DAVID McCULLOUGH, Host: Good evening and welcome to The American Experience. I'm David McCullough.
On November 25, 1942, more than three years after Adolf Hitler ignited World War II, The New York Times carried the first authenticated report that the Nazis had established a policy to exterminate Jews. The front page of The Times that day was taken up with mostly war news and such other items as a minor scandal in City Hall. The story of the slaughter of the Jews -- a report confirmed by the State Department that more than two million Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe had already been systematically murdered -- that appeared on page 10. The President, Franklin Roosevelt, could have made much of this appalling news had he chosen to, but he said nothing; nor, in the months following, did any reporter ever ask him about it. And thoughThe Times and other major papers did carry further infrequent reports, such popular magazines as Time, Life, Newsweek, had little or nothing to say. It was as if the country preferred not to know. But in watching tonight's program -- one of the most powerful and disturbing films to appear in this series -- it's important to understand, too, how pervasive was anti-Semitism at the time here in America. Jews then were unacceptable to many employers, unwelcome at business and social clubs, vacation resorts. Jokes about "kikes" and "yids" were commonplace, and such supposed champions of American values as members of Congress -- people like Senator Bilbo, Representative Rankin -- openly spewed anti-Semitic poison in the very halls of the nation's capital. In a public opinion poll taken in 1942 in answer to the question, "Which groups menace the country most," Jews were listed third, just behind the Germans and the Japanese. That, tragically, was the atmosphere.
That was the outlook. "America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference."
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 Father."
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 America do?"
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, Jewishbusinesses boycotted.
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 Times.
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 large rallies.
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 Nazis. 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, things 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 present, the American consulate in Stuttgart is being besieged to such an extent that the waiting number for Mother and me indicates there are 22,344 cases ahead of us."
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 procedures.
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 to extremes.
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 newspaper.
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 Jewish nationality."
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 no Jews.
The insurance company, aside from insurance agents within their structure hired no 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 practice.
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 these people.
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. Louishappy 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 immigration laws.
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 virtually shut.
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 subsist."
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 platitudes.
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 President.
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 murdered.
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 visa.
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 transports themselves were impossible to hide. They were noted as far away as Washington by 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 reports of sending numberless Jewish people from Berlin and other cities at an hour's notice, packed like cattle into trains with their destination either Poland or some 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 Jews.
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 Nations 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 awareness.
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 it.
WILL ROGERS, Jr.: I think the most effective thing that we of the Bergson group did was our advertising and our ads. These were written by Ben Hecht. They were full-page ads. They appeared in The New York Times and they were extremely shocking. One of them, I recall, was "70,000 Jews for sale."
NARRATOR: The ad drew attention to an American press account that Romania 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 went straight to the point. The Ben Hecht ads did more than any other single event to stimulate the Americans that wanted to save Jews to saving Jews.
MAX LERNER: And by some merciful gift of history, his talents became available for a cause like ours.
NARRATOR: In March, Hecht's theatrical talents were put to use as the campaign 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 finest talents in the American theater.
LEONA ZARSKY, Physician: I remember going to New York to see the pageant. 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 machine guns on us and killed us all. Remember us.
Dr. LEONA ZARSKY: I wept all through it. My father wept with me. It was very 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 surviving 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 Jewish problem. It is a problem that belongs to humanity and it is a challenge to the soul of man.
NARRATOR: In following weeks, the Bergsons intensified their campaign to awaken America. The pageant toured five different cities, playing to more than 100,000 people. At the same time, other Jewish organizations held rallies around the country. The government attempted to quell the Jewish outcry by announcing a 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. The American delegation arrived with secret directives from the State Department.
JOHN PEHLE: The Bermuda conference was a conference set up to not accomplish anything, and the people who represented the United States there were given those instructions.
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 and then Jews could be taken care of. I must tell you it discouraged the American Jewish community. It broke the hearts of the leaders who had been involved in trying to 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 into despair. They now recognized that America and Britain -- the two great western democracies, Hitler's enemies -- were deeply committed to a policy of not rescuing Jews.
JAN KARSKI: I was summoned to the White House by President Roosevelt on July 28, in 1943. He kept me approximately one hour 20 minutes.
NARRATOR: Jan Karski was an agent for the Polish government in exile. A Christian, he brought information in and out of Poland. One secret assignment: to witness the death camp in Belzec.
JAN KARSKI: I made him my opening report. "I saw what was happening to the 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 his statement. I was supposed to go back to Poland at that time. "You will tell your leaders that we shall win this war. You will tell them that the guilty ones will be punished for their crimes. You will tell them that Poland has a friend in this 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 first meager steps toward saving European Jews were under way. At the same time, the persistent Bergson group launched an all-out campaign calling for the establishment 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 a petition to the President.
RABBI: We pray and appeal to the Lord, blessed be he, that our most gracious 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 government rescue agency. The rabbis expected to meet with the President, but Jewish leaders opposed to the Bergson group advised Roosevelt against it. Vice President Wallace received the petition. White House spokesmen claimed the President was too busy, but a look at his appointment calendar reveals he was free that afternoon. A few weeks later, the campaign for a rescue agency intensified. Legislation designed by 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 to stand for the rescue of these people when it could be done.
NARRATOR: Back at the Treasury Department, Morgenthau's inner staff -- the general counsel to the Treasury, Randolph Paul, his assistant Josiah DuBois, and the head of foreign funds control, John Pehle -- discovered shocking information about 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 Department to transmit it, we assumed that it would be carried out. And when we heard from the Jewish agencies that were involved the license had never been received, and when we discovered they had been held up, we of course made inquiries and they were told they were consulting with the British.
