Where was the American leadership during the Holocaust?

By Gideon

In the early 1930s, the Jews in the United States were either new immigrants themselves or first generation Americans and lacked the confidence to openly object to government policies. In the 1930s, the Jewish communities were small, loosely connected to each other by their common Jewish faith and heritage. They lacked a strong centralized Jewish leadership, and a central representative organization that made them ineffective in responding to the Nazi threat in Europe. The Jewish Labor Committee, refused to deal with the Nazi government, while the more established and wealthier American-German Jews believed the best approach was low key diplomacy. This was contradicted by the American Jewish Congress, the leadership of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who preferred protest rallies, demonstrations, and boycotts. At the same time, the Zionists and the non-Zionists were opposing each other on the Jewish state issue, and the American Ultra-Orthodox Jews established their own rescue organization, Va’ad ha-Hatsala, which concentrated on rescuing Orthodox rabbis and rabbinical students. A vocal group within the US Jewish community was the Bergson Group, who preferred the militant approach, an attitude that triggered a bitter dispute with other American Jewish leaders. There was no united American Jewish voice to lead the fight against Nazi Germany. American Jews, in general, were reluctant to take a stand regarding the Nazi threat in Europe, for fear of losing their jobs or being rejected by their neighbors. (www.yadvashem.com)

In the 1930s, anti-Semitism in America, was incited by famous Americans such as Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford. Jewish leaders, during the Great Depression, feared of fueling the rising American anti-Semitism. The worldwide economic crisis was blamed on the Jews. Many Universities and colleges had quotas on the number of Jews who could attend their programs, and demagogues like William Dudley Pelley and Father Charles Coughlin used the Jews as scapegoats for the country’s problems. “in 1938, according to one poll, one-fifth of all Americans wanted to ‘drive Jews out of the United States. ’” (Sarna, 261)

Americans were well aware of the Nazi anti-Semitism activities and the actions taken by them against the Jews. The Nuremberg Laws in 1935 and Kristallnacht in 1938 were widely reported in the American press and repeatedly denounced by American leaders. The Kristallnacht story was on the front page of the New York Times for more than a week. The Nazi atrocities were known in the West. However, up to that point, Jewish deaths in Germany were significantly lower than the number of Jews murdered by Ukrainian anti-Soviet forces twenty years earlier, and most Americans, gentiles and Jews alike, took it as another unavoidable wave of anti-Semitism that will eventually pass, as it happened so many times previously in history.

Reports of the atrocities against the Jews filtered to the West in 1940, 1941, and 1942. These reports often contradicted each other and most of them came from questionable sources, such as small number of escaping Jews, resistance groups, anonymous German informants, and the Soviet government, which suffered from a low credibility in the West. There was no credible, first hand report by a reliable Western source to convince skeptics newspapers’ editors in the US, who still remembered the misinformation tactics that was used by both sides in WWI, and had no desire to fall into this trap.   (The Holocaust in American Life By Peter Novick http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/n/novick-holocaust.html)

In the 1930s Hollywood studios were owned and ran by Eastern European Jews immigrants. Yet, during this period, when Jews had the ability to bring the Nazi atrocities against the Jewish people to the American public, they failed to do so. In the 1930s Jews and Jewish issues had disappeared from the screen, as if the tragedy didn’t exist. Critics claim that the Jewish studio executives were driven by their political conservatism, by their assimilation, and by their fear of losing overseas markets. Other historians point out that in the 1930s Jewish leaders, close to the movie industry, believed that the best approach to unite Americans in the war against the Nazi regime was to emphasis that the Nazis were the enemy of America. In their views, relating the justification for the war to the Jews would only hurt the war effort, as many Americans may see it as a Jewish issue, or a conspiracy by the Jews to take over the world. (Hollywood, Nazism, and the Jews, 1933-41 http://goliath.ecnext.com/coms2/gi_0199-3819420/Hollywood-Nazism-and-the-Jews.html)

