Desperate to escape Nazi persecution during World War II, Anne Frank’s family tried repeatedly to flee to the United States before going into hiding in 1942, according to new researchpublished this week. However, the combination of Nazi rule, World War II bombing and American bias against accepting Jewish refugees ensured they never made it far enough through the application process.
“The United States had no specific refugee policy prior to World War II,” write Rebecca Erbelding and Gertjan Broek, authors of research jointly published by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. “Those seeking to escape Nazi persecution in Europe, like the families of Otto Frank and Hermann van Pels, had to clear the same bureaucratic hurdles as other immigrants.” The van Pels family hid from the Nazis in the same Amsterdam attic as the Franks.
The Frank and van Pels families were living in the Netherlands when they applied to emigrate in the late 1930s. Because they had been born in Germany, all of the family members were German nationals at a time when the annual U.S. quota for German immigration was just under 26,000. But there was a huge waiting list to join that group, and the application process required a number of documents that, for persecuted Jewish people, were difficult—if not impossible—to obtain.
A letter from Anne Frank’s father Otto reveals that he first applied for U.S. immigration visas as early as 1938, the year that Germany annexed Austria and Nazis terrorized Jewish citizens during Kristallnacht. At the time, many other Jewish families were trying to flee to the U.S., as well.
Between June 30, 1938 and June 1939, the waiting list for a German quota visa skyrocketed from 139,163 to 309,782, say Erbelding and Broek. It was the first time since 1930 that the State Department maxed out the German quota.
A letter from Otto Frank written on April 30, 1941 is the only surviving evidence that he applied for U.S. visas. As he wrote in his letter, his family still languished on the waiting list, which was kept at the American consulate in Rotterdam, when German bombing destroyed all of the consulate’s papers on May 14, 1940.
There’s no evidence that Otto Frank brought his receipt to the Rotterdam consulate and refreshed his family’s place on the German waiting list. “We do not know whether Otto had already submitted any of his family’s documents to the consulate — official birth certificates, military papers or financial documents ,” write the authors,“but if he had, they were all destroyed in the bombing. He would need to collect them again.”
Soon after Frank wrote his letter about the destruction of his family’s immigration applications, the U.S. and Germany made it even harder for Jewish Germans to immigrate to America. In the same way that unfounded U.S. suspicion of Japanese Americans led to internment camps, unsubstantiated paranoia about German spies led to discrimination against Jewish-German immigrants.
The authors point out that a Gallup poll conducted in June 1940 revealed that 71% of respondents believed the Nazis had already established a network of spies and saboteurs in the United States. “FDR had warned that even Jewish refugees could be ‘spying under compulsion’ to save the lives of family members held hostage in Nazi Germany,” write Erbelding and Broek.
In this context, the authors say, national security concerns superseded humanitarian ones. On July 1, 1941, the State Department made “applicants with close relatives remaining in German-occupied countries” ineligible for visas. The U.S. also increased the number of federal departments that had to approve visa applications, amplifying the red tape. Around the same time, the Germans also closed all American consulates in Nazi-occupied territory, completely cutting off a direct immigration path to the U.S.
After this, Otto Frank tried to take his family to the U.S. via a more circuitous route: through Cuba. His attempt to immigrate there hit a major roadblock when on November 25th, all German Jews living outside Germany were officially stripped of their nationality. “Since the Frank family had never become Dutch citizens,” Erbelding and Broek write, “they were now officially stateless.”
Cuba cancelled Otto Frank’s immigration application a few days after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. By July 1942 it was clear that Otto’s efforts to get to the U.S. would not succeed in time to avoid Nazi genocidal policies.
That month, the Franks moved into secret rooms in the building where Otto worked, and were shortly joined by the van Pels, who had also tried unsuccessfully to obtain U.S. visas. The Holocaust Museum and the Anne Frank House released their research on the Frank family’s immigration attempts on the anniversary of the day the Franks went into hiding.
“There is no evidence that either the Frank or van Pels families were explicitly denied visas by the American consulate,” Erbelding and Broek write in their paper, “yet their efforts were thwarted by American bureaucracy, war and time.”
After two years in this Achterhuis, or “secret annex,” the two families were discovered by the Gestapo and sent to concentration camps. Anne Frank died at the Bergen-Belsen camp in early 1945, just a few months before the fighting ended in Europe.