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KURT KLEIN: [reading] "We hope you got our postcard of November
12th, and our excitement has subsided somewhat since then. We trust you can do
something for us over there in the near future which would serve to calm down
Mother especially. We're sure you'll let us hear something about that soon.
Regards to all the relatives and many to you straight from the heart. Your
I received this in Buffalo, New York, about a week after it happened, and it
was mailed from my little home town, Waldorf, near Heidelberg, Germany. It was
the time my parents' home was invaded by former classmates of mine who
vandalized the place, smashed everything, terrorized my parents and imprisoned
my father. It was Kristallnacht.
NARRATOR: November 9, 1938 - Kristallnacht, the night of broken
glass, the night the campaign against the German Jews turned violent. Across
Germany synagogues burned. Jewish businesses, homes destroyed, thousands
arrested and sent off to prison camps -- the shattering climax of Nazi policies
designed to force Jews out of Germany. As Jewish life crumbled, tens of
thousands -- including Kurt Klein's parents, Ludwig and Alice -- would look
toward America as a haven of safety, and the question becomes, "What would
In June of 1937, more than a year before KristalInacht, Kurt Klein at
age 17 had his first glimpse of America.
KURT KLEIN: The first thing that I remember seeing when I got close to
the American shore was a huge billboard advertising Wrigley's Chewing Gum.
Somehow that seemed free and easy and seemed to typify the new country. After
that, the Statue of Liberty came into view and I had a sense that I was
personally secure. I had done what the Nazis wanted me to do, namely, leave Germany.
NARRATOR: Born in Waldorf, a small village near the Rhine, 13-year-old
Kurt Klein celebrated his bar mitzvah in 1933, the year Franklin Roosevelt took
office in America and Hitler came to power in Germany, the year the Nazis began their assault to purify German culture.
KURT KLEIN: Each year after Hitler came to power, the situation grew
worse for the Jews in Germany. By 1935, the Nazis passed the Nuremburg laws which effectively stripped many Jews of their jobs and their positions within schools and universities, and generally restricted our lives.
NARRATOR: The campaign to force Jews out of Germany gathered momentum.
Jews were expelled from professions, their property and savings confiscated,
KURT KLEIN: My family knew there was no future for us in Germany, and
we began to make preparations. We children would leave first for the U.S. and
our parents would follow. My sister, who was a nurse, could no longer practice
her nursing because she was Jewish and was, in fact, the first one who left in
1936. That made it possible for me also to follow her in 1937 and by 1938 my brother had also arrived in the U.S. We hoped at that point, of course, to establish ourselves to the point of where we could support our parents and also have them come over.
NARRATOR: But the sudden violence of Kristallnacht ignited a new
urgency for the Kleins, for all German Jews. In Washington, the response was immediate.
1st NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: Reporters rushed the news to the nation and
the President's statement is read by Felix Belair of The New York
FELIX BELAIR, "The New York Times": [reading] "The news
of the past few days from Germany has deeply shocked public opinion in the United States.
I myself could scarcely believe such things could occur in a 20th-century civilization."
NARRATOR: Newspapers played up the story and American Jews organized
RALLY SPEAKER: We say to the President, "You spoke alone among the
world leaders. That was good."
NARRATOR: It was hoped Washington would do more than condemn the
In Germany, thousands of Jews looked to America to save them.
HERBERT KATZKI, Refugee Relief Worker: Overnight the American
consulate and other consulates were inundated by people who felt, "Well, now it's time, really, we ought to do something about making plans for leaving the country."
They didn't expect that they would have to leave the day after tomorrow, but
certainly they wanted to have a form of insurance in their pocket so that when
the time came to leave that they might be able to do so.
KURT KLEIN: In December of 1938, my father writes, "Unfortunately,
aren't moving that fast, even if you have the best of papers. To obtain an
appointment to apply for a visa, you have to receive a waiting number. At
the American consulate in Stuttgart is being besieged to such an extent that
waiting number for Mother and me indicates there are 22,344 cases ahead of
That meant that possibly two and a half years would elapse before it would be
my parents' turn, unless the authorities would ease or change the immigration
NARRATOR: The Kleins and tens of thousands of others were now facing America's formidable system of immigration laws.
2nd NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: The dream of almost every one of Hitler's
victims is to emigrate to the United States.
NARRATOR: In 1938 while Americans held dear the traditional image of
the nation as a haven for the oppressed, they were also secure knowing the doors
would not be too widely opened. U.S. immigration laws reflected blatant bias and
prejudice. From 1924 on, yearly quotas allowed four times as many people from
Britain and Ireland as from all of eastern and southern Europe. In the midst of
the Depression, many Americans called for further restricting immigration, even
REP. MARTIN DIES: Our unemployment problem was transferred to the
United States from foreign lands, and if we had refused admission to the
16,500,000 foreign-born in our midst, there would be no serious unemployment
problem to harass us.
NARRATOR: To gain entry, each newcomer needed an American sponsor
willing to sign an affidavit of financial support promising the immigrant would not
become a public charge.
KURT KLEIN: It wasn't easy to get affidavits of support for my parents
because, of course, in those days we had no money. We were willing to take any jobs,
work on several jobs day or night as my sister did, and I worked as a dishwasher
aside from my regular job just to be able to make some extra money that would help
us with our parents.
NARRATOR: "Keep refugees out, they'll take American jobs," was the
argument, but often the real concerns went deeper than employment.
HARVEY STOEHR, Patriotic Order Sons of America: The main thing that we
thought of was not economics. It's a moral responsibility, as we call it, of
America to have America for Americans. And anything that disrupts that by having masses
of immigration disrupts the whole idea of the nation.
NARRATOR: This was the threat for many Americans -- the growing number
of refugees, including tens of thousands of children. From time to time, a
handful squeezed through the quota system. In 1939, a bill proposed special sanctuary
for 20,000 children outside the quota. The Wagner-Rogers Bill would become a
litmus test for how Americans really felt about Jews.
