Three rare paintings once owned by media magnate William Randolph Hearst were last week returned to the family of the German Jews who were forced by the Nazis to sell them for a pittance. The return of the artwork was an act of justice made all the more fitting by the little-known fact that Hearst played an important role in promoting the rescue of Jews from the Holocaust.
The 16-century Italian Renaissance paintings originally belonged to German Jewish gallery owners Jacob and Rosa Oppenheimer, but when the Oppenheimers fled Hitler in 1933, the Nazis auctioned off their confiscated assets for a fraction of their value. Hearst, an avid art collector, purchased the paintings from a different gallery two years later and was evidently unaware of their origin. "If he had found out, even after he purchased them, Mr. Hearst in all indications would have returned them," said Hearst Museum director Hoyt Fields.
Admittedly, Hearst was an unlikely ally for the Jews. His sensationalist style of journalism, strong attacks on president Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal and pre-World War II isolationism made him anathema to much of the American Jewish community. Hearst's meeting with Hitler in 1934, his sympathetic remarks about some of Nazi Germany's policies in the early and mid 1930s and his publication of articles by both Hitler and Mussolini, reinforced his image among American Jews as a reactionary, and possibly even a closet anti-Semite.
Kristallnacht appears to have been the turning point for Hearst. The nationwide Nazi pogrom in which nearly a hundred Jews were murdered, 200 synagogues were burned down and thousands of Jewish homes and businesses were ransacked convinced him that Hitler was "making the flag of National Socialism a symbol of national savagery." After Kristallnacht, Hearst began advocating creation of "a homeland for dispossessed or persecuted Jews."
When news of the mass murder of Europe's Jews began reaching the United States in 1941-1942, the Hearst newspaper chain gave it prominent coverage - by contrast with newspapers such as The New York Times, which routinely confined it to the back pages (as Prof. Laurel Leff documented in her definitive study, Buried by 'The Times').
In 1943, Hearst served as an honorary chairman of the Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe, which was organized by the activist Bergson Group to demonstrate that rescue was possible - in contrast to the Roosevelt administration's claim that the only way to rescue the Jews was to win the war.
When the Bergson group in late 1943 initiated a congressional resolution urging FDR to create a government agency to rescue Jewish refugees, Hearst directed his newspaper chain to promote the resolution and he personally authored signed editorials endorsing it. One declared: "Remember, Americans, this is not a Jewish problem. It is a human problem."
"Hearst was the only newspaper owner who supported us without any qualifications or reservations," Samuel Merlin, a leader of the Bergson Group, recalled in a postwar interview. "All his papers. He gave us pages after pages free. He gave us the whole editorial page - Hearst himself. He gave orders to print our material."
The group's leader, Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook), noted that he and his colleagues endured some criticism because of their relationship with Hearst. "We were even attacked as 'fascists' because we approached William Randolph Hearst several times," he recalled. But the Bergsonites were not dissuaded. "What right did we have to decide who should save the Jews?" Bergson asked rhetorically. "For God's sake, we would go to anybody. I mean, would we need a rabbi to say 'Save the Jews'? We were delighted that we got Hearst to say 'Save the Jews.'"
The support of Hearst's 34 newspapers gave the congressional resolution an important boost, helped keep the refugee issue in the public eye, and focused negative attention on the Roosevelt administration's opposition to rescue action. By early 1944, the combined pressure from Congress, the Bergson Group and the Treasury Department convinced FDR to establish the War Refugee Board, a government agency devoted to rescuing Jews from Hitler. During the last 15 months of the war, the board played a major role in the rescue of an estimated 200,000 Jews.
In the minds of many Americans, William Randolph Hearst will be forever associated with the greedy and dishonest main character in the 1941 film, Citizen Kane. But whatever his unflattering traits, the real life Hearst had other qualities as well, including genuine compassion for the persecuted Jews of Europe and a determination to help rescue them from the Holocaust.
The writer is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of Blowing the Whistle on Genocide: Josiah E. DuBois, Jr. and the Struggle for a US Response to the Holocaust.