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September 5, 2015 / 21 Elul, 5775
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FDR and the ‘Voyage of the Damned’


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“I could see my father in one of the rowboats,” Hans recalls. “But they were not allowed to get close enough for us to hear each other. It was very painful.”

When the Cuban government refused to budge, the “saddest ship afloat,” as The New York Times called it, sailed north and hovered off the coast of Florida, hoping that the American president, who was known as a humanitarian and a champion of “the little guy” would take pity on them.

For three days, the refugees gazed longingly at the lights of Miami. The passengers sent a telegram to the White House, pleading for mercy and emphasizing that “more than 400 [of the refugees] are women and children.”

The reply came in the form of a Coast Guard cutter, dispatched to the scene to make sure the St. Louis did not approach America’s shore.

‘Filthy, Un-American, and Dangerous’

Though many German Jews hoped to escape Hitler by fleeing to the United States, immigration was severely restricted. America’s traditional open door immigration policy, which had permitted the unfettered entry of millions of newcomers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, was reversed in the early 1920s as Congress enacted a tight quota system based on national origins.

The number of immigrants from any single country each year could not exceed two percent of the number of immigrants from that country who had been living in the U.S. at the time of the 1890 national census. This sharply reduced the number of Jews and (predominantly Catholic) Italian Americans, since the bulk of Jewish and Italian immigrants in the U.S. had not arrived until after 1890.

Keeping Jews out was one of the motives for the new system. The original version of the quota bill was submitted to Congress with a report by the chief of the United States Consular Service characterizing would-be Jewish immigrants from Poland as “filthy, un-American, and often dangerous in their habits . . . lacking any conception of patriotism or national spirit.”

Anti-Semitism was only part of the reason behind the strong public and congressional support for immigration restriction. The 1917 Soviet revolution in Russia sparked anxiety about Communism and the danger that European radicals would import it to America. The changing face of American society as a result of the influx of European immigrants provoked fears of foreigners. And prominent anthropologists

and eugenicists contributed to the public’s growing racism and paranoia by promoting theories that non-Caucasian races were corrupting Anglo-Saxon society.

Saving Lives Without Changing Laws

As Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews intensified during the mid and late 1930s, the U.S. quota system functioned precisely as its creators had intended: it kept out all but a handful of Jews.

The annual quota for Germany and Austria was 27,370. For Poland, it was just 6,542. Even those meager quota allotments were almost always under-filled, as zealous consular officials erected bureaucratic obstacles to immigration – what Prof. David S. Wyman called “paper walls.”

In 1933, Hitler’s first year in power, the German quota was only 5.3 percent filled (1,324 immigrants). It was 13.7 percent filled in 1934, 20.2 percent in 1935, 24.3 percent in 1936, 42.1 percent in 1937, and 65.3 percent in 1938. The only year between 1933 and 1945 that the German quota was fully filled was 1939.

This meant that between 1933 and 1939, there were 106,484 unused quota places for German citizens.

Later, during the period of the Nazi genocide, from late 1941 until early 1945, only ten percent of the quotas from Axis-controlled European countries were used. That means almost 190,000 quota places were unused.

About the Author: Dr. Rafael Medoff is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and coeditor of the Online Encyclopedia of America's Response to the Holocaust.


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