U.S. Congressman Emanuel Celler (1888-1981) was one of the most outspoken voices on Capitol Hill for rescue of Jews from the Nazis.
First elected to the House of Representatives from a heavily-Jewish district of Brooklyn in 1922, Celler served in Congress for the next fifty years. During the 1930s, he urged a boycott of the Berlin Olympics, initiated legislation to make it harder for Germany to sell its goods in America, and repeatedly urged the Roosevelt administration more refugees. In the wake of the failure of the Evian conference to secure havens for refugees, he charged that the the State Department had “a heartbeat muffled in protocol.”
As the persecution of Europe’s Jews intensified in the 1940s, Celler intensified his efforts to promote rescue. He introduced legislation in 1942 to permit the admission of all refugees fleeing German-occupied France. The Roosevelt administration’s opposition buried the bill.
Celler was the first public figure to denounce the Anglo-American refugee conference in Bermuda. The delegates had engaged in “more diplomatic tight-rope walking,” at a time when “thousands of Jews are being killed daily,” he protested. “The Bermuda Conference has adjourned, but the problem has not adjourned.” He also characterized Bermuda as “a bloomin’ fiasco,” a rhetorical slap at his colleague Rep. Sol Bloom (D-New York), who served on the U.S. delegation to Bermuda and supported the administration’s refugee policy.
Challenging the Roosevelt administration’s claim that nothing could be done to aid the Jews except to win the war, Celler declared in one speech: “Victory, the spokesmen say, is the only solution…After victory, the disembodied spirits will not present so difficult a problem; the dead no longer need food, drink and asylum.” Celler called FDR’s immigration policy “cold and cruel,” and blasted “the glacier-like attitude of the State Department.” When questioned about the sharp-edged tone of his remarks, Celler replied, “I do not measure my words because the hangmen do not tarry.”
Celler also tried to encourage American Jews to take a more active approach. He urged them to “speak out, spur on those in high places and low places so that the word may go to those in authority to help to the hilt.”
Celler maintained friendly contacts with the Bergson Group, and was a speaker at its July 1943 Emergency Conference to Rescue the Jewish People of Europe. However, in general he refrained from publicly identifying with the group.
At the same time, Celler played a key role in the December 1943 controversy over the testimony by Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long on the Bergson-initiated rescue resolution. Celler led the charge to expose Long’s false statements. He leaked incriminating sections of Long’s testimony to the press, and publicly denounced Long in numerous speeches and interviews.
“If men of the temperament and philosophy of Long continue in control of immigration admission,” Celler declared, “we might as well take down that plaque from the Statue of Liberty…” Celler said Long’s professions of sympathy for the refugees were nothing more than “crocodile tears,” since he was the one blocking their admission. An editorial in The Nation used that phrase of Celler’s in its criticism of Long.
A strong supporter of Zionism, Celler helped pre-empt the proposed Anglo-American statement, in 1943, that would have banned public discussion of Palestine for the duration of the war. Catching wind of the plan, Celler leaked the information to reporters and publicly criticized it, thereby undermining the ability of its proponents to move ahead.
During the final months of the war, Celler vigorously advocate the War Refugee Board’s proposal to provide temporary haven in the U.S. for large numbers of Jewish refugees. “We house and maintain Nazi prisoners, many of them undoubtedly responsible or Nazi atrocities,” he argued. “We should do no less for the victims of the rage of the Huns.”