VIOLA BERNARD, M.D., Non-Sectarian Committee for Refugee
Children: The need for this kind of legislation was desperately pressing. The children
being smuggled out of Austria and Germany were already separated from their
parents, which was traumatic enough, and it was essential to get them into individual
homes and a sense of wellbeing.
NARRATOR: But there was immediate opposition to the bill.
HARVEY STOEHR: The law that we had from 1924 that we thought was good.
Why don't we just support the written law and not seek for ways to
circumnavigate around it and-- just to benefit certain large groups of immigrants.
Dr. VIOLA BERNARD: They were afraid, for example, of the argument that
Europe was trying to dump all its Jews on the United States and anti-Semitism
certainly was a powerful ingredient, frequently covert instead of overt.
NARRATOR: More than 100 patriotic societies insisted, "Charity begins
at home." A cousin of the President, Laura Delano, commented, "Twenty thousand
charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults." The
President was aware that the bill was not politically popular and, pressed for his
opinion, he elected to take no action. The bill eventually died in committee. A year
later, legislation making it possible to admit children from war-torn England passed
with enthusiasm. In Germany, by early 1939, Ludwig and Alice Klein were forced to
abandon their home and move to one small room over a stable. The campaign
against the 200,000 Jews waiting to exit the Reich was intensifying.
3rd NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: Sign posts at city limits bear the legend,
"Jews not wanted," "Jews keep out." Even in parks, if Jews are allowed at
all, special yellow benches are set apart, labeled, "For Jews."
KURT KLEIN: We found people generally were aware of the situation in
Germany, but somehow we couldn't get the urgency across to them that
something should be done immediately.
NARRATOR: Nazism was now marching on local soil - this rally outside
New York City.
ARNOLD FORSTER, Anti-Defamation League: As Hitler became important,
imitators grew up here in this country, and a lunatic fringe frightened the
entire American people into the possibility that [what] was happening in Europe
could happen here.
NARRATOR: The German-American Bund never totaled more than 25,000
people, but it added fuel to the anti-Semitism smoldering in American society. These
years would see anti-Semitism reach its peak in American history.
4th NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: This Los Angeles book shop of the Silver
Shirts, dispensing anti-Jewish propaganda, is one of many that have recently
opened all over the country. Note the name -- Aryan Bookstore -- and nearby
a newsboy shouts his wares, the Silver Legion Ranger, a propaganda
NEWSBOY: The Silver Ranger, late paper. Just out, late paper.
Silver Ranger, late paper - free speech stopped by Jew riot.
NARRATOR: The anti-Semitic campaign was conducted by over 100
organizations across the country, blaming Jews for all the ills in America.
LEWIS WEINSTEIN, Attorney: Here in Boston, I heard anti-Semitic remarks
by a speaker and I heard yelling by the group around him, "We've got to get rid of
the Jews. They don't help us, they kill us. They kill us financially, they own
everything, and we're stuck with their victims."
NARRATOR: Father Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest, was the
most influential anti-Semitic spokesman in the country. His weekly radio
broadcasts reached more than three million people.
Father CHARLES COUGHLIN, Roman Catholic Priest: The system of
international finance which has crucified the world to the cross of
depression was evolved by Jews for holding the peoples of the world under control.
KURT KLEIN: On Sunday nights we would always listen to Father Coughlin
and it brought back shades of what I had recently experienced within Germany, but
there was one difference. People could and did speak out against that, and also
it wasn't the official policy of our government to be anti-Semitic.
NARRATOR: But during the 1920's and '30s, anti-Semitism was a way of
life in much of America. Many places open to most Americans were closed to Jews.
RUTH FEIN, American Jewish Historical Society: When I was maybe seven,
eight years old, we had recently moved to Washington and on a hot day, we
decided to go to the beach. And people told us that there was a lovely beach somewhere
in Chesapeake Bay, and we drove down there. And I still remember the sign,
because as we drove up, we saw the sign, which said, "No Jews or dogs allowed."
NARRATOR: There were restrictions in job opportunities. "Dear Miss
Cohen, We are sorry to inform you that it is our policy not to accept students of
SOPHIE WEINFIELD, Secretary: I had just finished college. The first
position I was sent to was a one-man office and he hired me immediately. And then, at
about 11 o'clock, he said to me, "What church do you go to?" I said, "I don't go to
a church, I go to a synagogue." He said, "I wouldn't hire a Jew. You're fired."
And I went back to school, crying, and Mrs. Kerwin, who was the teacher who sent
us out on positions, said, "You're going to find that out a lot. You might as well
get used to it."
ARTHUR HERTZBERG, Historian, Vice President, World Jewish Congress:
Jews could barely get jobs in engineering. The telephone company hired
The insurance company, aside from insurance agents within their structure hired
Jews. The big three auto industry hired no Jews. Oh, you could become a
distributor or something of the sort, but you couldn't go to work in their
bureaucracy. In American academic life, Jews were systematically excluded.
You could not get into the medical faculties. That was part of the reason why
Jewish hospitals became important in the 1930's. They offered places for Jews to
LEWIS WEINSTEIN: The situation was as plain as this: "You can get a job
here. We can't pay you as much as we're paying our other associates, but you'll have
a steady job here for a while, but don't count on ever becoming a partner,
because we have no Jewish partners and we will not have any Jewish partners."
NARRATOR: A 1939 public opinion poll showed how Americans felt. In
Washington, FDR's New Deal seemed to offer hope the country might be moving
towards a more equitable society. Many of the new government agencies had
hired Jews. Even some of the President's close advisors were Jewish.
EDWARD BERNSTEIN, U.S. Treasury Department, 1941-45: By the time that
we came to the late 1930's, there were a considerable number of Jews, but not
in the old-line agencies. In the old-line agencies, it had been hard to get in and
the Jews had in one way or another been restricted.
