The other day I wrote about the heroic efforts of two Americans - Varian Fry and Dorothy Thompson - to save the lives of German writers from falling into the hands of the Nazis and Nazi-sympathizers during the Third Reich. The fact is that both Fry and Thompson faced two formidable opponents in obtaining safe passage to America for these writers. On the one hand, they had to bribe, cajole, threaten or deceive the Nazis and their vassals in Vichy France and elsewhere to get transit visas and other documentation to allow these artists, writers, musicians, etc. to leave. On the other, they had to contend with often hostile, suspicious and recalcitrant American officials who wanted at all cost to prevent "Jewish riff-raff" from arriving onto American shores.
Here are three authors who tried to emigrate to America but were denied entry:
Netty Reiling, a.k.a. Mrs Netty Radvanyi, alias Anna Seghers arrived in New York harbor on June 16, 1941 seeking asylum in the United States. As a left-wing "intellectual" and a Jew she was doubly in danger of being detained, imprisoned, and most likely murdered by the Nazis. Unfortunately, Anna Seghers never made it off Ellis Island. The FBI had been alerted via an anonymous letter that Anna Seghers and her husband were "comouflaged Communist agents." This was the beginning of the anti-communist hysteria in the United States; this, despite the fact that the Soviet Union was ostensibly an ally in the war already raging in Europe. Anna Seghers and her family were forced to continue on to Mexico, where supporters of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War were welcome. Unbelievably, J. Edgar Hoover took a special interest in Anna Seghers and deployed resources in Mexico to spy on the writer and her husband. Her FBI dossier contains more than 1000 pages.
What makes the story even more absurd is that while on Ellis Island signed a contract with an American publisher for a translation of her novel Das siebte Kreuz. The Seventh Cross became a monster best-seller in the US and was made into a Hollywood feature film starring Spencer Tracy.
In Mexico Anna Seghers continued writing novels and fiction, including her greatest story, Der Ausflug der toten Mädchen.
The FBI also closely monitored the activities of other German exiles in Mexico, including Ludwig Renn, Egon Ervin Kisch, and Bodo Uhse. (For complete information, see Alexander Stephan, "Communazis" : FBI Surveillance of German Emigre Writers)
The poet and archeologist Erwin Walter Palm and his wife Hilde - both Jews - left Germany already in 1932, sensing the rising anti-Semitism. Their first stop was Italy, where Hilde earned a doctorate at the University of Florence. After Hitler visited Mussolini in 1939 they fled to England. When war broke out the couple was desperate to find asylum in the United States. By then, immigration rules were changing — and attitudes in the United States toward immigrants from Europe were becoming increasingly suspicious. The American government was making it harder for foreigners to get into the country.By early 1939, more than 300,000 names were on the waiting list to receive an immigration visa to the United States. American consulates changed their protocol and weren't granting visas unless transportation to the United States had been booked. By June 1941, most U.S. consulates in German-occupied territories had shuttered or were closing. In July 1941, a new division within the U.S. State Department took over visa pre-screening, meaning those in the United States would need to fill out new affidavits on behalf of potential immigrants. The situation for the Palms was impossible.
While the door was shutting for Jewish refugees in the United States, the Dominican Republic became the only country that offered asylum to refugees from Nazi Germany. Rafael Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic, was ready to provide a place to escape from Nazi persecution to one hundred thousand Jewish refugees. This was a very generous offer, given that the population of the Dominican Republic was just 1.6 million. Trujillo hoped that his actions would please Roosevelt.
The Palms arrived in Santo Domingo in 1940 and stayed for 14 years. There, Hilde found her voice as a poet and took her adopted country as her new name Hilde Domin - the great poet of exile, and -later - of homecoming.
Anne Frank was just starting out as a writer when she and her family were arrested and transported to Auschwitz. Her diary has since been translated into 67 languages and over 31 million copies have been sold - more than the combined sales of the work all other German emigre writers. Recently some letters from her father - Otto Frank - were discovered which show that by 1941 he was desperately seeking asylum for his family in the United States:
By 1941, the Frank family had already relocated from Germany to the Netherlands where, just a few years earlier, Otto Frank applied for visas to the United States — applications that were eventually destroyed, Frank wrote in a letter to his old college friend in the United States, Nathan Straus Jr.
"I am forced to look out for emigration and as far as I can see U.S.A. is the only country we could go to," Frank wrote on April 30, 1941. "Perhaps you remember that we have two girls. It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for. Our own fate is of less importance."
Otto Frank's American friend - Nathan Strauss - was very well connected as the son of a co-owner of Macy's Department Store. But neither Strauss nor his wife were successful in obtaining visas for the Frank family.
"Ultimately, powerful connections and money were not enough to enable the Franks, not to mention most other European Jews, to break through the State Department’s tightening restrictions. By the summer of 1942, the Franks were forced into hiding. They remained in the secret annex for two years before being turned in, probably by the same courier who initially may have tried to blackmail them. As schoolchildren around the world know, the story ends with the death in concentration camps of 15-year-old Anne, her sister Margot and her mother, Edith, and the publication of Anne’s diary, now a literary and historical landmark that personalizes the Holocaust’s immeasurable loss."
Anne Frank was just one of thousands of Jewish refugees who were denied asylum in America during WWII. They were kept out by a successful campaign of fear, anti-Semitism, and general xenophobia. Most of them met the same fate as Anne in the Nazi death camps. To be clear, the guilt and responsibility for their murder belongs to the Nazis and the millions of Germans who supported the policy of annihilation of all European Jews. Still, this episode is a black mark on American history for more - much more - could have been done to save these desperate people.