The Manhattan Project

Rebecca Erbelding's Interview

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Rebecca Erbelding

Dr. Rebecca Erbelding is a historian of American responses to the Holocaust. Erbelding is the author of the book, "Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe," and is currently an archivist and curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In this interview, Erbelding describes the challenges and difficult decisions that thousands of Jews faced when trying to immigrate from Nazi-occupied Europe to the United States, such as U.S. immigration laws and quotas, as well as financial and wartime barriers. She describes the similarities and differences between American immigration debates during World War II and in America today. She also explains the experiences and challenges of Jews living in wartime France, and how the Holocaust and immigration processes and policies affected Manhattan Project scientists.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
December 22, 2017
Location of the Interview: 
Washington
Transcript: 

Alexandra Levy: We’re here in Washington, D.C. on December 22, 2017, with Dr. Rebecca Erbelding. My first question for you is to please say your name and spell it.

Rebecca Erbelding: My name is Rebecca Erbelding. R-E-B-E-C-C-A E-R-B-E-L-D-I-N-G.

Levy: Great. If you could just tell us a little bit about yourself and your career, including your current work at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and your forthcoming book.

Erbelding: I am an archivist and curator and now a historian at the Holocaust Museum. I started with the museum in 2002, became a full-time staff member in 2003, and was working in the archives to work with families and survivors who had material that they wanted to donate to the museum. I was the paper specialist. I would take in collections ranging from a photo to the personal papers of some major figure.

In 2015, I finished my PhD. That was around the time that the museum was putting together our next major exhibit, which will open in April, on Americans and the Holocaust. My doctoral dissertation was on American rescue efforts during the war. As a specialist, I moved over to be a historian on that project. For the past three years, I’ve been working as a historian putting together material for the museum’s website, and historical material for our forthcoming exhibit.

I have a book coming out. It is a separate thing from my museum work. I fixed up my doctoral dissertation. That book is entitled Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe. It is on the history of the War Refugee Board, which is a little-known agency that FDR [Franklin D. Roosevelt] created in 1944, and tasked with trying to figure out way to rescue Jews in Europe.

They opened a refugee camp in upstate New York. They hired and funded Raoul Wallenberg for his work in Budapest. They basically took over most of the humanitarian aid that the United States was trying to do at the time, and started all of these new projects. We’ve kind of completely forgotten about this one moment in which the U.S. is trying to save Jews. That book will come out on April 10th with Doubleday.  

Levy: Wonderful. We’re looking forward to reading it. We want to have you talk about the history of World War II and the Jewish refugees. I guess the first very general question is to talk a little bit about why Jews and people of Jewish descent wanted to leave Europe because of persecution in the 1930s.

Erbelding: What we would call the refugee crisis and the persecution of the Jews really spreads throughout the 1930s. When we’re talking about Jewish refugees in 1933, 1934, and 1935, we’re talking about German Jews. We’re talking about a small percentage of the German population. But one that Hitler, as soon as he came to power in January 1933, started targeting almost immediately.

In the spring of 1933, even American newspapers are reporting daily on attacks on German Jews in the streets, boycotts, and book burnings. By 1935, German Jews had lost their citizenship. They were kicked out of the public service. They couldn’t teach non-Jewish students. If they were a doctor, they couldn’t help non-Jewish patients. Slowly, slowly—well, quickly, and then also slowly, the Nazi party really makes life unbearable for German Jews.

By 1938, Germany has taken over Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia. In 1939, it takes over all of Czechoslovakia. Then the war begins with Poland in September 1939.

This movement of Jews being threatened really expands, so that by 1941 it’s almost all of Europe. Jews are being threatened, and these same laws that started in the early 1930s in Germany have really spread almost across the continent.

Levy: Why was it so difficult for Jews who wanted to leave first Germany and then greater Europe to immigrate to the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s? What barriers were put up by the U.S. and other countries?

Erbelding: To understand why it was so difficult for Jews to leave Germany and Europe, you need to step back and understand the U.S. immigration law at the time. At the time, and really from 1924 until 1965, the U.S. is operating under the same law. There is no new law in the 1930s to keep Jews out, or to welcome Jews into the U.S. They are only operating under this 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act.

What that Act did was set quotas for each country for people born in those countries. If you were born in Germany, you fell under the German quota. There was a set number of spots for people born in Germany who could immigrate to the U.S. in a given year.

For most of the 1920s, the quotas were filled. It capped all immigration at about 155,000 people per year, total, throughout the world. But Germany, for example, had the second highest quota of any country in the world. Germans were considered “good” immigrants. We wanted immigrants from Germany. We wanted immigrants from Great Britain. We did not want immigrants from Eastern Europe, however.

Romania had a quota of 377. Three hundred seventy-seven people born in Romania could come in a year. Many countries had quotas of 100, or even 50 for the Philippines. Some areas of Asia, you could not immigrate at all, if you were born in those countries, to the United States.

Those are the barriers that are in place, and those are what German Jews who are being threatened in the 1930s are coming up against. There are, until 1938, 25,957 slots. If you are one of the lucky almost 26,000, you can come to the U.S. If you are among the many other hundreds of thousands of people who want to immigrate, you are waiting in a very long line.

