tv Young Americans Reponse to the Nazi Threat CSPAN April 24, 2021 10:30am-11:11am EDT
actions and impact that young people in america had in responding to the nazi threat that they were hearing about in europe during the 1930s and 1940s. we have two special guests today. my friend and colleague dr. rebecca erbelding is a historian here at the united states holocaust memorial museum. hi there becky. hey, edna, i miss seeing you every day exactly in normal times. we sit on the same hallway just a couple of doors from each other. so good to meet in this virtual space. and we are also delighted to welcome leila braun a doctoral candidate at the university of michigan who recently completed research for the museum about american student responses to the nazi threat. good morning leila. good morning, edna. hi becky. it's great to see you both. thanks for having me here. welcome. please send us your questions for both becky and leila by posting them in the comments section and we will get to as many of them live in the course of the program as we have time for.
so becky young people, you know, sometimes might feel that only the people who are older than they are or an official positions or positions of power can really have an impact or make change, but we know that that's not true and we're going to be getting into that today, but i'd like to know what the mindset was. what was the environment for young people and for all americans during the 1930s and 40s? well, the 1930s and 40s were really fraught time to be an american especially a young american probably the thing that impacted american life the most was the great depression in 1933 25% of american workers were unemployed. so staggering numbers of unemployment and and the depression impacted all americans including and especially young people people who are just starting out just looking for their first jobs and so for them the future looked really really bleak there weren't a lot of real substantive government programs at first so many people relied
on soup kitchens and bread lines. you can see a picture of a soup kitchen here. this is all so a time when racism in antisemitism and the hatred of immigrants was common and it and sometimes reflected in local and national laws and after world war one the united states became a really isolationist nation looking inward americans. want to get involved in any foreign conflicts? they they really felt like they enough problems at home. and just like their older counterparts young americans would have had a variety of opinions, but can you help to summarize a bit about what they felt and what they thought about what was happening abroad. did they think we should get involved or not? no, they did not like like most americans at the time polls show us young americans did not want the united states to get involved in any kind of other war. so in the 1930s even before world war ii began anti-war
organizing was common among young people. we have a photograph that i think we can show you so this is an anti-war protest held at michigan or i'm sorry it wayne state university in michigan, which was organized by the american student union. this was a nationwide organization of students who campaigned against the rise of nationalism and fascism in europe and promoted pacifism the idea that war should be avoided at all costs. they held national days of organization and on april 22nd 1936 a half a million students from around the country including those at wayne state left their classrooms to strike pledging that they wouldn't fight in any foreign war. this is kind of logical because students of course would be the ones called on to fight and many young americans were starting to find their voice in this moment, maybe because of the bleak state of the country, so they were trying to create a new world and had no idea that world war ii
would soon start to challenge their ideas of pacifism. yeah, i'm struck by, you know, just kind of doing the quick math people who are late teens or early 20s at this time would have been born either at the tail end of what was then called the great war as he said we didn't know there was going to be a second world war. so it wasn't the first world war and someone who's 18 or 19 years old. it was all going to be the first to be drafted in the military. so a decision like that would have had direct implications for them. it's also striking, you know, we think about anti-war protests being a youth movement of the 1960s but to see like hey, there's a longer precedent for this and a longer history. like to take a moment to pause and greet our viewers from all around the country. good morning to don and flatwoods, virginia, west virginia and also to viewers in tullahoma, tennessee, saint paul, minnesota belvedere. tennessee's really well represented today hi to you in chicago my home state of
illinois, greensboro, north carolina. we're all in north carolina and santa fe, new mexico and also greetings to our international viewers in tremoyne norway south jose del rio preto in brazil. we're glad to have you with us. leila i'd like to turn to you now while as becky has described auntie warren isolation as sentiment was common not all americans felt able or willing to close their eyes to what was happening in europe, especially to the human rights violations that we were seeing. as american students began to learn more about the nazi persecution of jews whether via their local newspaper or newsreels in a movie theater. did any of them take action to try to help them get out of nazi europe? absolutely. so one thing to keep in mind about the isolationism that becky is described for us is that there were immigration quotas. so the number of people from abroad who could enter the us with severely restricted but one
