Editor’s Note: Holocaust Remembrance Day will be marked in Israel this Sunday, April 11.
It was evident, in the years preceding World War II, that humanity had no desire to throw a saving rope to the drowning Jewish people.
We were approaching the middle of the 20th century – a long way out of the dark Middle Ages – and basking in the noonday sun of Enlightenment. But as far as the Jews were concerned, age-old prejudices and primitive beliefs remained fossilized in the hearts of modern man.
Mankind may have become enlightened, civilized, culture-loving, technologically advanced – but it chose to utilize those advantages in perfecting its savagery toward the Jewish people.
That should be reason enough to understand our skeptical attitude toward the world’s constant criticism of the State if Israel – the modern embodiment of Jewish peoplehood. After all, we are dealing not with tales dimly discernible in the mists of history but with events that occurred less than 70 years ago.
Anyone who closes his eyes on the 1930s and early 1940s in Jewish history and passes judgment on what Israel should do in response to any challenge or threat is at best blind and misguided, at worst motivated by abysmal ignorance and perhaps brutal savagery. Let the facts speak for themselves.
In the decade after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, America’s unfilled immigration quota amounted to 1,244,858 places. What this means is that the United States was, practically and legally, capable of absorbing at least that people.
Hundreds of thousands of immigration certificates the U.S. government could have utilized as it wished had gone unused. But the government resisted any and all attempts to allow Jews to come to America by use of those available certificates – even when their escape from Europe became, literally, a matter of life and death to those caught in the Nazi vise.
In the five and a half years between Hitler’s ascension to power in January 1933 and the Evian Conference on Refugees in July 1938, the quota system would have allowed for 145,000 Jews from Germany alone to find refuge in the protective light of the Statue of Liberty. Instead, the U.S. admitted only 27,000 Jews during that period.
One of the base devices applied by U.S. Immigration authorities to foil Jewish emigration from Germany was the demand that every applicant produce a certificate of good conduct from the local police.
But it was common knowledge that the police, the judiciary and the entire machinery of government in Germany were fully subservient to Hitler and his Nazi ideology. A Jew, by his very nature, was considered a despoiler, an exploiter, a destroyer of his society – hence a good conduct certificate could not be applied to him. Only the most affluent Jews could offer the fortune demanded by a rapacious police inspector for a desired certificate.
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In the earliest years of Nazi rule, Germany actually encouraged Jewish emigration. Jews were allowed to sell their properties and take much of their valuables with them. By 1935 progressive restrictions were imposed, leading to the rapid pauperization of German Jewry. But Jews continued to be strongly encouraged to emigrate, leaving all their property behind.
As the Nazi Reich proceeded to incorporate new territories – in March 1938, Austria with 180,000 Jews; in October 1938, the Sudeten with 28,000; in March 1939, Czechia with 120,000 – the number of Jews subject to Nazi domination increased. Each territorial acquisition only served to exacerbate the Nazis’ frustrations as, in their eyes, the Jews of Germany proper were not leaving fast enough.
By 1938, Nazi objectives were clearly articulated: “The final goal of German Jewish policy is the emigration of all Jews living in Reich territory” (from a German Foreign Office circular titled “The Jewish Question as a Factor in German Foreign Policy in the year 1938”).
The circular openly acknowledged that if the world would not find a solution for the parasitic Jewish population, “Germany will take the initiative herself, in order to find ways, means and destination for Jewish emigration from Germany.”
By March 1939, Adolf Eichmann had moved his office from Vienna to Prague. His declared purpose was to free the protectorate from Jews. Addressing the Prague Jewish Council, Eichmann declared: “If you do not get those Jews out of the country, I will order the arrest of three hundred men per day and I will send them to Dachau and Merkelgrun, where I am sure they will become very enthusiastic about emigration.”
On August 11, 1938, all Jews in the Czech provinces were ordered to relocate to Prague. Once in Prague, the Gestapo ordered 200 to leave daily. Regrettably, they had nowhere to go. No country was ready to take them in.
