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How One Man Hijacked America’s First Refugee Resettlement Plan

How One Man Hijacked America’s First Refugee Resettlement Plan

Orphan children in DP camp following WW II

After their liberation from Nazi captivity, my parents were reunited in Feldafing, a displaced persons camp in the U.S. Zone of occupied Germany. I was three when our family finally received visas to come to America in the fall of 1951.

We owe our American citizenship to the Displaced Persons Act, the first refugee resettlement plan to became part of U.S. immigration policy. But the intent of the 1948 law – to grant citizenship to the “victims of Nazi persecution” confined in DP camps – was undermined by a fascist sympathizer who sat on the three-member Displaced Persons Commission (DPC).

How did this travesty of justice happen?

To achieve “religious balance” on the DPC, President Harry Truman appointed a Protestant (Ugo J.A. Carusi, chairman), a Catholic (Edward M. O’Connor), and a Jew (Harry N. Rosenfield). In fact, the dominant force on the commission was O’Connor, who was complicit in assisting Nazis and their collaborators escape to South America and in helping war criminals obtain U.S. visas.

Among these collaborators was former death camp guard, Ivan Demjanjuk, who, like my family had been a Feldafing DP, and later resettled in Cleveland, Ohio.

The DP commissioners disagreed on the interpretation of Section 13 of the DP Act, which read: “No visas shall be issued…to any person who is or has been a member of or participated in any movement which is or has been hostile to the United States or the form of government of the United States.”

Jewish commissioner Harry Rosenfield argued that members of any pro-German or fascist organization should be barred from obtaining visas, but he was repeatedly outvoted by O’Connor and Carusi, who took the position that DPs who fought on the side of Nazi Germany to combat Communism should be given special consideration.

In a 1950 directive authored by O’Connor, the DPC determined that the Latvian Waffen SS was separate and apart from the German SS and therefore “not to be [considered] a movement hostile to the Government of the United States. Consequently a number of proven Latvian war criminals were granted visas.

O’Connor next moved to sanitize the Nazi puppet government of Croatia and its leading political party, the Ustashi, which murdered an estimated 770,000 Serbs, 48,000 Jews, and 40,000 Gypsies. O’Connor did so by proposing a resolution that barred only officers of field and general grade in the German, Hungarian, and Yugoslavian Waffen SS.

In  his book, America and the Survivors of the Holocaust: The Evolution of a United States Displaced Persons Policy, 1945-1950, Leonard Dinnerstein points out that Jews numbered between 20 and 25 percent of the DPs, yet of the 365,233 American visas issued to DPs between July 1, 1948 and June 30, 1952, 47 percent were granted to Roman Catholics, 35 percent to Protestants and Eastern Orthodox Christians, 16 percent  to Jews, and two percent to others.

About 400,00 refugees entered the U.S. before the DPC was dissolved in 1952. President Truman then appointed O’Connor to the National Security Council (NSC). In that capacity, O’Connor recruited DPs into the U.S. Army Labor Service as part of a top-secret plan to support American troops in the event of a U.S. attack on the Soviet Union. Ukrainian units would be dispatched to Kiev, Russians to Leningrad and Moscow, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians to the Baltic area. O’Connor recruited Demjanjuk as a driver in the U.S. Army Labor Service.

O’Connor’s dominance in the field of immigration and intelligence received a boost in 1962, when he became staff director of the Joint U.S. Congressional Committee on Immigration and National Policy. In effect, he would be the architect of U.S. immigration laws and policies through the 1970s.

In the 1980s, O’Connor rallied people in defense of Ivan Demjanjuk, accused of war crimes by the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations. At rallies in Cleveland, Buffalo, and Detroit, O’Connor, hammered away at his longtime themes of anti-Communism, Americanism, and God.

Allan A. Ryan, director of the Office of Special Investigations, observed: “The overwhelming majority of Nazi criminals who immigrated and often became U.S. citizens came through the front door, with all their papers in order.”

It took just one determined government official to pull off one of the great injustices in American immigration history, second only to barring Jews from entering the U.S. during the Holocaust.

Although I am grateful that my family was among the fortunate 63,000 Jewish refugees admitted to these shores under the Displaced Persons Act, I see warning signs that our nation’s immigration policy once again is being hijacked by an extreme right-wing political operative at the expense of endangered war refugees seeking a safe harbor in America.

This article, adapted from Reform Judaism magazine (Summer 1993), is dedicated to master investigative journalist, Charles Allen, Jr., of blessed memory.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.
Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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