In 1938, Americans were hopelessly oblivious to the plight of the German Jew. As a madman grew in power and plotted the invasion of Poland, his domestic policies created an unprecedented amount of refugees fleeing not only for their economic and socio-political well-being but for their very lives.
A poll taken here in the states as the reports came in from Europe of a staggering number of people fleeing the fascism of the Third Reich showed that Americans in general weren’t interested in the plight of the Jews. In fact, anti-Jewish sentiment in America in the 1930s was akin to anti-Muslim sentiment today. Religious intolerance isn’t exactly new to America.
A poll first published in Fortune in July, 1938 shows that American s weren’t concerned at all with the Jewish refugee problem and that most opposed allowing refugees from Germany, Austria and Hungary into the country at all:
US Jul ’38: What’s your attitude towards allowing German, Austrian & other political refugees to come into the US? pic.twitter.com/7hMfLbXWFE
— Historical Opinion (@HistOpinion) November 16, 2015
A mere 4.9 percent of Americans felt enough empathy for people being torn from their homes and having their family businesses ripped out from underneath them to set aside our own issues and grant them safe-haven — the basic principle on which this country was founded.
By January 1939, as the situation in Europe worsened and Hitler began preparing troops near the Polish border for war, the polls turned to the even more pressing situation of Jewish refugee children became a humanitarian issue at an international level. Still, Americans were wary:
US Jan 20 ’39: Should the US government permit 10,000 mostly Jewish refugee children to come in from Germany? pic.twitter.com/5cFs5RabQn
— Historical Opinion (@HistOpinion) November 17, 2015
Two out of three Americans were still unwilling to take in a refugee, even if that refugee were an innocent child. The Nuremberg laws had deprived Jews of their human rights in Germany. The Third Reich encouraged emigration after taking all of a Jew’s possessions for “taxes.” The crimes against humanity hadn’t even begun to reach murder and already nearly a half-million people needed to be relocated.
America ultimately took in nearly 100,000 Jewish refugees by 1939, a number that by all accounts could have been much higher. American blindness to the situation caused an indifference that cost far too many lives. Nearly 200,000 Jews were killed in ghettos and concentration camps after the war broke out in the fall of 1939; by then it was just too late.
As The German war machine moved across Europe and the holocaust began, 200,000 people may seem like a small number in comparison to the damage done by the final solution, but those 200,000 could have been saved if they just had somewhere to go.
Today we have a similar situation in the Middle East, with Muslims and Christians forced to flee Syria or die at the hands of the extremist ISIS finds themselves with few options. Ironically they won’t be welcome in Israel, as Netanyahu has decided to be more like Hitler himself than a true leader and humanitarian. Nor is there a welcoming sentiment in the United States, Where Republicans use the fear of terrorists embedded with the refugees to deny people the right to live their lives in peace.
This chart from the Huffington Post shows a more partisan divide, with Democrats and Independents in favor of not repeating the Holocaust and Republicans opposed to preventing it. Unfortunately, low voter turnout has ensured Republican victories in 32 State Houses. That may be true but what is also true is that a poll like this shows those down the middle leaning toward a more humane goal, which could spell big trouble for Republicans who are counting on the fear of Syrian refugees to get them reelected next year:
Republicans are intent on repeating history. They want to return to a time when the economy was in the toilet and the failed banks were being rewarded for being so powerful. They want return to an ideological time when all you needed to be successful in America was white skin and a Christian surname.
What’s most disturbing is that they also want to return to a time when America was busy rebuilding and decided not to be aggressive in raising immigration quotas and removing human beings from the path of bullets and bombs. They want to return to a time when millions died for no reason at all, as long as they get to turn the other way and be oblivious.
We have the chance to do better than that.
Featured image via reformjudaism.org