As Jews the world over entered their synagogues on Purim Eve 1939 to listen to the Megilla’s tale of Jews being saved from genocide in ancient times, there was a glimmer of hope that they, too, would be saved from catastrophe.
For six long years, the Hitler regime had brutalized German Jewry while the international community generally turned a deaf ear. In response to the Kristallnacht pogrom, however, in early 1939 U.S. Senator Robert Wagner (D-New York) and Rep. Edith Rogers (R-Massachusetts) took action. Just a few weeks before Purim, they introduced legislation to save 20,000 Jewish children from the Nazi Haman by admitting them to the United States, outside America’s strict immigration quotas.
The Wagner-Rogers bill attracted support from prominent clergy, labor leaders, university presidents, actors (including Henry Fonda and Helen Hayes), and political figures such as 1936 Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon. Former First Lady Grace Coolidge announced that she and her friends in Northampton, Massachusetts, would personally care for 25 of the children.
One of the most important—and surprising— supporters of the Wagner-Rogers bill was former president Herbert Hoover. Back in 1930, before the rise of Hitler, it was Hoover’s administration that had tightened the restrictions on immigration. Hoover’s unexpected endorsement of the 1939 legislation to allow greater immigration made the front page of the New York Times, and was even read aloud at the hearings on the bill. Hoover also assisted the sponsors of the bill behind the scenes by pressuring wavering members of the House Immigration Committee to support the measure.
Anti-foreigner groups, such as the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution, mobilized against Wagner-Rogers. Laura Delano Houghteling, a cousin of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, summarized the sentiment of the opposition when she complained that “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.”
Two of the children who could have qualified for admission under the legislation were Anne Frank and her sister Margot. They were German citizens, even though the Frank family was living in exile in Holland by 1939. Documents discovered by the staff of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research some years ago revealed that Anne’s father, Otto Frank, repeatedly sought permission to bring the family to the United States. They were turned down, even though Otto had previously worked in the U.S. (as an intern at Macy’s) and two of Anne’s uncles lived in Massachusetts.
President Roosevelt took no position on the Wagner-Rogers bill. When a congresswoman inquired as to the president’s stance, Roosevelt wrote “File No action FDR” at the top and returned it to his secretary.
In April 1939, a joint Senate-House committee held four days of hearings on Wagner-Rogers. Sympathetic witnesses offered moving humanitarian pleas. They stressed that children would not compete with American citizens for jobs. The opponents fought back, going so far as to argue that the wording of the bill could enable 20,000 Nazi children to come to the US; the bill should be defeated, lest it tear German families apart. Despite such demagoguery, the Senate and House subcommittees both voted unanimously in favor of Wagner-Rogers.
But, unlike the Purim story, this tale did not have a happy ending.
The legislation moved on to the full House Immigration Committee for its consideration. There, opponents managed to revise the bill’s wording so drastically that its entire original purpose was nullified. Ultimately the legislation never made it out of committee. Those 20,000 Jewish children were left to face the Nazi Haman alone.
Nonetheless, the most serious obstacle to Jewish refugees reaching the United States was not Congress, but the White House. According to the existing law, about 26,000 German Jews could have been admitted to the US each year. But the Roosevelt administration went above and beyond the law, to ensure that the quota allotments were almost never filled. The German quota was filled in only one of FDR’s 12 years as president— and in most of those years, it was less than 25-percent filled.
The administration’s policy was to “postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas” to refugees, as one senior State Department official put it in an internal memo. American consular officials abroad accomplished that goal by creating a bureaucratic maze to keep refugees such as the Frank family far from America’s shores.
A particularly heartbreaking example of the ways in which the Roosevelt administration kept most Jews out was uncovered by Bar-Ilan University historian Bat-Ami Zucker. It involved, of all things, the traditional Jewish marriage certificate, the ketubah. German Jews who were married and applied for visas to the U.S. in the 1930s were required to provide proof of their marital status. Some of those applicants had grown up in Russia and were married there before settling in Germany; but by the 1930s, Russia had become the Soviet Union and there was no possibility of traveling there to obtain proof of their civil marriage.
Thus, such applicants presented their ketubahs as evidence. But U.S. consular officials refused to recognize the validity of a ketubah. The officials therefore considered those applicants’ wives and children to be “illegitimate” and rejected their applications on those grounds. For Jews, the ketubah is a cherished symbol of a young couple starting a new life together. For the Roosevelt administration, it represented another convenient excuse to shut America’s doors in the face of those who most desperately needed a haven.
Thanks to these and other bureaucratic cruelties, a total of more than 190,000 quota places from Germany and Axis-occupied countries sat unused during the Holocaust years. They represented 190,000 lives that could have been saved, regardless of the mood in Congress and regardless of the Wagner-Rogers bill. All it required was for the president to quietly authorize the admission of refugees up to the limit of the existing law. But President Roosevelt— the president who was regarded as a humanitarian, who presented himself as the champion of the “forgotten man”—refused to take any such step.
Thus for Anne and Margot Frank, and all the other Jewish children within reach of the modern-day Haman, there would be no escape.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and author or editor of 16 books about Jewish history, Zionism, and the Holocaust.