Fleeing the Coming Storm

The official papers of Representative Michael J. Kirwan (D-19th Ohio), which are currently being processed by Archives & Special Collections, contain a substantial volume of correspondence between the congressman and his constituents. Among these letters are those from local residents pleading with Kirwan for assistance in obtaining asylum for friends and relatives desperate to flee Europe. Most of the people in question were Jewish and in urgent need of sanctuary from the Nazis. Sadly, the congressman’s official correspondence reflects what little power he had in these matters.

American immigration laws at the time were based upon a quota system, whereby entry into the U.S. was limited by an annual number assigned to each country of origin. Once the limit was reached for a particular group, the gate was closed for that year. For the Jews of Europe, however, the situation was complicated further by the promulgation anti-Semitic legislation in Germany that codified the Nazi definition of “Jewishness.”

The Nuremberg Laws, so-called because they were first made public in 1935 at the annual Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, declared that only persons of German blood could be citizens of the Third Reich. Accordingly, German Jews were stripped of their citizenship and other rights because they were viewed by Hitler and the Nazis as a foreign ethnic group. The Party’s definition, however, did not match that followed by United States immigration authorities, who saw Jews as practitioners of a religion, not as an ethnic group. Thus, German Jews seeking immigrant visas to the U.S. were seen as Germans by American officials and were placed in the same quota group for Germany as non-Jewish applicants. Later, Jewish residents of other countries would experience this same bureaucratic dilemma.

The appointment of Breckinridge Long to the post of Assistant Secretary of State made things worse. Smug, bigoted, and ambitious, Long did nothing to alleviate the plight of those endangered by the Nazis as he supervised 23 of the 42 divisions in the State Department, including the visa section. Citing “the interest of national security,” Long denied visas to a multitude of potential immigrants because he feared the infiltration of fascist spies and saboteurs into the United States. Thus, Long and his associates (with the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt) abandoned thousands to the tender mercies of Hitler’s SS while never coming close to filling established quotas. Working within such an environment—and hamstrung by the law, prejudicial policies, and Long’s supposed phobia of Nazi espionage—it is small wonder that Congressman Kirwan could do little in this regard to serve his constituents as the clouds of war gathered.

Selections from the Kirwan files relating to immigration between 1937 and 1940 can be read online through the following links:

Correspondence involving Augusta Berkowitz

Correspondence involving Bernard Altman

Correspondence involving Mr. & Mrs. Solomon Hirschhorn

Correspondence involving I.E. Philo

Correspondence involving Mrs. Zysla Goldszak

Correspondence involving Jacob Bierman

Correspondence involving Krueger Family

Correspondence involving Nicholas and Joseph Banko

Correspondence involving Joan Wheeler and Nancy Wheeler

Interested in learning more about the Holocaust, view the Alfred Hitchcock Documentary.


Dallek, Robert. Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy, 1932-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Friedman, Saul S. A History of the Holocaust. Portland, Ore.: Valentine-Mitchell, 2004.

Kirwan, Michael J. Michael J. Kirwan Archives. Youngstown, Oh.: Youngstown State University, Maag Library, Archives & Special Collections, 1937-1970

Israel, Fred L., ed. The War Diary of Breckinridge Long: Selections from the Years 1939-1944. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1966.

Wyman, David S. The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.


Congressman Kirwan’s own story

From 1937 to his death in 1970, Michael J. Kirwan represented the 19th Congressional District of Ohio in the United States House of Representatives. Several years after his death, Rep. Kirwan’s papers were deposited with Youngstown State University’s William F. Maag Library. Unfortunately, as YSU had no archival facility at the time, the congressman’s papers sat in storage for nearly thirty years, largely ignored. Today, with Archives & Special Collections having been firmly established on campus, the Kirwan Collection has begun to see the light of day.

Among these papers, catalogued by Maag Library but forgotten and stored with the rest of the Kirwan Collection, is an unpublished manuscript entitled The Kirwan Story: From Breaker Boy to Congress Leader. Styled as “An autobiography (sic) of Congressman Michael J. Kirwan of Ohio, composed and written by Robert G. Nixon on the basis of extensive personal interviews,” this typewritten narrative provides a surprisingly candid chronicle of the late congressman’s life. Included in the account are Kirwan’s recollections about:

  • His humble origins in the coal fields of Pennsylvania;
  • His sometimes-tempestuous relationships with U.S. Presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Lyndon B. Johnson (In one stormy encounter, Kirwan told Harry S Truman to “go to Hell” when the president failed to consult the congressman on a matter of a political appointment);
  • His work within the United States Congress on behalf of the Democratic Party;
  • His battles for the conservation of natural resources, through the construction of dams and reservoirs; and
  • Noted Capitol Hill personalities, including Jim Farley, Sam Rayburn, and John McCormack.

An entire chapter is also devoted to Kirwan’s favorite project: The Lake Erie-Ohio River Inter-Connecting Waterway. Kirwan envisioned the cheap waterborne transportation of goods into the American heartland, as well as the creation of a connecting link between the Atlantic Ocean (via the St. Lawrence Seaway) with the Gulf of Mexico (by way of the Mississippi River). Kirwan fought a thirty-year struggle for the Waterway’s construction, but failed in the end when the Republican governor of Pennsylvania, Raymond P. Shafer, killed the Waterway by refusing to grant a right-of-way passage through his state. Would the canal have provided the economic benefits that its supporters promised? Long after the project’s demise, the question remains academic, but Mike Kirwan never doubted for a moment the wisdom of the plan. It was through such conviction, combined with a high regard for his constituents, that Kirwan became a legislative and political Olympian amongst his peers in Washington, D.C.

YSU Archives & Special Collections is proud to make Congressman Kirwan’s records available to the public. Interested persons may download and read The Kirwan Story online at Autobiography.