Ed Balchowsky, Illinois-born volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, recalled later in life that he had “learned about oppression at a very early age because for years I was the only Jewish child in my hometown.” Unable to strike back against bigotry in the United States, with the onset of the Spanish civil war, Balchowsky felt “grateful for the opportunity to fight what I had found no way to fight at home.”
Anti-Semitism did not originate with Hitler. Based on the traditional hostility of Christianity to Judaism, Jews had been persecuted since at least the Middle Ages. Anti-Semitism existed in America from early colonial days. Until the Civil War, however, as long as Jews were only a small percentage of the country’s population, it remained latent. Anti-Semitism became more open in the 1880s with the arrival of approximately two million Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They came mostly from areas of the Russian empire where religious persecution was common. By the end of the nineteenth century conditions for Jews worsened with the passage of more restrictive legislation and recurrent government sponsored violent attacks against Jewish communities called pogroms. Jews began fleeing in great numbers to the United States. Many Americans who traced their roots to northwestern Europe and Scandinavia grew increasingly concerned with the arrival of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe whom they considered to belong to inferior “races” and additionally in the case of Jews, because of their religious beliefs.
Anti-Semitism was based on a combination of pervasive and contradictory Jewish stereotypes. Jews were portrayed as vulgar “money grabbing” capitalists as well as dangerous revolutionaries. Anti-Semitism spread through every aspect of American society: Newspapers and magazines commonly printed anti-Semitic articles and cartoons; anti-Semites held high positions in the federal government particularly in the State department; Jews were excluded from social clubs and faced discrimination in employment opportunities, especially in the professions; many towns adopted zoning regulations to prevent the sale of land and houses to Jews. Starting in 1922, following the example of Harvard, many prominent northeastern universities imposed strict quotas on the numbers of Jews they admitted.
During the 1920s, automaker Henry Ford’s weekly newspaper, the Dearborn Independent (with a circulation of 700,000) launched a vicious campaign against what he termed “The International Jew” which he accused of everything from threatening the capitalist system to undermining the moral values of the nation, and finally he even held them responsible for World War I.
Half a world away, Ford’s tirades against the “international Jewish conspiracy” were enthusiastically received by Adolph Hitler and reprinted in Nazi publications. Hitler saw the Jews as the source of all of Germany’s troubles. The Nazi leader articulated his ideology and program in Mein Kampf (My Struggle) published in the mid-1920s. In this book Hitler expressed the antidemocratic, racist and expansionist views that would eventually be put in practice.
In early 1933, soon after he had risen to power, Hitler proceeded to establish complete Nazi control over Germany. Laws were passed outlawing labor unions and all political parties except for the Nazi. A first concentration camp was also established in Dachau for opponents of the new regime.
In public rituals, books written by authors unacceptable to the Nazi were burned across the country. As a believer in Aryan superiority, Hitler set up a new racial state that he believed was destined to dominate Europe and possibly the rest of the world. Hitler viewed Jews as the archenemies of Aryans and demanded that they be exterminated. The new Nazi government ordered a boycott of Jewish businesses. Other laws excluded Jews from government jobs, from the legal and medical profession, from holding teaching positions, and from entertainment and cultural activities. In September 1935, the Nazi regime adopted a new series of anti-Semitic laws known as the “Nuremberg laws” that deprived Jews of German citizenship and instituted other provisions to deny them civil rights. German anti-Semitism adopted more violent tactics with the pogrom of November 9-10, 1938, the infamous Kristallnacht, during which over 100 Jews were killed, approximately 400 synagogues were destroyed or damaged together with over 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, and 30,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps.
While Hitler did not “invent” anti-Semitism, with the onset of World War II and the implementation of the Nazi’s “final solution” to the Jewish problem, the world had never before experienced such a systematic attempt to exterminate an entire population.
Jews in the United States were deeply concerned by Hitler’s rise to power. As German Jews faced increasing persecution and began to seek refuge in other countries, many prominent Americans denounced Hitler’s vicious anti-Semitism. Despite pressure from various Jewish groups, however, the U.S. State Department and Congress refused to alter immigration policies to ease the admission of Jewish refugees. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed several Jews, such as Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morganthau, to high office and recognized the importance of Jewish support of his New Deal programs, but he did not challenge the prevailing anti-Jewish sentiments among leadership groups. Refusing to challenge existing immigration quotas, Washington allowed selected Jews, such as the physicist Albert Einstein, to enter the country but did little to help the mass of Jewish refugees.