When the U.S. Turned Away 20,000 Jewish Children Fleeing Nazi Germany

Why you should care

Because rejecting refugees is a recurring theme in the story of America.

Democracy or hypocrisy? In this series, “American Hypo-cracy,” OZY looks at America’s lengthy struggle to live up to its lofty ideals by exploring some of the uglier episodes in its past that are often overlooked by the history books. Read more.

On the evening of Nov. 9, 1938, a wave of violence against Jews swept across Nazi Germany, one that would result in hundreds of Jewish synagogues and businesses being destroyed and tens of thousands of Jews being sent to concentration camps. Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass,” shocked the world, and some nations, including Great Britain, sprang to action to assist the German Jews fleeing Nazi pogroms. Within days, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his Cabinet approved the admission of Jewish refugee children; a couple of weeks later, the first train carrying hundreds of children from a burned orphanage left for England.

With an estimated 60,000 Jewish children at risk, all eyes turned to the United States, a nation founded by immigrants, to save thousands more of those children from Nazi persecution. But, in what remains one of the more egregious examples of America’s rather dismal history of offering asylum to refugees fleeing violence, Uncle Sam sat on his hands.

There was also a strain of anti-Semitism and xenophobia underlying the “America First” opposition.

The number of people displaced by World War II was unprecedented, and, as Carl Bon Tempo chronicles in Americans at the Gate, the European refugee crisis had been growing precipitously before 1938. Yet U.S. immigration laws remained restrictive, adhering to a rigid quota system established in the 1920s that admitted a fixed number of immigrants based on their country of origin. And with Americans still reeling from the Great Depression, there was very little appetite in Washington for relaxing immigration quotas, even when a humanitarian crisis like few others came knocking on America’s door.


By 1939, U.S. officials had received more than 125,000 visa applications, many from Germany and occupied Austria, and the Congress and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt were under pressure to relax the annual quota for German and Austrian immigrants, then set at 27,000. A bipartisan bill crafted by Sen. Robert Wagner, a New York Democrat, and Rep. Edith Rogers, a Massachusetts Republican, was put forward in early 1939 that would admit 20,000 child refugees to the U.S. over and beyond existing quotas. The Wagner-Rogers proposal was carefully couched as a humanitarian effort, was not limited to Jewish children, and it even specified that the costs would fall on private sources, not the government. But the bill, says Bon Tempo, a professor at the University at Albany, SUNY, “goes nowhere. It doesn’t even make it out of committee.” Why on earth not?

For starters, the issue was a nonstarter with the U.S. public, despite the fact that about 1,400 Americans had written to Congress offering to adopt refugee children. In a January 1939 Gallup poll, almost two-thirds of respondents opposed allowing 10,000 German refugee children into the country, and in an April Fortune poll that year, 83 percent said that the cap on European refugees should not be lifted.

Americans in the West and South were particularly opposed to the measures, and members of Congress from those states held key positions on the committees considering the Wagner-Rogers bill. Besides concerns about newcomers taking American jobs and limited public resources, there was also a strain of anti-Semitism and xenophobia underlying the “America First” opposition. “Twenty thousand charming children,” argued Laura Delano Houghteling, FDR’s cousin and wife of the U.S. immigration commissioner, “would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”

Dr seuss and the wolf chewed up the children

Dr. Seuss America First Cartoon 1941

Source Creative Commons

FDR himself took no public stand on the issue, and we now know that despite first lady Eleanor Roosevelt pushing him, the president did little to aid the refugee bill. Concerned with the broader landscape of American foreign policy, national security and trying to nudge the nation into a more active posture toward war in Europe, Roosevelt, says Bon Tempo, made a political calculation that he would arouse too many opponents by relaxing immigration quotas. Still, FDR did not ignore the issue: He ordered the INS and State Department to be as generous as possible within existing quotas, and while only 5,200 of the 27,000 quota spaces were taken up in 1935, by the end of 1939, they were all taken and more (around 33,000).

World War II and the Holocaust changed the mindset of both the U.S. and the world toward refugees fleeing war zones and persecution, and a new American commitment to admitting refugees was born during the Cold War years, but one that still, says Bon Tempo, comes with all kinds of political and ideological calculations and qualifications built into it. And to this day, as the present debate over Syrian refugees attests, the U.S. remains guarded toward opening its doors to those, including children, who most need its shelter.

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