way that a person could get around these quotas was to come to the united states and enroll as a student. so this really opened up a door both for students who were aiming to leave europe and for student activists in the united states to make a difference. so the real turning point here in terms of folks awareness of what was happening over in europe was in 1938 kristallnacht or the night of broken glass which was a moment of organized violence against jews in germany. and you can see in student newspapers from the time that this was a real turning point in american students and youth more broadly in their understanding of the kind of violence and persecution. that was unfolding. and they quickly organized at this moment to try to sponsor refugee students to come over from europe. so at harvard university for instance as you can see in this photo this was a moment of organizing you can see a student reading a flyer harvard protests
nazi terror and students at harvard formed the harvard committee to age german refugee students as did many schools over the country over 200 institutions in over 40 states took up these kind of efforts wherein they would raise money to cover the tuition for a refugee student who could come over often just a handful of students at each institution only one or two and these students were often selected on the basis of essays. they wrote to sort of petition to come over. i mean, it's really inspiring to hear about college students trying to help their peers identifying with someone they've never met but also kind of chilling to think that someone's life could depend on writing an essay and winning an essay contest. just the randomness of it. becky let's put a face to one of these refugees though because refugee just sounds like you know someone in plight someone not that relatable tell us about the positive and life-changing impact that an effort like this had on one young man from germany named tom depner.
well, these efforts changed tom deffner's life. as you said tom was born in germany and under nazi law. he was considered half jewish. his father was not jewish and his mother was tom finally arrived in the united states when he was 18 years old after he escaped nazi germany to live with his father in the netherlands in 1938. this is a picture of tom after he's arrived in the us. and as leila said one of the ways you could get around this strict us immigration laws was to get accepted to an american university and to come on a student visa as a student. tom had tried a number of different universities. he even applied for one of the essay contests, but unfortunately he came in second. i mean we we talked about the pressure on students now to write their admissions essays. imagine what it was like being in europe knowing that this was your chance to escape and to get to the united states so he but he came in second in this in this contest. he worked with a quaker
organization the american friends service committee, which was running the largest non-jewish. organization in the united states to kind of help refugees escape nazi europe, so they helped tom and other students match with their universities. finally tom was accepted at mcpherson college a small christian school in rural, kansas. the students at mcpherson helped raise money. they even held a fundraising drive in april 1939 to give tom a scholarship to be able to attend mcpherson was open to accepting refugee students like tom, but that wasn't the case at other schools some of which had quotas that limited the number of jewish students who could attend um after world war ii broke out in september tom's traveled to the united states was delayed, but he did finally arrive in november 1939 and the whole process to find a spot for him at an american university had taken over a year, but finally in 1939. he it to, kansas.
and we want to give a special shout out. we know that people are watching from the mcpherson college community your understandably and rightfully proud of your role in this and we also have a note actually that tom deppner's granddaughter is watching today sarah writes this also had an impact on my life. thanks to mcpherson college for sponsoring my grandfather. becky tom ended up staying in the us afterwards, correct. he did he did after college. he joined the us army he served in first in the us army training camp in world war ii and in korea and vietnam you can see him in in one of the training camps there. he's the one circled second to the left. so he served in world war two in korea and in vietnam, he spent his career in the us army. just contextually, you know you had noted that tom depner. he was considered half jewish by the germans, but he was not actually a practicing jew and to put a broader context on this