NARRATOR: The State Department was an old-line agency. Staffed with
career diplomats, it reflected a conservative bias forged before World War I. These
crafters of U.S. foreign policy believed in the superiority of white, northern
European stock. In the atmosphere of an exclusive gentlemen's club, they often reflected
the anti-alien sentiments of American society. The fate of tens of thousands of
Jews, including Ludwig and Alice Klein, would be directly tied to the attitudes of
EDWARD BERNSTEIN: The State Department probably had a greater degree
of anti-Semitism than others and particularly in the immigration section because
they felt the Jews were not like them.
JOHN PEHLE, U.S. Treasury Department, 1940-44: I would hesitate to
characterize the State Department as anti-Semitic. On the other hand, the
State Department tended to focus on Arabs' problems and the opportunities for the
United States to protect its interests in the Mideast, and the refugee problem and
Jewish problems tended to be pushed to the side.
EDWARD BERNSTEIN: The State Department never was willing to recognize
that the threat to the Jews -- the life threat to the Jews was as great as it
really was. Their attitude was, "If we're patient, we'll find that the problems of the Jews
in Germany are not really life-threatening."
NARRATOR: For those trying to escape Europe, piling up at embarkation
ports, the State Department's attitude proved a deadly obstacle. In the field, the
American consulates held the final word on visas.
DAVID WYMAN, Historian: In regard to American consulates in Europe,
anti-Semitism was widespread. There's no doubt about it. We have clear
evidence. I learned, in my own research, that particularly it was seen in
Zurich, in Oslo, in some consulates in Vichy France and in Lisbon. In fact, the
situation was so bad in Lisbon that American Jewish groups had to go to the
Quakers and request that they send a non-Jew to Lisbon to try to persuade the
American consulate there to stop the obstruction of Jewish immigration.
KURT KLEIN: My brother, sister and I set to work. Day and night, it
became our preoccupation to get immigration visas for our parents so that we could get
them to safety, but it was a frustrating struggle.
NARRATOR: May 1939 - while the Kleins were still awaiting their visas,
other German Jews were able to board a ship for Cuba.
5th NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: And so over 900 of these unfortunate
people, all with visas for Cuba and many with quota numbers for the United
States, leave Hamburg on the St. Louis happy in anticipation of a new
life far from Germany where their experiences under the Nazi regime will only be a
sad, sad dream.
NARRATOR: But when the ship arrived in Havana, the Cuban government
refused to honor the refugees' landing certificates. Friends and relatives watched as
despairing passengers waited aboard ship during a week of futile negotiations.
The passengers telegraphed President Roosevelt, requesting temporary haven. Their
plea fell on deaf ears. Finally, the ship was forced back to Europe, sailing first
for days along the Florida coast. America would make no exception to its rigid
The most logical haven for Jewish refugees was now Palestine, the historic
homeland of the Jews. Britain controlled Palestine and until the late '30s
had allowed Jewish immigration. But as German Jewish refugees increased, so did
longstanding tensions between Arabs and Jews. To keep peace with the Arabs,
who controlled the area's vast oil reserves, in 1939 London decided to issue a
white paper that strictly limited Jewish immigration: 15,000 a year for five years,
then no more. For Jews trying to escape the Reich, the door to Palestine was now
With the German invasion of Poland, the situation grew ever more dangerous.
"If Jews again drive Europe into war, the Jewish race in Europe will be
destroyed." In the spring of 1940, the fate of European Jews now fell into
the hands of a new Roosevelt appointee, assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long.
Long's policies would directly control the future for the Kleins, for all
those cramming into consulates across Europe. Long endorsed the anti-alien bigotry of
the times and also feared German agents might enter America, posing as refugees.
Pres. FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: Today's threat to our national security
is not a matter of military weapons alone. We know of new methods of attack:
the Trojan horse, the Fifth Column that betrays a nation unprepared for
treachery. Spies, saboteurs and traitors are the actors in this new strategy.
DAVID WYMAN: National security was, of course, a legitimate issue, but
what Breckinridge Long did was to exaggerate the problem, then use it as a device to
put into force the anti-alien policies of the State Department. To what extent
anti-Semitism was involved, we're not clear, but what we do know is that as a
result immigration was sharply cut. In 20 years of research, probably the most
disgraceful document that I've ever run into is this memorandum written by
Breckinridge Long in June 1940 in which he outlines the means by which consuls
secretly and illegally can cut very sharply into immigration.
NARRATOR: "We can delay and effectively stop, for a temporary period
of indefinite length, the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do
this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way which would
postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas."
KURT KLEIN: At the end of August 1940, my father wrote the following:
"Dear Children, A few days ago we received the following notice from the American consulate in Stuttgart" -- and I quote. "'Due to a change of circumstances, it
is now necessary to reassess those immigration applications that had already been
approved as being insufficient. In many cases, this approval will undoubtedly
have to be rescinded. We are therefore advising you not to make any
preparations for such a trip or, if you have already made such steamship
reservations, to cancel them until you hear from this consulate again. That
should avoid financial losses for you or your guarantors.' American Vice
Consul." End of quote.
And my father continues: "As you can see, our emigration will not go as fast as
imagined, and we regret you will be disappointed."
NARRATOR: The Kleins were now victims of calculated bureaucratic delay.
Then, for several months, Kurt Klein heard no word from his parents. In October 1940,
he learned they had been deported on an hour's notice without their passports to
Vichy France along with all the Jewish people in their region. In Marseilles, they
would have to take up their case with the American consulate all over again. They
were now being held in a detention camp called Gurs.
HERBERT KATZKI: Gurs was a terrible place. In walking through the
streets -- there weren't streets, they were roads -- mud literally up to your ankles.
The people, they lived in hutments. Blankets were in short supply, food was in
short supply. The French had this kind of an arrangement: the director of the camp
received a per-capita amount in order to feed the people. Well, if he didn't
spend all the money on the food, it remained in his pocket, and you could be sure that
he didn't spend all the money that he got in order to feed the people.
