America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference
The Holocaust was certainly a Jewish tragedy. But it was not only a Jewish tragedy. It was also a Christian tragedy, a tragedy for Western civilization, and a tragedy for all humankind. The killing was done by people, to other people, while still other people stood by.... Yet comparatively few American non-Jews recognized that the plight of the European Jews was their plight too. Most were either unaware, did not care, or saw the European Jewish catastrophe as a Jewish problem, one for Jews to deal with.
That explains, in part, why the United States did so little to help.
The Abandonment of the Jews, David S. Wyman
You will keep a journal for this portion of our unit. Unlike a finished work, a journal documents the process of thinking. Much like history itself, it always awaits further entries. A journal also allows a writer to witness his or her own history and consider the way ideas grow and change.
Part One: Respond to the following questions posed by Berry.
What Do We Do with a Variation?
What do we do with a difference?
Do we stand and discuss its oddity or do we ignore it?
Do we shut our eyes to it or poke it with a stick?
Do we clobber it to death?
Do we move around it in rage and enlist the rage of others?
Do we will it to go away?
Do we look at it in awe or purely in wonderment?
Do we work for it to disappear?
Do we pass it stealthily or change route away from it?
Do we will it to become like ourselves?
What do we do with a difference?
Do we communicate to it?
Let application acknowledge it for barriers to fall down?
Membership and the American Dream
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
With these words, 13 of Britain’s North American colonies declared their independence in
1776 and formed a nation. They then had to decide who belonged and who did not. Would everyone who lived in the new United States be included in the nation? If not, how would citizenship be determined?
The Declaration of Independence voiced the nation’s ideals. Americans acknowledged those ideals in their state constitutions. But no state lived up to all of them. Everywhere, indigenous peoples were viewed as outsiders, as members of separate but inferior nations. African Americans were also left out even though many had fought for the nation’s independence. In 1776, every state permitted slavery. And even free African Americans rarely enjoyed all of the rights of citizenship. Many white Americans did not enjoy all of those rights either. In a few states only Christians could vote or hold office. And every state required that voters and officeholders own property. Yet no woman, no matter how much property she owned, could take part in government. Yet even with these exclusions, the newly independent states offered most Americans more freedom than people had almost anywhere else. Every state protected freedom of speech, press, and religion as well as the right to peacefully assemble and to petition the government to right a wrong. Indeed many Americans in 1787 refused to support a national constitution unless it included a formal listing or “bill” of rights. Therefore soon after the new government was formed, ten amendments were added to the Constitution. Over the years, Americans would use those rights to expand their definition of the citizen to include almost everyone who lives within the nation’s borders.
Who am I? is a question almost everyone asks at one time or another. In answering, we define ourselves. The word define means to separate one thing from all of the others. Nations, like individuals, have an identity. What values and beliefs were central to the nation’s identity in 1776? Which are central today?
Sociologist Kai Erikson has noted that one of the surest ways to “confirm an identity, for communities as well as for individuals, is to find some way of measuring what one is not.” What individuals and groups were not included in the word American in 1776? Who is not included in the word American today? What did it mean to be excluded in 1776? What does it mean today?
Guarded Gates or an Open Door?
In 1876, the United States celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. In honor of the event, the French sent a gift: a huge copper statue that represents liberty. Emma Lazarus, a Jew whose family had lived in the nation for generations, described the statue as:
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her nameMother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome....
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed, to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
In 1903, the year Emma Lazarus’s poem was carved on the base of the Statue of Liberty, nearly one out of every ten Americans was foreign born. A few years earlier, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a Protestant whose family had also lived in the country for generations, responded to those newcomers with his own poem:
Wide open stand our gates
And through them passes a wild motley throng—...
Flying the Old World’s poverty and scorn;
These bringing with them unknown gods and rites,
Those, tiger passions, here to stretch their claws.
In street and alley what strange tongues are these,
Accents of menace alien to our air,
Voices that once the Tower of Babel knew!
O Liberty, white Goddess! Is it well
To leave the Gates unguarded?
Lazarus’s ideals and Aldrich’s fears have both been reflected in the nation’s laws. The United States, like other nations, determines by law who can live within its borders and who among those individuals can become a citizen. Immigration laws exclude, distinguish, and discriminate based on real or imagined differences. From time to time, Congress has considered and reconsidered who could become a citizen. In 1790 Congress passed the nation’s first naturalization act. It welcomed “the worthy part of mankind” to settle in the nation and become citizens. To do so, immigrants had to live in the United States for two years and provide “proof” of good character in court. They also had to be “white.” Nonwhite immigrants could not acquire citizenship. Still their American-born children were citizens by birth. Over the years such laws would be revised many times. The chart on the next page outlines those changes. Notice in particular the restrictions that were in effect in the 1930s and early 1940s—the years
explored in the documentary America and the Holocaust.
How does Emma Lazarus depict the United States? How does she view immigrants? In what respect are Thomas Aldrich’s views similar to those of Lazarus? What differences seem most striking?
Reread James Berry’s poem “What Do You Do with a Variation.” How would Emma
Lazarus and Thomas Aldrich answer the questions he raises? What do the immigration laws suggest about the way Americans answered those questions in 1789? In the1920s? The way it is answered today? Choose one of the laws shown on the chart. Find out why it was passed. What events prompted Congress to change the nation’s immigration policy? What were the effects of that change?
What does it mean to be an American? Collect songs and poems about Americans and America. What qualities do they celebrate? What values do they see as fundamental to the nation?
Look carefully at the quotations that follow. How does each writer define the nation and the American people? Which set of ideas is closest to your own?
• In 1782, Jean de Crevecoeur, a French immigrant, wrote, “He is an American who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds.”
• In the 1850s, Theodore Parker, a Protestant minister of British descent, argued that an
American is someone who believes “not ‘I am as good as you are’ but ‘You are as good as I am.’”
• In the 1920s, Boston mayor James Curley, an Irish American, stated, “All of us under the Constitution are guaranteed equality, without regard to race, creed, or color. If the Jew is barred today, the Italian will be tomorrow, then the Spaniard and Pole, and at some future date the Irish.
In 1939, newspaper columnist Dorothy Thompson, the daughter of an English immigrant wrote:
George Washington was only born in this country because his grandfather was a political refugee. William Penn fled to this country from the prisons of England, where his fight for freedom of conscience... kept him continually locked in various jails. Thomas Paine may be called the original author of the Declaration of Independence, and he was twice a refugee of this country—once from the conservatism of England and once from the terror of the French Revolution. Woodrow Wilson’s forebears were religious refugees from Ireland; the LaFollette family were Huguenot refugees; the Middle West was settled to its great advantage by many Forty-Eighters [refugees from the Revolution of 1848 in
Germany], and among those Forty-Eighters was the father of Justice [Louis] Brandeis and the father of Adolph Ochs [the publisher of The New York Times].
• In 1949, Langston Hughes, a noted African American poet, wrote:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me.
And yet I swear this other—
America will be!
• In 1979, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a Jewish immigrant from Nazi Germany, wrote:
When I was a boy [the United States] was a dream, an incredible place where tolerance was natural and personal freedom unchallenged. Even when I learned later that America, too, had massive problems, I could never forget what an inspiration it had been to the victims of persecution, to my family, and to me during cruel and degrading years.