Einstein TV Show Distorts Jewish Refugee Issue
Albert Einstein was one of the greatest scientists of all time. His contributions to physics revolutionized our understanding of the universe. A current television series based on his life is appropriately titled Genius. But did Einstein 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 Genius, the Ron Howard-produced series, which is being shown on the National Geographic channel.
Last week’s episode (#8) depicted how in late 1932, as the Nazis were rising to power in Germany, Einstein applied for a visa to the United States. An American consul in Berlin, Raymond Geist, 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 tells Geist that he will sign it, but adds: “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 life saving visas for more than 50,000 German Jews.”
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, 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 between 1933 and 1939. But more than twice that number — 184,525, to be exact — could have been admitted, per the US immigration quota for Germans that was in force at the time. In other words, the German quota for that period was only 42% filled. As for the other 58% who were turned away — well, tough luck.
Of the twelve years that Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, the German quota was filled in just one of those years (1939). In most of that time period, it was less than 25% filled. The policy of the Roosevelt administration — implemented by Geist and his fellow-consular officials in Germany — was to suppress Jewish refugee immigration far below the legal limits. They did this by piling on extra requirements to qualify for visas, and by looking for every conceivable way to reject applicants.
Some refugees were turned away because they only had a ketubah (the traditional Jewish marriage certificate), rather than a civil marriage certificate, which the US consuls refused to recognize 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 that 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 Roosevelt 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 US 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 Geist did not cause him 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 that 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 that 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 US citizens who were detained by the Nazis (which is exactly the kind of thing that American consuls do, of course). But he still actively enforced the Roosevelt administration’s harsh policy of suppressing Jewish refugee immigration far below what US 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.
Dr. 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.