yours. They are the youths whose lives were saved by the graduation, confirmation, birthday and other gifts which were made in your names last summer.
A thousand children were saved by this push for the Youth Aliyah fund. Goodman wrote that “it will never be forgotten that two of this number were saved by the young people of Indiana.” And really, it was the children who led the way, from the young girl who inspired Goodman’s actions to those who sacrificed gifts to help others. One recently confirmed child told the Post that the fund was “a living memorial of the fact that we are lucky to be giving and not getting.”
By September of 1939, around 282,000 Jews had fled from Germany and 117,000 from Austria, according to the USHMM. However, around 202,000 German Jews and 57,000 Austrian Jews were unable to escape, many because of old age. Their numbers fell to 163,000 by October 1941, when then Nazi regime ended Jewish emigration. Again according to the USHMM, “The vast majority of those Jews still in Germany were murdered in Nazi camps and ghettos during the Holocaust.”
Sarah Wolf Goodman did not quit after the drive to help Austrian children ended. She did not quit as the horrific details of the Holocaust trickled and then flooded into newspapers. She spoke around the country, continued to raise money for Hadassah and Youth Aliyah, and helped form new chapters in other cities. She traveled to Palestine to visit the clinics, schools, and scientific farms set up by the Hadassah, of which she was vice-president by the 1940s. Despite her gender, the Jewish Post named her Indiana’s Jewish Man of the Year for 1945. In 1953 she became the first woman president of the Indianapolis Jewish Welfare Federation. In 1956, the Post referred to her as “without a doubt the most prominent Jewish woman in the state” and in 1958 she became chairman of the United Jewish Appeal.
At her 85th birthday, she looked back on her accomplishments, and perhaps to the 1938 drive to save the children of Austria. She stated:
Anything one does that helps in any way to make the life of another more livable is the greatest reward one can reap. My interest is in the dignity of man – regardless of his denomination.
Primary sources cited concerning McDonald, Roosevelt, the U.S. State Department, and the President’s Advisory Committee were accessed:
Richard Breitman, Barbara McDonald Stewart, and Severin Hochberg, Eds, Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press & Washington, D.C.: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2009), 121-159.
Contextual information on the Refugee Crisis and the Evian Conference was accessed via the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum at ushmm.org. Articles cited include: “German Prewar Expansion,” “Austria,” “German Jewish Refugees- 1933-1939,” “Emigration and the Evian Conference,” and “The Evian Conference.”
Other newspapers accessed Newspapers.com, ProQuest Historical Newspapers, and NYTimes.com.
*Refugees and Rescue is the second of a three-volume set of McDonald’s papers and diaries. Cited above.
**President Franklin D. Roosevelt left behind a complex legacy from this period. He called for the Evian Conference but did not ease immigration quotas. He had many Jewish advisors and yet provided no public funds to aid Jewish refugees. According to the USHMM, he took “significant, yet limited action, in response to the persecution of Jews in Germany, the refugee crisis of the 1930s, and the ’Final Solution.’” For a comprehensive study of FDR’s response to the crisis, see Allan J. Lichtman and Richard Breitman, FDR and the Jews (Belknap Press, 2013).
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.
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 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 Postquoted 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.”
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.”
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?
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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).
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.”
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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:
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.
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.
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:
. . . 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.
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.
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.
Read the previous post contributing to the History Unfolded Project on Nazi Book Burnings.
In this series of posts, we will be looking at 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 accessible via Hoosier State Chronicles, especially the (Indianapolis) Jewish Post, 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.
We began with the first suggested topic: the opening of Dachau.
The first Nazi concentration camp, opened at Dachau March 22, 1933. According to History Unfolded, the facility at Dachau was located just north of Munich in an old munition factory. It was first established to hold political prisoners of the Nazis. Within one year, it held about 4,800, mainly political prisoners and by the end of the war, that number would exceed 188,000. Over 28,000 prisoners, many of them Jews, would lose their lives there.
Just a few days after the opening of Dachau, on March 27, 1933, the famous activist rabbi Stephen Wise organized a large protest in New York City against Nazi treatment of Jews, labor leaders, and those with opposing political views. Many American newspapers reported on the camp’s opening and Wise’s protest. For example, on April 5, 1933, a New York Times headline read “Nazis to Hold 5,000 in Camp at Dachau; 300 Communist Prisoners Are Preparing Building of Old Munitions Plant; Secrecy Shrouds Work.” However, this important article was buried on page ten. So, while there was some mention of Dachau, it was perhaps not clear to the average reader what was occurring there. We searched Hoosier State Chronicles to find out specifically: When did Hoosiers hear about Dachau?
