State Department Hindered Efforts to Rescue Jews from the Nazis

Scathing Treasury Department report prompted action by President Roosevelt

Tim Gebhart

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Jews deported by Nazis looking from railroad car (Wikimedia Commons)

AAntisemitism was an overt pillar of Adolf Hitler’s political philosophy and, from 1933, official German policy. Nevertheless, it still took years before America took tangible steps to help European Jews. In part, the change came about, thanks to the Department of Treasury accusing the State Department of obstructing rescue efforts.

On January 16, 1944, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. gave President Franklin Roosevelt an eight-page report detailing some of the State Department’s actions. Six days later, Roosevelt issued an executive order creating the War Refugee Board to lead an effort “to rescue victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death.”

The Impact of US Immigration Law

One of the problems in escaping Nazi territory to America came more than a decade before Hitler came to power. In the first two decades of the 20th century, America wanted to reduce the number of immigrants coming from poorer regions of southern and eastern Europe.

In 1921, Congress, for the first time, imposed quotas based on nationality. Until 1924, the Emergency Quota Act set each country’s quota at three percent of the total number of foreign-born persons residing in the US, based on the 1910 census. The law basically capped European immigration at 350,000 annually, less than half the annual average from 1900 to 1909.

The quotas became permanent with the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which capped European immigrants at 150,000 annually. While there was a handful of exceptions, it didn’t distinguish between immigrants and refugees. It set the quotas at two percent and, in 1927, based them on the national origin of the total US population in the 1890 census. This essentially eliminated the period of most eastern and southern European immigration and increased the number of available visas for the British Isles and Western Europe.

Letter advising Selmar and Elsa Biener they are 45,685 and 45,686 on the waiting list for US visas (USHMM)

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Tim Gebhart

Retired Lawyer. Book Addict. History Buff. Lifelong South Dakotan. Blog: prairieprogressive.com