KURT KLEIN: My father writes, "Our daily rations consist of the
following. In the mornings, there's some black, so-called coffee, at noon a thin soup mostly
of cabbage, carrots or turnips. In the evening again coffee or tea along with 260
grams of bread which has to last the entire next day. On that alone nobody can
HERBERT KATZKI: It was a technical nightmare to get out of France. You
had to have a French visa to sortie - that's an exit visa from France. You had to
get a Spanish transit visa, you had to get a Portuguese transit visa. You had to have
your American visa either promised or stamped into your passport, and you had to
have a boat ticket or onward transportation. All of these things had to happen within
a four-month period. If any of it fell by the wayside, you had to start over
again in order to get everything lined up.
DAVID WYMAN: By the end of 1940, Long's "postpone and postpone"
directive was having its full impact. During the year that followed his order,
immigration was cut in half.
KURT KLEIN: When we ran up against these new obstacles, we became so
desperate that I decided to go to Washington, trying to see someone at the
State Department. I was young, of course, and inexperienced and didn't know what to
do, so I got as far as someone's secretary who promised to take up the matter
with her superior and later came back and brushed me off with the usual
NARRATOR: Kurt Klein had now entered a deadly maze. For many American
Jews, it was a familiar experience.
ARNOLD FORSTER: American Jews had very little influence in the United
States in those years, and they hadn't yet established themselves. They had no
infrastructure, they had no tensile strength as an organized group. They were
disparate people trying to learn to make a living in a community that was by a
way of life opposed to their intrusion. They didn't want Jews living alongside
them, eating alongside them, going to school with them, living in their houses.
These were people who were on the outside and they were not really of major
concern. So a weak Jewish community, a non-caring non- Jewish community is a
formula for disaster, and that's what we had.
NARRATOR: For years, in spite of their politically weak position, Jewish
leaders had organized rallies to protest Nazi persecutions. Many were sponsored
by a friend of the President, who would later become one of the first Americans
to learn the full extent of Hitler's horrors - prominent rabbi Stephen S. Wise.
Rabbi STEPHEN S. WISE: I would say that the conscience of America
rejects Hitler's power.
NARRATOR: Wise and his followers were ardent Roosevelt supporters, but
in the anti-Semitic atmosphere of the times, many Jews were frightened and
reluctant to press the administration too hard.
ARTHUR HERTZBERG: I remember a sermon, a bitter sermon of my father's.
The year was 1940. It was Yom Kippur of 1940, the Day of Atonement in the fall
of 1940. He got up in the synagogue and he said, "Our brothers are being killed
in Europe by the Nazis." The murders had already begun on a small scale. He
said, "If we had any Jewish dignity, we would, at the end of this fast, get
into our cars and go from Baltimore" -- where we lived -- "to Washington. We
would picket the White House and we would demand of the President that he use
his influence on the Nazis, as the great neutral power, to stop the killings."
And then he added, "And the reason why you hesitate to do this is that sons and
daughters of yours have jobs in the New Deal agencies which are now open to
Jews, and you are afraid that you are going to rock the boat."
That night, within an hour after the end of the fast, my father got a note from
the board of this little synagogue firing him for his disrespect for the
NARRATOR: During the presidential campaign of 1940, Roosevelt never
promised help for refugees. Still, he received 90 percent of the Jewish vote.
NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: The results now conclusive: Roosevelt wins.
DAVID WYMAN: Early in Roosevelt's third term in 1941, the refugees in
Europe still held hopes of coming to the United States. They had the illusion
that they might perhaps find safety here. But at the same time, Long and the
State Department once again were devising even higher barriers: more
regulations, more documentation, more paper walls that meant the difference
between life and death. In the summer of 1941, using the exaggerated issue
regarding subversion among the refugees, the State Department set up yet
another group of regulations. Among these, all immigration decisions were
centralized in Washington, processed through an impossibly complex system of
review committees. In a matter of months, immigration was so severely curtailed
that it was virtually shut down.
KURT KLEIN: I love America. I've always loved America, and even during
the time when we were so desperately trying to get our parents here, that
didn't interfere with that love at all. But it did make it very difficult to
understand why this country, which had been so good to my sister, to my brother
and to me, couldn't also permit them to get here and join us.
In the middle of July of '41, I received this letter from my mother. "You'll
have to start anew with respect to our immigration. We were enlightened today about
the new decrees and, regretfully, everything has now become invalid and we are back
to square one. And the worst thing is that Father and I are compelled to be
separated for such long periods of time. Much of what I was able initially to be
enthusiastic about is no longer of any consequence to me."
NARRATOR: Summer 1941 - the Nazis invaded Russia. In newly-conquered
areas, a secret policy was put into action. Political enemies, undesirables and
all Jews were rounded up by special forces, Einsatzgruppen. This rare
footage filmed secretly by Germans documents the physical start of the genocide of the Jews,
the Holocaust. By the end of 1941, more than half a million Jews would be
This was the final solution.
KURT KLEIN: In October of 1941, once again everything seemed in
readiness for my parents to be able to leave France. Passage had been booked on a
Portuguese ship that would leave Lisbon the day after Christmas. The only thing we were
still waiting for was approval of the American consul in Marseilles to grant their
NARRATOR: A few weeks later from Gurs, Ludwig Klein wrote again.
KURT KLEIN: [reading] "December 6, 1941. My dear children, we
were at the American consulate on December 3rd, at which time our visas were supposed to
have been issued. Although everything was in readiness, they could not be
handed over to us because no more German quota numbers were available. However, they
ought to be available again within a few days."
NARRATOR: But at home in Buffalo, New York, Kurt Klein, reading about
the attack on Pearl Harbor, realized America's entry into the war could further
hamper his parents' escape. Two days before they were set to sail, Kurt Klein received
this cable: "Passage uncertain. Try to find out other lines."
