Every year, on the eve of Rosh Hashana, American political leaders, candidates
for office and other VIPs send the Jewish community their wishes for a happy new
Although these boilerplate messages consist of general platitudes,
without reference to any of the actual issues or problems troubling American
Jewry, Jewish leaders respond with fulsome expressions of gratitude. But in
1943, one Jewish leader decided that sympathetic words without accompanying
action would no longer do. A Holocaust was raging. Enough was
Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, leader of the American Jewish Congress,
World Jewish Congress and American Zionist movement, was the most prominent and
influential of Jewish leaders of the 1930s and 1940s. He was also deeply
attached to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New Deal, and the Democratic
Party. Wise sometimes privately referred to FDR as “the All Highest,” “the Great
Man,” or other terms of reverence.
“I still repeat the new American
Hosanna, ‘Thank God for Franklin D. Roosevelt,’” Wise declared after reading the
president’s Rosh Hashana greeting to American Jewry in 1938.
But by 1943,
there was a growing sense of disappointment in the Jewish community over the
Roosevelt administration’s insistence that nothing could be done to rescue Jews
FDR’s aides claimed, for example, that no ships were
available to transport refugees – but a Baltimore Jewish Times editorial pointed
out that empty troop-supply ships were “frequently going out of their way to
find ballast” to weigh them down on their return trips, and that the Allies had
managed to find ships to bring tens of thousands of Polish refugees to Iran,
Uganda and Mexico.
The administration asserted that refugees would take
jobs away from Americans – but Congressman Samuel Dickstein revealed in a radio
address that the Department of Agriculture was spending $30 million “to import
into this country Mexican and other residents of this hemisphere to help to
relieve our labor shortage.”
US officials said that the immigration quota
system prevented admitting more refugees – but immigration “has for years been
held far below the legal quotas” by the administration as a matter of policy,
the World Jewish Congress charged. “[T]he admission of immigrants has been
obstructed by the piling up of formalities, questionnaires [and] inquiries...
The whole thing could be summarily dropped, fully or in part, by a simple order
of the chief executive.”
On May 1, 1943, American and British officials
were concluding the proceedings of their conference in Bermuda on the refugee
problem. It was clear that no concrete rescue plans would emerge.
evening, at a Zionist conference in Philadelphia, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver of
Cleveland delivered the sharpest public challenge yet to President Roosevelt’s
Jewish refugee policy.
A rising star in the American Zionist leadership
and an advocate of greater activism, Silver was critical of Rabbi Wise and other
FDR supporters for accepting the White House’s excuses on rescue. In his keynote
address at the United Palestine Appeal’s national conference, Silver pulled no
“Our former friends in government circles” – note Silver’s use
of the term “former” – “content themselves with sending us prolific expressions
of sympathies on Jewish persecution,” Silver complained.
“When pressed to
do something about it, they regretfully remind us how difficult it is to do
anything for these unfortunate people under present war conditions.”
whole subject of a Jewish homeland in Palestine has suddenly become taboo in
Washington,” Silver charged. The president’s most recent holiday message to the
Jewish community “quite pointedly, and not by accident, omit[ted] any mention
whatsoever of Palestine.”
“We’ve had enough Rosh Hashana greetings from
the president of the United States,” Silver declared. We’d like to see some
action on the matters which mean the most to us.”
Sadly, Rabbi Silver’s
appeal fell on deaf ears. When Rosh Hashana rolled around in September 1943,
President Roosevelt sent another vague greeting to American Jewry.
days later, 400 rabbis marched to the White to House to plead for rescue; FDR
refused to meet with their leaders. Three weeks after that, Allied leaders
meeting in Moscow issued a statement deploring Nazi atrocities against a long
list of occupied nations – but omitting the Jews.
To get the action that
Silver wanted, Jews would have to take matters into their own hands. At the end
of 1943, a campaign of newspaper ads, rallies and Capitol Hill lobbying by the
activist Bergson Group brought the rescue issue to the front pages. The Bergson
pressure, combined with behind-the-scenes efforts by Treasury Department
staffers, eventually forced President Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee
Board, a government agency to rescue Jews from the Nazis.
understaffed and under-financed, the War Refugee Board helped save an estimated
200,000 Jews during the final 15 months of the war. Had FDR created it sooner,
instead of contenting himself with sending the Jewish community pleasant Rosh
Hashana greetings, many more would have been rescued.
The writer is
director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and coauthor,
with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of the new book Herbert Hoover and the Jews:
The Origins of the “Jewish Vote” and Bipartisan Support for Israel.