In 1938, Roosevelt combines the German and Austria quota once Germany takes over Austria. But that still only puts a cap at 27,370. That is the amount of slots that there are. There is no public appetite to make them any larger. Americans are asked in a poll in January 1939: would they support someone in Congress who wanted to raise the immigration quotas, who wanted to enlarge them? And 83% of Americans said no, they would not support their congressperson to open any immigration any further.

A big part of that is the Great Depression. As I said, the quotas were mainly filled through the 1920s. Starting in 1931, President [Herbert] Hoover put in place what was called the “Likely to Become a Public Charge” clause. From that moment on, if you wanted to come to the U.S., you either needed to have a job already waiting for you there, a financial sponsor in the United States who would guarantee your support, or you had to be independently wealthy enough to support yourself indefinitely once you came. Those financial strictures really kept out a lot of people, who didn’t have American relatives, and didn’t have the type of work that allowed them to be able to get a job once they got here.

There were many economic barriers. There’s numeric barriers. There’s paperwork barriers. You had to gather a lot of different kinds of paperwork: a ship ticket, before you could get your visa. Everything had to be done in a specific order. It was all costly. It all had to be done correctly. It all had expiration dates.

You had to navigate this very difficult bureaucratic system. This is a system in which, as part of your German paperwork, you had to enumerate all of your assets and then turn over something like 70, 80% of them. You had to liquidate everything. Your entire net worth, Nazi Germany would seize most of it. Finding a place that would take you was difficult because you're being stripped of any wealth that you had, so you were likely to become a public charge once you got to your new country.

When the refugee crisis really kicks off in 1938 and 1939, and after 1939, there’s 300,000 people on the waiting list for Germany. It’s something like almost an eleven-year wait, if you want to come from Germany after a certain point. South American countries shut down their borders entirely to Jewish immigrants. They say, “Jewish immigrants are businessmen. We don’t want them to compete with our businesspeople. If they want to come as farmers, maybe they can come as farmers.” For most people, they could not qualify. They didn’t have any experience in agriculture. 

It’s kind of amazing that between 1938 and 1941, there are over 111,000 Jews who do make it to the U.S., who are able to go through that bureaucratic maze and are on the waiting list long enough and their paperwork comes up and they’ve got their American sponsor, or enough money to show that they don’t need one. It’s amazing that so many people actually did navigate the system. 

Because I think so many people think that in 1939, the U.S. just outlawed Jewish immigration, and religion never really played a part in it. It plays a part in 1924, when they’re setting up the quotas, because they’re trying to keep out “undesirable” immigrants. And Jews are “undesirable” immigrants at the time. So countries with large Jewish populations have smaller quotas. They didn’t expect that the “problem” would come from Germany. They didn’t expect that German Jews would need to get out.

Levy: Can you talk a little bit about the War Refugee Board’s role in helping Jews escape Europe?

Erbelding: The War Refugee Board isn’t created until 1944. By that point, it’s very difficult for people to get out, almost impossible. People are trying to get out of Lisbon. That’s really the only port at that point where you can actually escape. Most of the War Refugee Board’s work is actually fairly irrelevant to the issue of refugee scientists coming, or refugees as a whole.

They’re called the War Refugee Board because the U.S. at the time—there’s no refugee status. You are coming as an immigrant. There is no political asylum. You can’t come as a refugee. That status does not exist until after World War II. The U.S. at the time called “refugees” anyone who wanted to get out, anyone with whom the U.S., after the War Refugee Board is founded, is trying to help. They talk very openly about refugees in concentration camps, which seems weird to us now. We talk about prisoners in concentration camps. But anybody that they were trying to help was a “refugee.” The word kind of doesn’t translate in the same way.

The board isn’t so active in getting people physically out, other than they get them out of Spain, so that Spain will allow more Jews to cross over from France at the time. They open a refugee camp in North Africa, and shuttle refugees who are living in Spain down to North Africa, so that the Spanish government was more willing to let more people in. That’s the kind of work that the War Refugee Board is doing, but I think it’s a little bit later than the period of the refugee crisis for sure. 

Levy: How successful was the War Refugee Board?

Erbelding: It’s really hard to put a number on it. So much of their work was helping the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] who were in place in Europe already. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee had a whole network of underground agents and operatives in occupied territory, in neutral territory.

A lot of what the Board was doing was facilitating their work, so that they could get relief money where it was needed and to the projects that needed to happen. They cleared communications. They cleared permission to send money into enemy territory, cutting lots of bureaucratic red tape in the States and in Great Britain to allow all of this to happen. Even if Nazi Germany seized the money, they figured, “We’re winning the war. It’s worth it to try to help people.”

They claimed after the war—and I think this is probably right—that they saved tens of thousands of people and helped hundreds of thousands more. I think the stories bear that out, the statistics that I found bear that out. Some historians say 200,000. That feels very high to me. If you believe 200,000, then you’re crediting them with saving the entire surviving Jewish community of Budapest, which was the largest and last intact community. I don’t think you can credit the Americans far across the sea necessarily with saving the Jews in Budapest directly. They certainly have a role in it, but there’s so many factors in play that I think you’re very safe with 10,000 to 20,000.

