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2014 Days of Remembrance
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Confronting the Holocaust: American Responses



Transcript

Narrator:
The history of the Holocaust raises challenging questions about our responsibility as a nation to offer refuge and rescue to persecuted people from beyond our borders. In the spring of 1939, before the outbreak of World War II, the MS St. Louis set sail from Germany. Most of its 937 passengers were Jews fleeing from Nazi persecution. Five years later, with the world now engulfed in war and well after the United States had learned about the Holocaust, over 400,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to German killing centers. In both instances, public opinion and government policy determined how the United States responded. What can we learn from American action—and inaction—in the face of these events that could help us prevent future genocides?

[TEXT ON SCREEN]
Confronting the Holocaust: American Responses

Narrator:
On November 9, 1938, the Nazi Party engaged in a campaign of violence against Jews throughout Germany and Austria, an event that became known as Kristallnacht—night of broken glass.

Jill Pauly, Holocaust Survivor:
Kristallnacht started for us early in the morning. My uncle wanted to close the shutters, leaving the outside world outside, and my grandmother said to him, “Stop that. It’s too late. That’s not going to protect us.”

Narrator:
After five years of Nazi rule, hundreds of thousands of Jews were desperate to escape. The problem was few countries were willing to take in more refugees. Many looked to the United States, but did not yet have immigrant visas. Some hoped that Cuba might offer temporary refuge until their US visas came through. This set the stage for the voyage of the St Louis.

Steven Luckert, Curator, Permanent Exhibition, US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
On May 13, 1939, the St. Louis left Hamburg to go to Cuba, and on board were 937 passengers. The vast majority of these were Jews. This was the beginning of something new, something good, but when they arrived in Havana harbor, those dreams were shattered.

Narrator:
The Cuban government reversed its policy, invalidating most of the passengers’ landing certificates. Only those with valid immigration visas could disembark in Havana.  

Scott Miller, Director, Curatorial Affairs, US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee sent a delegate to Cuba, but the negotiations fell apart and the St Louis had to leave Cuban waters. The captain decided that they were going to sail to the United States. They were America bound anyway, so it was believed that there’d be some flexibility. They sent telegrams to government officials, to President Roosevelt, and to the State Department asking for entry. The State Department stated that though they had waiting numbers to get into the United States, they would have to wait their turn and leave American waters.  

Steven Luckert, Curator, Permanent Exhibition, US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
By 1938 and 1939, public opinion is clearly against Nazi Germany, but that doesn’t translate into a willingness to bring in refugees.

Scott Miller, Director, Curatorial Affairs, US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
Even confronted with specific lives right off the coast of Miami Beach, American public opinion was so against increasing the immigration quota.

Steven Luckert, Curator, Permanent Exhibition, US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
If immigrants come into the United States, it might represent a competition for jobs. Bad economic times fueled xenophobia. It also fueled antisemitism.

Scott Miller, Director, Curatorial Affairs, US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
So the St. Louis left American shores on June 7, 1939. Fortunately, with the intervention again of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a deal was brokered with four western European countries to take in the passengers: Belgium, Holland, France, and England.

Steven Luckert, Curator, Permanent Exhibition, US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
This was celebrated, that these refugees had finally found homes. What nobody knew at that time is that Europe would be engulfed in war just a few months afterwards.

Narrator:
In December 1941, the United States was officially at war with the Axis powers: Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan. For Europe’s Jews, the situation had greatly worsened and they were increasingly trapped. By the middle of 1942, information about the Nazi policy to murder Jews began to reach the United States public. We now know that almost two million Jews had been killed by that time.

Victoria Barnett, Director, Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust, US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
The persecution of the Jews in Europe had reached a really unimaginable scale, and that millions of people were now threatened with death. There was a new wave of interest in doing something, a sense that there had to be some kind of effort on behalf of the refugees.

Steven Luckert, Curator, Permanent Exhibition, US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
This creates a mood among Jewish organizations to call public attention to what’s happening and to urge action to save what remains of Europe’s Jewish population.

Rebecca Erbelding, Archivist, US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
So by the end of 1943, there is enough public awareness of the murder of the Jews that the Senate and the House of Representatives issued what is called the Rescue Resolution, calling for a US government agency designed for the relief and rescue of Jews and other persecuted minorities. Simultaneously in the executive branch, a battle was going on between the State Department and the Treasury Department. The Treasury Department, who needed to approve licenses for relief and rescue, realized that the State Department was delaying assisting some of these Jewish aid organizations to send money into Europe.

[TEXT ON SCREEN OF REPORT]
“Officials in our State Department…have been guilty…of willful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.”

Steven Luckert, Curator, Permanent Exhibition, US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
Treasury Department officials compile a report that is placed before President Roosevelt in January of 1944, and almost immediately Roosevelt decides on the creation of the War Refugee Board.

Rebecca Erbelding, Archivist, US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
The War Refugee Board staff came from the Treasury Department. It was a group who worked with sending money overseas. John Pehle, as Director of the Foreign Funds Control, became the executive director largely because of the good work that his group was doing.  

Richard Breitman, Distinguished Professor of History, American University:
These were people who were really committed—morally committed, as well as politically committed—to saving lives.

Rebecca Erbelding, Archivist, US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
The Board organizes some relief, but for the most part they’re working through other agencies, streamlining the process. They are able to facilitate sending millions of dollars into Europe and have a much greater impact.

