Anne Frank, European Jewish refugees and American responses to the Holocaust – lessons for today

Anne Frank, the German/Dutch girl of Jewish background, has achieved posthumous fame as a brave and principled refugee through her diaries – and rightly so. Her writings are studied in schools and colleges throughout the world.

The Franks – mainly her father, Otto – tried repeatedly to find asylum in the United States. While the US government never outright denied a visa to the Franks, Washington authorities did everything they could to thwart European Jewish refugee applications, thus abandoning those asylum seekers to a tragic fate.

The sabotage of the Franks’ numerous attempts to acquire asylum, the response of the American government to the persecution of European Jews, and the arguments against allowing Jews to settle in the US have lessons for us today.

German-born Anne Frank, along with her family, fled Nazi Germany in the early 1930s. Finding relative security in the Netherlands, the Franks’ security – as a family of Jews – was imperilled by the 1940 Nazi invasion and occupation of Holland. Dutch Jews were subjected to racial persecution, and Anne – with her sister Margot – went into hiding. From 1942 until August 1944, Anne kept an extensive diary of her experiences and observations. Arrested by the Gestapo, Anne and Margot died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, in February 1945.

Her diaries were eventually published posthumously. News reports about the horrors of the concentration camps, the legalised discrimination against Jews in Nazi Germany – and by neighbouring anti-Semitic Eastern European regimes – filtered out of Europe. America’s response, from the 1920s onwards, was to tighten immigration and refugee restrictions, impose more restrictive criteria about whom was eligible to apply, and encouraged public anti-refugee sentiments.

Otto Frank wrote multiple letters, documenting his increasing sorrow and desperation as he made attempts to gain asylum. His ultimately tragic journey was emblematic of the plight of European Jewish refugees. In fact, Jewish asylum seekers were denounced in ways that we would find familiar today when discussing Muslim refugees. Slandered as foreign agents, European Jews were targeted as ‘communist conspirators’, plotting to overthrow the capitalist system, impose a dictatorship and undermine the Anglo-Christian way of life.

European Jews were already regarded with racial suspicion, and immigration laws limited the number of refugees allowable in the US. These quotas were almost always never completely fulfilled. Jews from Eastern Europe were considered perennial outsiders, unable to assimilate into American culture. Condemned as purveyors of ‘foreign interference’, the Jewish presence in the US was regarded as a potentially treasonous element – which has disturbing parallels with the mistreatment of Muslims today.

Otto Frank, while considered a ‘prosperous’ person in Nazi-occupied Holland, continued to navigation the tortuous and demoralising procedures for seeking asylum. As the US made it harder for Jewish refugees to emigrate – the latter were also denounced as ‘leeches’ seeking to parasitise the American system – applicants had to prove they could pay their own way. Additionally, affidavits were required by US-born citizens vouching for the financial capacities of the intended applicant.

The Franks attempted to apply for asylum in Cuba – the latter nation at that time being economically and politically dominated by the United States. Those Jewish refugees who tried to use this route to mainland United States were thwarted. The US ambassador to Cuba advised that those Jews on refugee visas were untrusting because – ironically – they could be undercover agents of the Nazi German government.

It is true that the most famous German Jewish refugee scholar, Albert Einstein, successfully found asylum in the United States. By the early 1930s, he was already an internationally renowned scientist – by 1932, he was appointed a professor at Princeton University. He had strong academic ties inside the US, and so while he acquired asylum, his example is atypical. His intellectual capital was a highly sought-after commodity.

As the Second World War began, (1939-40) Jewish immigrants formed more than half of those entering the United States. However, economic and political expediency overtook whatever fleeting humanitarian considerations may have existed with regard to refugee policy. By the end of 1941, the doors were being slammed shut, and the Franks were among those excluded. American political and media figures recycled slanderously false claims that Jewish refugees would end up ‘leeching’ resources, or otherwise taking jobs from ‘real Americans.’

In the current policy climate, after 19 years of the so-called ‘war on terror‘, we are recycling the same hateful rhetoric against refugees from Muslim-majority nations that we once reserved for Jewish refugees. Islamophobia plays the same functional and ideological role as anti-Semitism. Muslims are vilified as a ‘fifth column’, potential jihadists waiting for an opportune moment to rise up and impose ‘Sharia law’.

These kinds of prejudicial public sentiments have real-world policy consequences. From anti-refugee policies to Trump’s loudly proclaimed ‘Muslim ban’, there are countless Anne Frank equivalents currently labouring away in numerous countries – Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Palestine – all of which suffer from US foreign policies which create refugees.

It is time to end vindictive anti-immigrant policies which only scapegoat the vulnerable. How many more Anne Franks have to die before we question the xenophobic ideology which not only condemns refugees, but rationalises the economic and social policies which create them?

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