On September 1, 1939, the Panzer divisions of the German Wehrmacht crossed the Polish border in a lightning strike. Once Poland was occupied, from the middle of September 1939 to the end of the year some 45,000 Jews were transported to and dumped in Lublin.
The world saw it coming and did nothing. And then, when it was actually happening, the world did nothing as Jews helplessly stared impending doom in its face, bearing deprivation and humiliation with as much pride, dignity and fortitude as they could muster under the circumstances.
In the middle of November 1938, American Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles was approached by the British Ambassador in Washington with a concrete offer to utilize half the British immigration quota on behalf of the persecuted Jews, thus opening the gates to 32,500 people annually.
Welles openly voiced his anger at what he considered a brazen interference in American internal affairs. Hadn’t President Roosevelt only a few days earlier declared at a press conference that the U.S. had no intention of increasing the quota for German nationals, which stood at 26,000 annually?
Of course, the brake on Jewish immigration had nothing to do with quota numbers but rather with the above-mentioned impossible demand for a certificate of good conduct from local police departments and with the ill concealed, deep-seated animosity of State Department officials toward Jews.
High-level Nazis, including Hitler himself, repeatedly stated they were ready to allow the Jews to depart. But there were no takers. Some of the statements made by prominent Western leaders in those days stand as classic declarations of anti-Semitism.
A high-ranking Swiss official declared: “Switzerland, which has as little use for these Jews as has Germany, will herself take measures to protect Switzerland from being swamped by the Jews.”
Central American states issued a joint statement saying they could accept no “traders and intellectuals.”
Brazil actually declared that every visa application would have to be accompanied by a certificate of Christian baptism.
The French Foreign Minister, Georges Bonnet, met with his British counterpart and the two prime ministers, Daladier and Chamberlain, in Paris on November 24, 1938 – they were joined by German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop the next day – and Bonnet declared that France already had 40,000 Jewish refugees and thus could not take in any more.
Chamberlain expressed his profound concern with taking in more Jews, as there was “serious danger of arousing anti-Semitic feeling in Great Britain.”
Bonnet went so far as to plead with the German foreign minister to take steps to keep Jews from coming to France. He called his attention to the fact that France was already on the verge of dispatching 10,000 of them to Madagascar. The German commiserated with him: “We all want to get rid of our Jews. The difficulty is that no country wishes to receive them.”
All this occurred two weeks after the highly publicized pogrom of Kristallnacht about which President Roosevelt remarked, “I could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a twentieth-century civilization.”
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The author of this article need not turn too far for testimony of hostility toward Jews in those fateful years. I have documents in hand testifying to the fact that soon after the Anschluss of Austria in March 1938, my family took serious and concrete steps to work out an escape route to the U.S. by October 1938 at the very latest.
The American authorities handled our case in an offhanded manner that bordered on cruelty. Delay followed delay. In a letter written on October 28, 1940 by my mother’s uncle, Max Krischer (who resided in New York) to the Hon. Eliot B. Caulter, acting chief, Visa Division, Washington, D.C., Krischer assured Caulter that he had sent an affidavit of support to the American Consul in Budapest who was handling our application.
The affidavit of support was signed by me on December 21, 1939 . The family named above (Elias and Maria Birnbaum and their three children) was registered for the Czechoslovak quota by the American Consulate in Budapest in October 1938. The family is now in possession of their passports. Their tickets for the boat passage have been purchased, but their visa is not granted.
After an exchange of several letters, some of them – written by U.S. officials, mind you – so insipid that if it weren’t for the tragedy in the midst of which they were concocted they could form the basis for a hilarious comedy – the following came to my mother’s sister, who lived in Brooklyn. Dated January 27, 1942, it was from the director of the Migration Department of the National Refugee Service in New York, Augusta Mayerson, and stated:
We are in receipt of a letter from the State Department in Washington concerning the visa application of the above named (Birnbaum, Elias and Maria, Case #A2975) which says in part that “the preliminary examination indicates that favorable recommendation to the consular officer concerned for the issuance of a visa is not warranted at this time.”
