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.
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.