Photo Credit: pixabay

*Editor’s Note: This is part VIII in a series from Dr. Grobman. You can read Part VII, here

The critical need to find a refuge in light of the wretched conditions Jews faced in Europe, became a popular theme in the Jewish press. In the August-September 1940 issue of The Call, the Jewish Labor Committee declared that America “must not lock her doors in the face of these helpless, these suffering men and women.” The Committee saw no viable alternative and wanted an immediate change in the immigration laws so the refugees could be saved. The Forward also demanded that America’s “doors remain open,” as did two liberal periodicals, The New Republic and The Nation. 


In the Yiddish daily Der Tog, Samuel Margoshes remarked that he had heard much discussion the press and elsewhere about American’s great compassion, and concern for human rights and freedom. Where he asked, is the compassion when the refugees desperately needed their help. Instead of throwing open the gates of the United States to the refugees, the gates had been closed even tighter. Everywhere immigration had been drastically decreased, if not stopped entirely. They regarded the stranger with suspicion and often with disgust. The world had closed “its heart to pity and compassion.” 

In another editorial, Margoshes suggested the U.S. “could open its doors even temporarily.” America, he said, never had “as great an opportunity to prove to the world that it is still the beacon light for all weak and oppressed.” 

The General Jewish Council, founded on June 13, 1938, to coordinate the defense activities of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), American Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith and the Jewish Labor Committee, acknowledged on June 1, 1940, it had “consistently opposed the suspension of immigration or the reduction of quotas.” Yet, the Council said, the “present world conditions make the United States the last remaining place of refuge.” An examination of the press of B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Congress corroborated this reluctance to question the immigration laws. Only when the US Congress or State Department attempted to tighten these statues, did they protest. 

The Above Quota Emergency Visitors’ Visas 

Though the U.S. would not increase the immigration quota, historian David Kranzler said the Jewish Labor Committee, with the aid of the American Federation of Labor, succeeded in pressuring the Roosevelt Administration to provide sanctuary to in the U.S. to qualified, endangered European refugees Included in this group were Jewish and non-Jewish artists, writers and union leaders. Among the group were Hannah Arendt, the German-born American philosopher and political theorist; Jacques Lipchitz, a Cubist sculptor; Franz Viktor Werfel, an Austrian-Bohemian novelist, playwright, and poet; Thomas Mann, a German novelist, short story writer, social critic, philanthropist, essayist, and the 1929 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate; Lion Feuchtwanger, a German-Jewish novelist, playwright, and a leading figure in the literary world of Weimar Germany; and the Jewish artist Marc Chagall. 

Ostensibly, Roosevelt granted visas on an emergency basis to visitors who came for the 1939-1940 World’s Fair in New York. More than 2,500 visas were issued on that occasion with the Jewish Labor Committee receiving half of them.  

Initially, the program involved Varian Fry, a New York editor of the Foreign Policy association’s Headline Books. In his book Surrender on Demand, Fry describes that he went to Marseilles, France after the Nazis invaded the country to locate people and help them escape. The Emergency Rescue Committee, a group of Americans, whose “sole purpose” was “to bring the political and intellectual refuges out of France before the Gestapo [or some other group] got to them,” recruited Fry. By the time the Vichy government expelled Fry as an “undesirable alien” in September 1941, he had helped almost 2,000 people immigrate to the U.S.  

Having your name on a list did not automatically guarantee you a visa. Each individual had to have an intrinsic value to the world and to the U.S. Each applicant had to produce a three-page brief enumerating the benefit of that individual—an onerous clerical task considering that thousands of applicants were involved.  

As other organizations recognized the importance of this special visa program, they asked that their own lists be considered. The World Jewish Congress submitted the names of approximately 100 major Zionist leaders it wanted to bring to the U.S. The American Jewish Congress and dozens of other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations prepared list of specific people they wanted to rescue.  

David Kranzler wrote that the Agudath Israel (the Agudah) and the Vaad Hatzala coordinated their efforts to secure the above quotas for approximately 2,600 to 2,800 Torah scholars from 30 yeshivos, the elite of the Polish yeshiva world. Founded in 1922, the American Agudah represented, most, but not all, of the Haredi Jews in the US and the vast majority of members of the yeshiva community. The Vaad Hatzala, founded in November 1939, was initially dedicated to the rescue of the b’nei Torah, the eminent rabbis and yeshiva students in Europe before, during and after the war. 

At the urging of Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodzinski, the leading rabbinical authority in Lithuania and world Jewry, Rabbi Eliezer Silver established the Orthodox Rabbis’ Rescue Committee/ Vaad Hatzala in response to the overwhelming number of refugees from yeshivas inundating Vilna and other cities in Lithuania. 

When they approached Stephen S. Wise and other American Jewish leaders with their list, they were rebuffed, Kranzler reported. Wise and his associates did not deem it prudent for the Agudah and the Vaad to pressure the Roosevelt Administration for more than 500 applications, though there was, ostensibly, no limit to the number of individuals eligible under the program. 

Wise said “there were political and social and other implications” for not requesting for visas for such a large numbers of people to immigrate to the U.S. In particular, he viewed the issue from a “public relations angle,” because it meant trying to “transplant close to thirty such institutions in the United States, involving 3,000 to 4,000 persons.” 

