Controversy continues to grow over the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s new exhibit, which claims that President Franklin D. Roosevelt did the best he could to help Jews during the Holocaust. 

Mainstream historians say that the exhibit’s claims fly in the face of decades of historical research. 

Below is part 2 of our 3-part series (for part 1, click here) adapted from the essay “Walls of Paper,” by Dr. Rafael Medoff, which was published in the spring 2018 issue of PRISM: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Holocaust Educators, published by the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education, at Yeshiva University. It is reprinted here by permission of the journal and the writer. (For a full list of the footnotes from the essay, write to: info@wymaninstitute.org)

Dr. Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and author or editor of 19 books about Jewish history and the Holocaust. His latest book is Too Little, and Almost Too Late: The War Refugee Board and America’s Response to the Holocaust.


When the world-famous German Jewish chemist Fritz Haber approached US Ambassador to Germany William Dodd in July 1933 to ask about “the possibilities in America for emigrants with distinguished records here in science,” Dodd told him (according to Dodd’s diary) “that the law allowed none now, the quota being filled.” In fact, the German quota was 95% unfilled that year. 

Ten year-old Herbert Friedman was denied permission to accompany his mother and brother to the United States in 1936 after an examining physician at the Stuttgart consulate claimed he had tuberculosis. Tests all proved negative, and an array of German and American specialists who reviewed his X-rays likewise concluded that he did not have the disease. Yet the consulate would not budge. The family eventually managed to enlist the help of Albert Einstein, who, in a letter to the surgeon general about the case, reported: 

“I have spoken to a reliable young man who recently emigrated from Germany; when I told him about the Stuttgart Consulate’s refusal to issue the visa for the child, without giving the young man the reason for the refusal [that is, Einstein did not tell him about the claim of tuberculosis—RM], he immediately said, ‘That is an old story. Tuberculosis!’ This shows clearly that this case is not an isolated case but that it is becoming a dangerous practice. “


Some applicants in Germany ran into trouble when they presented a ketubah, the traditional Jewish religious wedding certificate, as evidence of their marital status. Some of these Jews had been married in a religious ceremony only, and not according to civil law, while others simply found it impossible to obtain evidence of their marital status from a Nazi government office, or else had been married in Russia before the Soviet takeover and could not enter the USSR to retrieve documentation. 

US consular officials refused to recognize a ketubah as proof of marriage and therefore deemed the applicants’ children “illegitimate” and rejected the family on the grounds of low moral character. In these cases and many others, consular officials used their discretionary abilities to achieve what one consul characterized as “the Department’s desire to keep immigration to a minimum.”  

In late 1936, there was a modest increase in the number of German Jews admitted to the United States. By the end of 1937, a total of 11,127 immigrants from Germany had arrived, representing 42.1% of the available spaces.

Consuls in Germany had complained that they were short-staffed, so Foreign Service Inspector Jerome Klahr Huddle was sent to Germany to assess the situation. In his report, Huddle recommended that more-distant relatives could be relied upon to provide support, because they undoubtedly felt genuine sympathy for their persecuted family members. Eliot Coulter of the Visa Division agreed, in an internal memorandum, that “the Jewish people often have a high sense of responsibility toward their relatives, including distant relatives whom they may not have seen.” 

Yet the majority of the German quota remained unfilled. John Farr Simmons, chief of the State Department’s Visa Division in the 1930s, was proud to note, in 1937, “the drastic reduction in immigration” that “was merely an obvious and predictable result of administrative practices.” 


Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938 (the Anschluss) marked a significant intensification of the Jewish refugee crisis. Now a second major European Jewish community was in need of a haven. The well-publicized scenes of anti-Jewish brutality accompanying the German army’s entrance into Austria, including Jews being forced to scrub the streets with toothbrushes, showed that the problem was reaching crisis proportions. 

Although polls showed most Americans still opposed relaxing immigration restrictions, a handful of members of Congress and journalists began urging US intervention. Senior State Department officials decided to—in the words of the department’s internal year-end review—“get out in front and attempt to guide” the pressure before it got out of hand. They conceived the idea of an international conference on the refugee problem, to create an impression of US concern while coaxing other countries to assume responsibility for the bulk of the refugees. 

