"Keep silence before me, O islands, And let the people renew their strength; Let them come near, then let them speak; Let us come near together for judgment." -- Isaiah 41:1
Of all the remarks philosophers have made about history, few are as simple or powerful as Hegel's comment that history is a butcher's block. It is the blood of innocents that flows most freely from that block, their cries muffled by those who shout of high politics and diplomacy. In this new age of refugee crises, we would do well to remember that no government is immune to this special deafness, not even our own.
ON MARCH 11, 1938, Hitler's troops marched into Austria and terror immediately engulfed the Jews. Foreign newspapers described arrests, brutal beatings, deportations to the Dachau concentration camp, and just plain disappearances; the morgue, meanwhile, did not have space for all the suicides. Jews could not obtain entrance visas to foreign countries. Ironically, the immensity of the task of relocating the six hundred thousand Jews of Germany and Austria had furnished a pretext for stopping immigration altogether, and the victims of Nazi aggression were caught in a trap from which there was no way out.
But on March 26, elating news swept through some segments of the Austrian and German Jewish communities. Those who dared listen to foreign broadcasts heard the news that the President of the United States, Mr. Roosevelt, had called for an international conference to which he invited "the nations of the world" to face the problem of the refugees. America had always been seen in Europe as the champion of freedom and was living up to its tradition. Many obviously would be permitted to emigrate to the United States, and its influence would open other doors.
On July 6, the conference opened. Thirty-two countries sent representatives; even the Germans dispatched observers, and the Jewish organizations sent their leaders as well. Myron Taylor, the chief American delegate, delivered the opening address. Some knew what to expect, but most were stunned. Taylor first stated his sympathies for the persecuted, and proclaimed that something must be done for the victims of the Nazi hatred and terror. But he then said that the United States would not adjust its immigration laws to the present situation, nor would other countries be pressed to change their immigration laws either. Other participating countries, which had expected to be pressured by the United States to contribute to the solution, saw the American attitude and replicated its passivity. Clearly, the United States had rendered its own conference a total fiasco. But why?
Under the influence of horrifying media reports, pressure had built on the American government to adjust its immigration quota system before the demands of the European emergency. The law establishing that system originated in 1917 and was amended in 1924 so that the total number of immigrants from Europe to be admitted annually was 152,744. Distribution was to be made according to the birthplace of the immigrant. By far the largest number -- 83,574 -- was reserved for Great Britain. Yet in no year since this assignment had Britain used more than 4,300 of its quota. German and Austrian quotas combined amounted to 27,370. Together with the unused part of the British quota, this would have supplied a total of almost 111,000 immigration visas annually to the victims of the Nazi race hatred.
Congressman Samuel Dickstein of New York first tried to initiate legislation to have all the unused numbers transferred to Germany, now enlarged by Austria. He was denied. He then asked to transfer all unused British quota figures to the German Jews. Denied again. He finally wanted to have the German figure mortgaged so that the figures from 1939, 1940, and 1941 would be available immediately. The State Department objected to all these propositions. Dickstein was eventually persuaded to cancel his legislative initiative, and leave the matter to President Roosevelt, a "friend of the Jews. …