KURT KLEIN: Once more everything fell apart. Aside from all the red
tape, the tragedy of Pearl Harbor got in the way. 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 attempted to do
for them turned into nothing.
NARRATOR: By spring 1942, rumors moved through western Europe: entire
villages, cities being emptied of Jews, massive deportations somewhere to the
east. While the Nazis kept the final destination a well-guarded secret, the
themselves were impossible to hide. They were noted as far away as Washington
Eleanor Roosevelt in her weekly radio broadcast.
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, First Lady: How utterly without mercy or regard
for human life is the German fuhrer. How otherwise can we explain the
of sending numberless Jewish people from Berlin and other cities at an
notice, packed like cattle into trains with their destination either Poland or
part of occupied Russia?
NARRATOR: That the trains were heading to killing centers fully
operating by spring of '42 was still a well-guarded secret, but that summer in
Switzerland, the Nazi plan to exterminate all the Jews of Europe were leaked by
an anti-Nazi German industrialist. His information was passed to Gerhart Riegner, the representative of a Jewish organization in Geneva. Horrified,
Riegner relayed it to the State Department, requesting they alert Rabbi Stephen
Wise in New York. But skeptical State Department personnel dismissed the report
as a wild rumor inspired by Jewish fears and suppressed the information. Two
weeks later, Wise received the same information through an independent source
in London and approached the State Department. He was asked to remain silent
until the department verified the reports that millions were slated for death.
KURT KLEIN: Months went by without any progress whatsoever until in
September of '42 some of the letters we had sent to our parents were returned
to us stamped "Return to sender, moved, left no forwarding address." We feared
the worst, but of course didn't know the details.
NARRATOR: By November, the horrifying puzzle was pieced together by the
State Department from press accounts, refugee workers, the Red Cross, the
Polish government in exile, the Vatican: 60,000 Jews deported from the
Netherlands; 3,600 Jews from France sent eastward, exact destination unknown;
16,000 arrested in Paris. Two trainloads of Jews departed toward their doom
without anything further heard from them. "Evacuated whole Warsaw ghetto, murdered 100,000 Jews. Mass execution of Jews continues, killed by poison gas
in chambers. Convoys of Jews led to their death, seen everywhere." The State
Department had finally confirmed the systematic annihilation of European
November 24, 1942 - Stephen Wise, after three months, was released from his
pledge of silence. At a press conference, Wise revealed the Nazi plan to
exterminate all the Jews of Europe. The news was carried by major newspapers,
but not prominently. Over two million people were already dead.
KURT KLEIN: I'll never forget November of 1942. It was the time when I
was drafted into the American Army, which gave me a measure of pride to be
serving the country that was fighting this evil. It was also good to know that
I was finally doing something concrete - however small that might be - that
would help in that effort.
But November '42 was also a time when we received a letter from the State
Department. "With reference to your interest in the visa case of Mr. Ludwig
Klein and his wife Alice, I take pleasure in informing you that after further
consideration of the case in the light of existing conditions, the department
has given renewed advisory approval to the appropriate American officer at
Marseilles for the issuance of immigration visas to the applicants. Very truly
yours, H.K. Travers, Chief, Visa Division."
The tragedy was that this letter came two and a half months after my parents'
deportation to an unknown destination in eastern Europe.
NARRATOR: Serving with the American Army in Europe, it would be three
more years before Kurt Klein would discover the fate of his parents.
Near the end of 1942, with four million Jews still alive in Europe, Stephen
Wise and other Jewish leaders presented a document to President Roosevelt
detailing the Nazi plan for extermination. The President acknowledged he was
well aware of what was happening to the Jews. His response was a statement
threatening the Nazis with accountability for war crimes. Spotlighting the
tragedy for the public remained the burden of American Jews.
Rabbi STEPHEN S. WISE: In Hitler Europe within this year the number
of Jews slain in one or another inhuman way stands between two and three million.
NARRATOR: Wise's American Jewish Congress and other major Jewish
organizations challenged the government's position that nothing could be done
short of winning the war.
Rabbi STEPHEN S. WISE: We may move our country and the United
to act now.
NARRATOR: They called for revised immigration procedures and actions at
an international level. In coming weeks, 40 rallies were mounted across the
country by Wise and allied organizations.
In early 1943, reports on the ongoing extermination of the Jews continued to
arrive at the State Department to be passed on to American Jewish leaders, but
in February, the department ordered its Swiss legation not to accept any
further reports intended for private citizens. Vital information about the
death of tens of thousands was cut off for 11 critical weeks.
DAVID WYMAN: The State Department was actively blocking information
about the genocide. Roosevelt refused to focus on the issue. The American
churches were largely silent, a fact that particularly pains me as a Christian,
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.
One of those activists, a person not connected with the mainline Jewish
organizations, who would later come into sharp conflict with them, was a
newcomer to America from Palestine, Peter Bergson.
NARRATOR: Bergson had arrived in America in 1940. He was a member of the
Irgun, the underground organization in Palestine willing to use violence there
to press for a Jewish state. On what Bergson would call the most traumatic day
of his life, he read Stephen Wise's November announcement on page six of The
Washington Post. Immediately he embraced a new commitment -- to move the
story from the back pages to the front page of public awareness.
WILL ROGERS, Jr., U.S. Congressman (D-CA), 1943-44: When I first met
Peter Bergson, my impression was that the Jews were being kicked around in
Europe and the United States should do something about it, and the other people
should do something about it, whether they were Jews or Cherokees or whatever
it was. And it was on a Jewish basis at all, whatever the -- I was either
approached by Peter Bergson or agreed to go along in the Bergson group.
