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American Jewish History 89.1 (2001) 35-59

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Frances Perkins and the German-Jewish Refugees, 1933-1940

Bat-Ami Zucker

Shall we refuse the unhappy fugitives from distress that hospitality which the savages of the wilderness extended to our forefathers arriving in this land? Shall oppressed humanity find no asylum on this globe?

Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address 1

When President Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor in 1933, the news was greeted with suspicion. Never before in the history of the United States had a woman been appointed to the cabinet. Moreover, the fact that she was the first Secretary of Labor outside the trade unions aroused resentment in labor and industrial circles. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis may have been convinced that "no man or woman in the United States was so well qualified" for that position, but many in the media and Congress expressed doubts as to whether Perkins was capable of meeting the challenge of America's serious labor unrest and economic upheaval. 2 Perkins loyalist Charles E. Wyzanski, Jr., a solicitor general at the Labor Department, noted that congressmen did not like to listen to long lectures about the need for reforms from a woman who seemed to them "a combination of their mothers, teachers, and blue-stocking constituents," especially when she had failed to develop a strong supporting constituency on Capitol Hill, among industrial officers, or in union circles. 3

Upon her death in 1965, the Times of London praised Perkins as "one of the chief architects of the New-Deal," a woman of "true sense of justice and humanity." The New York Times on the same occasion observed that "through all the strikes, peaks of unemployment, technological relocation and mobilization for the war, Miss Perkins presided efficiently and with restraint, withstanding repeated private and public [End Page 35] attack." 4 In fact, she had gained her reputation as Industrial Commissioner already in the late 1920s while serving under Governors Smith and Roosevelt in New York. Perkins's efforts to secure safety measures to avoid factory fires and her humanitarian approach to human suffering, helped prepare her for a prominent role in the New Deal. Deeply committed to the goal of a governmental social security system to meet the requirements of the unemployed, the infirm, the aged and the dependent, she spearheaded enactment of the Social Security Act of 1935, her greatest single contribution to American society. Wyzanski recalled:

I never met a person, who equaled her firm adherence to principle. Her determination to follow the public interest and not a selfish, least of all an egotistical, interest, and her unswerving loyalty to her superiors, her colleagues, and her subordinates, so long as each was true to the best in himself as his own vision saw the best. 5

Labor historian C. E. Daniel, who considered Perkins the outstanding Secretary of labor in the whole history of the country, remarked, "It is hard to think of any [New Deal] accomplishments related to labor that don't reflect the contributions of Frances Perkins." 6 An aristocratic progressive who retained her maiden name after marriage, Perkins remained a product of the nineteenth century with a Puritan social ethic. 7

Perkins's firm stands on what she considered "just causes" was especially evident on the issue of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. No one could intimidate her or deflect her from following "the command of duty," even if that meant facing animosity and criticism from the Department of State; as she put it, "Immigration problems usually have to be decided in a few days. They involve human lives. There can be no delaying." 8 Humanitarian needs were indeed pressing. Hitler began his reign of terror immediately upon ascending to power in [End Page 36] January 1933. German Jews were soon stripped of their civil rights and were unable to obtain passports from their government. Few visas were being issued by the State Department, which adhered strictly to the provisions in U.S. immigration law barring entry to those deemed "likely to become a...


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