By: Daniel Greene, curator of the new Americans and the Holocaust exhibition at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Americans and the Holocaust, a new exhibition at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, helps visitors understand the difficult bureaucracy that refugees from Nazism had to navigate in order to obtain immigration visas to the United States. At the center of the gallery, the exhibition takes visitors back to 1938, a critical turning point for refugees. That year, the Nazi regime expanded its territorial holdings by annexing Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia. Terror increased that November during Kristallnacht, the nationwide attack that saw hundreds of synagogues and thousands of shops destroyed, 30,000 Jews sent to concentration camps, and nearly 100 people murdered. Now 80 years later, exhibition curator Daniel Greene reflects on this turning point for refugees and its enduring lessons.  

Lofty Words

In 1938, the influential American journalist Dorothy Thompson wrote what she called a “small book” with “no claim to eloquence or literary style.” That book, Refugees: Anarchy or Organization?, described the urgency of the moment for Jewish refugees seeking to escape Nazism. It also called on the United States to provide haven to those in danger as well as lead the nations of the world toward a comprehensive plan to aid refugees. For Thompson, these humanitarian responsibilities were essential to democracy.  Although she told her readers that the book had been thrown together in “great haste,” Thompson’s insights were many. She put her finger on one of the most critical tensions in American life when she wrote, “The tragedy of the democracies is that their words are lofty, their gestures noble, but their deeds lag far behind.”

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Caption: Dorothy Thompson, circa 1940.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park,

Thompson wrote Refugees at a transformative moment during the spring of 1938. The Nazi regime had just annexed Austria (an event known as the Anschluss), bringing some 200,000 additional Jews under its rule. In the weeks that followed, thousands of Austrian Jews desperate to emigrate lined up at the US consulate in Vienna. Like German Jews, most ended up on long waiting lists for immigration visas.

Sympathy without Action

One month after the Anschluss, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for an international conference on refugees. Thompson expressed guarded optimism about the meeting, calling it one of the “most hopeful signs in years that some form of constructive action may be undertaken.” But her hope was unfounded.

Delegates from 32 countries gathered in Evian, France, in July 1938. Myron Taylor, one US representative to the conference, correctly warned:

“There is catastrophic human suffering ahead.”

The delegates at Evian established a new Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees. Yet they accomplished little else, save empty rhetoric focused on economic or other domestic concerns that prevented them from admitting additional refugees.

The American press criticized the participants at Evian for their inaction. Time magazine concluded:“All nations present expressed sympathy for the refugees but few offered to allow them within their boundaries.” Before the Evian Conference was convened Thompson expressed concern that it might fail refugees. “It would be a real catastrophe, both for the emigrés and for the democratic nations” if the conference “should result only in propaganda, [and] raise false hopes.” Yet that is precisely what Evian did in July 1938. And the crisis intensified.

“Inhumanity of Our Times”

Although few people still read Thompson’s book, one sentence from Refugees is often quoted by historians and commentators. “It is a fantastic commentary on the inhumanity of our times,” Thompson wrote, “that for thousands and thousands of people a piece of paper with a stamp on it is the difference between life and death.”

Those who go back to Thompson’s book will find that sixteen highly disturbing words follow that quote: “ . . . and that scores of people have blown their brains out because they could not get it.”

Refugees’ frustration and desperation, exemplified by the threat of suicide, were at the center of Thompson’s brief but powerful chronicle of the crisis in 1938. These words conveyed the dire urgency of the refugee problem.

Wall of Bureaucratic Measures

The US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s new exhibition uses Thompson’s quote (minus the sixteen harrowing words at its close) to anchor a large, glass-encased installation containing many examples of the “piece of paper with a stamp on it” that she wrote about.

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Caption: Documents required for immigration, surrounding a quotation from Dorothy Thompson’s 1938 book Refugees: Anarchy or Organization?.
Photographer: Joel Mason-Gaines

The installation features passports, waiting list numbers, visa applications, tax documents, medical clearances, police certificates, military discharge forms, inventories of possessions, bank letters, affidavits of support from Americans who sponsored refugees, transit visas, landing permits, ship tickets, and more. For those seeking to escape Nazism, much of this documentation was difficult and expensive to obtain. Even those who met the requirements for immigration often found themselves on years-long waiting lists for visas.

This large “paper wall” at the heart of the exhibition is inspired in part by a comment Albert Einstein made in a 1941 letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, telling her that the United States made “immigration impossible by erecting a wall of bureaucratic measures.”

Desperate People, Desperate Measures

Scaling this wall was exceedingly difficult, in part because the United States had no separate provision for admitting refugees during the 1930s. Those fleeing persecution had to come in as immigrants, under the existing restrictive immigration quotas put in place by the US Congress in 1924.

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Documents required for immigration, displayed in the Americans and the Holocaust exhibition at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Photographer: Joel Mason-Gaines

The bureaucratic hurdles for all immigrants were many, and difficult. As the exhibition explains, between 1933 and 1945 (the years the Nazis were in power) the US government only once issued the maximum number of immigration visas allowable under law. Moreover, the US government required that immigrants prove they would not become an economic burden, or a “public charge.” The Nazi regime would not allow Jewish refugees to take any real assets with them upon emigrating. Thus, they were required to find American sponsors, preferably relatives, who would guarantee their financial support.

Americans and the Holocaust tells many stories of refugees, including some unaccompanied children, who tried to navigate their way around, over, or through these walls of bureaucracy. It also recounts Americans who sponsored refugees—some sponsored their relatives, and others sponsored strangers. Consider Marianne Winter, a Jewish teenager in Vienna, whose communication with a pen pal she had never met in Reading, Pennsylvania, saved not only her but her family as well. Or, Richard Schifter, a 15-year old whose parents sent him to live with relatives in New York while they remained behind and ultimately were murdered during the Holocaust.

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Entrance to the Americans and the Holocaust exhibition at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Photographer: Joel Mason-Gaines

Unlike Marianne Winter and Richard Schifter, most refugees who wanted to come to the United States were thwarted, trapped between a Nazi regime that started off violent then ultimately became murderous and a restrictive US immigration system designed to keep out those defined as undesirable or un-American.

Thompson herself remained a powerful voice for refugees, continually advocating both through her writing and through her private actions. She understood the urgent crisis refugees faced in 1938, and her work reminds us of the gap that so often exists between American ideals about providing a haven for refugees and the political realities that are often used to bar their entry.

Eighty years hence, we should still heed the challenge Thompson made to the US government and the American people in 1938. After she described “desperate people taking desperate measures in the attempt merely to survive,” she reminded her readers: “Nor can any democratic country wash its hands of this problem if it wishes to retain its own soul.”

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

  1. Consider Thompson’s reflections about “desperate people taking desperate measures in the attempt merely to survive,” and her comment that no “democratic country [can] wash its hands of this problem if it wishes to retain its own soul.” How do these personal stories of rescuers, refugees, and American leaders illuminate the human dimensions of this reflection?
  2. How did Dorothy Thompson try to influence the way Americans understood the refugee crisis in 1938? What role do journalists play in shaping public opinion?

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Daniel Greene, PhD, is adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University and curator of Americans and the Holocaust, a special exhibition at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. A web version of the exhibition may be found at www.ushmm.org/americans.

@HolocaustMuseum  @danny_greene73