The United States and the Holocaust - September 16, 2022

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While in college, I took a Holocaust class. To be frank, it was one of my most challenging courses. One reason was learning more about the United States’ inaction to save Jews during the war. I remember reading Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945  by David S. Wyman where he outlines a variety of ways America did not carry out the kind of rescue it could have.


Wyman’s findings included:


  • The US State Department and British Foreign Office feared that Germany or other Axis nations might release tens of thousands of Jews into Allied hands. That would have placed intense pressure on Britain to open Palestine and on the United States to take in more refugees, a situation neither wanted to face.


  • Authenticated information about the Nazis systematically killing the Jews was known to the United States by November 1942. President Roosevelt took no action on that information for 14 months.


  • The War Refugee Board (WRB), which Roosevelt then established to save Jews and other victims of the Nazis, received little funding and almost no cooperation from the administration. In the end, the WRB managed to save some 225,000 Jews and at least 20,000 non-Jews.


  • Because of State Department policies, only 21,000 refugees were allowed to enter the United States during the 3 ½ years the US was at war with Germany. That amounted to ten percent of the number who could have been legally admitted under the immigration quotas during that period.


  • In 1944, the United States War Department rejected several appeals to bomb the Auschwitz gas chambers and the railroads leading to the death camp, claiming such actions would divert essential airpower from operations elsewhere. Yet, at that time, American bombing raids were taking place within 50 miles of Auschwitz, and twice heavy bombing took place five miles from the gas chambers.


I bring this up because Ken Burns, perhaps the foremost documentarian of American history, presents, “The United States and the Holocaust” on Oregon Public Broadcasting. The program airs Sunday night at 8:00 p.m. and will air over three nights.


The series explores the events of the Holocaust and chronicles the xenophobic and antisemitic climate in America. The documentary is about America’s response (or lack thereof), America’s obligations, responsibilities, and failures.


In an interview prior to the release, Burns said, “It’s pretty evident that we don’t want to help the Jews of Europe. That was the prevailing American attitude in the 1930s and 1940s. It’s a mentality that is evidenced, excruciatingly, in public opinion polling at the time, newspaper editorials, and much more.”


While Hyman’s book focuses solely on 1941-1945, Burns begins his story with the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, an American law that set national quotas on all immigrants to the United States and would come to factor heavily into the refugee policy during Europe’s mass expulsion of Jews. Sadly, the American people and our government proved unwilling to welcome more than a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of desperate people seeking refuge.


The film reportedly also discusses divisions within the American Jewish community over whether to let in so many Jewish refugees. Twenty-five percent of American Jews at the time did not want to let any more in, some because they looked down on the Eastern European refugees as poor and unassimilated, and others because they were scared of making life worse for the Jews still in Europe if they spoke out too forcefully.


Burns said, “I will never work on a more important film.” I encourage you all to watch.


In addition, all films by Ken Burns are released with teaching guides and are intended for use in the classroom. Getting “The United States and the Holocaust” into schools was of particular importance to the filmmakers because they saw an opportunity to fit it into the dozens of statewide Holocaust education mandates, including here in Oregon.


The High Holidays begin in nine days, and the Jewish Federation has developed this resource page to provide current information about holiday services in our community. We hope you are able to find opportunities of interest to you during this time of introspection. In addition, we have included a sensitivity guide that has been shared with the school districts so they are aware of the holiday schedule.


We know that the holidays can be a particularly difficult time for people who are mourning. Jewish Family and Child Service is offering its fall virtual sessions for their Walking Beside You grief processing group. The first session is on September 29 and will run for eight consecutive weeks. The group is free and is open to any adult in the community who has experienced the loss of someone close. Learn more here.


A quick update on Ukrainian refugees. Our community has several “Welcome Circles” in place and ready to host the new arrivals. We are just waiting for final placements to be made and the refugees to arrive in Portland. It is important to note that the Jewish Federation, in partnership with the Shapiro Foundation in Boston, is funding a part-time case manager at Jewish Family and Child Service to work directly with the refugees. We will keep you posted.


Finally, I will be holding another virtual session to provide an update on the Jewish Federation and our Jewish community. It is also an opportunity for me to hear your thoughts/feedback about our community and to answer any questions you may have. We held one on Wednesday of this week, and I appreciated people’s comments and insights. Join me!

Thursday, September 22

12:00 noon – 1:00 p.m.

Register Here

Shabbat shalom.


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