Against the Odds: American Jews and the Rescue of Jewish Refugees 1933–41

Museum of Jewish Heritage, New York City. Through May 2014, adults $12.

Long before war again engulfed Europe, Jews intent on fleeing Nazi Germany began lining up at consulates, especially American ones. The Nuremberg Laws and pogroms like Kristallnacht ramped their numbers way up. By the end of the 1930s even the most assimilated of Germany’s 214,000 remaining Jews realized the Nazis were hell-bent on eliminating them from their native land.

What happened to them is the subject of Against The Odds, a powerful exhibit that mixes photos, letters, documents, slide and video shows, interactive stations, contemplative music, and creative staging. It recreates the precious human details of the gritty day-to-day behind policy, politics, economics, racism, and fear. Faces and stories bring the increasingly desperate refugees to life. The same happens for the few Americans who tried to help these unfortunates—and for those who, in an isolationist country overwhelmingly in favor of tight immigration quotas, wanted to fence them out.

Enter to confront a “wall” of letter-size paper sheets, which hang ceiling to floor and twirl slightly in your wake. This represents the bureaucratic barriers facing refugees to America—an unsettling metaphor that literally shapes the exhibit, because these “walls” also divide its sections, with names like “A House Divided,” “Shattered,”“Gatekeepers,” and “Trapped.”

Near the entrance, adjacent screens scroll through images of Depression-era America, largely determined to keep out “undesirable” foreigners who might compete for jobs, and 1930s Nazi Germany, where Jews were stripped of civil rights and had their property seized. A wall is covered with documentation America demanded of refugees: visa data, affidavits of support (from character witnesses who certify the refugee will have a job waiting), tax returns, bank statements, birth certificates, even “good conduct” commendations from German police and officials. A projector shines onto a tabletop, rotating images of letters between refugees and their American families, friends, and sponsors, as they grope for solutions to each quandary or delay and try to keep hoping.

Slicing through the paper walls when they could were the few American Jews not cowed by the widespread anti-Semitism stoked by media stars like Father Charles Coughlin. FDR, consistently attacked for having so many Jews in his government, was wary of doing much. So the task fell to individuals. Carl Laemmle Sr., founder of Universal Pictures, wrote repeatedly to Secretary of State Cordell Hull to outline ways to help, plead for individual Jews, or complain about anti-Semitic State Department honchos. In Virginia, businessman William B. Thalhimer Sr. transformed refugees into farmworkers. Unfortunately, these kinds of efforts could help relatively few.

Some American consuls worked overtime to facilitate the process; one sent home for 24 city phone books so refugees could hunt relatives—or anyone sharing a last name who might vouch for them. But most consuls shrugged. In 1938, 22,000 Jews sought visas at Stuttgart; another 40,000 tried at Vienna. The consulates’ quota for all Germany was only a third of their total, and it was never filled.

Turn left at the exit and follow the bright windowed corridor to a large corner room with benches. It overlooks the mouth of New York Harbor, where the Statue of Liberty gleams, a beacon for the “huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” Spare a thought for all those, then and still, who didn’t get to see it.


Originally published in the October 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.