In 1941, anti-Jewish violence in Europe increased, and newspapers began describing the mass murder of Jews, the word “extermination” was used to describe the large-scale killings. In May 1942, Zionist leaders from Europe, North America, and Palestine met in the Biltmore Hotel in New York. In the Conference, they decided on a strategy to combat MacDonald’s White Paper, and to transfer the British mandate in Palestine to the Jewish Agency. (Mendes-Flohr & Reinharz, 617-619)  In August 1942, a German industrialist with access to top Nazi circles, informed the representative of the World Jewish Congress in Switzerland, Gerhart Riegner about a German plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Riegner informed the American consulate in Geneva. Vice-Consul Howard Elting Jr. reported it to the State Department, which decided that the information was nothing more than a “fantastic” war rumor and did not inform American Jewish leaders about it. However, Riegner had also informed the British, who passed it on to a Parliament Member, Samuel Sydney Silverman. On August 28, 1942, Silverman sent it to Rabbi Stephen Wise. This was the first confirmation of the German plan to exterminate the Jews in Europe. Stephen Wise was distressed by the information and passed it on to Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles. Welles asked Wise not to report it to the press until the State Department had been able to confirm it. During this time more information arrived from Switzerland about the Nazis’ “Final Solution”, and in order to prevent the news from spreading, the State Department prohibited the release of the information to the public. It took the State Department over two months to investigate it. On the same evening that the State Department confirmed it, Novemver 24, 1942, “Wise informed the press that 2 million Jews had been killed by the Nazis in an ‘extermination campaign’ and that the news had been confirmed by the State Department.” (Sarna, 261)  Stephen Wise managed to meet with President Roosevelt. This was the only meeting FDR had with Jewish leaders about the Holocaust.

In 1930s, both the United States and Great Britain, had restrictions on immigration that limited Jewish refugees from entering their countries. FDR’s policy was “Postponed, postponed, postponed,” and the US immigration forms were very difficult to fill. The US turned away the SS ST. Luis, a ship with over 900 Jewish refugees, which came to Miami after it was refused entrance in Cuba. The ship sailed back to Europe. Great Britain prevented mass immigration of Jewish refugees to Palestine with the MacDonald’s White paper, limiting the number of immigrant to 75,000 over a period of five years, but thereafter no further immigration without Arab consent. In a meeting in Washington, four months after Riegner’s report, between the British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, FDR, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles, “Hull raised the question of having the Allies offer to accept 60,000 to 70,000 Jews from Bulgaria, a German ally. Eden replied ‘that the whole problem of the Jews in Europe is very difficult and that we should move cautiously about offering to take all Jews out of a country like Bulgaria. If we do that, then the Jews of the world will be wanting us to make similar offers in Poland and Germany. Hitler might well take us up on any such offer and there simply are not enough ships and means of transportation in the world to handle them.’” (Wyman, The Abandonment of Jews: America and the Holocaust)

In response to concerns in the British public about news reports of the Nazis atrocities, on April 19, 1943, a 12-day Bermuda Conference to discuss the Holocaust was opened. It was a closed-door conference between the U.S and Britain. However, the conference didn’t achieve anything important as the US delegates were directed by the State Department to accomplish nothing in the discussion with the British. Requests made by American Jewish leaders to include a small Jewish delegation in the Bermuda Conference were rejected. Unable to participate, Jewish leaders sent a list of specific rescue proposals to the conference. (Mendes-Flohr & Reinharz, 682)

Prominent Jewish leaders, such as Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the president of the American Jewish Congress, (who met only once on the issue with FDR) did not have direct access to President Roosevelt; they attempted to communicate with the president through American Jews who worked in the government. However, most Jews in the government did not want to risk their jobs on the Jewish issue. (www.yadvashem.com) In June 1943, Shmuel Zygelboym, the leader of the Polish Bund (the General Jewish Workers’ Union), expressed his depression in a letter, that nothing was accomplished in the Bermuda Conference to initiate a rescue operation in Europe, and committed a suicide. (Mendes-Flohr & Reinharz, 683) On October 6, 1943, about 500 Orthodox rabbis marched to the Capitol and handed Vice-President Henry A. Wallace a petition for a government rescue agency. From there they walked to the White House and handed the document to a presidential secretary. FDR denied a request made in advance by the rabbis to meet with him in person.