Levy: Can you discuss a little bit the stances of President Roosevelt and the State Department toward the Jews who were trying to flee Europe?

Erbelding: Roosevelt’s stance towards Jewish refugees really evolves over time. I think I would classify it as, he took significant but limited measures. Roosevelt is a consummate politician, first, last, and always. Everything he is doing has political calculations. He is in and with an American population that does not want increased immigration.

He does small things. He makes the Likely to Become a Public Charge Clause less strict. He asks the State Department to interpret it much more loosely. He merges the Austrian and German quota, rather than getting rid of the Austrian quota when Austria no longer exists.

In the wake of Kristallnacht—the attacks in November 1938 against Jewish synagogues and businesses, when 30,000 Jewish men are arrested in one evening—he recalls the U.S. ambassador, as a sign of protest. The U.S. is the only country to recall its ambassador as a protest to Nazi Germany. We don’t have an ambassador there until after World War II again.

These are small measures, but they’re significant. After Kristallnacht too, he invites Germans—mainly Jews, who are in the U.S. on visitor’s visas as tourists and people who were coming to try to find a job, so that they could them immigrate with their families—he tells them that they can stay. He tells reporters that he can’t with good conscience send them back to Germany. That’s 12,000 to 15,000 people who are allowed to stay because the President decided so.

At the same time, he doesn’t make public stances in favor of increasing immigration. From the time the war begins in September 1939 to U.S. involvement in December 1941, he really spends his political capital trying to get the U.S. prepared for war, and not to increase immigration, or to try to bring over more Jewish refugees. Even though Eleanor [Roosevelt] is always trying to get him to do so, he does not.

The State Department has been, I think, publically brushed with one stroke. There’s a story of the State Department being such an anti-Semitic organization at the time. The State Department is really a conservative organization, little “c” conservative.” The rest of Washington changes with the New Deal. The State Department really doesn’t. It’s in the Eisenhower Executive Building downtown and it’s a very old, fussy, Victorian building. In the ‘30s, it was filled with very old, fussy, Victorian men, all white.

They really saw themselves largely—there are certainly exceptions, there are American diplomats who are risking their lives to try to help people. But for the State Department in Washington, the visa division in particular, they see themselves as the bulwarks of national security. They are going to make sure that no one comes into this country who is a security threat.

Once the war begins, there are all of these rumors floating around, and most people believe them. J. Edgar Hoover is writing propaganda encouraging people to believe these rumors that there are Nazi spies and saboteurs coming in to the country. That’s true. There are. There’s an enormous spy ring trial in 1942. They are not coming in as Jewish refugees. There’s only one case of a Jewish refugee who becomes a spy.

But even Roosevelt talks about these potential “slave spies,” they called them—Jewish refugees who would come to the U.S. and commit acts of spying and sabotage in exchange for the lives of their loved ones back in Europe. They thought that the Germans were holding families hostage in exchange for spying and sabotage in the U.S.

The State Department put in additional restrictions in the name of national security. They wanted more paperwork. They wanted an interdepartmental visa review committee at one point, so all visa applications had to be reviewed in Washington before they could be approved back in Europe. All of that slowed things for people who were desperately trying to get out. The State Department certainly by and large did not help the matter.

At the same time, as the refugee crisis is going, they are actually filling the quotas. More than 80% of total immigration to the U.S. in 1940 is coming from Nazi-occupied countries. In 1939 and 1940 more than 50% of all immigration are Jewish refugees.

Levy: Can you talk about the refugee scientists who fled Europe, many of whom went on to work on the Manhattan Project, and the contributions they made? Was the U.S. more likely to accept European scientists and intellectuals, or was that not considered at all in the visa process?

Erbelding: What I’ve described is the quota immigration process. There’s a separate process that’s called a Non-Quota Visa, which doesn’t have a numerical limit. It was very difficult to get. At the max, there are maybe 10 to 12,000 people a year worldwide who would get one of these Non-Quota Visas. They’re set aside for college professors, for rabbis and religious leaders, for teachers, for people who would make a significant contribution to the U.S.

The problem for refugee scientists is, a lot of the people who were working on the Manhattan Project were not professors. They were working in labs. They were not teachers. The majority of the scientists that the Atomic Heritage Foundation has identified as refugee scientists who contributed to the Manhattan Project came in as quota immigrants. They were not put in any different line than anybody else.  

I was looking at some of the shipping manifests that show their quota numbers. You can tell a lot from that. Enrico Fermi, who came in 1933, came as a quota immigrant from Italy. That year actually was the lowest number of total immigration ever in American history, since we started recording immigration. There were 8,220 immigrants to the U.S. that year. Fermi was one of them and he came as a regular immigrant passing through the same paperwork as everybody else. [Note: Fermi came to the US in 1933 for the physics conferences in Ann Arbor under an immigrant visa, and went back to Italy in the fall. He and his family immigrated to the US in 1938-1939, after he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. He became a U.S. citizen in 1944.]

The scientists may have had some success because they could show that they had been successful in their previous country. The State Department might have been swayed that they could also be successful in the U.S., even if they didn’t necessarily have a job lined up. If you had a prominent sponsor or you had letters of recommendation, even if you didn’t have a position, that could hold some sway.

