Using Primary Sources to Teach About Americans and the Holocaust

Today’s post comes from National Archives volunteer Cynthia Peterman.

We recently featured historical documents about U.S. immigration policy during World War II and the Holocaust in the webinar “Teaching Americans and the Holocaust with National Archives Primary Sources.” The program was part of a collaboration between the National Archives and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s (USHMM) Levine Institute for Holocaust Education.

The professional development webinar presented primary sources, DocsTeach classroom activities, and resources from USHMM’s new exhibition “Americans and the Holocaust.” Participants joined from USHMM’s Museum Teacher Fellows program, the Conference for Holocaust Education Centers, and the Holocaust Institute for Teacher Educators.

The Quanza

Between 1939-1941, more than 1,200 ships arrived in New York with nearly 111,000 Jewish passengers on board who were fleeing persecution in the Nazi-held countries of Europe. The most well-known of these ships, the MS St. Louis, having been refused entry to Cuba and Miami, was forced to return to Europe where 254 of the 937 passengers were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. One year later, another less well-known ship, the S.S. Quanza, successfully landed its refugee passengers in Norfolk, Virginia.

The Quanza was a Portuguese ship that sailed on August 8, 1940, from Lisbon, Portugal, bound for Veracruz, Mexico, with more than 300 passengers on board. Many of the passengers were Jewish refugees from Nazi-controlled Europe. Desperate to leave Europe, some of them carried forged visas for the United States and Mexico.

When the ship arrived in New York on August 20, only 196 were allowed to disembark. When the remaining 121 arrived in Veracruz, the Mexican government would only admit the 35 whose visas they accepted as valid. The ship was ordered back to Europe with a stop in Norfolk, Virginia, to refuel.

Hearing rumors that Portugal would refuse to accept the passengers, the State Department considered offering temporary visas based on an emergency clause in the Alien Registration Act of June 1940 (Title III, Section 30).

Title III, Section 30 of the Alien Registration Act of June 1940
Title III, Section 30 of the Alien Registration Act of June 1940; Public Law 76-670; From the General Records of the United States Government.

On September 11, 1940, the ship arrived in Norfolk. Panic among the passengers ensued, with one man jumping overboard to swim to shore (he was returned to the ship). Others wrote telegrams to President Franklin Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, begging them to intervene.

A family aboard the Quanza hired Norfolk attorney Jacob L. Morewitz, who sued the Portuguese National Line for breach of contract. While the suit went to court, immigrant advocates lobbied the Government. The President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees interviewed the passengers and, on September 14, 1940, all remaining passengers were permitted to enter the United States as political refugees.

Primary Sources

The documents presented here are used in the DocsTeach activity The SS Quanza and European War Refugees, in which students compare and contrast attitudes on immigration during this turbulent period in modern history.

Documents about the Quanza in the holdings of the National Archives are found primarily in the General Records of the Department of State, as well as at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, in Hyde Park, NY. Telegrams, State Department correspondence, letters from American citizens, and memos from the President illustrate the intense debate about U.S. policy toward refugees.

While docked in Norfolk, passengers aboard the Quanza sent telegrams to President Roosevelt and Mrs. Roosevelt imploring them to permit the passengers to disembark.

Telegram from Women Passengers on the Ship Quanza to Eleanor Roosevelt
Telegram from Quanza Passengers to Eleanor Roosevelt, 9/10/1940; From the General Records of the Department of State

American citizens, such as Bonte C. Crompton of Alexandria, Virginia, also sent telegrams expressing concern about the fate of the refugees should the ship be returned to war-torn Europe.

Telegram from Bonte Crompton to Eleanor Roosevelt
Telegram from Bonte Crompton to Eleanor Roosevelt, 9/12/1940; From the General Records of the Department of State

Other citizens sent letters and telegrams opposing any loosening of restrictions that would allow more refugees to come to the United States, such as this letter from E.C. Powell, an attorney in Norfolk.

Letter from E. C. Powell
Letter from E. C. Powell, 9/16/1940; From the General Records of the Department of State

On September 18, 1940, four days after the passengers disembarked, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long sent a letter to President Roosevelt asking to revise the policy that allowed the President’s Advisory Committee on Political Refugees to recommend specific refugees for entry visas to the U.S. based on the category of “political, intellectual or other refugees.”

Long expressed concern that the system allowed people “who are not of the desirable element” and are “not properly within the category of intellectual leaders…in imminent danger” to be admitted to the United States, and proposed that consular officials should have more responsibility to vet names proposed by the Committee prior to issuing visas.

Letter from Breckenridge Long to FDR
Letter from Breckinridge Long, 9/18/1940; From the Collection FDR-FDRPOF: President’s Official Files (Roosevelt Administration)

2 thoughts on “Using Primary Sources to Teach About Americans and the Holocaust

  1. World War II was most tragic moment for the people who lost their family,friends and residence by the Tortura of Nazi who took the control of Europe.

    Tony Thomas

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