The US and the Holocaust: Some Uncomfortable Truths and Lessons

By Tom Porter
This is such a depressing subject that we should begin with some positives, said Peter Hayes ’68, as he began his talk, titled “The US and the Holocaust.”
peter hayes w audience

Hayes' lecture was keenly anticipated 

“The United States admitted approximately 225,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution between Hitler's accession to power in January 1933 and the end of 1944—the last full year of his rule.” This is more than any other country, he explained.

Hayes, professor emeritus of history and Holocaust studies at Northwestern University, was speaking at Kresge Auditorium on April 27, 2023, as he delivered the inaugural address of the Holocaust Education Lecture Series (sponsored by the Gabry Family Fund).

The number of Jewish refugees admitted to the US during that period was three times the number allowed into Britain and fifty times greater than the total for Canada. Hayes pointed to a number of courageous individuals in the US who made great efforts to rescue Jews threatened with Nazi persecution in Europe. This included members of the clergy, journalists, and many in the Roosevelt administration, including the president himself, who, for example, saved 15,000 European Jews in one act, by simply allowing those who were in the US on tourist visas to stay here indefinitely rather than return home.

Also getting a mention was Albert “Jim” Abrahamson, Bowdoin Class of 1926, who in 1928 became the College’s first Jewish professor, said Hayes. During the war Abrahamson was appointed assistant executive director of the World Refugee Board, which did a lot to save European Jews after its creation in 1944.

hayes introduces abrahamson
Introducing a Bowdoin alum who worked to save Jews during the war

“[Abrahamson] returned to Brunswick after World War II, served as dean of the faculty, taught me and many others, and retired in 1976,” added Hayes, who was among several historians featured in the 2022 PBS documentary series The US and the Holocaust  produced by Ken Burns H’91.  

These positives, said Hayes, are bright spots in a mostly dark history. The story began decades earlier, he explained, with the rise of global anti-Semitism and the xenophobic backlash in the US that occurred as large waves of immigrants—many of them European Jews—started arriving in the late nineteenth century.

As for America’s record during the Holocaust, said Hayes, the 225,000 Jews that the US admitted was a small number compared to the six million killed. Also, he added, “it’s about a hundred thousand fewer than could have come legally from Germany and Austria by... December 1941. And it’s about 300,000 fewer than the number of Jews who had applied for admission and were left on waiting lists.”

Hayes went on to highlight other disappointing facts about US conduct during the Holocaust, such as Washington’s refusal to protest when France’s pro-Nazi Vichy government adopted anti-Semitic laws and began deporting Jews in 1942. Furthermore, he added, as the murderous intentions of the Nazi state toward the Jewish population became increasingly clear, the US State Department suppressed this information for months, reluctant to take such reports seriously.

Watch the lecture:

The problem, explained Hayes, was not President Roosevelt, a man who “by the standards of his day was a liberal,” and far from anti-Semitic, despite what some commentators have said. The issue was public opinion toward the Jewish question, which was “inattentive, indifferent, and sometimes hostile.” At the heart of this, added Hayes, was a lack of empathy among the general American population, which between 1933 and 1945 “was consistently opposed to admitting more Jewish refugees.”

Hayes concluded his lecture with a warning. In recent years, he said, there has been a “new overarching political cleavage across the globe.” The polarization we are seeing today, he added, “is between cosmopolitans—sometimes derided as globalists—and provincials, who prefer to call themselves nationalists; between people oriented toward and benefiting from engagement and cooperation with the wider world, and people primarily interested in protecting their homeland and its people, including from reflecting on their pasts.”

He warned of the resurgence of isolationist voices within the US (“ones that call upon us to take care of our own problems, not Ukraine's”) and the recent growth of violent anti-Semitism. “These developments are not coincidental now, any more than they were in the 1930s and ’40s. The story of the US and the Holocaust is a reminder of our country's split personality and about how hard restraining our dark side has been and will continue to be.”