Immigration and Anne Frank
Desperate to escape Nazi persecution during World War II, Anne Frank’s family tried repeatedly to flee to[IT1] the United States before going into hiding in 1942…However, the combination of Nazi rule, World War II bombing and American Waitlists, bombings and restrictive U.S. immigration policies thwarted their chances.
The United States has long been a haven for refugees escaping threatening conditions in their home countries. This was true of refugees in Hungary after failing to throw off Soviet Rule, Cuban refugees trying to escape Fidel Castro’s regime, and Asian refugees during the Vietnam War.
In 2019 there is a Central American Refugee Crisis with parts of Central America (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) previously described as “some of the most dangerous places on earth.” I have already shared that the President has already lumped all of these refugees into a few small categories: illegal immigrants, illegal aliens, thugs, and fakers (faking suffering in their home countries).
As harsh as President Trump’s comments are, they are not unique from a historical vantage point. At various points in history, American leaders have looked at refugees with distrust. The impact is that refugees have had to extend their stay in crisis conditions until they could gain entry, or they, like Anne Frank’s family, have been denied entry altogether.
All of us know the story of Anne Frank. However, how many of us knew that American distrust of Jewish refugees trying to escape Nazi persecution helped contribute to her death? Anne Frank’s case highlights the difficulty of ensuring the security of American borders while balancing the need to help assist those in crisis around the world. Here’s the historical account of her father’s failed attempts to find safety in the United States before the start of World War II:
“The United States had no specific refugee policy prior to World War II,” write Rebecca Erbelding and Gertjan Broek, authors of research jointly published by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. “Those seeking to escape Nazi persecution in Europe, like the families of Otto Frank and Hermann van Pels, had to clear the same bureaucratic hurdles as other immigrants.” The van Pels family hid from the Nazis in the same Amsterdam attic as the Franks.
The Frank and van Pels families were living in the Netherlands when they applied to emigrate in the late 1930s. Because they had been born in Germany, all of the family members were German nationals at a time when the annual U.S. quota for German immigration was just under 26,000. But there was a huge waiting list to join that group, and the application process required a number of documents that, for persecuted Jewish people, were difficult—if not impossible—to obtain.
A letter from Anne Frank’s father Otto reveals that he first applied for U.S. immigration visas as early as 1938, the year that Germany annexed Austria and Nazis terrorized Jewish citizens during Kristallnacht. At the time, many other Jewish families were trying to flee to the U.S., as well…
A letter from Otto Frank written on April 30, 1941 is the only surviving evidence that he applied for U.S. visas. As he wrote in his letter, his family still languished on the waiting list, which was kept at the American consulate in Rotterdam, when German bombing destroyed all of the consulate’s papers on May 14, 1940.
There’s no evidence that Otto Frank brought his receipt to the Rotterdam consulate and refreshed his family’s place on the German waiting list. “We do not know whether Otto had already submitted any of his family’s documents to the consulate — official birth certificates, military papers or financial documents ,” write the authors, “but if he had, they were all destroyed in the bombing. He would need to collect them again.”
Soon after Frank wrote his letter about the destruction of his family’s immigration applications, the U.S. and Germany made it even harder for Jewish Germans to immigrate to America. In the same way that unfounded U.S. suspicion of Japanese Americans led to internment camps, unsubstantiated paranoia about German spies led to discrimination against Jewish-German immigrants.
The authors point out that a Gallup poll conducted in June 1940 revealed that 71% of respondents believed the Nazis had already established a network of spies and saboteurs in the United States. “FDR had warned that even Jewish refugees could be ‘spying under compulsion’ to save the lives of family members held hostage in Nazi Germany,” write Erbelding and Broek.
A document discovered in the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research archives showing efforts by Anne Frank’s father, Otto Frank, to get his family out of Nazi-occupied Netherlands. (Credit: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)
In this context, the authors say, national security concerns superseded humanitarian ones. On July 1, 1941, the State Department made “applicants with close relatives remaining in German-occupied countries” ineligible for visas. The U.S. also increased the number of federal departments that had to approve visa applications, amplifying the red tape. Around the same time, the Germans also closed all American consulates in Nazi-occupied territory, completely cutting off a direct immigration path to the U.S.
After this, Otto Frank tried to take his family to the U.S. via a more circuitous route: through Cuba. His attempt to immigrate there hit a major roadblock when on November 25th, all German Jews living outside Germany were officially stripped of their nationality. “Since the Frank family had never become Dutch citizens,” Erbelding and Broek write, “they were now officially stateless.”
Cuba cancelled Otto Frank’s immigration application a few days after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. By July 1942 it was clear that Otto’s efforts to get to the U.S. would not succeed in time to avoid Nazi genocidal policies.
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