people who did not consider themselves jewish or act jewishly often were more palatable to certain americans or to certain american institutions to accept because there was widespread anti-semitism and even as you noted quotas limits on the number of jewish students who would be accepted at many institutions of higher learning here, so it wasn't always a possible route. yeah. there was a lot of coded language about someone who looked the right part to fit in with this or would fit in with the student life on campus. becky so far we have been talking only about college age students, but very young americans actually helped their peers abroad who were suffering tell us about a movement called the children's crusade for children. i find the children's crusade for children. absolutely fascinating. it was a penny sharing relief drive in the spring of 1940 to provide aid to war stricken what so called worst stricken children in europe. the whole thing was organized by an author dorothy canfield
fisher. she was sympathetic to the plight of refugees and had the idea that young students nationwide could raise money for refugee children the press around this movement and around this effort made it clear that these would both be both christian and jewish students, even though we know that jewish children jewish refugee children, or the ones most at risk. so again, this is the coded language in the us since anti-semitism was common it was important for them as a tactic. say that the money would go to all refugee children. you can see i think we have a picture of a fundraising can in the museum's collection. we found this artifact actually in a thrift shop in west, virginia. and the artwork on the cover of the can was done by norman rockwell a very popular painter famous for artwork depicting patriotic american life and you see a american boy with three small refugee children behind
him american children were urged during this campaign to donate their age in pennies. so a five year old would donate five pennies and so on this effort was sponsored by eleanor roosevelt and it ran from april 23rd to april 30th 1940 as many as 250,000 schools throughout the united states participated and as part of the effort. it wasn't just fundraising they were hosting patriotic pageants and learning about other countries and writing to pen pals and other countries and creating poems and art about these so-called refugee war stricken refugee children, so it's partly a fundraising campaign in his partly a patriotic week to teach american children how lucky they were to be americans unlike the refugee children who are suffering so it's about patriotism but also service and sacrifice. became really as you said a mass movement and showed that even the youngest americas even the littlest among us could inspire
other people to act and could act themselves. and we actually have an audience comment along those lines shelley wrights that every good deed and every act of kindness no matter how small shifts the world onto a better path. and i thank you for that shelley. i think those of us who have made history and the telling of past events are our life's work. see that really all it is is the aggregation of many individual decisions many small acts that in the end shift things in a direction either good bad all kinds of ways. what i like to give special thanks to professor jeff feidlinger for his work with the university of michigan's graduate students like leila. that's how leila has come to our conversation today who you know gathered his grad students to research stories like the ones we are sharing in today's program and also thank you to dr. matthew unongst an assistant professor of history at jacksonville university and his students for tuning in today. we really appreciate your
interest and hope this inspires you to learn more leila while efforts were happening to help european refugees. we don't want to paint, you know, an artificially unified story some young americans were also still really vehemently speaking out against the united states going to war feeling that however troubling this was not our problem. could you tell us how students at yale university helped propel a national movement against the us getting involved? absolutely, and you know, what's interesting here. is that something we've been we've keep we keep coming back to in this conversation is the idea that sort of what's at stake is a question of american identity often in very complex ways wherein americans are concerned about what's happening abroad, but also concerned with sort of solidifying and codifying what it means to be an american and i think the america first committee which was founded at yale university by a group of law students in 1940 is a really good example of this
and you can see in their poster here with the figure of the statue of liberty and the notion that war is a threat to american ideals of liberty and independence are really at stake here. so america first founded at yale though. it was broadly opposed to american involvement in any war within that umbrella had several diverse viewpoints. so some members of america first were pacifists meaning that they just didn't want to get involved in any conflict while others actually may have sympathized with the nazi regime in germany, um and saw and thought that the the us shouldn't have shouldn't get involved because they sort of supported. what was unfolding there. um, so what's really interesting about america first is that it started as a student organization at yale, but thanks to the savvy of some of the organizers. they enlisted the help of celebrity aviator charles lindbergh.
