Death was closing in. Nazi Germany didn’t want its Jews, and no else did either. Jewish refugees crossed European borders but were often relegated to refugee camps. By 1939, in that last summer before war, there were more Jews in refugee camps outside Germany than there were Jews in concentration camps within it.
Now, in view of the Statue of Liberty, a sight whose magnitude in 1939 we can only imagine, the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to The Holocaust, is presenting “Against the Odds: American Jews and the Rescue of Europe’s Refugees, 1933-‘41,” an exhibit running through the spring of 2014.
The exhibit is subtitled, “Overcoming Obstacles to Immigration,” though the “obstacles” were more overwhelming than overcome. Anita Kassof, the museum’s deputy director, says, “We hope that ‘Against the Odds’ dispels misconceptions about American Jewish passivity during the Nazi period.”
The exhibit, which opened last month, is fascinating, reigniting the urgency of the times, but less than convincing about the “misconception” of passivity. American Jews were hardly activists. It can’t be that all American Jews were too uncomfortable in America to protest. For decades, American Jews had been leading union and labor protests, and often were jailed in the process. There was no similar effort for Jewish refugees. There was no American Jewish civil disobedience or American Jewish violence to speak of, even though in Paris and in Switzerland there were Jewish shootings of Nazi diplomats to protest the budding Holocaust. Was there a move to democratically “punish” those politicians who voted against opening American’s immigration quotas to the doomed? American Jews overwhelmingly supported President Franklin Roosevelt, despite his very limited support for Jewish immigration, in every election from 1932 to 1944, even as the years grew increasingly haunted.
In a world of rocks-scissors-matches, American Jews fought with paper — letters and affidavits to facilitate German Jewish immigration. The exhibit is cleverly decorated with loose papers suspended from the ceiling, giving the illusion of letters and visas seemingly blown through the air like litter in a winter’s wind.
The exhibit displays large wall projections in which 1930s Germany is mirrored by a 1930s darkening of the American soul. Along with xenophobia and anti-Semitism it was the Depression, of course, and the unemployed were unconvinced that adding thousands of new Americans wouldn’t cut into their own ill fortune. Several years before Hitler, in 1930 as the Depression hardened, President Herbert Hoover issued a directive (later reaffirmed by Roosevelt), “If the consular officer believes that the applicant may probably be a public charge at any time, he must refuse the visa.” Unemployment was circling 25 percent. The annual quota from Germany was 25,957. “Why not close that gate for a while?” the Des Moines Register asked in a graphic (April 24, 1930.)
There were 525,000 Jews in Germany (and another 185,000 in Austria, when that country was later annexed by Germany) and tens of thousands left in the years after Hitler’s 1933 ascension. The door was still open on the German side, but closing on the American side. We’re shown a headline from The New York Times (May 10, 1934): “Immigration Falls Far Below Quotas… Down to 7 Percent of Legal Limit.”
In the end, there was paper, reams of correspondence between Jews in Germany and Jews in the United States, reminding us of nothing so much as the final phone calls from the World Trade Center in which the futility verges on the romantic, but futile all the same.
The artifacts that remain are sanctified debris: a glove, a diary, a family photograph, a confirmation of a 1939 tax document for the Blau family of Vienna, since aspiring immigrants had to prove they had paid all their taxes.
Adolf Lorch, who successfully immigrated to the United States, wrote a 1934 letter to the U.S. consul in Stuttgart, Germany, on behalf of his brother Max, who lost part of his right arm but “This injury has not prevented him from carrying on his business and has in no way affected his ability to earn his living. I wish to assure you that there is no danger of my brother and his family becoming public charges.” Adolf Lorch successfully sponsored not only his brother, but also 125 others.
Four years later, Ludwig Klein wrote (Dec. 10, 1938): “Unfortunately things aren’t moving that fast, even if you have the best of papers. At present, the American consulate in Stuttgart is being besieged to such an extent that only those with [a] waiting number under 7,000 are being admitted to the building. We ourselves are number 22,345 and inasmuch as the consulate issues only 11,000 visas per year, you can figure for yourself…”
Four years later, he was in Auschwitz.
The exhibit, mostly examining activity pre-Pearl Harbor, might have included, but doesn’t, the work of writer Ben Hecht who joined Peter Bergson’s ad hoc rescue group three months before the U.S. entered the war. Hecht went on to script Hollywood pageants on the Jewish crisis that twice sold-out Madison Square Garden; authored articles for widely read magazines on what would be the likely fate of Europe’s Jews if they were not rescued; and placed full-page ads in The New York Times, such as one headlined, “For Sale To Humanity: 70,000 Jews – Guaranteed Human Beings At $59 A Piece.” Hecht’s pro-refugee work only underscored the absence of such creativity in the 1930s when rescue was more possible.
In the 1930s, “Although American Jews were sympathetic to the plight of Germany’s Jews,” reports the exhibit, “they were divided about how to respond to the refugee crisis. Some Jewish leaders urged the government to loosen quota restrictions and lobbied for more liberal immigration laws. But more cautious voices prevailed.”
Roosevelt’s White House consul, Samuel Rosenman, a leading member of the American Jewish Committee, is quoted: “I do not believe it is either desirable or practicable to recommend any change in the quota provision of our immigration law.”
In contrast to Rosenman’s chin-stroking sobriety in Washington, over in Vienna a Jewish composer, Erich Zeisl and his wife Gertrude, smelled death in the air. Who would help them? They didn’t know a soul in America. They somehow got a hold of a New York telephone directory and went through every “Z” in the book until — yes! — Zeisl! They wrote to him. Morris Zeisl, a plumber in New York, was not a relative but he was a Jew. The kind of Jew who clearly felt that every Jew was a piece of his soul. Morris wrote back, “I am doing everything within my power to help you…”
We see the letter from Morris to the Zeisls of Austria, and we’re shown his affidavit supporting not only their immigration but for Gertrude’s mother and Erich’s brother. It was Sept. 20, 1938, a few days before Rosh HaShanah, less than two months before every shul in Vienna would burn.
The Zeisls left for America, but not before posing for a final photograph that now sits in this exhibit. What beautiful faces. Erich and Gertrude posing next to her mother, and Hilde, who worked in the mother’s jewelry business.
They hadn’t known a soul in America, but there were souls in America, such as Morris.