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Could FDR Have Saved Anne Frank? Historian Looks Back At World War II Immigration Quotas

Anne Frank's father hoped to get the family to the U.S., but visa programs that would have allowed families like the Franks to come to escape the Holocaust were not fully implemented. (Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images)
Anne Frank's father hoped to get the family to the U.S., but visa programs that would have allowed families like the Franks to come to escape the Holocaust were not fully implemented. (Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images)

Anne Frank, the Jewish girl famous for chronicling her experiences under Nazi rule in her diary, would have turned 90 this month. Frank was 15 years old when she died in a concentration camp in 1945.

Frank’s diary entries, written while she was in hiding with her family in the Netherlands, have been widely read around the world. But what is less known about her story is how Frank, and the millions of people like her trying to escape the Nazis, could have been saved — including by the United States — but weren’t.

For example, newsreels told of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s outrage at what was happening as the Holocaust worsened. But FDR and Washington failed to offer a lifeline to people like Frank when they needed it most, says Rafael Medoff, founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

Medoff has written about the issue in an op-ed piece published by George Washington University’s History News Network. He says the Frank family’s frantic, unsuccessful attempts to find refuge in the U.S. deserve greater attention, and shed light on a failure to live up to America’s “moral obligation to extend a helping hand when other people are being persecuted.”

“While the best known aspect of [Anne Frank’s] experience is of course the diary that she wrote while she and her family were hiding in an attic in Amsterdam … there is an extraordinary additional story involving Anne Frank and her family trying to come to the United States before they went into hiding,” Medoff says.

At the time, the U.S. had established quotas limiting how many people from a foreign country could immigrate to America in a given year. Between 1933 and 1945, nearly 200,000 quota places for people living in Nazi Germany and later Nazi-occupied nations went unused, according to Medoff.

“The quota from Germany most years was less than 25% filled. So that means that 75% of the quota places simply expired. They couldn’t be rolled over into the next year, so they were just thrown away,” Medoff says. “The Roosevelt administration set up a series of bureaucratic obstacles and extra requirements to make it as difficult as possible for Jewish refugees to qualify for visas to the United States.”

Interview Highlights

On Anne Frank’s father Otto’s unsuccessful attempts to move the family to the U.S., where they had relatives

“In 1933 when the Nazis rose to power in Germany, Otto Frank sent his wife and children to live in what then was the safety of neighboring Holland. They were German citizens living in Holland. During the 1930s, the United States had an immigration system based on national origin, meaning that a certain number of people from each country around the world could in theory come to the U.S. each year.

“The annual quota for German citizens was about 26,000. When Otto Frank first took an interest in bringing his family to the United States, there was room in the quota, because in 11 of the 12 years that Franklin Roosevelt was president, the quota from Germany was never filled.”

On the implications of unfilled quotas

“All the unused quotas from Germany between 1933 to 1945 — the years the Nazis were in power — during those 12 years of the Roosevelt presidency, about 190,000 quota places from Germany, or later from German-occupied countries, were left unused. So those are people who could have come to America — including the Frank family — within the existing quota laws, without changing or liberalizing the immigration system in any way, if the Roosevelt administration had simply allowed the existing system to be used up to the maximum number permitted by law.”

On Democratic Sen. Robert Wagner and Republican Rep. Edith Rogers introducing legislation in 1939 aimed at aiding thousands of German refugee children

“The idea behind the Wagner-Rogers Bill was to counter the argument made by the anti-immigration forces that refugees would take away jobs from American citizens. So by focusing on children, the advocates were in effect saying, ‘These young immigrants are not going to threaten anyone’s job, because they’re going to be 10 or 11 and 12 years old.’ Therefore, that should have made it possible to pass legislation like that. But in fact, the Wagner-Rogers Bill ran into very strong opposition. President Roosevelt declined to support the bill, and ultimately, the Wagner-Rogers Bill was buried in a subcommittee, and those 20,000 German refugee children — [who] would have been mostly Jewish — never came to America. But, had the bill passed, then Anne Frank and her sister Margot could have qualified because they were German citizens and they were under 16 years old. So that was an opportunity to bring children over that never materialized.”

On comments about child refugees from Germany made by Laura Delano Houghteling, FDR’s cousin who was married to the U.S. commissioner of immigration

“She was at a dinner party in Washington in the spring of 1939, and she casually made a remark to the person sitting next to her about the Wagner-Rogers refugee bill. She was opposed to the bill because, in her words, ‘20,000 charming children were all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.’ We know she said that because the person to whom she made the remark was a State Department official who wrote it down in his diary, and historians found it many years later. The significance of the remark is that it kind of epitomizes the nature of the opposition to allowing in even Jewish children from Germany during those days.”

On the children who were allowed into the U.S. in 1940 after 20,000 from Germany were denied entry in 1939

“The bitter irony is that just one year after those 20,000 German-Jewish children were refused admission under the Wagner-Rogers Bill, President Roosevelt rushed to Congress to approve a measure to bring in several thousand British children in order to rescue them from the German bombing of England. So Jewish children were turned away, but British children were admitted and their lives were saved.”

Ciku Theuri produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Tinku Ray and Kathleen McKenna. Jack Mitchell adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.