NARRATOR: With 70,000 lives at stake, the Treasury began to investigate the delay. At the same time on Capitol Hill pressure was building against the administration's inaction.
WILL ROGERS, Jr.: I find it very hard to try and explain why the administration 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, and they knew they could do something. The only excuse that I can give -- and it's a pretty weak one -- is that they were tangled up with oil, with the Arabs, with the British, with the mandate, with Palestine and with everything else, and they were trying to look down the road. Meanwhile these people are being killed back here and they're looking at 50 years or 25 years in the future.
NARRATOR: The rescue resolution sponsored by the Bergson group received unusual bipartisan support in the Senate, but there were problems in the House.
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 State Department was doing an outstanding job, bringing 580,000 Jewish refugees to America since the start of the Hitler years. Long impressed the House committee and called into question the need for a separate rescue agency, but his statements were false.
JOHN PEHLE: The truth was that well under half the people he claimed had entered America and many of them were not Jewish. His testimony stalled the legislation.
NARRATOR: Jewish groups refuted Long, and the State Department's policies 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 and received a letter saying the reason the British were opposed to issuance of the license was of the difficulty of disposing of any considerable number of the refugees should they be rescued.
NARRATOR: "The Foreign Office is concerned with the difficulties of disposing of any considerable number of Jews should they be rescued from enemy-occupied territory." The words were characterized by Morgenthau as "a satanic combination of British chill and diplomatic doubletalk -- cold and correct and adding up to a sentence of death." The State Department's attitude was equally horrifying. There was always the danger that the German government might agree to turn over to the 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 and the State Department were obstructing rescue -- the fear that large numbers of Jews might actually be released.
NARRATOR: Then the Treasury investigators uncovered a copy of the State Department's cable ordering its legation in Switzerland not to pass along extermination reports.
JOHN PEHLE: We were advised by our friends in the State Department that the State Department not only was not interested in the refugee problem, but that they were actively suppressing information about the extent of the Holocaust by sending instructions to their legation in Switzerland not to permit private Jewish agencies to transmit any such stories. Suppress information? The government then becomes an accomplice to what the Nazis were doing by hiding information from the American public.
NARRATOR: The Treasury investigators next discovered a State Department 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 up, we then felt that this should be brought to the President's attention. What was so shocking had to be remedied.
NARRATOR: Outraged by their discovery, the staff at Treasury immediately wrote a report to Secretary Morgenthau. They chronicled the State Department obstructionism and urged their boss to go to the President. Josiah DuBois spent Christmas Day 1943 drafting "Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews."
JOHN PEHLE: Secretary Morgenthau, who valued above all else his relationship 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, Secretary 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 separate agency outside the State Department was essential. And at the end of the meeting, the President said, "We'll do it."
NARRATOR: Six days later, FDR 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.
DAVID WYMAN: The real reason Roosevelt established the board was not because of a sudden moral awakening -- after all, he'd been aware of the basic facts all 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 in Congress -- came together. What Roosevelt realized was that he was confronted not only with the revelations in the Treasury, but also that it was only a matter of days before the rescue resolution would come to the floor of the Senate for debate, and when that discussion occurred, it was almost certain that some of the shocking revelations that he'd seen in the Treasury Department were going to come to the forefront and be brought clearly to public attention. Confronted with this nasty scandal, Roosevelt made the move, established the War Refugee Board and thereby cut off further discussion in Congress.
NARRATOR: Morgenthau, along with Secretary of State Hull and Secretary of 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 came 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 you Jewish?" And I said no. And she said, "Why are you doing this?" And I tried to explain to her what we were doing, but here was somebody calling on the telephone 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 was meager. Most costs were paid by private Jewish organizations. Other government agencies refused to cooperate, as in late 1944. The board endorsed a proposal from American Jewish leaders to bomb the gas chambers at Auschwitz, but the proposal was sabotaged.
JOHN PEHLE: The Jewish agencies themselves weren't sure that they wanted us to arrange this. Bombing railroad lines is not very effective 'cause they can be rebuilt overnight, so it involved wiping out the extermination facility. And finally after much soul-searching, we recommended this to the War Department.
NARRATOR: Auschwitz was located in a strategic oil-refining district in Poland. 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 not 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 that far, and therefore it was not possible to do this. Later, perhaps after the war, we discovered that at the very time we were recommending this, bombing all around Auschwitz was going on from Italy, and we had been misled.
NARRATOR: Some 2,800 bombers targeted the oil refineries during the months when 150,000 Jews were being gassed. On two occasions, fleets of heavy bombers actually flew past the gas chambers, aiming for the I.G. Farben fuel factory less than five miles away. A few bombs accidentally hit Auschwitz itself, killing 85 prisoners, civilians and SS guards. This photograph makes clear the War Department refused to consider the destruction of Auschwitz as part of its mission.
These bombs flying toward I.G. Farben were targeted for the fuel factory, not the death camp immediately below. With almost no cooperation from other government agencies, the board still managed to truck critically-needed supplies to a few camps behind enemy lines; helped evacuate 15,000 Jews from Axis countries to safety, 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 thousands 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 base.
JOHN PEHLE: We felt that since we were urging other countries to take in refugees, we had to do something ourselves, and therefore we did establish a camp 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 year alone went unused.
DAVID WYMAN: In the end, the War Refugee Board played a vital role in saving the lives of 200,000 Jews, 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 and if it had been truly empowered, the War Refugee Board could have saved tens of thousands -- even hundreds of thousands more and, in the process, have 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 the way.
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.