FDR and the Looting of Europe’s Jews

by Henri-Christian de Sévigné

The institution of the Nuremberg racial laws in 1936 and the pogroms that swept Germany in November of 1938, made it clearly evident to the world that Hitler was determined to drive the Jews out of Germany. There was no program or intention in Germany then to put them into concentration camps because these camps were designed solely for political dissidents and common criminals. The addition of the 500,000 Jews living in Germany at that time would have put an intolerable strain on the camp system. It was the general idea that there should be a new diaspora, a dispersing of the Jews. But the problem facing the Germans, aside from international outrage engendered by their program of harassment and expulsion, was that no other country wanted to accept the Jewish refugees. Many of these originated in Russia and had fled into what was then the Grand Duchy of Poland when the Imperial Russian government started its great pogroms at the end of the nineteenth century.

When Poland gained its independence from Russia after the First World War, the new Polish head of state, Marshal Pilsudski, strongly encouraged as many of the five million Jewish residents of his country  to leave it as quickly as possible. The great bulk of these escaped into what was then a very tolerant Germany only to encounter, after 1933, the anti-Semitic political programs of Adolf Hitler.

Once it became evident to the Jewish community of Germany that the persecutions would not cease, many fled the country, some legally and some illegally. A number went to Switzerland, which took in about fifty thousand, and many others went to France, Belgium and Holland, while a very few managed to go to England and America. The British initially permitted immigration to Palestine, a territory they had controlled since the end of the First World War, but in 1939, the Arabs of that territory were in a state of open revolt against the British, in part because of the influx of Jews. The British then curtailed any Jewish immigration and threatened to sink any refugee boats full of Jewish refugees headed for Palestine.

France was overwhelmed with a quarter million Spanish refugees from the recently ended Spanish Civil War and declared that they would accept no more refugees. The desperate Jews trickled in small numbers to South America and such remote places as Shanghai, the foreign business center of a China that was engaged in a major war with the Japanese. When that city fell to the Japanese Army, Shanghai was cut off as a haven for any further refugees.

The United States had a reputation as a haven for the persecuted of Europe, but this reputation was about to be irremediably tarnished through the actions of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and Breckinridge Long, one of the highest officials of the U.S. Department of State.

When confronted with a mass of frightened German (and Austrian) Jews seeking entrance into the United States, Roosevelt at first attempted to find some other area in the world that would accept a large number of them. The President, through the Department of State, suggested Ethiopia as a country into which “refugees could be admitted in almost unlimited numbers,” while the Germans recommended Madagascar. Mussolini felt that Siberia had its attractions and Roosevelt then decided that central Africa might be a better choice. The British suggested the jungle areas of South America or perhaps Venezuela could be an “excellent settlement area for unwanted German Jews.” Needless to say, the educated German Jews had no great interest in the jungles and unpopulated, remote areas of the world, and as middle-class professionals and businessmen, preferred to go to the United States since the rest of civilized Europe plainly did not want anything to do with them.

In 1938, the U.S. immigration quota from Germany was 25,957. This figure reflected German immigrants, not Jewish, and the question put to the State Department was how many of the German quota would be Jews. This matter was never officially resolved because it suited the Department of State not to do so.

Breckinridge Long, the official in the State Department who oversaw immigration, was strongly xenophobic, disliked immigrants from countries that were not Northern European Protestant in origin, and most especially detested Jews. In these attitudes, Long was entirely in harmony with the American East Coast establishment which felt exactly as he did.

The United States was still suffering from the effects of the Depression that had begun in 1929 and had erupted again in 1938. In times of economic travail, the minorities always suffer and this maxim was certainly true from 1938 onwards. While Roosevelt had opened his administration to Jews, something that had never happened before, he nevertheless had no interest in assisting the Jews of Europe in entering the United States. The President was a man of his age and of his milieu, and anti-Semitism in America was not violent as it was in Germany, but was certainly evident and very persistent in American society.

After the pogroms of Crystal Night, Roosevelt publicly expressed outrage to the German government about the blatant mistreatment of the Jews. But in private, he agreed with the stringent boycott of Germany and her exports by his friend Samuel Untermeyer and powerful members of the American Jewish community, who had expressed their anger against Hiller for a number of years before the 1938 incidents. But when it became evident that the United States was the intended goal of the Jews of Germany, Roosevelt balked. Verbal outrage and high-sounding morality was one thing, but an influx o f Jews was quite something else. Even after Crystal Night, American public opinion was strongly opposed to any loosening of the very restrictive 1924 immigration act, and, in fact this opposition rose from 70 percent to 83 percent following the German pogroms.