NARRATOR: Will Rogers, Jr., was one of the politicians, actors, authors,
journalists Bergson and his colleagues enlisted for a campaign of public
MAX LERNER, Journalist and Historian: There was a touch of genius
about Bergson, but a touch of genius, I think, lay in his being a master of
publicity orwhat we later came
to call the art of public relations. He seemed to have grown up with this
capacity, perhaps with his mother's milk, I don't know, but he was so good at
WILL ROGERS, Jr.: I think the most effective thing that we of the
did was our advertising and our ads. These were written by Ben Hecht. They
full-page ads. They appeared in The New York Times and they were
shocking. One of them, I recall, was "70,000 Jews for sale."
NARRATOR: The ad drew attention to an American press account that
might release 70,000 captive Jews. Ben Hecht, its author, was an eminent
screenwriter and Broadway playwright.
WILL ROGERS, Jr.: He wrote simple, direct, declarative sentences that
straight to the point. The Ben Hecht ads did more than any other single event
stimulate the Americans that wanted to save Jews to saving Jews.
MAX LERNER: And by some merciful gift of history, his talents became
for a cause like ours.
NARRATOR: In March, Hecht's theatrical talents were put to use as the
moved beyond the papers.
6th NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: The pageant,We Will Never Die, is New
York's Jewish protest against Nazi massacre.
NARRATOR: Forty thousand attended the spectacle staged by some of the
talents in the American theater.
LEONA ZARSKY, Physician: I remember going to New York to see the
I just remember my own sense of being so overwhelmed and feeling an enormous
link with everybody on the stage.
SYLVIA SYDNEY: ["We Shall Never Die"] Here the Germans turned
guns on us and killed us all. Remember us.
Dr. LEONA ZARSKY: I wept all through it. My father wept with me. It was
moving. But again, I was never sure that non-Jews saw it as anything but a
wonderful theatrical spectacle.
PAUL NIUNI: ["We Shall Never Die "] There are four million Jews
in Europe. The Germans have promised to deliver to the world, by the end of
the year, a Christmas package of four million dead Jews, and this is not a
problem. It is a problem that belongs to humanity and it is a challenge to
soul of man.
NARRATOR: In following weeks, the Bergsons intensified their campaign
awaken America. The pageant toured five different cities, playing to more
100,000 people. At the same time, other Jewish organizations held rallies
the country. The government attempted to quell the Jewish outcry by announcing
joint British-American rescue conference.
ARNOLD FORSTER: And we Jews became very excited that finally two great
governments were meeting to solve the problem, if indeed it could be solved.
NARRATOR: The closed-door conference met in a remote Bermuda hotel.
American delegation arrived with secret directives from the State Department.
JOHN PEHLE: The Bermuda conference was a conference set up to not
anything, and the people who represented the United States there were given
NARRATOR: The results soon leaked out.
ARNOLD FORSTER: The Bermuda conference was a failure because the real
result was that they decided, the two powers, that first the war had to be won
then Jews could be taken care of. I must tell you it discouraged the American
community. It broke the hearts of the leaders who had been involved in trying
make it happen. It made us feel once and for all that all was lost.
DAVID WYMAN: Jewish leaders, after the hoax at Bermuda, were plunged
despair. They now recognized that America and Britain -- the two great
democracies, Hitler's enemies -- were deeply committed to a policy of not
JAN KARSKI: I was summoned to the White House by President Roosevelt
July 28, in 1943. He kept me approximately one hour 20 minutes.
NARRATOR: Jan Karski was an agent for the Polish government in exile.
Christian, he brought information in and out of Poland. One secret assignment:
witness the death camp in Belzec.
JAN KARSKI: I made him my opening report. "I saw what was happening to
Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. I was -- saw concentration camp in Belzec. I saw
terrible things." He listened. The conclusion of that part of the report was
statement. I was supposed to go back to Poland at that time. "You will tell
leaders that we shall win this war. You will tell them that the guilty ones
punished for their crimes. You will tell them that Poland has a friend in
house." And he tendered his hand.
I was impressed with this -- "Poland has a friend in the White House,"
President Roosevelt. Only, if you are interested, when the ambassador took me
to the limousine by the side door, he whispered on the street, "Well, the
President did not say much," because these were generalities.
NARRATOR: In the second half of 1943, the government's longstanding
policy of not rescuing European Jews was challenged simultaneously on two
fronts, the first in a branch of government normally not involved with
refugees, the Treasury Department. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau,
a Jew, had a 30-year working relationship with Franklin Roosevelt and was a
close personal friend.
DAVID WYMAN: It would be Henry Morgenthau and some non-Jewish Treasury
Department staff members who would eventually uncover the State Department's
deliberate obstruction of rescue.
NARRATOR: It began when Stephen Wise came to Washington with a plan for
the U.S. Jewish community to put up funds to rescue 70,000 Romanian Jews. To
prevent funds from falling into enemy hands, Washington required a special
wartime license to be approved by both State and Treasury.
DAVID WYMAN: The State Department stalled the license for 11 weeks, but
when the request finally reached the Treasury Department, it was approved
within 24 hours.
NARRATOR: Henry Morgenthau and his Treasury Staff assumed that the
meager steps toward saving European Jews were under way. At the same time,
persistent Bergson group launched an all-out campaign calling for the
of a government rescue agency. In October they held an unprecedented
demonstration in Washington. Four hundred orthodox rabbis arrived from around
the nation, two days before the most holy day in the Jewish year, to present
petition to the President.
RABBI: We pray and appeal to the Lord, blessed be he, that our most
president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, consider and recognize this momentous
hour of history, that he may save the remnant of the people of the Book, the
people of Israel.
NARRATOR: The petition called for the establishment of a special
rescue agency. The rabbis expected to meet with the President, but Jewish
opposed to the Bergson group advised Roosevelt against it. Vice President
received the petition. White House spokesmen claimed the President was too
but a look at his appointment calendar reveals he was free that afternoon. A
weeks later, the campaign for a rescue agency intensified. Legislation designed
the Bergson group, was introduced jointly into Congress by Senator Guy Gillette, and Representative Will Rogers, Jr.