Peter Lax, who is coming from Hungary, and is one of only several hundred immigrants who came that year. He was a teenager at the time, and Hungary had also a very small quota. I can’t remember what it is off the top of my head, but it’s less than 1,000. His quota number is 102. He was the 102nd person getting a quota visa. He arrives in the U.S. right after Pearl Harbor on the Excalibur. That is a very difficult ship to get a ship ticket for.

From 1939 to 1940, it becomes increasingly difficult to leave Europe. For all the paperwork reasons that I mentioned, but also because Europe is now at war. As soon as the War begins, ports begin to shut down. You can’t leave suddenly out of Danzig. You can’t leave out of Bremen or Hamburg or Amsterdam or Rotterdam, or any of the other Western European cities. By 1941, you can really only leave out of Lisbon.

His [Peter’s] family made it through a war zone from Hungary to Lisbon to get their ship ticket on the Excalibur. They had to show that they had a ticket before they left. They’re making an enormous risk. Purchasing ship tickets for a ship that is leaving across the continent, and then assuming that they can make it there in time, and that they have all of their exit and entry paperwork for each country that they’re going to go through to actually make it on the ship.

The Excalibur, there’s only a handful of ships that are going across the Atlantic at the time, about one a week. They were incredibly lucky to make it. He didn’t come with any special scientist visa or non-quota visa. He’s coming under all of the very difficult paperwork restrictions that I mentioned earlier.

Levy: Can you just provide a very brief overview of the Holocaust, to describe the fate of those that the U.S. and other countries were not able to take in, or turned away?

Erbelding: The Holocaust is the state-sponsored massacre of Jews in Europe. It started really in the summer of 1941. Nazi Germany invades the Soviet Union in June 1941. Behind the military troops, there are killing squads that come behind and really start rounding up towns, taking the Jews of the town out to fields or forests, and shooting them en masse. The beginning of the Holocaust is really what we call the “holocaust by bullets.”

Now, there had been ghettos before. There had been internment camps and concentration camps. There were concentration camps starting in 1933. But Nazi Germany doesn’t turn to a systematic mass murder really until 1941.

In January 1942, they codify it in the Wannsee Conference. They talk about how they’re going to implement the Final Solution, and the bureaucratic details involved in getting the trains to the right places and sending them to the killing centers. They set up killing centers throughout Europe. The first killing center opens around [the time of] Pearl Harbor.

Throughout 1942, 1943, 1944, systematically Nazi Germany has taken over, but targets a population in one of the countries that they’re occupying, or an area. The way that it usually goes is, they will sequester the Jews in some sort of ghetto or camp, and then at some point deport them, usually to Nazi-occupied Poland, where all of the killing centers were set up.

Between 1941 and 1944, when the Allies land on D-Day, five million Jews have already been killed. And then by the time the camps are liberated in early 1945, we’re up to nearly six million.

The Americans never encounter the killing centers. The Americans and the Western Allies, Britain and the U.S., encounter concentration camps where there is massive death, largely from disease. But the Soviet Union liberates the extant killing centers. There are some that the Nazis had shut down due to prisoner revolts and fear that the Soviets would discover the camps, so they would raze them and replant over them.

There’s a public understanding that Americans either knew everything and didn’t do anything about the Holocaust, or they knew nothing and didn’t do anything about the Holocaust. A few years ago, the Holocaust Museum decided to test that. We started a History Unfolded project asking Americans to go into their local newspapers. We gave them a range of dates. “Go into your local newspaper, photograph any articles that you find related to Kristallnacht, or book burning, or the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, and send those articles to us.” Thus far, we have over 12,000 submissions from every state.

Most towns and colleges reported on this. This was an age in which people read the newspaper, and people read magazines. By and large, Americans had access to this information. By the time the Holocaust begins, the U.S. is involved in the war or about to be involved in the war. War news tends to dominate Americans’ thinking. Women are going back to work. Husbands and fathers are going off to war. There’s rationing. It’s a war economy. That tends to suck up a lot of the noise for Americans, that’s what they’re paying attention to.

But from 1942 on, Americans could read very accurate information that said, The Nazis are taking Jews. They’re deporting them to the East, and killing them in large numbers there.” Americans may or may not have believed this. There is some polling data that in 1943 only about 50% of Americans believed that the Nazis were killing Jews in large numbers. That’s really a holdover from atrocity rumors from World War I that Americans believed were false, or had been false. That that had all been propaganda, and it might be propaganda now, is what they’re thinking.

Americans have a lot of information. They’re not necessarily paying attention to it. They’re not necessarily believing it. By 1944, it’s kind of a fact that this is happening, and many more Americans start to believe. But they also don’t think that there’s anything Americans can do about it, in terms of mass rescue, that the quickest way to end the Holocaust is to end the war as soon as possible. It was called “Rescue Through Victory.”

That’s largely true. There wasn’t a lot Americans could do to rescue people more broadly. A lot of what could have been done to bring in more people and save more people is to open immigration earlier and in larger numbers. We’ve talked about why that wasn’t possible.

So Americans have a lot of information. It doesn’t necessarily change behavior, and after a certain point, can’t change behavior, unfortunately.

