As I’ve read about the Holocaust and the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany, I’ve wondered how I would have acted had I been a German citizen eight decades ago. Or, as a U.S. citizen, would I have been guilty of the anti-Semitism that so many went along with in the United States?
These are haunting questions for me, a descendant of Germans who immigrated to America in the 1730s and in the 1830s, the earlier arrivals being my maternal ancestors, three brothers named Gohn.
In the summer of 1943, “an Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe was convened at the Hotel Commodore in New York City,” Doris Kearns Goodwin writes in “No Ordinary Time | Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II.” At the conference, former President Herbert Hoover was among the speakers presenting “a range of plans for rescue.”
President Roosevelt failed “to provide leadership on this momentous issue. The stumbling block was … absence of sustained will and desire on the part of either the government or the people to do anything at all.”
U.S. Jewish leaders were hampered by a lack of unity. Some felt that too much attention to the plight of the European Jews would increase American anti-Semitism. “Few in Congress showed concern about saving the European Jews. The majority of church leaders were silent … ; the intellectual community remained inert.”
Some Americans did step up. Waitstill and Martha Sharp left their two small children in Wellesley, Mass., and went to Europe on a mission for the Unitarian Church to help Jewish refugees. “Seventeen others had refused the million, but the Sharps agreed,” Nicholas Kristof writes in a recent column (“Would You Hide a Jew From the Nazis?”) in The New York Times.
Martha Sharp, in an unpublished memoir, later acknowledged she risked her life in smuggling “prominent Jewish opponents of Nazilism” to safety. The Sharps’ story is the subject of a Ken Burns documentary recently aired on PBS, “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War.”
A grandson of the Sharps “conceived of the film and worked on it with Burns,” Kristof writes. The grandson, Artemis Joukowsky, described some parallels between today’s crisis for refugees from the war in Syria and the tragedy of the 1930s: “The vitriol in public speech, the xenophobia, the accusing of Muslims of all of our problems – these are similar to the anti-Semitism of the 1930s and ‘40s.”
German leader Angela Merkel and Canada’s Justin Trudeau are among the “small number of [today’s] leaders [who] have shown real moral courage on refugees” Kristof writes. “President Obama’s modest willingness to accept 10,000 Syrians has led him to be denounced by Donald Trump.” (Syrians actually admitted total many thousands under 10,000.)
Holocaust survivor Jorge Helft also talked to Kristof. Helft left France as a small boy on a visa provided by Portuguese consul general Aristides de Sousa Mendes. “I remember being on a ship to New York and hearing that some Americans didn’t want to let us in because there were some Nazi spies among us. Yes, there might have been Nazi spies, but a tiny minority.”
Helft also spoke to concerns about spies among Syrian refugees. “Ninety-five percent or more of these people are decent, and they are fleeing from death. So let’s not forget them.”
Senior writer D.G. Schumacher is a member of The Sun News Editorial Board. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.