WILL ROGERS, Jr.: I just did what anybody would have done. I was not
concerned with the outcome so much as I was with making a statement and that
somebody makes a statement and that my country makes a statement. I did very
much want the United States -- as a country and as a nation -- to protest and
stand for the rescue of these people when it could be done.
NARRATOR: Back at the Treasury Department, Morgenthau's inner staff --
general counsel to the Treasury, Randolph Paul, his assistant Josiah DuBois, and the
head of foreign funds control, John Pehle -- discovered shocking information
the license they'd issued five months earlier to rescue the Romanian Jews.
JOHN PEHLE: When we issued the license and gave it to the State
transmit it, we assumed that it would be carried out. And when we heard from
Jewish agencies that were involved the license had never been received, and
we discovered they had been held up, we of course made inquiries and they
told they were consulting with the British.
NARRATOR: With 70,000 lives at stake, the Treasury began to investigate
delay. At the same time on Capitol Hill pressure was building against the
WILL ROGERS, Jr.: I find it very hard to try and explain why the
had not moved more rapidly toward saving Jews in Europe, especially when
situations developed that they knew they could get some of these people out,
they knew they could do something. The only excuse that I can give -- and it's
pretty weak one -- is that they were tangled up with oil, with the Arabs, with
British, with the mandate, with Palestine and with everything else, and they
trying to look down the road. Meanwhile these people are being killed back
and they're looking at 50 years or 25 years in the future.
NARRATOR: The rescue resolution sponsored by the Bergson group
unusual bipartisan support in the Senate, but there were problems in the
DAVID WYMAN: In the House hearings, the worst problems occurred when
Breckinridge Long appeared and gave closed-door testimony.
NARRATOR: Long's grossly misleading statements made it look like the
Department was doing an outstanding job, bringing 580,000 Jewish refugees to
America since the start of the Hitler years. Long impressed the House
and called into question the need for a separate rescue agency, but his
JOHN PEHLE: The truth was that well under half the people he claimed
entered America and many of them were not Jewish. His testimony stalled the
NARRATOR: Jewish groups refuted Long, and the State Department's
began to unravel. The staff at Treasury uncovered the smoking gun when they
pressed the State Department and the British to explain the license delay.
JOHN PEHLE: And the American embassy went to the British authorities
received a letter saying the reason the British were opposed to issuance of
license was of the difficulty of disposing of any considerable number of the
should they be rescued.
NARRATOR: "The Foreign Office is concerned with the difficulties of
of any considerable number of Jews should they be rescued from enemy-occupied
territory." The words were characterized by Morgenthau as "a satanic
of British chill and diplomatic doubletalk -- cold and correct and adding up to
sentence of death." The State Department's attitude was equally horrifying.
was always the danger that the German government might agree to turn over to
United States and to Great Britain a large number of Jewish refugees.
DAVID WYMAN: Finally it was out in the open, the real reason the British
the State Department were obstructing rescue -- the fear that large numbers of
might actually be released.
NARRATOR: Then the Treasury investigators uncovered a copy of the
Department's cable ordering its legation in Switzerland not to pass along
JOHN PEHLE: We were advised by our friends in the State Department that
State Department not only was not interested in the refugee problem, but that
were actively suppressing information about the extent of the Holocaust by
instructions to their legation in Switzerland not to permit private Jewish
transmit any such stories. Suppress information? The government then becomes
accomplice to what the Nazis were doing by hiding information from the
NARRATOR: The Treasury investigators next discovered a State
attempt to cover up this cable.
JOHN PEHLE: When we discovered that not only had the State Department
suppressed information of the extent of the Holocaust but had tried to cover it
we then felt that this should be brought to the President's attention. What was
shocking had to be remedied.
NARRATOR: Outraged by their discovery, the staff at Treasury immediately
a report to Secretary Morgenthau. They chronicled the State Department
obstructionism and urged their boss to go to the President. Josiah DuBois
Christmas Day 1943 drafting "Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of
Government in the Murder of the Jews."
JOHN PEHLE: Secretary Morgenthau, who valued above all else his
with the President, nevertheless felt that he had to put himself on the line
and be the
spokesman on this issue.
NARRATOR: January 16, 1944 - the Treasury Report indicting the State
Department was presented at an unusual Sunday meeting in the White House.
JOHN PEHLE: We met with President Roosevelt in the Oval Office,
Morgenthau, Randolph Paul and I. The President didn't read the report, but
Morgenthau asked me to outline why we were there and why we felt that a
agency outside the State Department was essential. And at the end of the
the President said, "We'll do it."
NARRATOR: Six days later, FDR officially reversed the government's
obstruction. He signed Executive Order 9417, creating the War Refugee Board,
which was instructed to take all measures to rescue victims of enemy oppression
imminent danger of death.
DAVID WYMAN: The real reason Roosevelt established the board was not
of a sudden moral awakening -- after all, he'd been aware of the basic facts
along -- it was a political decision. Finally, the forces on two different
paths -- the
developments in the Treasury Department and the Bergson-led rescue resolution
Congress -- came together. What Roosevelt realized was that he was confronted
only with the revelations in the Treasury, but also that it was only a matter
before the rescue resolution would come to the floor of the Senate for debate,
when that discussion occurred, it was almost certain that some of the
revelations that he'd seen in the Treasury Department were going to come to
forefront and be brought clearly to public attention. Confronted with this
scandal, Roosevelt made the move, established the War Refugee Board and
cut off further discussion in Congress.
NARRATOR: Morgenthau, along with Secretary of State Hull and Secretary
War Stimson, became the nominal heads of the War Refugee Board, and at
Morgenthau's recommendation, John Pehle took charge as acting director.
