Again and Again and Again

The same racist rhetoric used against Syrians was also used to shut the door to Jewish refugees escaping the Holocaust.

Young Jewish refugees arriving in London in 1938. Wikimedia Commons

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Apart from being an epochal tragedy on an unprecedented and unequalled scale, the Holocaust is often remembered as a lesson. Never again, goes the refrain, would the world look away from mass suffering.

Of course, this pledge has been broken repeatedly around the world basically before the guns of World War II had even cooled. The most recent example can be seen in the ongoing tragedy of Syrian refugees. The refugee crisis reached perhaps its most appalling nadir recently as President Donald Trump, in one of his first acts as president, signed an executive order banning Syrian refugees from the United States, upending the fates of those already cleared to come into the country and dashing the hopes of others who dreamed of escaping to the United States.

Trump’s order has suffered several high-profile defeats in court. But the order is yet to be tested by the Supreme Court, and it remains unclear if a future, similar order may be allowed to stand if rewritten to be more legally acceptable. So it’s likely a ban will continue to hang over the heads of desperate Syrians hoping to escape the squalid conditions they’re trapped in. These court decisions also don’t change the woefully inadequate job done by various Western governments (with some exceptions) to take in and resettle refugees.

These actions harken back to the Western world’s equally shameful treatment of Jewish refugees trying to escape the impending Holocaust nearly eighty years ago. In the United States, this failure to act is embodied by the unsuccessful Wagner-Rogers bill of 1939, which tried to bring 20,000 German Jewish children into the country.

The bill’s death — and the somewhat familiar arguments mobilized against the bill by its opponents — is a reminder that in eighty years, when it comes to accepting refugees fleeing death and destruction, we haven’t come very far.

“20,000 Ugly Adults”

Hitler’s and the Nazis’ antipathy to Jews and other minorities is well-known, but it wasn’t until November 9, 1938, that it took an explicitly violent turn with Kristallnacht, a series of pogroms carried out by Nazis and ordinary Germans targeting Jewish places of worship, homes, businesses, and Jews themselves. Thousands of businesses were destroyed, ninety-one Jews were killed, and 30,000 Jewish boys and men were placed in concentration camps.

The pogroms shocked the world, including the American public, informed of the violence through detailed front-page reports in newspapers around the country. “I could scarcely believe that such a thing could occur in a twentieth-century civilization,” said President Franklin Roosevelt.

But Roosevelt’s actions didn’t match his words. While he recalled the US ambassador to Germany and extended the visitors’ visas of the some 12,000 Jewish German refugees then in the United States, he also announced that loosening the United States’s immigration quotas was “not in contemplation.”

More heartening was the response of ordinary Americans who, galvanized by the news of the horrors in Germany, began a campaign to try to save the lives of German Jewish children by bringing them into the United States. Dozens of organizations dedicated to resettling these refugees in the United States sprung up. Letters of support for the campaign flooded in. Prominent supporters included former president Herbert Hoover, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and former first lady Grace Coolidge.

The Wagner-Rogers Bill was the legislative response to these efforts. Co-sponsored by New York senator Robert Wagner (of Wagner Act fame) and Massachusetts representative Edith Rogers, the bill was an emergency measure that would have brought up to 20,000 German refugees over the following two years.

To survive the wave of nativist sentiment that had engulfed the United States, the bill was narrow in scope. It was limited solely to children under fourteen, and the 20,000 number was “solely a maximum number,” as Wagner stressed. The bill arranged a home or institution to care for each child to prevent the children from becoming “public charges,” and as its defenders repeatedly made clear in committee, only mentally and physically sound children who came “from the very best homes” would be chosen.

Even so — and despite the outpouring of support from churches, religious organizations, rabbis, organized labor, and private citizens — the bill met strident opposition.

Many of the bill’s opponents justified their resistance on the basis of economic concerns. Witness after witness testifying against the bill cited Roosevelt’s words in January 1937 that one-third of the country was “ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” asking how, then, the United States could admit more foreigners if it could barely take care of its own people. They repeatedly complained that the refugee children would “become competitors with American citizens for American jobs.”