If nothing else, Roosevelt was a thoroughly pragmatic and coldly realistic politician. Even though he personally enjoyed considerable support from America‘s Jewish community, he realized that the Jews alone could not keep him in office so he quickly pandered to the exclusionist view of the overwhelming bulk of his electorate.

His personal views were certainly reflected in the elitist attitudes of his career diplomats. In 1938, after Mussolini had promulgated some anti-Semitic laws. Roosevelt wrote to his Ambassador in Rome, “What a plight the unfortunate Jews are in. It gives them little comfort to remind them that they have been ‘on the run’ for about four thousand years.”

In 1942, after the war had been raging for three years and there was no doubt that all of Europe’s Jews were being rounded up and put into detention camps, Roosevelt remarked to Leo Crowley, an Irish-American Catholic who was his Custodian of Alien Property, and Henry Morgenthau, Jr., his Secretary of the Treasury, “ Leo, you know this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here on sufferance. It is up to both of you to go along with anything that I want at this time.”

In a 1943 trans-Atlantic scrambled telephone conversation with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Roosevelt said. “Of course I have pity on the Jews, but we simply don’t want them over here. No one wants them here. You don’t want them in Palestine and neither do the Arabs. Could we not send them to some place like South America?” to which Churchill replied, “Certainly that could be done, but I cannot countenance shipping hundreds of thousands of perfectly obnoxious Polish Jews to our territories.”

In May of 1939, the head of Hitler’s Gestapo, Heinrich Müller, had arranged with the Hamburg-Amerika shipping line to charter one of their passenger ships, the SS St. Louis, to transport a group of 936 German Jews to Cuba. Müller had purchased landing permits from the Cuban government and secured passports for the Jews, bur shortly after the ship sailed on May 13, the U.S. Department of State, in the person of Breckinridge Long who was acting on the specific orders of President Roosevelt, requested that the Cuban government immediately cancel all of these landing permits. Neither he nor the President wanted that many unwelcome Jews so close to America, a country which, they reasoned, the refugees would then wish to move to. Never adverse to making money, the Cubans, in defiance of the American President, claimed they would permit the Jews to land if they would renegotiate their fees and pay an additional $500, plus Cuban legal fees per person. Since the homeless refugees had spent all their money on the voyage and on their original landing fees, only twenty-two of them were able to raise the necessary cash. The others, and the Captain of the St. Louis, were ordered out of Cuban waters at once. The Captain, Gustav Schröder, knowing that taking his passengers back to Germany guaranteed that they would be imprisoned, made every effort to land them at an American port. But Roosevelt ordered out the American Coast Guard which followed the ship to prevent any of the refugees from attempting to swim ashore. On his orders, the Coast Guard was to use any method to prevent the refugees from landing on American territory, to include shooting them.

In America, many Jewish groups, including the influential Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, petitioned official Washington and the President to relent. They pointed out that of the 936 passengers, 734 had U.S. immigration-quota permits, but Roosevelt and Long would not move an inch and the St. Louis had to sail hack to Europe. They would not even accept the children among the passengers.

Most of the passengers were landed in countries other than Germany, which only postponed their fate by a few months. When the 1940 campaign in France ended, the refugees there were in the same situation again.

Prior to this, immediately after the Crystal Night pogroms, the British government had agreed to relinquish their own quota of 65,000 British immigrants to America in favor of the Jews, but again Long rejected this out of hand. Tired of the complaints of the American Jewish community, Roosevelt discussed the possibility of “establishing Jewish colonies on uninhabited or sparsely inhabited good agricultural land,” hut of course, not in the United States. This idea came to nothing because no country possessing such land had any interest in permitting the creation of Jewish colonies.

A year later, the ship SS Quanza from Portugal with a manifest of eighty Jewish refugees landed at Norfolk, Virginia. The passengers had no valid papers and had been summarily rejected by both Mexico and Nicaragua. Mrs. Roosevelt exerted her influence and sent down the head of the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees to see that the refugees would be accepted. This act incurred the wrath of Long who in this case, at least, had been overruled by higher authority.

A few months before the outbreak of war in Europe, Roosevelt blocked a plan to permit the $50 million Congressional appropriation for the American Red Cross to spend $1 million of it to aid for the transportation of refugee children from Europe. Although some of his closest aides supported this bill, Roosevelt blocked it and it died. However, he did donate $250 to a U.S. charity to assist in the emigration of the children of one Jewish family, a matter that had been pressed on him by a cousin.