On March 24, 1938, President Roosevelt announced he was inviting 32 countries to send representatives to a conference in the French resort town of Évian-les-Bains. FDR emphasized in his announcement that “no nation would be expected or asked to receive a greater number of emigrants than is permitted by its existing legislation.” He did permit the German and Austrian quotas, now combined, to be filled that year, the only year that happened. 

With one exception, the delegates at Évian proclaimed their countries’ unwillingness to accept more Jews. Typical was the Australian delegate, who bluntly asserted that “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.” The only exception was the tiny Dominican Republic, which declared it would accept as many as 100,000 Jewish refugees. 

Scholars have chronicled the sad fate of that offer. After the first several hundred refugees were settled in the Dominican region of Sosua, the “biggest problem” the project encountered—according to historian Marion A. Kaplan—was the “unrelenting US opposition” to bringing in more refugees and “the State Department’s hostility and obstructionism.” Prof. Allen Wells found that Roosevelt administration officials harbored paranoid fears that some German Jewish refugees entering Sosua would serve as spies for the Nazis and pressured the Dominican haven organizers to refrain from bringing in more Jews. 

Laura Delano Houghteling, a cousin of FDR and wife of the US commissioner of immigration...com-plained that “20,000 charming [Jewish] children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.” 
Several additional opportunities to assist Jewish refugees in 1938 and 1939 likewise were spurned by the Roosevelt administration. The president refused to support the Wagner–Rogers bill of 1939, which would have admitted 20,000 German children outside the quota. The legislation went nowhere, thanks to the sentiments of nativists such as Laura Delano Houghteling, a cousin of FDR and wife of the US commissioner of immigration, who complained that “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.” 

In the spring of the same year, 930 German Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis were turned away from Cuba and the United States. The German–Austrian quota was already filled, and any proposal to Congress to admit them likely would have been defeated. However, they could have been admitted as tourists to the US Virgin Islands, as Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr., proposed at the time. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, after conferring with the president, rejected Morgenthau’s proposal on the grounds that the passengers could not demonstrate they had permanent residences in Nazi Germany to which they would return after their visas expired. 


In the aftermath of the German conquest of France in June 1940, thousands of refugees, including many exiled German Jews, fled to southern France to avoid capture by the Nazis. Many refugee families included members who were prominent artists, scientists, and intellectuals. On June 22, Marshal Petain’s Vichy regime, the ruling authority in the southern part of the country, signed an agreement with the Nazis agreeing to “surrender on demand” anyone sought by the Germans. 

In the days to follow, American friends and colleagues of the refugees established the Emergency Rescue Committee, hoping to bring renowned cultural figures to the United States. With help from the First Lady, the committee secured President Roosevelt’s authorization of emergency visas for several hundred artists and intellectuals and their families. The president was receptive to the proposal precisely because it was not a typical request to admit ordinary Jewish refugees. The world-famous exiles in France were the cream of European civilization; the fact that most of them were Jewish was incidental. 

American journalist Varian Fry volunteered to lead the mission. He arrived in Marseille in August 1940 with a list of 200 endangered individuals and $3,000 taped to his leg to hide it from the Gestapo. During the months to follow, Fry’s network—which included a dissident US consul, Hiram Bingham IV—rescued an estimated 2,000 refugees, in many cases by smuggling them over the Pyrenees into Spain disguised as field workers. 

Catching wind of the Fry operation, furious German and French officials complained to the State Department. Secretary of State Cordell Hull responded with a telegram, in September 1940, to the American ambassador in Paris, instructing him to inform Fry that “THIS GOVERNMENT DOES NOT REPEAT NOT COUNTENANCE ANY ACTIVITIES BY AMERICAN CITIZENS DESIRING TO EVADE THE LAWS OF THE GOVERNMENTS WITH WHICH THIS COUNTRY MAINTAINS FRIENDLY RELATIONS.”

Hull also sent a telegram to Fry, pressing him to “return immediately” to the United States in view of “local developments,” meaning the opposition of the Germans and French. When Fry failed to heed that demand, the Roosevelt administration refused to renew his passport, thus forcing him to leave France. It also transferred Bingham to Portugal, then Argentina.