“How about the thousands of our own children in our orphan asylums?” asked Mrs. Edward Hulling of the anti-immigrant Allied Patriotic Societies, a coalition of approximately thirty patriotic organizations. “We have plenty of undernourished children of our own that need our sympathy and generosity,” said a representative of the Immigration Restriction League.

Others were more blunt. “I think we should consider Americans first,” said one witness. “Let’s keep America for Americans.”

Little has changed in this respect. The fear that Syrian refugees will steal jobs from natives continues to be peddled in both the United States and Europe, while right-wing commentators still complain that compassion for such suffering equates to neglect of native-born Americans. “You think [pictures of Syrian refugees] doesn’t pull at my heartstrings?” one Trump supporter recently said. “It absolutely does. But I love the American people first.”

Others at the time argued that the bill was a Trojan horse for eliminating US immigration restrictions.

“The real object of this legislation . . . is to break down the quota law of 1924 and open up our gates,” warned a member of the misleadingly named United Order of Mechanics. The bill, they believed, was a “wedge” that would allow more and more immigrants to circumvent US quotas and enter the country.

“After these children grow older, they will be entitled to bring in their parents, and their parents to bring in other children,” a representative of the American Legion, a veterans’ organization, told the committee. The bill would “be a precedent for similar unscientific favored-nation legislation in response to the pressure of foreign nationalistic or racial groups,” warned Francis H. Kinnicutt, president of the Allied Patriotic Societies.

The anti-refugee rhetoric has changed little in the ensuing decades. “Mark my words,” writes one right-wing blogger, “if this flow from Syria to America gets going full steam, as it has for Somalia, we will still be taking Syrians for decades no matter what happens in their homeland.”

Many of the witnesses in 1939 engaged in what we might today call concern-trolling, painting their opposition to the bill as one rooted in the German refugee families’ own best interest.

“We also feel that it is a great hardship on children to separate them from their parents,” said Hulling. The Allied Patriotic Societies passed a resolution whose first clause explaining their opposition to the bill was the “humanitarian grounds” of keeping children and parents together. One witness recounted his own traumatic experience as an orphan to illustrate why the bill would do more harm to Jewish refugees than good.

The opponents often took this argument further, questioning why the plight of German refugees was being focused on when suffering existed elsewhere.

“It seems hard to understand why we should single out German refugee children and admit them into this country . . . when children of other nations are in deep distress,” said a witness. “The present crisis in Europe does not approach in horror the slaughter and torture of persons and in the confiscation of property in Russia by the Communists,” read a statement by John B. Trevor, the president of the American Coalition of Patriotic Societies.

Other countries named as rivals to Germany’s horrors included Ethiopia, China, and Syria. It was on this basis that the bill’s critics repeatedly assailed it as discriminatory.

Always lurking on the edges of these objections to the refugees was nativist and xenophobic sentiment, sometimes made explicit.

“They may be suffering from some disease or insanity,” said Kinnicutt. Trevor warned against “the influx of these alien mental defectives” who could be “a shade above psychopathic inferiority.” He introduced a letter from a psychologist who cautioned that “low-grade immigration” brought “delinquents, feeble-minded, and school retardates,” plus contributed heavily to “insanity and crime.”

Many feared that the children were simply too different to ever become part of American society.

“We will have the same trouble with the assimilation of these people into our body politic, because such immigrants do not speak our language and they are certainly not familiar with our form of government and our social ways and customs,” said another member of the Junior Order of United American Mechanics. One member of the Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic believed it would be “very hard” to “Americanize” a child over four years old. Illinois representative Noah Mason replied that he came to the United States when he was eight and had “become quite Americanized,” to which he received applause from the room.

Others viewed the refugees more insidiously, believing they would alter the very character of America and undermine its social and political fabric.

“These foreign children might be communistic children,” worried one witness. “We have in the past let our sympathies run away with our good judgment in the enactment of immigration legislation which is largely responsible for . . . the un-American activities which threaten our very existence as a Nation,” warned another.

The bill was “fundamentally dangerous,” Kinnicutt warned, because “we don’t want to be swamped with immigrants.” “I say if we are going to keep this country as it is and not lose our liberty in the future, we have got to keep not only these children out of it but the whole damned Europe,” another witness offered.