JOHN PEHLE: I remember the day the executive order was signed. And I
home and the telephone rang and there was a woman on the phone who identified
herself as the wife of a prominent physician in Washington. And she said, "Are
Jewish?" And I said no. And she said, "Why are you doing this?" And I tried
explain to her what we were doing, but here was somebody calling on the
and saying why did I agree to be head of the War Refugee Board? Well, it's a
sampling of some anti-Semitism.
NARRATOR: Pehle and the board faced a difficult road. Government funding
meager. Most costs were paid by private Jewish organizations. Other
agencies refused to cooperate, as in late 1944. The board endorsed a proposal
American Jewish leaders to bomb the gas chambers at Auschwitz, but the
JOHN PEHLE: The Jewish agencies themselves weren't sure that they wanted
arrange this. Bombing railroad lines is not very effective 'cause they can be
overnight, so it involved wiping out the extermination facility. And finally
much soul-searching, we recommended this to the War Department.
NARRATOR: Auschwitz was located in a strategic oil-refining district in
The refineries were no farther than 45 miles from these crematoria.
JOHN PEHLE: After we recommended to the War Department that the
extermination facilities at Auschwitz be bombed, we were told that this was
possible. When we pursued this further, we were told that this would involve
bombers being sent from England and that jet fighters could not escort bombers
far, and therefore it was not possible to do this. Later, perhaps after the
discovered that at the very time we were recommending this, bombing all
Auschwitz was going on from Italy, and we had been misled.
NARRATOR: Some 2,800 bombers targeted the oil refineries during the
when 150,000 Jews were being gassed. On two occasions, fleets of heavy
actually flew past the gas chambers, aiming for the I.G. Farben fuel factory
than five miles away. A few bombs accidentally hit Auschwitz itself, killing
prisoners, civilians and SS guards. This photograph makes clear the War
Department refused to consider the destruction of Auschwitz as part of its
These bombs flying toward I.G. Farben were targeted for the fuel factory, not
death camp immediately below. With almost no cooperation from other
agencies, the board still managed to truck critically-needed supplies to a few
behind enemy lines; helped evacuate 15,000 Jews from Axis countries to
many in rickety boats across war-torn seas; rescued 48,000 Jews in Romania by
threatening its government with post-war punishments; and saved tens of
of Budapest's Jews through the efforts of its agent, Raoul Wallenberg; and in
America, established just one refugee camp at Fort Ontario, an abandoned Army
JOHN PEHLE: We felt that since we were urging other countries to take
refugees, we had to do something ourselves, and therefore we did establish a
in Oswego, New York, but it was largely a symbolic gesture.
NARRATOR: Nine hundred eighty-two refugees arrived in August 1944. The
administration painted a magnanimous picture -- 55,000 quota places for that
alone went unused.
DAVID WYMAN: In the end, the War Refugee Board played a vital role in
the lives of 200,000 Jews, a very valuable contribution, to be sure, but the
is terribly small, compared to the total of six million killed. The board did
that a few good people -- Christians and Jews -- could finally break through
walls of indifference. The great shame is that if Roosevelt had created the
year earlier and if it had been truly empowered, the War Refugee Board could
saved tens of thousands -- even hundreds of thousands more and, in the process,
rescued the conscience of the nation.
NARRATOR: In the final days of the war, in a small town in
Czechoslovakia, Kurt Klein, with American liberating forces, freed 120 young
Jewish women who were abandoned by their SS guards to die in an old factory.
They were the last of 4,000 who for years had moved from labor to concentration
camps and, at the end, were on a five-month death march. Most had died along
KURT KLEIN: As I entered the factory courtyard, I saw what I can only
describe as walking skeletons going about their pathetic task of pumping water
at a hand pump in the center of the courtyard. Over on the far side, I saw a
girl leaning against the entrance to the factory. I walked over to her and I
noticed that she seemed in slightly better physical condition than the rest of
them. I asked about her companions, and she said, "Come, let me show you," and
we went inside.
What greeted me inside was a scene of utter devastation. Girls were lying all
around the floor on scraps of straw, some of them obviously quite close to
death. An extraordinary thing happened at that moment. My guide made a sweeping
gesture and said some words that are indelible in my mind -- "Noble be man,
merciful and good" -- and I recognized that as a line from a poem by the German
poet Goethe. And to me, this was a devastating indictment of all that the Nazis
had perpetrated on these women.
Of course, we immediately set to work to help the girls get to the hospital
where I found that the girl who had been my guide had fallen desperately ill
and was listed in critical condition. Nevertheless, when I approached her bunk,
she seemed quite lucid and we had a lengthy chat. When I was getting ready to
leave, she wordlessly handed me a few sheets of paper which were her
reflections on recent events.
[reading] "Freedom -- I welcome it in the rays of the golden sun, and I
salute you, brave American soldiers. You ask what we have suffered, what we
have lived through. Your sympathy is great, but we cannot speak the
unspeakable, and you might not understand our language."
GERDA WEISSMANN KLEIN: [reading] "You are people of freedom and
we, are we human still or again? Yes, they have tried to drag us to the lowest
level of human existence, demeaned us and treated us worse than animals, yet
something seems to have remained alive within us, for it stirs anew. It is a
soul which is sensitive to the beauty of the blossoming spring, the heart which
beats in our breast and pulses with being. Pain surges through this new heart.
Slowly, the petrified shell into which cruel barbarians have cut deep wounds is
mending, leaving a vulnerable, feeling heart. I must tell you, good Americans,
my dying friends' words of farewell were whispered from bloodless lips --
'Welcome them. Welcome our liberators."'
KURT KLEIN: [reading] ... I know they are near. I shall not see
them anymore, so greet them for me, they who liberate you."'
The girl who penned those eloquent words was Gerda Weissmann, who has been my
wife for the past 46 years.
NARRATOR: Following the war, Kurt Klein received a message in answer to
inquiries about his parents. "In reply to your letter, we regret to inform you
that Ludwig and Alice Klein were deported on August 19, 1942, in the direction
of Auschwitz and, to date, do not appear among our files of repatriates.