so in 1940 these students wrote to lindberg asking him to come speak at yale now lindbergh was most famous for his solo flight across the atlantic, but he had also been touring the united states speaking in favor of us isolationism. so here you can see a photo of him at yale. he's in the middle so he did actually come and speak to these students and with the support of the celebrity avatar like lindbergh america first rapidly became a nationwide movement boasting as many as 800,000 members across the united states people from all walks of life. not just students. so although america first really has kind of a tarnished legacy. it's also really interesting for the way in which a student movement quickly became a nationwide one. and becky you were one of the historians who worked in our museum's current special exhibition americans in the holocaust. i know you're quite familiar with lindbergh. could you talk a little bit more about this american hero in ways that he was divisive and even
damaging sure. so lindbergh had a very well-deserved reputation as an antisemite and in 1941 while he was touring for the america first committee. he gave a speech in des moines, iowa where he called jewish people war agitators and used anti-semitic stereotypes to claim that they were part of a movement pushing the united states to enter the war. his speech was actually widely criticized throughout the united states and it hurt the america first organization after japan's attack on pearl harbor three months after this speech in december 1941 the united states, of course entered world war ii and america first disband in the next day many of the participants and even organizers of america first joined up and fought valiantly in the us military during the war. and as a follow-up question becky, excuse me, it's allergy season here in dc nils from greensboro is asking two related
questions since there was a strong isolationist movement among college student groups in the us prior to pearl harbor. were there any pro nazi student groups as well? and his second question is was anti-semitism a strong motivating factor for the yale students who founded the america first committee. i don't think anti-semitism was a strong motivating factor for the yale students, but the movement grew so quickly that it certainly had antisemitism in the ranks. and of course, you know one of their main spokesman was charles lindbergh who was known to be an anti-semite before they recruited him. um, were some young. pro nazi groups in the us in the mid-1930s that were in part-sponsored by some of the adult pronouncing groups like the friends of new germany and the german-american bund but by 19 by late 1939 and by the outbreak of war most americans
were were strongly on the side of the allies. they were just differing on whether or not the united states should get involved and so it became much less popular to espouse any any sort of pro nazi beliefs. thank you for that leila. excuse me, some young americans though actually stood up explicitly against anti-semitism both at home and in nazi germany. could you introduce us to a young man named drexel sprecher? absolutely. this is one of my favorite stories from the time that i unearth during my research with the museum. so drexel sprecher was born in wisconsin and he was a student at the university of wisconsin in the early 1930s. here's a photo of him with his fraternity phi gamma delta in 1934. so at the time drexel perceived the university of wisconsin to be relatively open and tolerant compared to some of its pure institutions, you know compared to some other specialty private universities wisconsin did not have quotas that limited the number of jewish students who
could enroll but that didn't mean that he didn't witness any anti-semitism on campus, you know, for instance. he observed that his own fraternity phi gamma. delta was not open to jewish students. on instead had to join specifically jewish fraternities, and he also sometimes even saw instances of anti-semitism erupt into violence and in response to this. he really took it upon himself to educate himself about what was folding over in europe. so in his coursework he dived into dove into the current events, and he also founded a student organization that was dedicated to tolerance on campus and interfaith efforts to promote dialogue and openness. i think it's significant for us to note that interfaith efforts or the concept of allyship. that is so popular today was certainly not the norm in the 1930s. so drexel was really doing something that made him an outlier something that made him stand stand out and not
necessarily popular polling at the time showed that majorities of christian americans would have been unhappy if their child had married a jewish american they didn't want jews as their neighbors. so it's a very different place than the us of today. but drexel sprechers mindset followed him and his social justice. way of looking at the world followed him. could you tell us how his commitment actually led him to prosecute nazi perpetrators later after he graduated college? yeah, so after you graduated from wisconsin drexel earned a law degree from harvard university and then when he was only in his 30s served as a prosecutor at the nuremberg trials, which was the first instance in which a international court sought to bring to justice government leaders the nazis for their for their war crimes. and so drexel was fluent in german, which meant that he
