America was struggling with economic difficulties, and an unfavorable attitude towards “aliens” prevailed in Congress. Among much of the populace, the idea of admitting large numbers of Jewish immigrants was not popular, and President Roosevelt was not inclined to relax America’s immigration restrictions. Thus, when Alice Rice of Virginia Beach tried to facilitate the immigration of her Czech relatives, she received the standard answer from the acting chief of the Foreign Office’s visa division, Eliot B. Coulter. He emphasized the importance of proving that the applicants were not likely to become “public charges” and pointed to the provisions of the 1917 Immigration Act, which, in addition to economic prerequisites, made immigration dependent on a host of conditions grounded in considerations of a political, racial, moral and health-related nature, as well as stating that a person 16 or more years of age was eligible for immigration only if literate. Despite the valiant efforts of Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, whose department was in charge of immigration and naturalization issues at the time, US policy was not revised to accommodate the needs created by the wave of refugees coming out of Nazi Germany. Interestingly, one of the justifications for this was that the German quota was actually never filled – without mentioning, of course, that this was a result of the “public charge” provision, which made it impossible for many German Jews, who had been systematically driven into poverty by the Nazis, to successfully apply for visas.
Thanks to the intervention of William E. Dodd, U.S. Ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937, Erich M. Lipmann managed to immigrate to the U.S. in 1936. By the time the 26-year-old made this impassioned plea to Dodd to help his mother, Martha Lipmann, leave Germany and join him in Cleveland, he had already spent two years in the US. The letter displayed here is but one in a long series of increasingly frantic attempts by Lippmann to save his mother. Over the course of several years, he tirelessly approached anyone who might be of help.
On April 4, 1938, Arthur Sweetser, a member of the Secretariat of the League of Nations, met with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the meeting, the two discussed the situation of German and Austrian Jews urgently seeking ways to emigrate. Roosevelt brought up the idea of an international conference. His reasoning was simple: only under determined US leadership could the problem be solved and other nations be convinced to take in Jewish refugees. It remains disputed whether the idea of a joint debate on the situation of the Jews under the Nazi regime came from Roosevelt himself or rather from high-ranking State Department officials.