Roosevelt’s man in the Stare Department, Breckinridge Long, did everything in his power to prevent the entrance of any “undesirable” refugees into the United States, and this term encompassed almost anyone from Eastern Europe. He detested Jews and did not wish this country to be ‘contaminated by a group of people’  whom he viewed as ‘impossible to assimilate.’

Long instructed U.S. Embassies and consulates throughout Europe to block any attempt at emigration by European Jews to America, stalling the process by erecting as many bureaucratic barriers as possible. When Interior Secretary Harold Ickes attempted to issue permits for 12,000 refugees to land in the Virgin Islands, which his agency controlled, and then permit them to emigrate to the United States, Long went to the President and quickly convinced him to block the Ickes program, which Roosevelt promptly did.

In 1944, after the collapse of the Horthy regime in Hungary and the installation of a right-wing government, the SS was asked to deport all the Jews from Budapest. A year before, a group was formed in Hungary called Waadah, short for Waddat Ezra Vö-Hazzalah Bo-Budapest or Jewish Rescue Committee, Budapest. The purpose of this group was to facilitate the escape of Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe to Palestine.

With the fall of Horthy, who was not viewed as an enemy of the Jews, and the arrival of the SS in the capital, the leaders of Waadah commenced negotiations with Himmler’s representatives with a view to buying the freedom for many Jews. They played on Himmler’s increasing interest in establishing his credentials with the Allies and finally got him to agree to abandon his deportation plans for Hungarian Jews in return for 10,000 military trucks and other supplies, including tea and coffee. Adolf Eichmann, head of the Gestapo’s deportation department, asked Joel Brand, a Budapest businessman and founding member of Waadah, to take these proposals to Istanbul in neutral Turkey and commence negotiations with the World Jewish Organization.

As a token of good faith, Eichmann stated that if the Allies were willing to even consider this exchange, they would at once release 100,000 Jewish prisoners from the concentration camps. Armed with this information, Brand took a train to Istanbul where he was unable to convince the Jewish groups to support the trade. On his way to address the British officials in Palestine, he was arrested in Syria by British military police and flown to Cairo, Egypt, where he was put in jail and held incommunicado.

Brand eventually was brought before Lord Moyne, the British Resident Minister in the Middle East. He was informed by Moyne that neither the Jewish groups nor the Allies would consider negotiating with Himmler, and that the “Jews-for Trucks” program was impossible to implement. When the frantic Brand told Moyne that all the Allies had to do was, at least, agree in principle and talk with German representatives in neutral Switzerland, Moyne refused.

Brand said that if the Allies agreed to meet with Himmler’s representatives, even if it was understood that nothing would come of the meetings, 100,000 Jews would be released from the concentration camps and sent to whatever country the Allies wished. Moyne declined to even consider this saying, “Whatever would we do with a hundred thousand Jews?”

Following the collapse of his project, Himmler ordered the deportation of all the Jews of Budapest. Instead of releasing what Himmler expected would be all the Jews in his camps, the camps increased their Jewish populations by 300,000.

In addition to refusing to permit refugee Jews into the United States, Roosevelt had earlier enriched the national coffers by ordering all Swiss assets held in their American branches frozen. On June 14, 1941, all such assets were taken over by the American government. The prudent Swiss had moved deposits to what they felt was the safety of the United States when war broke out in 1939. These deposits were put into Swiss banks by anti-Nazi and Jewish individuals prior to the war, and the Swiss felt with some justification, that these hinds could be taken if and when the Germans invaded Switzerland.

The foresight of the Swiss in protecting vulnerable monies was negated by Roosevelt‘s order, and over $229 million of Jewish assets disappeared into US. custody along with millions more from other sources. Some of this money, approximately $500,000 was eventually returned after the war. The rest was kept by the U.S. Treasury on the grounds that as accounts which had been dormant for five years, they were deemed abandoned. hence passing irrevocably to the U.S. government. A significant number of confiscated bonds ended up in the hands of Roosevelt Administration official, Jesse Jones and a smaller number in the hands of one of Roosevelt’s sons.

One would ask the question that if no one was able to access their accounts during the five years the Treasury Department held them, how could they ethically be considered abandoned? The answer, quire obviously, lies in the amount of money, coupled with what obviously was a total lack of official U.S. interest in the welfare of European Jews. While there was disinterest in assisting these unfortunate Jews, there was no lack of interest in acquiring their money

After the war, Swiss accounts which could be proven not to be of “Nazi origins” were returned, but none of the Jewish funds seized by Roosevelt, with small exceptions, ever surfaced again.