Levy: Can you talk a little bit about how the Holocaust affected individual Manhattan Project scientists? For example, several scientists lost family members in the Holocaust.

Erbelding: They certainly had to leave Europe, and that is an incredibly disruptive experience. To have a community, to have intellectual acquaintances and colleagues that you’re working closely with and you are the one who has to flee. And sometimes flee with nothing, leaving behind loved ones, leaving behind family members.

Then coming to a new country, learning the language, meeting new colleagues, worrying about family that are still abroad, and then after a certain point, not hearing from them again. Trying to focus on very important war work, when you have loved ones that you haven’t heard from in two years and you start hearing rumors that there’s mass atrocities going on. It had to certainly weigh on them as they were trying to win the war. And no doubt for some of them, they’re working even harder to win the war as soon as possible in the hopes of trying to save their loved ones.

Levy: If you could talk a little bit about the situation of Jews in France before and after the war began, and how it changed?

Erbelding: France gets a massive population surge in 1933 as German Jews escape over the border. German Jews who are worried about the situation in Germany right after the Nazis take power but don’t want to go too far, they don’t apply for American visas. They go to France, they go to the Netherlands, they go to Belgium.

The French Jewish population grows rapidly in the 1930s. Most of those people, though, people who escape into France, don’t take out French citizenship. By 1939, there’s about 350,000 Jews in France. Fewer than half of them are citizens.

In May 1941, Nazi Germany invades France and quickly defeats it. France is defeated in about six weeks. It is split into two zones. There is the occupied zone in the north, which includes Paris, and there’s the unoccupied Vichy France zone in the south. Vichy France is centered in Vichy. It is allied with Nazi Germany. The Vichy government agrees that they will turn over anyone the Germans want, at any time, who are living in that area.

For German Jews who escaped to France to escape the Nazis, they’re suddenly under occupation again. And frankly, whether they’re in the north or the south, they’re under threat. Jews are rounded up in the north. They’re rounded up in the south, too, especially if they are not French citizens.

Starting in 1939 and 1940, foreign Jews are interned in southern France. They’re sent to Gurs and Rivesaltes and Les Milles internment camps under fairly horrific circumstances that are run by the French collaborators in southern France. If you were a foreign Jew who was still trying to get to the United States, you are now trying to put your paperwork together from inside the internment camp, which is very, very difficult.

Levy: How many Jews were killed in the Holocaust—how many French Jews, I should say.

Erbelding: French Jews is difficult, because do we mean Jews in France, or do we mean French Jews? Overwhelmingly, French Jews, French-born Jews, survive. The Nazis and the French deport foreign Jews living in France, some of whom had been there since the early 1930s. [let me check my notes] 350,000 Jews are in France in 1939. 77,000 of them are deported and killed. More than that are deported who survive, but since most of the deportations from France are in 1942, they would have had to survive three years in a concentration camp in Poland, which was very, very difficult to do.

If you are a French-born Jew, you are likely to survive. If you are a foreign Jew living in France, if you are deported, you are likely not to survive.

Levy: Were Jews—either French-born or non-citizens—able to flee France after their country’s fall?

Erbelding: Yes. Until November 1942, the U.S. has relations with southern France, with Vichy France. Even for almost a year after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. still has diplomatic relations with Vichy France and a diplomatic corps there.

That means that if your number comes up on the waiting list, you still have a diplomatic staff that you can go to for your interview who can give you a visa. The thing that makes it difficult is actually leaving. There are many stories of people who get their visa, but still can’t leave.

You have to cross Spain. You have to get into Portugal. You have to have a ship ticket. Arranging all of that from inside an internment camp is really difficult, especially if you’ve been interned for three years, you don’t have money anymore. You’re relying entirely on family members in the U.S. to figure out how to purchase the ship ticket for you, and get that news to you, and put together all of your paperwork.

The deportations in France are in the summer of 1942. By the time the U.S. is about to cut off relations in November 1942, there are hundreds of people who obtained their visa. But the letter saying, “You’ve obtained your visa, please show up at the embassy and we’ll stamp your passport,” is returned to the embassy as undeliverable, because the people are no longer there. They’ve been deported already. So it is possible. It is very difficult to do.

But after the summer of 1940, most people are getting out of Europe through southern France. That was one of the only places where people had fled to, and they could still make it to Lisbon. You couldn’t get out of the Netherlands anymore. You couldn’t get out of Germany, really.

Levy: Can you explain why Portugal was really the one place people could leave from?

Erbelding: Lisbon was the largest port city on the Atlantic in Europe that was still open. After the war breaks out in September 1939, all of the German ports close. After May 1940, when Nazi Germany invades Belgium and the Netherlands, all of those ports close. Ports in France close, except for Marseille, but really at Marseille you could only get to Casablanca.

You could sail out of Casablanca. It’s difficult. It was possible. There were some ships that were leaving out of Casablanca, so if you could get to North Africa and get across. The movie Casablanca actually shows this really well. There’s a map component at the beginning, where it shows Nazi Germany taking over various areas and how difficult it was for people to get to Casablanca. It’s an accurate map.

The only ships that are sailing are Portuguese ships, because it’s a neutral. It stood some chance of not being attacked on the Atlantic by German submarines. So lots of complicated bureaucratic reasons, but Lisbon becomes “it” for people.