Moses A. Leavitt, secretary of the JDC, explained that Wise believed perhaps “three to five hundred [Jews] might be absorbed,” but “did not fell it was feasible to think in terms of resettling a large number in this country.” Moreover, Wise advised the Agudah and the Vaad to refrain from applying pressure on the [Roosevelt] Admiration in connection with issuance of visas.” 

Why Such A Negative Response? 

Why this negative response? One reason was that rescue “posed tremendous technical and financial problems” for the American Jewish community. David Brody explained that American Jewry’s lack of enthusiasm for changing the immigration policy arose partly “out of conditions peculiar to the time: anti-Semitism, economic distress, and popular opposition….”  Jews had sustained enormous losses during the depression, precluding them from being in a position to assist a significant influx of immigrants. 

Brody noted the negative attitude toward immigration was reflected in the view of the wealthier Jews, particularly during the early and mid-1930s, because they provided the largest share of money to the Jewish Federation welfare funds. This “sense of responsibility of Jews for their less fortunate brethren… acted to discourage the impulse to bring large numbers of refuges to America,” Brody opined. 

The anxiety of Jews becoming an economically “submerged class” is another factor contributing to this negative attitude toward immigration. Jews were not being hired, and even when they found employment, they could be fired once a non-Jew became available. The American Jewish Congress found that by 1938, discrimination against the Jews had reached a high point. To make matters worse, Brody quoted the Yiddishe Welt of Cleveland that found “fifty percent of Jewish employers refused to employ Jews.”   

An editorial in the B’nai B’rith Magazine illustrated how American Jews regarded the refugees as a “grievous burden–many (too many) of them remain in New York…The struggle for work becomes more difficult as their numbers increase; their increasing numbers may become a social irritation as they seek places in the life of a community already overcrowded.” 

Numerous American Jews feared a large influx of Jews would establish a precedent and other countries would then be tempted to rid themselves of their Jewish populations, knowing that America would offer them refuge. 

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and other American Jewish leaders were also worried, Kranzler said, of “being identified by Americans with these most Orthodox” Jews because of the “widespread notion that such outwardly different Jews would increase antisemitism—and, that antisemitism itself was fostered by the ‘unassimilable’ ethnic Jew, who retained his different Old-World mode of dress and culture.”  

Many secular Jews worried that these highly visible Jews would prevent them from joining exclusive clubs and schools. The German Jewish establishment, in particular, looked down on Eastern European Jews and longed “for full acceptance as equals in American society.” They feared being identified with Russian Jews whom they viewed as un-America, “alien” and ill-mannered. This simply reflected the attitude of the white Anglo-Saxon community that were hostile to hordes of Irish, Catholic, Italian and especially European Jewish immigrants. 

The Vaad Hatzala Rescue Committee Followed the Dictates of Jewish Law 

The political and secular considerations of the Rabbi Wise and other American Jews did not influence Vaad Hatzala policy. According to a resolution of the Agudath Harabonim (an Orthodox rabbinical association founded in 1902), members of the Vaad was required to follow Jewish law, which meant they were bound to rescue the spiritual leaders, teachers and students, who ensured the continuity of the Jewish people—even if it meant violating American law. Primarily, the issue was a matter of pikuach nefesh (a matter of life and death).  

Historian Hillel Ben Sasson explained that in this case, they followed the Talmud. When Jerusalem lay under siege before the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai urged that he be given the academy of Yavneh and its wise men so he could rebuild Jewish life (Talmud Tractate Gittin, 56a-b). Ben Zakkai understood that the future of the Jewish people would be endangered if this leadership disappeared. After the destruction of the Temple, the Jews were without a Temple or state. To secure their future, they organized a Jewish community “firmly anchored in a life governed by the Torah and its commandments.” These Torah values “were the foundation of and support of the nation’s life and aspirations throughout its long existence as a people without a country.” Thus, the rabbis ensured that the “religious and cultural unity of the entire nation was preserved.” 

The Vaad and members of the Orthodox Jewish community saw parallels in the history of Ben Zakkai and the threat facing the Jewish community in Europe. Few other American Jewish organizations appreciated the urgency of saving the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people. Their priority remained the rescue of labor and Zionist leaders, artists, writers, and other intellectuals. If the Vaad had not attempted to rescue the rabbis and yeshiva students, no one else would have done so. 

The American Jewish community charged the JDC with saving the “masses” of the Jewish people. The members of the Vaad understood this, but they had to ensure that as long as the rabbis were at risk, their interests would also be addressed. 

The Above Quota Emergency Visitors’ Visas program provided a unique opportunity. The Jewish Labor Committee, the American Jewish Congress and other Jewish organizations viewed it as a duty and responsibility to save whomever they could within the parameters established by the American government. The Jews simply attempted to use the opportunity to benefit their brethren in Europe. The US, not any of the Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, determined the elitist nature of this program.  

Conflicting Priorities 

What is clear, is that before the Nazi began their systematic campaign to destroy the Jews of Europe, the American Jewish community had conflicting priorities with regard to rescuing some Jews. Wise believed that keeping President Roosevelt in office was more important than rescuing Jews, because it would be best for the country and ultimately the Jewish people. For Wise and many American Jews, Roosevelt’s New Deal represented a messianic era. 


Previous articlePM Bennett: We’ll Use Lull in Negotiations with Iran to Chart a Different Path for the US
Next articleWhere Am I: Chanukiah
Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.