Historian Explores Americans’ Resistance Toward World War II Jewish Refugees

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Eleanor and Gilbert Kraus pose with the 50 children they rescued in 1939. They traveled from Philadelphia to Nazi-occupied Vienna to grant them visas. | Photo provided by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Annelise Hoffman immigrated to New York from Germany. She married in the summer of 1938, and a few months later invited her father, Ernst Bernhardt, to visit.

He was allotted 30 days in the U.S. in the hopes of finding a job, which would allow him to stay longer via immigration rules and bring over his wife, Ella, who was left behind in Germany.

Then Kristallnacht rampaged newspaper headlines, more than any event in history.


The U.S. declared that all Germans in the country on visitor visas could stay in the U.S. indefinitely. That saved Ernst’s life — and the lives of almost 15,000 others.

However, not all World War II stories of immigration are that fortunate, as Rebecca Erbelding, historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, pointed out in a talk at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El May 18.

Rebecca Erbelding | Photo provided by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

She dove into the complexity of how Americans responded to Jewish refugees before, during and after the war, which will be the theme of a new exhibit in the Washington, D.C. museum next spring.

Erbelding noted that it was equally hard to leave one’s home country as it was to enter the U.S., as well as prove you wouldn’t be a financial burden.

In the talk, she shared real-life stories of survival and tragedy, like Ernst and Ella, and others hoping to escape persecution and make their way to America.

(Ella was number 49,811 on the immigration waiting list. The U.S. let in 27,000 each year.)

“The generations that came before us, we need to try to understand them,” she said. “We need to think about how we can incorporate what we know now into our lives. We need to consider the perspective of the refugees who were trying to get out and also the perspective of Americans — those who were sympathetic and those who looked at the very real domestic and international issues and did not feel that they could be sympathetic.”

Statistics showed that while Americans did not support Nazi occupation, they did not want Jews to immigrate to the U.S. That sentiment didn’t change much after the war.

Even today, this is a topic in history that people have very strong feelings about, Erbelding said. People feel very condemnatory toward government and the American people back then, but they don’t understand why.

The upcoming exhibit will challenge museum-goers’ thinking.

“If you come in thinking FDR could have saved everybody,” she said, “this is going to challenge that for you. You’re going to see how far away the armies were at various points. If you say the U.S. did nothing, that’s going to challenge you.

“You would be right to say the U.S. did not do enough, which is undoubtedly true. We also did more than any other country in the world. That is both a sad fact and a fact that we should be tentatively proud of.”

Many of the refugee stories she shared took place in Philadelphia.

“This was really a place in the 1940s where there was much more sympathy for refugees and willingness to act,” she said, like Eleanor and Gilbert Kraus, who traveled from Philadelphia to Nazi-occupied Vienna to rescue 50 children, or the Quakers.

Erbelding said that faith group has “one of the largest untold refugee stories.”

At the museum, 20,000 case files from the Philadelphia office refugee division of the American Friends Services Committee between 1938 and 1945 show that they were trying to help refugees — about 50,000 — with funds or immigration.

Condemning people or individuals for not saving Jews is not proactive, she said, because once a conflict begins, it becomes much more complicated to help — illustrated now in Syria.

“We can’t police everything, we can’t save everyone, we can’t bring everyone here. But we need to have a conversation about what we can do and if there’s more that we can do.”

Erbelding, who is not Jewish, grew up in rural Churchville, N.Y. — “which gives you the idea of how many Jews were there,” she laughed.

She attended Catholic school, Our Lady of Mercy, “where the Holocaust was taught in English class.”

She visited the Holocaust museum in D.C. during an eighth-grade Girl Scout trip. She read The Diary of a Young Girl like most preteens, but otherwise had no knowledge of this history.

“I left the museum kind of stunned and thinking that it was the first museum I had ever been to that I just wanted to keep learning more,” she recalled.

Now, she’s analyzing Americans’ concerns after the war, which were very similar to their concerns before the war — also similar to people’s concerns today about refugees, immigration and national security.

As for Ella, she made it to the U.S. in 1940 when her turn on the quota list came up. She and Ernst survived the war by living in America.

“There are some fundamental misunderstandings about this history, and we’re going to make it a little grayer and a little bit more complex,” Erbelding said.

Contact: rkurland@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0737

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