When American Jews learned of Nazi Germany’s Kristallnacht pogrom 80 years ago, the community’s leaders were determined to keep a lid on people’s emotions.
During the night of November 9-10, Nazi-led “demonstrators” murdered 100 German Jews in a nationwide orgy of violence. Thirty thousand Jews were rounded up for concentration camps, and more than 200 synagogues became smoldering ruins. Although the pogrom was described as Germany’s most bloody assault on Jews since the Middle Ages, few Jewish leaders in the US were prepared to agitate.
Most notably, the influential General Jewish Council insisted on maintaining radio silence following Kristallnacht. Comprised of leaders from the so-called “defense” organizations, the council issued these instructions in the pogrom’s aftermath:
“There should be no parades, public demonstrations, or protests by Jews,” according to the directives. The council also reminded American Jews that it was in their interest not to advocate for admitting more Jewish refugees into the country.
According to historians, most prominent American Jews were afraid of how their fellow citizens would react to “demands” from the Jewish community. Few Americans supported going to war with Hitler, and anti-Semitism was more widespread than at any other point in US history.
“When FDR asked his closest Jewish adviser, Samuel Rosenman — a prominent member of the American Jewish Committee — if more Jewish refugees should be allowed to enter the U.S. in the wake of Kristallnacht, Rosenman opposed such a move because ‘it would create a Jewish problem in the US,’” wrote Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.
Immediately after Kristallnacht, American media outlets were unambiguous about the future of Germany’s Jews:
“Nazi Germany Threatens to Exterminate Jews,” blared a large headline in The Houston Post on November 23, 1938, two weeks after Kristallnacht. In Boston, The Daily Record of November 18 led with the headline, “Nazis Prevent Jewish Exodus.” Underneath the massive “picture newspaper” headline was a photo of shattered Jewish storefronts after the pogrom.
There was no ambiguity about the fate of Jews under Nazi rule, but very few American leaders — Jewish or otherwise — were willing to advocate for increased refugee resettlement. There were, however, thousands of Americans willing to take in another kind of refugee from Europe: those who walked on four legs.
“Ironically, when ‘Pets’ magazine the following year launched a campaign to have Americans take in purebred British puppies so they would not be harmed by German bombing raids, the magazine was flooded with several thousand offers of haven for the dogs,” wrote Medoff.
‘Excessive Jewish timidity’
The most prominent American Jewish leader to petition President Roosevelt was Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. With FDR reluctant to condemn the Nazi regime in public, the venerable Wise pleaded with the president to issue — at least — a statement against the violence.
In his four-sentence “condemnation,” the president did not mention the Nazis or Hitler by name. With few Americans in favor of going to war, FDR was keen to prevent anti-Nazi rhetoric emanating from his bully pulpit, even after Hitler began to carve up central Europe.
According to historians, President Roosevelt’s Jewish advisers pressured him to make some gestures after Kristallnacht. FDR recalled his ambassador to Berlin for “consultations,” and he helped solidify the status of some Jewish refugees already in the US. The president refused, however, to support legislation that would have permitted an additional 20,000 German Jewish children into the country.
Among those close to President Roosevelt, a leading voice was Samuel Rosenman of the American Jewish Committee. When news of the Holocaust started to appear on the pages of American newspapers, Rosenman ensured that FDR did not meet with what Rosenman referred to as “the medieval horde” of 400 rabbis gathered outside the White House. During the final phase of the Holocaust, Rosenman attempted to prevent the creation of the War Refugee Board, intended to save Jewish refugees from genocide.
According to historians, Rosenman was one of several “accommodationist” Jewish advisers to President Roosevelt. Some of them “placed excessive trust in princes,” as the saying goes.
“[Jewish leaders were] engaging in an unrequited love affair with a president who was, at best, indifferent, and at worst cynical about the pleas of the Jews,” wrote historian Steven Bayme.
“Jews today — even Jewish leaders — recall the 1930’s as a period of excessive Jewish timidity,” wrote Bayme in an analysis of books about American Jewish leaders’ responses to the Holocaust. “Elie Wiesel, for one, has argued that Jews ought to have chained themselves to the White House until such time as Roosevelt was willing to act.”
‘The terrible silence’
It would be inaccurate to claim that American Jews did nothing following Kristallnacht, or during the early years of Nazi rule.
Two weeks after Kristallnacht, a coalition called the Joint Boycott Committee held a three-day protest. Comprised of members of the American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Labor Committee, the group burned swastika flags and called for rescue. Since the early years of Nazi rule, some US Jewish organizations had advocated for boycotting German goods, a stance that was seen as far less extreme than advocating to admit refugees.
Despite widespread awareness of Kristallnacht and Hitler’s well-reported plans to “annihilate” Europe’s Jews, American citizens heard few pleas for help from Jewish leaders. The representative Jewish bodies acknowledged that “silence” was the strategy of choice, as expressed by the American Jewish Committee in a position paper after Kristallnacht:
“[Refugee resettlement] is helping to intensify the Jewish problem here,” read the position paper. “Giving work to Jewish refugees while so many Americans are out of work has naturally made bad feelings. As heartless as it may seem, future efforts should be directed toward sending Jewish refugees to other countries instead of bringing them here.”
In recent years, this statement has been used by researchers to explain the “timid” response of American Jewish leaders during five years of escalating Nazi persecution that culminated in Kristallnacht. Six months after the pogrom, FDR again signaled his feelings by refusing to permit 900 German Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis entry into the US, and most of them fell under Nazi rule again.
According to historians, the president’s Jewish advisers — and most of the country’s Jewish leaders — made it easy for FDR to ignore the plight of German Jews, of whom 400,000 did not escape Germany before the pogrom of 1938.
“[After Kristallnacht] there were many verbal condemnations, but no economic sanctions against Nazi Germany, no severing of diplomatic relations, no easing of immigration quotas, not even a complete opening of the gates to the Jews’ own ancient homeland,” wrote Rafael Medoff. “The Free World’s muted reaction to the Kristallnacht pogrom foreshadowed the terrible silence with which it would greet the Nazis’ Final Solution.”