could translate documents that the nazis had kept of their crimes. he served in 12 cases at the nuremberg trials overall and notably helped to convict all their von schirak. who was the head of hitler's youth movement in germany. and we actually have some audio here that we'd like to play for you from that case that you talked about of funshirak the head of the hitler youth where he is prosecuting someone who indoctrinated the use of nazi germany. let's have a listen. the training of german youth runs through the nazi conspiracy. as an important central threat it is one of the manifestations of nazism. just shocked the entire civilized world. the principal responsibility for the planning and execution other the nazi youth policy falls upon this defendant i wish to take merely one sentence. from his own affidavit paragraph
5 document number 33.02 pf so that there can be no doubt before this tribunal or before the world indeed. this defendant's own feelings of responsibility. quote i feel myself responsible. for the policy of the youth movement. in the party and later within the right. you know, what's so interesting here, and this is partially speculation, but i think it's possible that drexels own formative experiences in his youth on campus where he perceived anti-semitism and really reacted against it and fought for justice led him to understand kind of the other side of the equation led him to understand how essential the youth movement was to hitler's party and how dangerous it was when youth were into inculcated
and such hateful ideas. and so you can kind of imagine that his own experiences would have led him to perceive the other side. well, he certainly wasn't extraordinary person someone who didn't just feel empathy but acted on it and carried that on into his professional career as well. so we're grateful to know about him. we have an audience question leila asking whether reactions from young americans varied by region. so for example with someone in the south different than someone in the north or the western us you have any examples of that? yeah, this reminds me of a really interesting example, which is that of maryland camera lee who was a student at the college of william and mary. in virginia in the late 30s and early 40s so marilyn was from michigan originally and she went to college in virginia which at the time was a jim crow state meaning that racial segregation was legal where it was not in michigan. so while racism certainly existed in both states, it would have been more overt and more
explicit in her new state of virginia. maryland was also the editor in chief of the campus newspaper, which was called the flat hat and in 1945. she published an op-ed in which she argued for black students to be admitted to the college and not only that for them to be fully incorporated into campus life and really act as equal so you can see here her article was called lincoln's job half done referring of course to abraham lincoln's efforts in the ongoing fight for equity and civil rights, and that's so interesting here is that she explicitly compared jim crow legislation to what she called a nazi strategy and she calls upon white people explicitly to educate themselves away from the idea of white supremacy for she writes that idea is as groundless as hitler's belief in nordic supremacy, so she's pulling on what she understands
about anti-semitism in europe comparing it to her own situation and arguing. forcefully for the inclusion of black students at william and mary so these are pretty radical fighting words to put into a student paper of any type at the time but a special in the american south. what was the reaction from the college brass and from her peers. the administration was not happy immediately. they stripped maryland of heritorial position and they threatened to expel her from the college. um now in response over a thousand of her peers at william and mary came out in protest to to protest her expulsion, um and perhaps influenced by that mass student outcry william and mary did not ultimately expel marilyn. she was allowed to remain at the college although the faculty did take some over editorial oversight of the newspaper which suggests that they were concerned about something like this happening again and here you can see a clipping that
maryland saved in her scrapbook about this outcry and it's published by the associated press. so this really gained some nationwide attention. it was really quite exceptional the kind of speaking out that she was engaged in. and actually a decade later william and mary did admit its first black students on 45 years later. it issued a formal apology to maryland and her family the way that they treated her. i think through maryland we see the way that young people not only can but sometimes are more willing than older people to kind of say that the quiet thing say the uncomfortable things and provoke debate and sometimes meaningful change change in policy. becky so far we've been talking about young people who heard about or reacted to nazi crimes from a comfortable or safe distance, but there were some young americans who actually witnessed firsthand the evidence of nazi atrocities. could you tell us about the experience of a young man named william scott?