Levy: Can you provide a brief overview of French resistance efforts during the war?

Erbelding: There is a very robust French resistance that really encompasses all areas of society. It ranged from hiding Jews in homes, in convents, in churches, helping Jewish children to survive to underground newspapers to acts of sabotage. There are large groups who are doing acts of sabotage: bombing train lines, and bombing munitions factories and depots that the Germans are trying to seize. It goes on throughout the war.

They murder “traitors,” what they call people who are turning in Jews or helping the Germans. The resistance movement starts going after people and their families if they’re considered collaborators. It’s a large and fairly robust resistance movement, and participates in the liberation of Paris in August 1944.

Levy: Now we’re going to switch to the French nuclear scientists.

Erbelding: There was a company in Norway that was manufacturing heavy water, but not really in large quantities. In 1939, the company alerted the French government, which was not under Nazi occupation yet, that German companies were trying to buy out their entire supply of heavy water. This sent out alarm bells.

The French Department of Munitions sent an emissary to Norway to take all of Norwegian heavy water. Norway willingly gave it up, to keep it out of the hands of the Germans. They seized the heavy water. They get it to France. This is something like 26 small metal containers of this water. Take it to France. Two months later, Nazi Germany invades France.

The French scientists escape south. They escape to Clermont-Ferrand and then the British Earl of Suffolk realizes that this is a problem. He personally goes to France, and commandeers basically a Scottish freighter, and brings the French scientists and the heavy water to the Scottish freighter. They arrive in England the day that the French-German surrender is signed. 

Nate Weisenberg: What was the most unusual or surprising thing that you found in your research for the book?

Erbelding: For my book?

Weisenberg: Yeah. 

Erbelding: Unusual and surprising? One of the projects that the War Refugee Board does towards—well, they start a project in March 1944, almost as soon as they are founded. They’re founded in January. By March, they’re starting to think about how they could get food packages into concentration camps.

This was something that was not allowed. Red Cross packages were meant for POWs [Prisoners of War]. They could not go into Nazi concentration camps. The Nazis wouldn’t let them. Jewish prisoners are being starved.

The U.S. negotiates with the British to allow them to do a trial of 300,000 food packages. They were something like five pounds each. They had Kraft cheese in them, crackers, tinned meat, cigarettes, soap, and Vitamin C tablets. All sorts of things in these five-pound packages.

Through this very elaborate bureaucratic structure of ration—you need to get your ration points together, you need to get this train to this station on time, and to this boat, and they need to be marked in a certain way with a certain tag. It took almost a year.

Finally, by March and April 1945, they get the Red Cross to start delivering food packages to concentration camps. If you ever read about a Holocaust survivor who at the end of the war gets a Red Cross food package, that was actually sponsored and packed outside of New York, and sponsored by the U.S. government, disguised as a Red Cross food package, and snuck into concentration camps at the end of the war for about 300,000 prisoners.

Levy: From reading memoirs, it sounds like those Red Cross packages really made a difference.

Erbelding: Yes. It was either the first food that people had in a very long time, or it ended up being a symbol that the Allies are only a few weeks away, and if they just could hold on, liberation was coming very soon. It gave a lot of people at the end, I think, hope.

Levy: Maybe you could also talk about the impact of the War on France generally, and how much of the country was destroyed during the war?

Erbelding: France is utterly changed by the war. It’s changed by World War I, of course. They have twenty-five years to recover, and then it’s utterly changed again. It’s interesting to see the difference between northern France and southern France that had different occupying experiences until 1942.

I think France has had a difficult memorial experience, because there are certain segments of the French government that were certainly collaborationist. Vichy France was collaborating. They were turning over foreign Jews. They always met the quota that the Germans asked. The Germans would say, “We need this may thousand Jews to be on a transport to Poland,” and the French government always provided those Jews. The French railroads transported them.

At the same time, there are entire villages that took in Jewish refugees and hid them for the entirety of the war, with intricate systems to alert the entire town when officials were coming in so that people could be hidden properly.

France has, I think, struggled with what their memory of the war is and should be. They were a haven for so many people, but for so many who had found haven there, they became the betrayer. Or, the country writ large became a betrayer. It’s a difficult history in terms of the Holocaust. There are heroes, and there are people who collaborated openly.

Levy: That’s very eloquently put. 

 Erbelding: Thanks. 

Levy: Maybe you could also talk about the Vichy government and how it was formed, and the leadership?

Erbelding: Marshal [Henri Philippe] Petain was the nominal head of the government. He had been a World War I hero, which is why he was chosen. But he was also very elderly. It’s Petain and [Pierre] Laval.

They’re both awful towards the end. They both had been somewhat of French heroes, but they’re not. They’re the ones who are turning people over. They get kind of overwhelmed by the Germans. They think they can control them, and they can’t. They think they can control the Nazis and keep France safe, and they absolutely can’t.

Weisenberg: Are there any particular things that you think people should know?

Erbelding: I think we look back and we think that choices were really easy back then, because we know what happened. We know that Nazi Germany will start mass murder. For a long time, people didn’t know that. They didn’t know that in France. They didn’t know it in the U.S.