After the Bermuda Conference, the State Department continued to obstruct initiatives to rescue European Jews. In the summer of 1943 the State Department stalled for eleven weeks on an initiative to smuggle Romanian and French Jews out of Nazis controlled areas, using the release of frozen funds. The State Department issued the licenses only after Treasury Department officials became aware of the plan. The State Department secretly continued to hold up the licenses until almost the end of the year. When Treasury Department staff discovered that, they prepared an indictment that the State Department was “guilty not only of gross procrastination and willful failure to act, but even of willful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler.” Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. was the second Jew ever to serve in a president’s cabinet. He was a Hudson Valley neighbor of FDR’s, and Roosevelt’s closest friend in the government. When he found that the State Department is sabotaging effort to rescue Jews from Europe, he presented a summarized version of the indictment to the President and threatened a scandal. Within days of receiving the Treasury Department’s indictment, on January 16, 1944, President Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board, which was charged with “the rescue, transportation, maintenance and relief of the victims of enemy oppression,” and with “the establishment of havens of temporary refuge for such victims.” The WRB managed to help save the lives of approximately 200,000 European Jews. Following the establishment of the WRB, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of the Treasury, requested the War Department to instruct the theater commanders to cooperate with the War Refugee Board in aiding “Axis victims to the fullest extent possible.” His request was never sent to the field commanders. (PBS, The American Experience, America and the Holocaust)

In April, 1944, based on report of two Slovakian Jews, who escaped from Auschwitz, the location and the purpose of the death camp became known. The two men also warned that the Nazis were about to exterminate the Hungarian Jewish population. Requests were made to the U.S. to bomb the crematoria at Auschwitz and railway that would be used to transport Hungarian Jews to Poland. The War Department turned down the requests claiming that the raid would divert air support from the war effort and that the camp was out of the bombers’ range. This statement was proven to be false when on August 20, 127 Flying Fortresses Bombed the factory areas of Auschwitz, which were less than five miles from the gas chambers, and three weeks later, in another attack on the factory, two bombs accidentally fell near the gas chambers damaging the rail line leading to the gas chambers. (PBS, The American Experience, America and the Holocaust)

In his book, Fdr’s Auschwitz Secret, Historian Michael Beschloss , reveals that for almost two years, Churchill and FDR received secret evidence of Hitler’s effort to exterminate the Jews. Churchill wanted a military strike against the camps and told his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, “that Hitler’s war against the Jews was ‘probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world,’ adding: ‘Get everything out of the Air Force you can, and invoke me, if necessary.’” He was advised in July 1944 that the U.S. bomber could do the job, but that it would be “costly and hazardous.” It required FDR’s approval, which was never given. FDR’s defenders claim that the best way to save Jews was to win the European war as quickly as possible and that the bombing might have only briefly stopped the slaughter.

The Treasury Secretary Morgenthau was determined to slow the killing, even if it meant upsetting the president. When Assistant Secretary of War, McCloy, refused to let the U.S. military help save Jewish refugees, Morgenthau had privately denounced him as an “oppressor of the Jews.” McCloy denied it. He saw the Auschwitz bombing proposal as a violation of FDR’s demand that U.S. military resources be used only for direct efforts to win the war. After the war McCloy insisted that he never talked with FDR about bombing Auschwitz. In 1986, three years before his death, McCloy had a taped private conversation with Morgenthau’s son Henry III, who was researching a family memoir. The 91-year-old McCloy told Morgenthau that he had raised the possibility of bombing Auschwitz with FDR, and FDR rejected the proposal, claiming that the Nazis will rebuild it few miles away. (Fdr’s Auschwitz Secret, By Michael Beschloss | NEWSWEEK, http://www.newsweek.com/id/65947)