A disin­gen­u­ous han­dling of the Jewish refugee is­sue in ‘Ge­nius’

The Einstein TV se­ries gives Roo­sevelt staff more credit than de­served

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Rafael Med­off Rafael Med­off is found­ing di­rec­tor of the David S. Wyman In­sti­tute for Holo­caust Stud­ies, and au­thor or edi­tor of 16 books about the Holo­caust and Jewish history.

Al­bert Einstein was one of the great­est sci­en­tists of all time. His con­tri­bu­tions to physics rev­o­lu­tion­ized our un­der­stand­ing of the uni­verse. The cur­rent tele­vi­sion se­ries based on his life is ap­pro­pri­ately ti­tled “Ge­nius.” But did he also help fa­cil­i­tate a mass res­cue of Jews from Ger­many?

That was the sur­pris­ing — and pro­foundly mis­lead­ing — claim made in last week’s episode of the first sea­son of the Ron Howard­pro­duced se­ries, which is be­ing shown on the National Ge­o­graphic chan­nel.

Last week’s episode (No. 8) de­picted how in late 1932, as the Nazis were ris­ing to power in Ger­many, Einstein ap­plied for a visa to the United States. Amer­i­can con­sul Ray­mond Geist, in Ber­lin, was shown ask­ing Einstein to sign an af­fi­davit that he was not a mem­ber of the Com­mu­nist Party. In the fi­nal scene of the episode, Einstein told Geist he would sign, then added: “But prom­ise me [that] Elsa and I will not be the only Jews you help find their way to Amer­ica’s shores.”

Then the fol­low­ing state­ment ap­peared on the screen, be­fore the cred­its be­gan to roll: “From 1933 to 1939, United States Con­sul Gen­eral Ray­mond Geist helped is­sue life­sav­ing visas for more than 50,000 Ger­man Jews.”

Thus, view­ers were left with the im­pres­sion that Geist was re­spon­si­ble for res­cu­ing tens of thou­sands of Jews from the Nazis, per­haps be­cause his con­science was prod­ded by Einstein’s re­mark.

It’s not clear where the writ­ers of “Ge­nius” came up with that in­for­ma­tion, since tele­vi­sion shows don’t have foot­notes. Cer­tainly noth­ing re­sem­bling the Geist-as-res­cuer claim ap­pears in the book on which the se­ries is based, “Einstein: His Life and Uni­verse,” by Wal­ter Isaac­son. Nor can it be found in Fred Jerome’s “The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover’s War Against the World’s Most Fa­mous Sci­en­tist,” upon which Isaac­son’s ver­sion of the in­ci­dent is partly based. (In fact, Mr. Jerome con­tends that Einstein never signed the af­fi­davit at all.)

But what­ever the source for the “Ge­nius” team’s claim about Geist, it’s mis­lead­ing in the ex­treme.

A to­tal of 77,751 Ger­man na­tion­als — ap­prox­i­mately 70,000 of whom were Jews — im­mi­grated to the United States dur­ing the years 1933-1939. But more than twice that num­ber — 184,525, to be ex­act — could have been ad­mit­ted, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. im­mi­gra­tion quota for Ger­mans that was in force at the time. In other words, the Ger­man quota for that pe­riod was only 42 per­cent filled. As for the other 58 per­cent who were turned away — well, tough luck.

Of the 12 years Franklin D. Roo­sevelt was pres­i­dent, the Ger­man quota was filled in just one (1939). In most of those years, it was less than 25 per­cent filled. The pol­icy of the Roo­sevelt ad­min­is­tra­tion — im­ple­mented by Ray­mond Geist and his fel­low con­sular of­fi­cials in Ger­many — was to sup­press Jewish refugee im­mi­gra­tion far be­low the le­gal lim­its. They did it by pil­ing on ex­tra re­quire­ments to qual­ify for visas, and look­ing for every con­ceiv­able way to re­ject ap­pli­cants.

Some refugees were turned away be­cause they had only a ke­tubah (the tra­di­tional Jewish mar­riage cer­tifi­cate), rather than a civil mar­riage cer­tifi­cate, and U.S. con­suls re­fused to rec­og­nize it as valid (thus ren­der­ing the cou­ple’s chil­dren “il­le­git­i­mate”).

Many Ger­man Jewish stu­dents who were ad­mit­ted to Amer­i­can col­leges were de­nied visas be­cause the con­suls claimed it might not be safe enough for them to re­turn to Ger­many later. Talk about a Catch-22 — they needed to leave Ger­many be­cause it was not safe, but they could not go to Amer­ica be­cause it would be un­safe for them to go back to Ger­many.

The Amer­i­can con­sul-gen­eral in Ber­lin even told his col­leagues that Ger­man Jews’ hos­til­ity to the Ger­man gov­ern­ment was only tem­po­rary, and there­fore their deep-seated loy­alty to Ger­many could dis­qual­ify them from visas to the United States.

Einstein soon be­came aware of these poli­cies, and protested vig­or­ously. In one ap­peal to first lady Eleanor Roo­sevelt, he charged that the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s at­ti­tude “makes it all but im­pos­si­ble to give refuge in Amer­ica to many wor­thy per­sons who are the vic­tims of Fas­cist cru­elty in Europe … . The method which is be­ing used [by U.S. con­sular of­fi­cials] is to make im­mi­gra­tion im­pos­si­ble by erect­ing a wall of bu­reau­cratic mea­sures.”

Con­trary to the im­pres­sion cre­ated by “Ge­nius,” Einstein’s re­mark to Ray­mond Geist did not cause Geist to start bend­ing rules for visa ap­pli­cants. In fact, Geist at one point specif­i­cally ad­vised his col­leagues against greater le­niency to­ward refugees, on the grounds that it would re­sult in “un­de­sir­able per­sons” en­ter­ing the United States.

More­over, Geist him­self re­jected visas for stu­dents to at­tend in­sti­tu­tions such as Drop­sie Col­lege and the Jewish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary of Amer­ica, be­cause they could not prove they would re­turn to Nazi Ger­many later. And Jewish lead­ers in the Ger­man city of Dres­den com­plained to the Amer­i­can Jewish Joint Dis­tri­bu­tion Com­mit­tee in 1939 about what they called Geist’s “oner­ous be­hav­ior” in as­sess­ing visa ap­pli­cants.

There is ev­i­dence Geist was some­what more crit­i­cal of the Nazis, and more will­ing to pri­vately ac­knowl­edge the suf­fer­ing of the Jews, than some of his col­leagues. He also as­sisted some U.S. cit­i­zens who were de­tained by the Nazis (which is ex­actly the kind of thing Amer­i­can con­suls do, of course). But he still ac­tively en­forced the Roo­sevelt ad­min­is­tra­tion’s harsh pol­icy of sup­press­ing Jewish refugee im­mi­gra­tion far be­low what U.S. quota laws al­lowed. The fact that a mi­nor­ity of the ap­pli­cants man­aged to get through the maze of ob­sta­cles that Geist and his col­leagues cre­ated hardly makes Geist their res­cuer.

“Ge­nius” is an im­mensely in­ter­est­ing, en­ter­tain­ing and ed­u­ca­tional se­ries. But its mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Amer­ica’s refugee pol­icy can only di­min­ish its ed­u­ca­tional value.


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