“I could scarcely believe that such a thing could occur in a 20th-century civilization,” President Franklin Roosevelt declared in the wake of the Nazis’ Kristallnacht pogrom, which devastated the German Jewish community 75 years ago this week.
Most Americans, like their president, were appalled to read of Nazi storm troopers burning down hundreds of synagogues, ransacking thousands of Jewish-owned businesses, murdering some 100 Jews and hauling 30,000 more off to concentration camps on Nov. 9-10, 1938. In the days following the pogrom, three American editorial cartoonists would try to channel the public’s sympathy for the victims into concrete steps to help German Jewry.
In response to Kristallnacht, President Roosevelt recalled the U.S. ambassador from Germany for “consultations” and extended the visitors’ visas of the approximately 12,000 German Jewish refugees who were then in the United States. But at the same time, FDR announced that liberalization of America’s tight immigration quotas was “not in contemplation.”
In the wake of Kristallnacht, humanitarian-minded members of Congress introduced legislation to aid German Jewry. The Wagner-Rogers bill proposed the admission of 20,000 German refugee children outside the quotas. Nativist and isolationist groups vociferously opposed the Wagner-Rogers bill.
Typical of the opposition’s perspective was a remark by FDR’s cousin, Laura Delano Houghteling, who was the wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration. She warned that “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”
An appeal to FDR by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to support Wagner-Rogers fell on deaf ears. Mindful of polls showing most Americans opposed to immigration, Roosevelt preferred to follow public opinion rather than lead it.
Ironically, when Pets Magazine the following year launched a campaign to have Americans take in pure-bred British puppies so they would not be harmed by German bombing raids, the magazine was flooded with several thousand offers of haven for the dogs.
Most American editorial cartoonists, like most Americans, exhibited little interest in the plight of Germany’s Jews. But there were exceptions. A handful of cartoonists used their platforms not only to express sympathy for the refugees but also to call for practical steps to help them.
Six days after Kristallnacht, Paul Carmack, staff cartoonist for the Christian Science Monitor, drew a cartoon titled “The Best Answer to Race Persecution.” It showed a large hand, labeled “Humanity,” handing a document titled “Assistance” to a crowd of Jewish refugees.
Five days later, the Christian Science Monitor published another editorial cartoon, by J. Parker Robinson. It showed a mass of people, labeled “Jews,” marching past a sign pointing to “Exile,” with a giant question mark looming over the horizon. He titled the cartoon “Wanted: A Christian Answer.” The question was the fate of the Jews; the answer, the cartoonist insisted, was for Christians to accept their moral responsibility to help the downtrodden.
Meanwhile, in the Chicago Daily News, staff cartoonist Cecil Jensen drew a group of Jewish refugees on a large rock, surrounded by turbulent ocean waves. They can see, in the distance, a 17th century–style ship, labeled “World Rescue Efforts.” Whether the ship would save the refugees is unclear. Jensen titled the cartoon “Mayflower,” invoking America’s own powerful history as a safe haven from religious persecution.
Sadly, few Americans heeded the appeals of Carmack, Robinson and Jensen. When a “Mayflower” ship called the St. Louis approached America’s shores just a few months later, President Roosevelt turned it away.
The Roosevelt administration’s muted reaction to Kristallnacht foreshadowed the terrible silence with which it would greet the Nazis’ Final Solution.
Rafael Medoff is founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. This feature is adapted from his forthcoming book, “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust,” co-authored with Craig Yoe.