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U.S. Policy Toward Americans in Peril

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of American citizens were in every major concentration camp: Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Dachau, Buchenwald. Americans were even in the Warsaw Ghetto. More than 5,000 Americans were imprisoned in internment camps. The total number who died in Nazi camps is uncertain, but definitely was in the hundreds.

American Jews were subject to the same anti-Semitic regulations and dangers as any other Jews who came under the control of the Nazis. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives could have been saved had the United States government taken action to rescue people claiming American citizenship. Often it did just the opposite, creating obstacles that impeded Americans from obtaining the necessary documents to escape from the Nazis.

In 1939, more than 80,000 American citizens were believed to be living abroad. State Department officials held that citizens who had no apparent intention of returning to the United States could not expect their government to feel any obligation to protect them. An even deeper prejudice lay behind this viewpoint: the belief that citizens returning from abroad would become "welfare" cases.

Initially, U.S. officials thought American Jews were safe. In 1941, Secretary of State Cordell Hull said he expected Americans to be exempt from anti-Jewish laws. A few months later, he was explicitly told the Germans would make no distinctions based on nationality.

In places like France and Hungary, American property was confiscated. As early as January 1942, the State Department learned that Americans were being arrested. In one case, a group of 35 American Jews was threatened with deportation from Slovakia and another 70 Americans sought repatriation. The Department refused to help them because it believed Slovak authorities were trying to use the Americans to pressure the United States to recognize Slovakia. Once that decision was made, the State Department was forced to cover up its failure to act out of fear of public reaction. A top official admitted that "if the Axis propaganda mill should give publicity to the proposed ill treatment of American citizens of Jewish race in Slovakia there may be considerable criticism of the Department by Jewish circles in the United States." This is perhaps the clearest statement that the State Department was aware of the seriousness of the plight of Jews in Eastern Europe, was sensitive to public opinion and still was unwilling to act.

Americans in the occupied territories could not travel and communicate freely; they needed special permits to leave and those were rarely given. The situation was exacerbated when the Germans closed U.S. offices in Germany and the occupied territories. One State Department official suggested that the Passport Division provide a list of passports issued in Europe during 1941, as well as a list of Americans whose passports were validated in 1940 or 1941 for continued stays in Europe, so the Department could check for Americans in Europe who might be entitled to repatriation. The idea was vetoed. Swiss officials in charge of American affairs were left to identify U.S. citizens, but, contrary to the usual practice, were refused access to American files.

In fact, officials planned to decide whom they wanted to allow to return to the United States. The official responsible for helping U.S. citizens overseas, Breckinridge Long, said in June 1942 that Americans in Germany awaiting repatriation "ought to be examined and only those we want should be accepted" (emphasis in the original).

Even less attention was paid to whether Americans were in concentration camps. When the issue was raised, the government denied any Americans were in the camps. But the U.S. government did know Americans were in concentration camps. For example, the State Department had reliable information that about 200 people claiming U.S. citizenship were in Bergen-Belsen in July 1944.

How many American Jews could have been saved had the United States taken steps to protect its citizens?

It is impossible to say. The relatively small number of Americans in danger makes the government's inaction that much more inexcusable.

At the very least, U.S. officials could have shown flexibility and leniency in the evaluation of claims of American citizenship. Instead, the Department adhered to a strict policy that required claimants to prove their citizenship. Simultaneously, the Department adopted an equally inflexible policy to obstruct Americans from obtaining the necessary documentation, prohibiting the transfer from the United States to enemy territory of any documents, including those that could substantiate claims to American nationality. The absurdity of this position was to place the burden on the Jew in Nazi hands, as occurred when the government demanded proof of citizenship from a man held in Auschwitz. Many Jews may not have had legitimate claims, but the State Department knew that rejecting applicants effectively condemned them, initially to persecution, and later to death.

In January 1940, President Roosevelt sent a list of 200 names to the State Department with instructions that they be given emergency visas. Had he given the same type of special assistance to all U.S. citizens throughout the war, thousands would have been spared needless suffering and hundreds would have been saved from execution.

Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans In Hitler's Camps