I shuddered as soon as I saw his face: a few weeks ago, I was walking through an exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, and there he was: Robert Rice Reynolds, the U.S. senator from my home state of North Carolina between 1932 and 1945.
I knew it couldn’t be good.
In a thoughtful and deeply troubling new exhibit “Americans and the Holocaust,” the museum highlights Sen. Reynolds in several panels and photographs because in 1939 he led a successful senate fight that prevented the U.S. from taking in 20,000 Jewish children and saving them from the Nazis.
At the time, Reynolds said that he did not want the Jewish children to come to America and take our jobs.
The bill that he opposed, the Wagner-Rogers Bill, only referred to Jewish refugees under the age of 14.
A society darling who was married five times, Sen. Reynolds favored “100 percent Americanism.” He introduced 5 anti-immigration bills in 1939 alone. He started a group whose slogan was “Our Citizens, Our Country First.”
He wanted to build a wall:
“If I had my way about it at this hour, I would today build a wall about the United States so high and so secure that not a single alien or foreign refugee from any country upon the face of this earth could possibly scale or ascend it.”
He also wanted to create an “alien registry” for those that had entered the U.S. illegally. He wanted to deport immigrants on welfare, and he blamed immigrants for a myriad of social problems in the U.S.
In Buncombe Bob: The Life and Times of Robert Rice Reynolds, historian Julian Pleasants quotes an anti-immigration and sometimes anti-Semitic newspaper of which Sen. Reynolds was part owner:
“Criminal aliens are filling the jails of this country. Feeble-minded and insane foreigners are cluttering our madhouses and asylums, all at the expense of American taxpayers.”
Reynolds worked closely with anti-Semitic leaders in the U.S and had a soft spot for dictators, including Hitler and Mussolini. By 1941, he was widely seen as an apologist for the Nazis.
Many of the Jewish children that needed our help were victims of the Nazi pogrom called Kristallnacht, also known as “The Night of Broken Glass. “
On Nov. 9-10, 1938, the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing ransacked or destroyed thousands of Jewish homes, businesses, hospitals, schools and synagogues in Germany, Austria and the Sunderland.
The Nazi troopers also arrested 30,000 Jewish men and sent them to concentration camps.
After Kristallnacht, many Jewish families desperately wanted to get their children out of Germany, Austria and the Sunderland even if they could not find a country that would take the whole family.
Almost no countries were willing to take Jewish families, but Great Britain, France and the Scandinavian countries did welcome thousands of the children.
Between 1938 and 1940, Great Britain alone took in approximately 10,000 of the Jewish children in what was called the Kindertransport. Many were orphans, homeless children and children whose parents had been sent to concentration camps.
Most of those children would have perished in the Holocaust if they had not found new homes in Great Britain and those other countries.
The U.S. did not take any of the children, and the only thing that anybody remembers about Sen. Reynolds today is that he turned his back on those children.
After I left the museum, I walked to Union Station, where I was going to catch a bus home in a few hours.
It was fairly long walk, but I was glad to have the time to reflect on what I had seen at the museum, even though this time I only had time to visit the “America and the Holocaust” exhibit and to do a few hours research at the museum’s archives.
As I passed the Smithsonian and the U.S. Capitol, and then the Library of Congress, I thought a great deal about the signs that I had seen all over the museum. They seemed to be everywhere and they have stayed with me: Remember. Learn from the past. Never stop asking why.