Narrator:
Still, the War Refugee Board confronted a daunting task. The people it hoped to save remained far behind enemy lines, and the Board could not divert vital military resources from the Allies’ goal of winning the war as soon as possible. Options were very limited.

Steven Luckert, Curator, Permanent Exhibition, US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
In the spring of 1944, the War Refugee Board was faced with one of its greatest crises, which was what to do about Hungary.

Richard Breitman, Distinguished Professor of History, American University:
The Hungarian government had engaged in secret negotiations to leave the Axis. When the Germans found out about this they sent troops into the country, and along with the troops came Adolf Eichmann’s team of deportation specialists.

Narrator:
At the time of the German invasion in March 1944, Hungary was home to the largest Jewish community left in Europe, about 800,000 Jews. Within two months, at the request of the Germans, Hungarian authorities began deporting Jews by train to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Richard Breitman, Distinguished Professor of History, American University:
President Roosevelt held a news conference in which he warned the Hungarian government not to cooperate with Germany in its persecution. Government shortwave broadcasts to eastern Europe threatened the Hungarian government, that war criminals who cooperated with Germany in mass killings would be prosecuted after the war. This was not enough.

Steven Fenves, Holocaust Survivor:
There was a long, long line of railroad cars, and an order came to mount the cars. And I remember even at thirteen I had to help people like my grandmother, people like my aunt, to get up on the high car. And eventually the doors were closed, the locks were put on, and I don't know how many hours wait, and then the trains took off.

Agnes Laszlo Geva, Holocaust Survivor:
And we just couldn’t believe that this is possible to transport people like this. It was, of course, standing places only, and there was a small window under the roof and a pail in the corner. It was unbelievable. People became hysterical. They were screaming. Some people were yelling, some people were fainting, some people were crying. It was a situation that I never, ever could imagine to happen to human beings.

Narrator:
On July 7, 1944, the Hungarian ruler announced his order to halt the deportations to Auschwitz. A variety of outside pressures, including a US bombing of Budapest on July 2, 1944, influenced his decision. By that time, over 400,000 people had been deported. Hungary’s decision to halt the deportations offered the Jews remaining in Budapest a chance to survive—an opportunity the War Refugee Board seized.

Richard Breitman, Distinguished Professor of History, American University:
There were approximately 120,000 Jews in Budapest in July of 1944. For the moment, they were spared, but no one knew how long they would be spared.

Rebecca Erbelding, Archivist, US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
The War Refugee Board petitions and cables to all of the neutral nations of Europe—to Portugal, to Spain, to Switzerland, Sweden, Turkey—and asks them if they could increase their diplomatic representation in Hungary.

Narrator:
Working through diplomatic posts and other intermediaries, like the International Red Cross, the War Refugee Board assisted a complex network of rescuers. They employed an array of tactics, from false passports and citizenship papers to safe houses and clandestine escapes. These measures enabled tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest to survive. Unfortunately, by July 1944, over 300,000 Hungarian Jews had already lost their lives.

Victoria Barnett, Director, Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust, US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
The time for a War Refugee Board would have been before the war, when you really had refugees who were still looking for visas and able in some fashion to get out. If you wait until, in the case of the Holocaust, Hitler begins to expand his Reich across Europe, it's already too late.

Rebecca Erbelding, Archivist, US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
I think one of the lessons is that the individual has power. It's public pressure that leads to the rescue resolutions in Congress in the fall of 1943. It's a number of people writing; it's people showing up to protests; it's people saying: I know what's going on in Europe, I believe it, and I want this government to try to stop it.

Richard Breitman, Distinguished Professor of History, American University:
People want to know, have we learned from history? Have we learned specifically from the history of the Holocaust? And my answer is yes, but we learn very, very slowly.

Victoria Barnett, Director, Programs on Ethics, Religion, and the Holocaust, US Holocaust Memorial Museum:
Terrible things continue to happen. Governments continue to fail to respond sufficiently or soon enough to help victims of genocide around the world, and it’s a tough call. There’s no easy answer. There are challenges to intervening in a foreign country. There are certainly challenges when you implement a refugee policy that lets a lot of people in at once. And yet, we really do need to think about this. When you have millions of people that are left homeless, who are murdered, whose lives are destroyed—those ruins have a ripple effect for every nation on this planet. It carries such a heavy cost that we have a responsibility to figure this one out.

[TEXT ON SCREEN]
Many refugees from the St. Louis who returned to Europe were imprisoned or sent to killing centers after Germany invaded western Europe. Two hundred and fifty-four former passengers were murdered in the Holocaust.

Shortly after Kristallnacht, Jill Pauly's family immigrated to Kenya and settled in the United States after the war.

Steven Fenves survived the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. After the war, he was reunited with his father, Lajos, and sister, Estera. Steven’s grandmother was murdered in the gas chambers upon arrival at Auschwitz and his mother died a few weeks later.

Agnes Laszlo Geva survived the Auschwitz and Plaszow concentration camps with her mother, Rozsa, and sister, Zsuzsanna.

The 2014 Days of Remembrance theme, Confronting the Holocaust: American Responses, marks the anniversaries of two seminal events in Holocaust history that raise questions about the responses of the United States to the widespread persecution and mass murder of the Jews of Europe. What can we learn today from American action and inaction in the face of the refugee crisis in the spring of 1939 and the deportation of Hungarian Jews five years later? What are the warning signs we should look for to help prevent future genocides? What is our responsibility as a nation or as individuals when confronted with such crimes?

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