America and the Holocaust

By Michael Lederer

Beyond a severe­ly lim­it­ed immi­gra­tion quo­ta kept to a bare min­i­mum, few­er than a thou­sand Jew­ish refugees from Europe were admit­ted into the U.S. dur­ing World War II. In August 1944, they were brought on a sin­gle U.S. Lib­er­ty ship, then interned behind barbed wire on an old U.S. Army camp upstate New York until after the war had end­ed. That small lucky group includ­ed my father Ivo, his sis­ter Mira, and their par­ents Otto and Ruza.

Pho­to Cred­it: Michael Led­er­er: Otto, Mira, Ruza, and Ivo Led­er­er in Oswego, New York, 1945.

I was born in Amer­i­ca in 1956, twelve years and a world away from that day on which my fam­i­ly and too few oth­ers so bare­ly made it onto that one ship. All my adult life, I have tried to under­stand what it was like for them, or any­one in dan­ger because of prej­u­dice and hate. Not easy to do when you have had the lux­u­ry, as I have, of grow­ing and liv­ing in safety.

A few weeks ago in Berlin, at a screen­ing by the U.S. Embassy, I had the joy of meet­ing the team behind the new six-hour film, The U.S. and the Holo­caust by Amer­i­can film­mak­ers Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sarah Bot­stein. As a play­wright, I have just fin­ished telling anoth­er angle of that same sto­ry for the stage in my new play enti­tled 982.

Mil­lions des­per­ate for escape. Iso­la­tion­ists in the State Depart­ment, the Amer­i­ca First Com­mit­tee, fig­ures like Charles Lind­bergh and Hen­ry Ford, all argu­ing Europe’s Jews should be left to fend for them­selves. We know how that turned out. We know, too, the hero­ic parts of that Amer­i­can sto­ry. Togeth­er with our allies, charg­ing Oma­ha Beach on D‑Day, push­ing the Nazis from North Africa and the boot of Italy, help­ing rebuild Europe once the guns fell silent.

In film, on stage, and else­where, it’s time to reflect on a more nuanced, more com­plete recount­ing of America’s role in the Holo­caust. What the coun­try did, but also what it did not do.

In June 1940, Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of State Breck­in­ridge Long, in charge of visas, wrote [edit­ed for clar­i­ty]: “We can delay and effec­tive­ly stop the num­ber of immi­grants into the Unit­ed States by sim­ply advis­ing our con­suls to put every obsta­cle in the way, and to resort to var­i­ous admin­is­tra­tive devices which would post­pone and post­pone and post­pone the grant­i­ng of visas.”

“Post­pone” writ­ten three times, to make sure mes­sage received.

From now-Italy and Hun­gary to a reborn Amer­i­ca First move­ment in the States, that same indif­fer­ence again cal­ci­fy­ing as would-be pol­i­cy: “Do not give us your hud­dled mass­es yearn­ing to breathe free. Let them wash upon the teem­ing shore. I lift my lamp beside the closed door.”

At Eleanor’s urg­ing, Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt knew he had to do some­thing, if only as a token ges­ture. So, even as no more than ten per­cent of approved (!) visas were issued, he also brought a mere 982 refugees, invit­ing them as his so-called “per­son­al guests” to be detained behind wire in Oswego, N.Y., for the war’s dura­tion. If not free, they were at least safe. After the war end­ed, then-Pres­i­dent Tru­man grant­ed them per­mis­sion to stay and become nat­u­ral­ized Amer­i­cans. Most had no homes, or fam­i­lies, to return to.

My father, hav­ing fled for­mer Yugoslavia, only eleven-years old, grew to become a pro­fes­sor of diplo­mat­ic his­to­ry at Prince­ton, Yale, and Stan­ford. He appears as a char­ac­ter in my play, where he reminds us, “We don’t study his­to­ry to under­stand the past. We study it to under­stand today and pre­pare for tomorrow.”

A direct line con­nect­ing Romans, eager thumbs down at the Colos­se­um tar­get­ing Chris­tians, Nazi ral­lies in Nurem­berg tar­get­ing Jews, Sre­breni­ca tar­get­ing Mus­lims, a torch-lit march in Char­lottesville 2017. Red-eyed faces chant­i­ng, drool­ing in the light of those fires. All unit­ed by fear of the dread­ed Oth­er and a pas­sion for hate.

In my play, my father’s char­ac­ter finds it eas­i­er to share his sto­ry with a young Black woman he’s just met than with me. Her own dad hav­ing been mur­dered on the street for no more than the col­or of his skin. “He wore his star on every inch of his body,” she tells him. When he con­fess­es that he feels guilty, hav­ing been one of only 982 brought safe­ly to Amer­i­ca, she tells him, “Ivo, the fact you did sur­vive means one can sur­vive. And if one can sur­vive means we will sur­vive. So, there’s hope in your story.”

Ken Burns and his part­ners do a bril­liant job telling the big­ger part of America’s role in the sto­ry of the Holo­caust. In my play, I’ve tried to focus on a small group of 982 who arrived from Europe to Amer­i­ca labeled as ‘U.S. Mil­i­tary Casu­al Baggage’.

We think of war as a big sto­ry. But real­ly, it’s so many small­er sto­ries stitched together.

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Michael Led­er­er is an Amer­i­can writer who lives in Berlin. His newest stage play “Casu­al Bag­gage” is the sto­ry of the only small group of Jew­ish refugees from Europe admit­ted into the Unit­ed States dur­ing WW II. The U.S. embassy Berlin recent­ly pre­sent­ed a staged read­ing of the play as part of their Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture Series. Com­ments about this blog are wel­come on the author’s web­site: