The Film & More|
In 1937, a 17-year-old German Jew named Kurt Klein emigrated to the US to
escape the growing discrimination against Jews that had become a terrible fact
of life following Hitler's rise in 1933. Together with his brother and sister,
who had emigrated previously, Klein worked to establish himself so that he
could obtain safe passage for his parents out of Germany. America and the Holocaust uses the moving tale of Klein's struggles against a wall of bureaucracy to free his parents to explore the complex social and
political factors that led the American government to turn its back on the
plight of the Jews. The film is produced by Martin
Ostrow. Hal Linden narrates.
In 1938, American society had its own political, social, and economic
problems, including a long-standing--and rising--anti-Semitism. Despite stories
coming from Europe about a campaign to force Jews out of Germany and about the
horrors of Kristallnacht ("the night of broken glass"), the majority of
Americans were fearful that an influx of immigrants would only aggravate the
serious unemployment problem brought on by the Depression.
More than 100 anti-Semitic organizations blanketed the US with propaganda
blaming Jews for all America's ills. Businesses discriminated against Jews,
refusing them jobs. Signs at private beaches bore the words "No Jews or Dogs
allowed" and certain hotels and housing developments proudly proclaimed
themselves "Restricted." Even the government was not immune from anti-Semitic
sentiments. While the Kleins were struggling to obtain visas from the American
consulate, the State Department ordered its consuls to stall the process.
"Even though we continued our attempts to get our parents out--because we knew
that they were in the unoccupied part of France which was still not totally
under German control--everything we did for them turned into nothing," recalls
"The State Department probably had a greater degree of anti-Semitism than
others, particularly in the immigration section," says former Treasury
Department employee Edward Bernstein. "Their attitude was, `If we're patient,
we find that the problems of the Jews in Germany are not really
But for Kurt Klein and other German-American Jews with relatives overseas,
patience was a commodity they couldn't afford. By the end of 1941, the Nazis
had murdered half a million Jews. Although trains regularly headed to fully
operational killing centers by the spring of 1942, the "final solution" was
still a well-guarded secret. That summer the State Department was advised by
Gerhart Reigner, the representative of a Jewish organization in Geneva, of Nazi
plans to exterminate all the Jews in Europe. Their response was to dismiss the
information, calling it "a wild rumor inspired by Jewish fears."
"The State Department was actively blocking information about the genocide, "
says historian David Wyman. "Roosevelt refused to focus on the issue. The
American churches were largely silent...and the press had little to say--and
buried that little on the inner pages. So it fell to Jewish activists to bring
the information to the American public."
It took protests and petitions from Jewish organizations and finally the
Treasury Department, headed by Henry Morgenthau, to uncover the State
Department's deliberate obstruction of rescue. "Secretary Morgenthau, who
valued above all else his relationship with the president, nevertheless felt he
had to put himself on the line and be the spokesman on this issue," recalls
John Pehle of the Treasury Department.
At last, on January 16, 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt met with Morgenthau
in the Oval Office. Six days later, Roosevelt officially reversed the
government's policy of obstruction. He signed Executive Order 9417, creating
the War Refugee Board, which was instructed to "take all measures to rescue
victims of enemy oppression in imminent danger of death."
"In the end, the War Refugee Board played a vital role in saving the lives of
200,000 Jews," says Wyman, "a very valuable contribution, to be sure. But the
number is terribly small compared to the total of six million killed. The Board
did prove that a few good people--Christians and Jews--could finally break
through the walls of indifference. The great shame is that if Roosevelt had
created the board a year earlier [it] could have saved tens of thousands, even
hundreds of thousands more--and in the process, have rescued the conscience of