Our HSC search covered four newspapers: the Greencastle Daily Banner, the Muncie Post-Democrat, and limited issues of the Jewish Post and Indianapolis Recorder. The first issue of the Indianapolis paper, the Jewish Post, appeared in March 1933, the same month that Dachau opened.* The only mention of the rise of the Nazi regime in the first issue was a short article about the arrest of Jewish merchants in Annaberg, Germany by Nazi Storm Troopers. (We will look further into this in the next post).
We were so surprised by the lack of articles on Dachau in 1933 that we decided to look at Indiana newspapers in the Newspapers.com collection as well. There was only one. The Logansport Pharos-Tribune published a United Press article on April 13, 1933. The article reported: “Three communists seeking to escape from a concentration camp for political prisoners at Dachau, Bavaria, were shot and killed…” The next article available in Newspapers.com mentioning Dachau appeared over a year later. On July 20, 1934, the (Seymour) Tribune and the Rushville Republican ran an Associated Press article reporting on “rumors of further wholesale murders spread through Germany today” and accompanying “cool denials from Nazi leaders.” The article stated that “among the reports was one . . . that prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp were murdered” though “no verification could be made.” The Tipton Daily Tribune ran a similar article on the same day reporting on “allegations” that “prisoners and guards at Dachau concentration camp had been killed off.”
No more articles available through Hoosier State Chronicles mentioned Dachau until December 28, 1934, when the Greencastle Daily Bannerreported on fighting between German and Austrian Nazis at Munich. A small riot broke out that resulted in the summoning of SS Troops from Dachau. Additionally, the Banner misspelled the name of the camp as “Bachau,” suggesting that the average Hoosier still heard very little about the Dachau camp at this time.**
A more general search of the Jewish Post for only the word “camp” as opposed to “Dachau” revealed the first mention of a German Jew being sent to a concentration camp on May 25, 1934. The Postreported that in Berlin:
“the first arrest in a new campaign against ‘faultfinders’, preferably Jews, was made when a Jewish employee of a large bank was sent to a concentration camp on a charge of slandering Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, Nazi minister of Propaganda. He is Dr. Jacob Wasserman, 34, a native of Latvia.”
The next mention of a concentration camp appears in a short announcement in the Jewish Post on July 20, 1934. The Post reported that German-Jewish actress Elizabeth Bergner, who had escaped to England, “was threatened with three years internment in a concentration camp if she returns to Germany.”
The first mention of Dachau as a concentration camp in one of these Indiana newspapers did not occur until October 14, 1938, five years into its operation. The Greencastle Daily Banner ran a report from Vienna on Nazi persecution of Czech Jews and prominent Catholics. At a Nazi demonstration outside the palace of Cardinal Innitzer, archbishop of Vienna, signs read, “Jews and Priests are Enemies of the German People,” and the demonstrators carried a mock gallows and chanted “To Dachau!” in reference to the cardinal.
By the time Hoosiers read this October 1938 article in the Greencastle newspaper, Dachau had become a large complex of multiple buildings through the forced labor of its prisoners. By November 1938, over 10,000 Jews were imprisoned at Dachau after the Kristallnacht or Night of the Broken glass.
There are too many tragedies at Dachau and its sub-camps to address here. Upon liberation, thousands had died from disease, forced labor, execution by firing squad and hanging, death marches, medical experimentation, and transportation to killing centers.
On April 30, 1945, Hoosier subscribers to the Greencastle Daily Bannerread:
“The notorious Dachau concentration camp seven miles north of Munich — the first and blackest of the political death camps established in the early days of the Hitler regime — was over-run by the Seventh army yesterday. There the Yanks killed or captured 300 SS guards and liberated 32,000 political and religious prisoners who greeted their rescuers with hysterical joy. For hundred and perhaps thousands of Dachau’s other inmates the Americans came too late. Fifty boxcars were found on a nearby railroad siding, loaded with bodies, torture chambers, gas boxes, tnd [sic] other paraphernalia of terror that the Nazi guards were attempting to remove.”
The The number of prisoners incarcerated in Dachau between 1933 and 1945 exceeded 188,000. The number of prisoners who died in the camp and the subcamps between January 1940 and May 1945 was at least 28,000, to which must be added those who perished there between 1933 and the end of 1939, as well as an uncounted number of unregistered prisoners. It is unlikely that the total number of victims who died in Dachau will ever be known.
Please visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s summary of Dachau 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.
*Unfortunately the March 1933 issue of the Jewish Post is the only issue available on Hoosier State Chronicles for that year. Starting in February 1934, HSC has almost every issue, and thus this newspaper will be used more in later posts.
**There was a Bachau (or Bad Bachau) in Germany but it was over 200 km away from Munich while Dachau was about 30 km away, suggesting that the spelling of “Bachau” was indeed a misprint.