sure. so william scott was born in 1923 and grew up in atlanta, georgia. so this is also an answer to amy's question about regional differences. he was a student at morehouse college a historically black college in his hometown of atlanta when he was drafted into the us army in january 1943. so he was still a very young man. he was only 20 and and this photo was taken shortly after he was drafted. the us army was segregated by race until after world war ii so william was placed in an all-black unit and later that year. he was assigned to the 183rd engineer combat battalion and served as a reconnaissance sergeant and as a photographer he came from a newspaper family. his father had founded a newspaper in atlanta. so being a photographer kind of fit within his skill set. and he was sent to europe in the summer of 1944 to fight against nazi, germany. while he was there in the spring of 1945 williams saw nazi
brutality firsthand. his battalion was sent to bear witness to the atrocities at the newly liberated buchenval concentration camp. i know i'm only talking about scott here, but i do think it's important to remember how young so many soldiers were he was 22 at this point, but so many of his fellow soldiers were 19 20 21 years old and witnessing things that we can't imagine. so william was was obviously horrified by what he saw but he also understood the value of documenting and he managed to take photos including this one here. some of his photos are very graphic and difficult to look at but that is what he and the other young soldiers were seeing and you can see in this photo both black and white soldiers witnessing liberation. and indeed what sergeant scott and his peers saw was very very brutal piles of bodies emaciated survivors prisoners walking around we have a video clip of
william scott from 1981. so several decades later reflecting back on how shocked he was at what he saw when he entered the newly liberated concentration camp. and i said gosh it's not as bad as i say, it looks just like a regular prison. and who drove around around around it? some buildings and i saw all these people. milling around and they were in terrible shape and it was just like that that i realized if it's a bad as a matter of fact i ended up saying it was worse and i said there's no way you could describe it and i took a few photographs. outside and we were told by some of the survivors that over 30,000 had been killed in two week period and at the germans were trying to kill all of them before we got there. becky what's the enduring significance and the legacy of
the photographic evidence captured by sergeant scott and his peers. well is harrowing as it was it was really good that he was taking photos the same day that that he was at buchenval taking photographs general dwight eisenhower's the head of the us forces in europe in the allied forces in europe. he was touring the newly liberated or drift concentration camp nearby after that tour eisenhower to the pentagon and wrote about how important he felt. it was to document nazi crimes to make sure that no one could ever deny what had happened. so scott was really among the first americans to document holocaust atrocities. historians and anybody who wants to study in commemorate the holocaust. oh him and the other liberators a debt of gratitude for recording what they saw the long-lasting impact of his efforts demonstrate the power of a person's action. he was documenting the history of the holocaust armed with just his camera. and for those who are interested
learning more about this subject, we did a program just last month as part of black history month about african-american soldiers who served in the us military and about what they saw and also about the ways that their own experience of even violent racial discrimination shaped their reaction to seeing crimes in europe. we have just a few minutes left and i would like to turn to an audience question from a viewer named kit. hit rights, i was struck at how the isolationism from world war i gave way to the same students encouraging involvement in europe in response to reports of nazi threats and how they're strong organizing on campus influence the country because of widespread media coverage in the towns where they protested. what lessons do you think this holds for current student activists leila? let's start with you. so my first comes to mind here is the way in which students because they were in context that were sort of immediately
responsive to them could maybe affect a little more tangible change than your average citizen could so for example students across the country when they petitioned their administration's to accept refugee students and engaged in fundraising to make sure that those refugee students had their tuition covered. we're actively changing not only the lives of refugees who might have come over from europe but also from their actual campus contexts. they're they're campuses would have been transformed by the presence of those students and you can see in student newspapers from the time that that's true. and so i think the real lesson here is that you know, if sometimes institutions of higher ed are sort of called bubbles, which may be true, but that also that bubble also means that real change can be affected within that area and that kind of inevitably spills out to the our context so i think it's a really inspiring reminder. come becky. yeah, i'm gonna jump in i really
like what leila said and i totally agree with it. i also think that those bubbles were talking to each other and so you see this with the formation of the american student union and the anti-war movement in the 1930s and with the movement to bring over refugee students one school starts it and then another school is paying attention to the first school and suddenly and very quickly it becomes a nationwide movement. and so i think that is also a lesson today to be responsive both to what is happening in the community at large within and then bring it back to the campus community but also to watch and mimic the good things that are going on in other campuses. so true all of that and also to think about the ways that this is, you know much broader than just students. you know, we look at someone like william scott and although he had been a college student the way that being part of the military brought him in contact with many many other young people was a way to integrate into american life for a large a member of a marginalized groups or i think about people who are
involved in sports networks, you know teams of sports church groups synagogue groups other religious groups that there are so many ways that young people are connected through shared interests or shared activities and that those kinds of ideas and ideals can spread like wildfire there. so i want to thank you both so much for giving us a glimpse today into a few inspiring examples. it was great to talk to you leila and becky. thanks so much. nice to be here. also just a reminder that you don't have to be in a position of authority to affect change. it's the accumulation of millions and millions of ordinary people acting on their conscience because we were only able to highlight a few examples and they are also different from each other. we encourage you to look in our comments section where we are posting links for you to learn more through museum resources. pay special note to the museum's crowdsourcing project called experiencing history. that includes research that leila did with other students from the university of michigan