the hero narrative


In the lead up to America’s involvement in World War II, public opinion was deeply, deeply hostile to Jews. Polls in 1938-1939 indicated the following: (1) 69% of Americans opposed the absorption of Jewish refugees, (2) 53% of Americans considered Jews inherently “different” from others, (3) 32% of Americans wanted to restrict Jewish businesses to “prevent Jews from getting too much power,” and (4) 10% of Americans wanted to deport American Jews.

Charles Lindbergh, the renowned aviator, was among the antisemitic, isolationist agitators. He was the spokesperson for the fascist, antisemitic America First Committee, and for months, he had insinuated that American Jews were trying to drive the United States into war with Germany for their own sinister purposes. In reality, of course, American Jews were simply desperately appealing to their government to help European Jewry.

In September of 1941, Lindbergh delivered a virulently antisemitic speech in Des Moines, Iowa, stating the following: “Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences…A few far-sighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not…I am saying that the leaders of…the Jewish races…wish to involve us in the war.”

Among the antisemitic inciters in the American public sphere at the time were Henry Ford, Father Charles Coughlin, the German American Bund, and more. Americans associated Jews with the “threat” of communism, and public opinion polls characterized Jews as “pushy,” “dishonest,” and “greedy.” Jews in the United States were largely still segregated from universities, numerous jobs, and housing. 



The idea that the American people were unaware of the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews — or of their genocidal intent — is completely incorrect. Though they probably couldn’t have imagined the actual extent of the Nazis’ atrocities, American media was reporting on Nazi persecution of Jews as early as 1933. 

By the summer of 1941, months before the United States entered the war, the Allies were already aware of the Nazi mass extermination of Jews. 

In late 1942, a Polish partisan and Righteous Among the Nations named Jan Karski was smuggled in and out of a couple of ghettos, including the Warsaw Ghetto, where he witnessed the Nazis’ inhumane treatment of Jews. He delivered a report to the British authorities, describing what he knew. He was the first eyewitness to give a firsthand account of the Holocaust to the Allies. 

By 1944, the Allies had extensive knowledge of the mechanism of the Holocaust. For example, they were well-informed about the death camps, including the largest and deadliest, Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

In November of 1942, newspapers across the United States reported that Hitler’s intent was to destroy all of Europe’s Jewry. Some headlines include “Nazis Plan to Kill All Jews,” “Death for Every Jew in Europe is Called Nazi Goal,” “Death of All Jews Ordered,” and more. The newspapers reported in late 1942 that two million Jews had been killed. 



In 1924, the United States passed the Immigration Act of 1924 in an attempt to control the racial makeup of immigrants to the United States. The act banned immigration from Asia and restricted immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe to severe quotas. The act was influenced in part by Americans’ opposition to Jewish immigration; until then, Jews had been fleeing Europe by the millions. These quotas essentially ended Jewish immigration to the United States. 

In July of 1938, 32 countries met in France to discuss the Jewish refugee crisis, spurred on by their persecution in Nazi Germany. Hitler himself stated, in response to the conference: “I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”

Yet every single country in attendance, save for the Dominican Republic, refused to accept Jewish refugees. 

In January of 1939, an American Institute of Public Opinion poll found that 61 percent of Americans were against admitting 10,000 Jewish refugee children into the United States. 

That same year, 81 percent of Americans opposed a bill that would’ve permitted the entry of 20,000 Jewish children into the United States. The wife of the US immigration commissioner allegedly stated, “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.”

In May of 1939, 937 predominantly Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis were turned away from the United States and forced to sail back to Europe. About half of them were later murdered in the Holocaust, most in Auschwitz and Sobibor. 



Starting in September in 1944, Jewish groups, beginning with the Union of Orthodox Rabbis in the United States and Canada, begged the US War Refugee Board and the War Department to bomb the railway lines leading to Auschwitz. 

On July 10 of that same year, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that Jewish escapees from Auschwitz urged the Allies to bomb the camp. They stated: “The crematoria in Oswiecim [Auschwitz] and Birkenau, easily recognizable by their chimneys and watch-towers, as well as the main railway lines connection Slovakia and Carpatho-Ruthenia with Poland, especially the bridge at Cop, should be bombed.”

That same July, the Jewish Agency for Palestine, which had until then opposed bombing Auschwitz, changed its position after hearing the reports of what was happening inside the camp. At least 28 Jewish officials from the Jewish Agency asked the Allies to bomb the camp and the railway leading to it. 

In August of 1944, the Jewish Frontier published an op-ed from the American Jewish Labor Zionist movement, asking the Americans to “bomb the death camps and the roads leading to them.” 

These calls were largely ignored. Instead, the American government decided without explanation that it “could not” bomb the camps. It’s worth noting that the Americans bombed nearby locations, oftentimes situated in the same cities as the camps. 

Historian Stuart Erdheim has concluded that bombing the crematoria in Auschwitz in 1944 would’ve eliminated 75 percent of its killing capacity. 



When the Allies liberated the camps, the Jewish prisoners were overjoyed. The state of euphoria, however, didn’t last very long. The Allied soldiers were ill-equipped to assist the survivors in their immediate needs. For example, many American soldiers shared Hershey bars with the emaciated survivors. However, the survivors’ bodies, after experiencing starvation for so long, were unable to handle the candy, resulting in severe diarrhea and death. Thousands of survivors were treated in Allied infirmaries, but the soldiers were unable to meet their mental health needs. 

World War II resulted in a massive refugee crisis. While the United States more readily absorbed non-Jewish refugees — including former Nazi scientists — Jews were still overwhelmingly barred from entry into the United States. Returning to their old homes in Europe was not an option, so hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees were instead imprisoned in repurposed concentration camps, which had been refashioned into refugee camps known as Displaced Persons camps, or DP camps for short. 

Conditions in DP camps were terrible. Some main issues were the lack of professionally trained staff, as well as lack of medical supplies, food, and clothing. Disease spread quickly. 

As one representative for the US government stated in a July 1945 report: “As matters now stand, we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them.”

What ended the post-Holocaust Jewish refugee crisis was the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Also in 1948, Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act, which authorized the absorption of 200,000 refugees into the United States. However, the Displaced Persons Act still discriminated against Jews until 1950, when it was amended. The last DP camp closed its doors in 1957. 

For a full bibliography of my sources, please head over to my Patreon

Back to blog