Author Archives: Susan D. Glazer

About Susan D. Glazer

Susan D. Glazer is a graduate student in the Department of Comparative History at Brandeis University. She is writing a dissertation about the activities of a German-Italian insurance organization during World War II.

America and the Holocaust

In the last 20 years, Auschwitz, the most infamous of the death camps operating during World War II, has become a symbol of the Holocaust. The name Auschwitz has come to represent not only the horrors of the Nazi genocidal regime, but also the failure of the U.S. government to take appropriate action to prevent the murder of millions of people. What did America know about the situation of European Jewry during World War II? Did American Jews do all they could to help the Jews of Europe?

The rescue of European Jewry was not a priority of U.S. wartime policy. It was part of the problem created by the Nazi menace and could only be solved through the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies. While this was a strategic decision on the part of the Allies, it was affected by the anti-semitism, isolationism, and xenophobia that characterized the United States’ refugee policy of the 1930s and 1940s. The U.S. State Department, led by Secretary of State Cordell Hull, made it difficult for refugees to obtain entry visas. Despite reports of the worsening situation in Europe vis-à-vis the Jews, the Congressional National Origins Act, which in 1929 set an annual quota of 150,000 immigrants, was neither amended nor overturned. Rep. Robert Wagner introduced legislation in the United States Congress in 1939 proposing to admit a total of 20,000 Jewish children over a two-year period. The legislation was amended in committee to admit the 20,000 children only if the number of Jewish refugees admitted under the regular quota was reduced by 20,000. The bill died in the House after the sponsor withdrew his support in frustration.

president rooseveltThe story of the S.S. St. Louis illustrates the unfortunate consequences of U.S. immigration policy. On May 13, 1939, the St. Louis set sail from Hamburg bound for Havana. On board were 937 Jewish refugees fleeing persecution from Nazi Germany. Each passenger carried a valid visa for temporary entry into Cuba. As the boat approached Havana, the Cuban government declared the visas invalid and refused entry to the passengers. Subsequent negotiations with the Cuban government to permit the landing ended in failure. Similar attempts to seek entry to the United States also failed. After waiting 12 days in the port of Havana and then off the Miami coast, the boat was forced to return to Europe. A majority of the St. Louis passengers died during the war.

Ghettos under the Nazis

The term “ghetto” originated in sixteenth-century Venice where it was used to refer to the Jewish quarter. As medieval restrictions on Jewish residence spread across Italy and beyond to central and western Europe, the word “ghetto” followed, referring to the section of the city where Jews were forced to live. The following article chronicles the Nazis’ use of the medieval concept of ghettos to isolate Jews during World War II.

During World War II, the Nazis established more than 400 ghettos in order to isolate Jews from the non-Jewish population and from neighboring Jewish communities. The Germans regarded the establishment of ghettos as a provisional measure to control and segregate Jews. The assumption behind this separation was to stop the Jews, viewed by the Nazis as an inferior race, from mixing with and thus degrading the superior Aryan race. Nazi high officials also believed that the Jews would succumb to the unfavorable living conditions of the ghetto, including lack of food, water, and living space. Furthermore, the ghettos served as round-up centers that made it more convenient to exterminate large numbers of the Jewish population later. 

warsaw ghetto uprisingThe ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe–primarily Poland–were often closed off by walls, barbed-wire fences, or gates. Ghettos were extremely crowded and unsanitary. Starvation, chronic food and fuel shortages, and severe winter weather led to repeated outbreaks of epidemics and to a high mortality rate. Ghettoization, however, was seen as a temporary situation, and in many places the ghettos existed only for a brief time. With the implementation of the “Final Solution” in 1942, the Germans began to destroy the ghettos through deportation of the Jewish occupants to forced-labor and extermination camps.

The first ghetto was established in Lodz, Poland, on February 8, 1940. Approximately 155,000 Jews, almost one-third of the city’s total population, were forced to live in the Lodz ghetto. As Lodz was a center of textile production, this ghetto was of considerable economic importance to the German war machine. Jews played an important role as workers in the textile factories there. For this reason, the deportation of Jews from the Lodz ghetto was only completed in August 1944.

Holocaust as History

Remembering the Holocaust is a central theme in modern Jewish life. New Holocaust memorials, exhibits, courses, and movies appear frequently. Just as representations of the Holocaust change over time in art and film, depending on the experiences and attitudes of the artist, so too are representations of the Holocaust in history transformed according to the historians’ interests and the research materials available to them. The following article is an introduction to some of the major trends in thinking and research about the Holocaust that have developed since 1950.
modern history
The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and attempted annihilation of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were “racially superior” and that the Jews, deemed “inferior,” were unworthy of living.

Although the Jews were the primary targets of Nazi racial policy, the Nazis also targeted other groups because of their perceived “racial inferiority”: Roma (Gypsies), the handicapped, and some of the Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians, and others). Other groups, including Communists, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals, were persecuted on the basis of their political affiliations and behavior.

The “Recent Jewish Catastrophe”

The atrocities of World War II have produced a specialized nomenclature. By now, the term “Holocaust” has become the designation of choice to describe the Nazi campaign of genocide against the Jews. Those Jews who suffered in the ghettos and camps of Nazi-occupied Europe, however, did not think of themselves as victims of the “Holocaust.” In the immediate post-war years, the events of the Nazi era were referred to as the “recent Jewish catastrophe.” It was not until the mid-1950s that the term “Holocaust” gained currency to describe the Nazi assault against the Jews.

Although “Holocaust” entered common parlance, this choice of term was not without critics. The word “Holocaust” is problematic for some individuals because of its religious origins. In ancient times, the priests of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem offered animal sacrifices to God translated in Greek as holokauston, which means, “wholly burned.” Thus, historically, the term “holocaust” referred to a sacrifice made to God. From this vantage point, the Jews, during World War II, became a sacrifice offered up to God by the Nazis. This religious connotation is unacceptable to some, and as a result, the Hebrew word Shoah (meaning “ruin” or “destruction”) is preferred.