Even people who were living at the time, some of them had lived through pogroms, and they thought, “This is a phase.” And really until Kristallnacht, a lot of German Jews thought that too, that this was a phase that the country was going through and they would clearly snap out of it. That this is all insane, and at some point, everyone is going to come to their senses. We didn’t have the word “genocide” until 1944. We didn’t have the word “Holocaust.” There was this sense that, “This can’t happen. This is so unbelievable that it can’t possibly happen.”

When we look at the choices that people made in 1939 and 1940 and 1941, to escape, to go into hiding, to go to a new country and start over, those are all really difficult decisions. We look back and think, “The U.S. should have taken everybody in 1938.” Maybe that’s true. The U.S. had 19% unemployment. Nineteen percent of the workforce was unemployed in 1938. The hesitancy that Americans had to admit more refugees was yes, based on anti-Semitism. It was also based in their belief that immigrants come and take jobs.

Economists certainly debate that today, with many pointing out that immigrants create more jobs than they take. If you bring in six million immigrants, is that true? I mean, six million immigrants is never a possibility, because people weren’t escaping from Poland until it was too late to escape from Poland.

But I think all of the decisions that people made at the time, they were making the decisions that were best for them. We can look back and say, “Oh, it should have been this way. We should have done things this way.” The context of the period just complicates all of that so much. It is yes, people should have been able to get out. How many boats can cross the Atlantic? Those are kind of the factors that people don’t think about. They don’t think about the reality of physically leaving, both for the country accepting them, and for the refugees trying to leave. Even if you're given the opportunity, if your parents are still in that country and that country is being destroyed and people are being deported, are you going to leave them? Those are really hard questions.

I think we do survivors and victims a disservice by not recognizing how difficult their choices were all were. By looking back and judging whatever decision they made, instead of recognizing what an impossible, unbelievable situation that they were in. Looking back and thinking that things were easy back then but they’re hard now has given us the opportunity to say: “Oh we should have taken more people during the Holocaust but today, we can’t take refugees.” No, no, no. Decisions were hard then, too. We had a difficult bureaucratic system, but we didn’t shut our doors to people who were trying to get out. The U.S. doesn’t do that. Like I said, over 111,000 self-identified Jewish refugees escape in a three-year period between 1938 and 1941.

When we look today and say: “Oh we can’t possibly take refugees, but it was so simple back then.” No, no. It was hard back then too, and we managed to take some. We think back and say, “We should have taken more.” We need to take those judgements and put them on ourselves now and try to figure out what to do, because the world hasn’t gotten easier.

Levy: Refugee and immigration issues continue to arouse debate today. Do you see any parallels between the refugee issues in the 1930s and 1940s, and refugee issues today?

Erbelding: To some extent, I gave you some of the parallels. Some of the differences are, we didn’t have a refugee policy back then. Everyone who wanted to come, who was fleeing persecution, had to stay in the same line and go through the same paperwork as everyone else. There was no political asylum. There was nothing put in place to help people trying to escape violence in their home country.

There was also no worldwide mechanism for this. There was no United Nations. The League of Nations by the war is defunct. There is no one trying to help really, except for NGOs. The NGOs who were trying to help refugees back then are the same NGOs who are involved in refugee affairs now: the American Friends Service Committee of the Quakers, the Unitarians, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, HIAS, and the Emergency Refugee Committee became the International Rescue Committee.

All of these organizations that were doing really great work and were the loudest voices in support of Jewish refugees in the 1930s are still the loudest voices in support of refugees today. Whenever anybody asks what people can do, I always point to that and say if you feel very strongly about this, these organizations are out there and doing fantastic work, and you should try to support them. Again, this is all me speaking, not the museum.

Our population has grown threefold since World War II. Numerically, we took about the same number of refugees as we did in 1939 this past year. That was in the 1930s, that was into a U.S. that had 19% unemployment. Right now, we are at 4% unemployment, and we are numerically taking the same numbers.

Levy: As you said, some economic studies have shown that immigrants really contribute to the workforce.

Erbelding: Yes, and in the 1930s, that was a talking point then too. The Joint secretly published a brochure called “Refugee Facts.” They published it under the name of the Quakers so that it wouldn’t be seen as a “Jewish thing.” It’s a great brochure. It’s online right now. It’s laying out in cartoon form, “These are the number of refugees who are coming. This is the work that they’re doing.” It talks about the very important work that Jewish professors, refugee professors, are contributing to our country, and contributing to training young people, and would contribute to the war. They make something like a quarter million brochures and distribute them all throughout the country, to try to change the conversation about refugees. It doesn’t really work.

It’s frustrating to see a lot of the same talking points then and now, and a lot of the same rhetoric about refugees then and now.

Levy: I saw yesterday that the MacArthur Foundation awarded $100 million to Sesame Street and the International Rescue Committee for work with Syrian refugees.

Erbelding: Yes. They’re doing really amazing stuff.

The museum is trying to do its part in at least calling attention to the crises that are still going on, to the Rohingya in Myanmar and to the ongoing Syria crisis. We just opened a new exhibit on Syria, about two weeks ago, about the disappeared of Syria. It features cloth in which a Syrian journalist wrote the names of people that he was imprisoned with in blood and rust. Then he managed to smuggle the cloth out of prison. You can see the cloth on display at the museum now.

Again, trying to call attention to the fact that this is again a government killing its own people, and that it goes on and on. We can’t figure out a way to stop it. I can’t figure out a way to stop it. My colleagues who do this work can’t figure out how to stop it.

One of the lessons I think of this history—and historian Peter Hayes quotes this in his recent book, Why? [Explaining the Holocaust]—one of the lessons is “beware of the beginnings,” because a lot of times the place where you can do so much more is at the beginning, before the atrocities start. Once the atrocities start, it’s really difficult to make them stop, say, for winning a war. But the place to do it is to get as many people out before they do.

Levy: Well said. Maybe a good way to close is if you want to just talk briefly about the work of the Holocaust Museum, both in educating the public about the Holocaust, and then talking about present refugee and genocide issues.

Erbelding: The Holocaust Museum is partially federally funded. We’re non-partisan. We have about two million visitors every year. What we really want to do is encourage debates. We don’t always pose answers to questions, but we pose a lot of questions and we hope that people have informed debates about them. We try to give people the information to make their debates informed.

In my field on American response to the Holocaust, there’s a lot of comparison between then and now. Stories like the St. Louis, Anne Frank’s father’s immigration attempts—I can go on and on about both of these—but they are taken out of context and put in editorials, and put in opinion pieces just as kind of throwaway sentences, without the context.

What we want to do is explain the context of the United States at the time, and really point out some of the things that we talked about earlier—that it is very difficult contextually because of the Depression, because of the approach of war, for refugees to escape. Yet, there are these non-governmental agencies who are doing this amazing work. The government is making these decisions.

We want people to be more informed about the editorials and op-eds that they’re writing when they’re doing comparisons, because this is a problem that’s not going away. It didn’t start with the Holocaust. It certainly has not ended with the Holocaust. “Never again” has not become a reality. There are still genocides ongoing now, and we haven’t figured out how to stop it. The more we learn, the more conversations we have that are informed, maybe we’re going to get somewhere at some point. We need to have it both to honor the victims and the survivors, who don’t want to see other families be destroyed like theirs might have been.

I encourage everybody to come to the museum. Our exhibit on American Response to the Holocaust opens in April, the same time my book comes out. We always have new exhibits on contemporary issues as well. We just closed one on the genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s. We have our new one on Syria that just opened. We want people to be better informed so that they can have these conversations and try to come up with an answer that so far as eluded me, anyway.

Levy: Now you’ve got me intrigued about the reference about Otto Frank’s attempts to immigrate.

Erbelding: [Laughter] No, it’s okay. So there’s a story, there’s a meme. It’s actually on Snopes that the U.S. turned Otto Frank away. And that’s not true. What happened is, Otto Frank says in letters that he applied in 1938. They were living in Amsterdam, but they were under the German quota. So they applied in Rotterdam, which was the only immigrant visa issuing consulate in the Netherlands, the only U.S. consulate that could do it. They’re on the waiting list for the U.S.

Germany invades the Netherlands in May 1940, bombs Rotterdam, and destroys the consulate. When they destroyed the consulate, they destroyed the waiting list, and any paperwork that anyone had already gathered. Because you had to keep your paperwork at the consulate so they could prove that you didn’t alter it, that you weren’t messing with your own paperwork.

The consulate asked people to come back with their receipts. They were given a receipt when you signed up for the waiting list showing where your place was. For whatever reason, Otto Frank doesn’t do this. In April 1941 he approaches Nathan Straus, his old college buddy, who happened to be the son of the co-founder of Macy’s. Worked for the Roosevelt administration, was very wealthy, had no problem financially sponsoring the Frank family. It’s April 1941.

In June, the U.S. orders German consulates in the U.S. to close. They are hotbeds of spying, and they fear sabotage. All German consulates have to close in the U.S. In retaliation, Nazi Germany orders the closure of all U.S. consulates in occupied territory. Even though we’re not at war, there’s no longer American consulates in northern France, in Belgium, in the Netherlands. The only way the Frank family could have gotten out is to make it down to Marseille or to Lisbon or Madrid, places where there were still American diplomats.

They’re not denied, because they never show up. They’re never called for an interview. There is no diplomatic corps there. The meme should be, “Otto Frank thought about coming to the United States and could not do so because of the war,” basically.

After that, he tries to go to Cuba. He gets a visa to Cuba but just for him. That visa is almost immediately cancelled, because his visa is issued December 1, 1941. On December 7, 1941 Cuba cancelled visas, because they were afraid of German spies reaching Cuba and then hopping over to the U.S. After that, he can’t get out. The Frank family really gets stuck, and then goes into hiding in 1942.

I wrote a research paper with the Anne Frank House on this that should come out sometime in the next month or so. My goal is to get Snopes to change their rating because Snopes says: “Yes, the Frank family was turned away from the U.S.” One, that implies that they were on a ship and came here and then were physically turned away.

But it’s really that Otto Frank ran out of time, and that’s no fault of his. He doesn’t know the future. It’s also no fault of the U.S., frankly, at that point. A lot of these, you can’t figure out. There’s no blame. There’s only tragedy. 

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