The ugliest of these sentiments was expressed by Agnes Waters, who described herself as “the daughter of generations of patriots” and spoke out against the United States becoming “the dumping ground for Europe.” The refugees “have a heritage of hate” and “could never become loyal Americans,” she told the committee.

Complaining of an invasion and an “army of people who speak foreign languages,” she sketched out an apocalyptic vision of America should the 20,000 Jewish children be allowed in, which included the refugees leading a revolt against the US government, depriving Americans of their basic freedoms, and turning native-born Americans into slaves. She called the bill’s proponents communists and went on to accuse the committee chairman of being part of the Third International.

Such attitudes were not limited to “the masses.” Laura Delano Houghteling, Roosevelt’s cousin who was married to the US commissioner of immigration, similarly stated that “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”

One can’t help but hear the echoes of this rhetoric in today’s anti-refugee arguments. Right wing websites abound with stories (including totally false ones) painting Muslim Syrian refugees — or “rapeugees” in the words of one right-wing personality — as uniquely inclined toward sexual assault and other crimes.

The dehumanizing language reserved for Jewish and other European immigrants in the 1930s is repeated today, as we hear about “floods,” a “swarm of people,” and — lifted straight from the testimony of Agnes Waters — an “invasionof refugees. And much as the Wagner-Rogers Bill’s opponents feared that allowing in Jewish children would open the door to anti-American forces determined to bring down the US government and society, so Republicans today warn that Syrian refugees could be a “Trojan horse” for anti-American “bad guys” and terrorists.

The Wagner-Rogers bill had enough public support that it could have passed. What spelled its doom was the lack of presidential support. When a New York congresswoman wrote to Roosevelt to ask for his view on the bill, he sent it to his secretary with the note “File no action.”

Roosevelt was mindful of polling that showed a majority of Americans were opposed to immigration and decided not to take the political risk. Eleanor Roosevelt, who supported the bill, was similarly mute. The bill died in committee after an amendment was attached that would have made the 20,000 part of the regular German quota number.

Lessons Unlearned

The kind of openly xenophobic sentiment expressed by Waters was rare, but it’s clear much of the opposition to the bill was rooted in racism. The months and years after the bill’s death bore this out.

One year after the bill’s failure, the Roosevelt administration allowed an unlimited number of British child refugees to come into the country, and Congress passed a law sending ships to rescue British children from the Nazi bombing campaign. According to Judith Taylor Baumel, restrictionist publications were silent on the issue during this time.

The same year, as German bombers pummelled the United Kingdom, Pets magazine launched a campaign to save purebred British puppies. Thousands offered to take the dogs in.

All the while, the US government continued to fearmonger about supposed German spies crossing into the country, and tightened its immigration restrictions. In one infamous incident, hundreds of Jewish refugees were turned away at the port of Miami and sent back to die in the Holocaust.

The case of the Wagner-Rogers bill is instructive to remember today, especially as the Trump administration attempts to keep its refugee ban alive in the face of public criticism and adverse court decisions, but as public opinion continues to sour against the admission of refugees. Today’s Islamophobic, anti-refugee rhetoric — whether it’s warnings of a “fifth column” infiltrating American society or Trump’s talk of “not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas” — is little changed from the kinds of slurs lobbed at Jewish children nearly eighty years ago.

In the decades since World War II, antisemitic rhetoric has become much more of a taboo, no longer uttered by nice people at dinner tables (although it has apparently more recently become much more acceptable in the halls of the White House). These days, it seems if you want to openly spew the kind of bile that was once reserved for Jews, you have to aim it at the current brown Other de jour, Middle-Eastern Muslims.

When people in Western countries look back on the issue of World War II–era Jewish refugees now, the operative emotions tend to be shame and regret — shame at the failure to help desperate people trying to escape certain death, and regret knowing as we do now the terrible scale of suffering Jews were subjected to. We would like to think we would do better than our ancestors.

But human beings have a nasty habit of not learning from history. Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and one of his closest advisers, is himself descended from a Polish Jewish refugee who talked about her experience trying to flee for her life when “the doors of the world were closed to us.” Yet no reports indicate he has any qualms about Trump’s ban and the fact that we’re doing the same thing to Syrians and other desperate peoples that we regularly admonish past generations for doing to Jewish refugees.

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