On the sidelines of the Holocaust

If 'Prelude to Catastrophe' is the story of a few powerful Jewish men, it is also lesson in the limits of Jewish influence in the US.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt inauguration 311 (photo credit: Library of Congress)
Franklin Delano Roosevelt inauguration 311
(photo credit: Library of Congress)
In 1939, before his invasion of Poland, Adolf Hitler allowed 907 Jews to leave Germany on a Hamburg-American liner, the St. Louis.
The ship was bound for Cuba, according to a deal that would have allowed the refugees to land and find a safe haven. Many had plans to enter the US, where relatives were waiting. At the last minute, the Cubans reneged on the deal. Representatives of the Joint Distribution Committee tried but failed to find a safe port for the ship’s passengers in the US or elsewhere. They were returned to Europe, where many were murdered.
This story was told in the 1967 book While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy, by Arthur Morse. These events entered the annals of Holocaust history and are remembered today as an iconic reference point for the hostility and indifference that greeted European Jews during that period.
The St. Louis does not appear in Robert Shogan’s new book, Prelude to Catastrophe. Instead of recounting how immigration laws written by Anglo-Saxon purists in the 1920s kept Jewish refugees offshore a decade later, Shogan focuses on the few powerful Jews in president Franklin Roosevelt’s circle of advisers.
He is evenhanded in his approach to these men – and they are all men. He recounts their connections to American presidents, beginning with Woodrow Wilson, and Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis.
Brandeis was the unofficial dean of American Jewry during these decades. He was instrumental in bolstering the case for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
On the occasion of Kristallnacht in Germany in 1938, when shops, synagogues and homes were vandalized and burned and Jews rounded up for arrest, however, Brandeis was missing. Instead, he wired Rabbi Stephen Wise, “Think Skipper [Roosevelt] should not be called upon to make suggested protest he expressed himself fully.”
Wise, head of the World Jewish Congress, bemoaned Brandeis’s inaction and seemed more forceful than any of the other personalities here. He had access to the president but not Brandeis’s influence. We read in anguish when he first tried to inform administration officials that the mass murders had started, but he could not get a memo past the obstructionists in the State Department.
Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, born in Vienna in 1882, was an American success story. He graduated from City College of New York at 19, went to Harvard Law School and joined the ranks of the legal do-gooders of New York City before becoming part of the circle around Roosevelt, then New York’s governor. He helped Roosevelt find talented individuals, particularly lawyers from Harvard, for the administration.
Frankfurter was often a target of anti-Semites aiming to prove that Roosevelt was under the thumb of “the Jews.” But as Shogan shows us in detail, he did little on behalf of European Jews. Indeed, he was a circumspect figure who was unwilling to appear sectarian.
In the end, Brandeis, Frankfurter and Wise, like other Jewish figures at the time, were unable to move Roosevelt on matters related to European Jews. His administration was hemmed in by isolationists and others who wanted no part of the war.
When the US did enter the fighting, it did so for its own interests, not at the pleading of Jews. They could not even persuade the administration to bomb the railroad tracks that carried men, women and children into Auschwitz.
If Shogan’s Prelude to Catastrophe is the story of a few powerful Jewish men, it is also a lesson in the actual limits of Jewish influence in American life.
– The Kansas City Star/MCT