- In Search of Refuge: Jews and U.S. Consuls in Nazi Germany, 1933–1941
Among the many issues that continue to swirl around the interpretation of the Shoah is the question concerning what the Allied Nations, particularly the United States, could and should have done differently that might have led to the saving of thousands of additional Jewish lives. This is a lively and ongoing focus of research and controversy that has produced much impressive scholarship, notably the works by Henry L. Feingold, The Politics of Rescue (1970), Saul S. Friedman, No Haven for the Oppressed (1973), Richard Breitman and Alan Kraut, American Refugee Policy and European Jewry, 1933–1944, David S. Wyman, Paper Walls (1968) and The Abandonment of the Jews (1984), among others. Bat-Ami Zucker’s book, In Search of Refuge: Jews and U.S. Consuls in Nazi Germany 1933–1941 (2001), makes an important contribution to the contextualization of this issue.
Zucker is less concerned, in this well-researched and presented book, with examining the global factors that may have been at work here such as the role of President Roosevelt, American public opinion, American indifference to the plight of the refugees, and the role of Congress. Her study, largely based on primary sources, focuses instead on United States Consuls in Berlin, Stuttgart, Hamburg, and post-Anschluss Vienna, who were assigned exclusive responsibility for issuing the visas without which the refugees could not enter the United States. The Johnson-Reed Bill of 1924 mandated that instead of determining at the point of entry whether there were any [End Page 143] grounds for excluding an immigrant, American consuls in Europe were now made responsible for examining the immigrants and granting the required visas. On September 13, 1930, the Department of State, on President Hoover’s directive, further restricted potential immigration, by publishing a limitation on the LPC (“Likely to become a public charge”) clause of the 1917 immigration act. The operative phrase instructs the consular official to refuse a visa to an applicant he believes may become a public charge “at any time.” So much now obviously depended on the consul’s individual interpretation and frame of mind on the refugee question. They were the ones who made the big decisions that often determined whether a refugee would have a chance to escape the enveloping net of Nazi Germany and find a haven in the United States. Her conclusion is that, for the most part, these men were unhelpful, narrow in their interpretation of the law, and intent on keeping as many of these refugees out of the United States as possible. She suggests that the sorry record—the fact that the quotas for Germany (25,557) and Austria (1,413) per year, limited as they were, were not fully used except for 1939—may have something to do with the general anti-alien, antisemitic climate pervasive in those years which was reflected in the decisions the consuls made. She concludes that the American consular officers in Nazi Germany bear at least some of the responsibility for the arbitrary denial of visas that she documents quite well. Yes, American immigration laws were restrictive and certainly the State Department could have done more. However, even without any modification of the existing laws, if the quotas had been filled by a more empathic interpretation of the law by these officials, then tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees could have been saved.
Zucker sheds much needed light on a sad and tragic part of American immigration history. The laws and their interpretation represent a fundamental failure of American values during one of the most critical moments in human history. This is one of those occasions when a few individuals could have made a world of difference. Sadly, Zucker concludes, they were either unable or unwilling to transcend the attitudes of the time that apparently made Jewish lives expendable. The book is well researched and written, although a bit repetitive, and makes a compelling case. There is...