Teachers know that the U.S. history has some dark moments. The making of the republic was a flawed process where immigrants, among others, were marginalized. But history teachers don’t always have the tools to teach this difficult history as many textbooks and curriculum still emphasize a narrative that does not include the contribution of immigrants to the American story. Re-Imagining Migration is attempting to address this gap by teaching migration as a shared human condition and showing students of immigrant origin that they are part of the story of the U.S. The Indiana Historical Bureau (IHB) has partnered with Re-Imagining Migration to supply original historical research and primary sources from Indiana State Library collections to create free virtual lesson plans. We hope these two new classroom resources help teachers guide students through some difficult, but highly relevant, historical events:
Xenophobia can sometimes present itself wrapped in the American flag, in the 1920s and today. Through understanding the 1920s Klan as a mainstream, not fringe, organization, students will learn how easily words and propaganda can become actions and official policy – like the 1924 Immigration Act and ensuing quota system. Students can learn to evaluate sources for bias and identify ways that hateful rhetoric can be disguised as patriotism. (Read more from the Historical Context essay).
The 1920s Klan was perhaps strongest in Indiana, where it infiltrated society and politics. Sources show how the hate group spread its message through newspapers, songs, picnics, and parades. And while sources are mainly from the Indiana State Library, the lessons can be applied much more widely. (View the Primary Sources).
When people seek refuge from war, genocide, and oppression, who is responsible for helping them? When 300,000 refugees from Nazi persecution sought harbor in the United States in 1939, most Americans turned a blind eye. Others actively opposed new immigrants, while an admirable few worked to tear down the paper walls aimed specifically at excluding Jews. Still others hoped, if nothing else, they could at least save the children through the Wagner Rogers Bill. (Read more from the Historical Context Essay).
The sources include arguments for and against allowing 20,000 Jewish children into the United States. These arguments will help students think about who does and does not get to be an American and who gets to decide. These sources also allow for discussion of how economic arguments have been used to legitimize xenophobic policies such as the quota system. (View the Primary Sources).
Using the Teacher Resources
These resources don’t attempt to impose a curriculum on teachers, but only offer three main tools to bring discussions about immigration into the (virtual) classroom:
1. Historical Context: Each resource has an historical essay, providing the background and context for the topic. This academic essay could be used by the teacher, who then relays the content to younger students, or assigned to older students.
2. Primary Sources: IHB selected a diverse collection of primary sources, including photographs, newspaper articles, political cartoons, pamphlets, song sheets, and more. These sources will help students think about who has been considered a “desirable” immigrant or a “real” American, who has been denied refuge and citizenship rights, and how this has changed in response to demographic shifts and world events.
3. Teaching Ideas: Re-Imagining Migration provides a guide for teaching each topic, including reflection questions and thinking routines. These will help ensure that dialog remains thoughtful and respectful in the classroom. These questions and routines can be paired with each individual primary source or used more generally.
Please join us on Wednesday, December 2 for a free webinar exploring the 100% American resource and teaching about patterns of anti-immigration prejudice.
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.