One can scarcely believe that in January 1942, as the gas vans in Chelmno already were operating at full capacity, as Auschwitz was taking the lead toward the “final solution of the Jewish question” with Maidanek, Belzec, Treblinka and a string of other concentration and annihilation centers not far behind, and as the Einsatzgruppen were working overtime on their killing operations in German-occupied Russia, the State Department still felt “the issuance of a visa is not warranted at this time.”
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As noted earlier, in the initial phase of its anti-Jewish policies, Germany, before the eyes of the entire world, did its very best to encourage Jews to flee their homes and their lands, even if they left with only the shirts on their backs. The decrees of expropriation that deprived Jews of their factories, businesses, fields, homes and all sources of income proceeded with dispatch.
The process of Aryanization was not far behind, with thousands of small Jewish-owned businesses forced to accept Aryan partners (who before long would squeeze the Jews out of the picture). Soon the Jews were deprived of their pensions. They were concentrated in select areas ghetto-style, and had to wear a distinguishing patch on their outer clothing, continually exposing them to terrible humiliation and physical harassment.
Their lives and limbs no longer under even the pretense of protection by the Reich, Jews were turned into pariahs. They were forbidden to associate with Germans on penalty of death, were permitted only limited hours of movement in public places, and were in general beyond the pale of the law.
All this proceeded stage by stage, while civilized men and women looked on and even proclaimed the chief henchman – in the words of Neville Chamberlain – “a gentleman.” The nations of the world watched it all develop and totally abandoned the Jews to their fate.
In the years 1933 to 1945 not only our sworn enemies but our good-natured, kind-hearted, well-intentioned, freedom-loving “friends” condemned us, the Jewish people, to perish at the hands of Satan-made-flesh and his followers. As World War II approached and as Hitler’s megalomania and arrogance burst all bounds, humanity resolved to turn a blind eye to his plans for the Jews.
This is evident not only in the pronouncements of French Foreign Minister Bonnet and British Prime Minister Chamberlain in November 1938 and in the statements of numerous other leaders of Western nations, shocking as they seem when we read them today.
No, what really made crystal clear the willing acquiescence of modern man in the attempted annihilation of the Jews were such salient events as the voyage of the St. Louis – which sailed in May 1939 with 936 passengers from Hamburg to Havana and was refused landing, first in Cuba and some days later in the United States; the implementation of the MacDonald White Paper on May 17, 1939 by the British Mandate, which for all intents and purposes slammed shut the last escape route to Palestine for Jews writhing under the Nazi boot; and in the British attack on the boat Tiger Hill on September 1, 1939 – the very day World War II broke out – killing several “illegal” passengers whose only crime was a desperate attempt to flee the Nazi imbroglio.
Self-proclaimed Zionists living in the Jewish state and well-intentioned leaders in the world arena who expect the Jews to forget how dispensable they were just a few decades ago are either naively foolish – or brazenly hostile to the idea of Jewish survival.
After what we Jews have been through – in the lifetime of many who are reading this, and if not them, their parents and grandparents – when the world now throws us a rope we are duty-bound to carefully examine it and decide if it is intended to help us or to hang us.
In the light of recent experiences, caution is not only our inherent right; it is our elementary duty, whether we stand on the left or the right side of the political lineup, whether we are religious or secular, whether we live in Israel or the Diaspora.
Dr. Ervin Birnbaum is the author of several books including “Politics of Compromise” and “In the Shadow of the Struggle.” He is founder and director of Shearim Netanya, the first outreach program to Russian immigrants in Israel; taught at City University of New York, Haifa University and the University of Moscow; served as national superintendent of education of Youth Aliyah and as the first national superintendent of education for the Institute of Jewish Studies; and founded and directed the English Language College Preparatory School at Midreshet Sde Boker.