The Jewish hush-hush policy

Could US Jews have done more to save their brethren in the Shoah?

holocaust book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
holocaust book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Why We Watched By Theodore S. Hamerow. W.W. Norton 576 pages; $35. No one doubts that during the Holocaust, American Jews wanted to help their European brethren. But then why was so little done? Theodore Hamerow, a retired professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, answers this painful question by presenting an extensive study of the days when rescue was still possible. He notes how religious bias against Jews was replaced by racial bigotry. During the 1930s it was easy for the Nazis to exploit existing ethnic prejudices, racial theories, economic crisis, unemployment, social unrest, impoverishment and the fear of Bolshevism. Soon Nazism became plausible to other nations, and a deep fear affected Jews everywhere. In the autumn of 1938, in the still-free and liberal France during the High Holy Days, the grand rabbi of Paris advised Jews to "avoid standing or gathering in front of places of worship, so as not to attract too much gentile attention." Barnard Lecache, president of the International League against Anti-Semitism, repeatedly urged Jews to be careful. This Jewish hush-hush strategy, a counsel of wisdom and prudence, was widely accepted. In the US, just after Kristallnacht, polls found that 77 percent of Americans were against allowing a large number of Jewish refugees in. At the Evian Conference on Refugees, most countries closed their borders; German propaganda was highly successful. In May 1939, Stephen Wise, one of the most vocal American Zionists, complained about the rising tide of anti-Semitism. He confessed that he didn't know what to do. The British White Paper had closed the doors of Palestine, and the "Christian Front" - made up of Coughlinities - marched up and down New York's 57th Street, shouting, "Hang Rabbi Wise from a flagpole! Lynch Rabbi Wise!" while the police stood by. Wise sadly recalled how the SS, on the eve of Hitler's rise to power, had marched through the streets of Berlin vowing death to Rabbi Leo Baeck in a similar manner. The Wagner-Rogers Bill suggesting that 20,000 German Jewish children be admitted to the US was rejected by Congress in February 1939 because public opinion polls indicated a negative attitude. Few Jews challenged this decision. Freda Kirchney, editor of The Nation, accused the bureaucrats in Washington of being the chief villains in the mishandling of refugees. After America declared war on Germany, the Jews' caution became even stronger. They had to convince their neighbors that this was not "a Jewish war." Jews felt vulnerable, exposed to the Big Lie that they wanted the war as part of a secret plot for world domination. ENDANGERING THE lives of Allied soldiers would spread anti-Semitism still further. The war was to be won quickly, and the war effort was everyone's concern. It was only within this framework that America's Jews could offer their European brothers any assistance. This was done, but with very limited success. Many efforts failed. One attempt to send food to the Warsaw Ghetto succeeded only after the ghetto had been destroyed. As the truth about the genocide became known, a resolution was introduced in Congress in November 1943 urging the creation of a commission "to formulate and execute a plan of immediate action designed to save the surviving people of Europe from execution at the hands of Nazi Germany." This failed after Karl Mundt of South Dakota expressed doubts as to whether a precedent could be established for "a single people." However, a month later, a resolution was passed unanimously by the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee urging president Franklin D. Roosevelt to establish a commission of diplomatic, economic and military experts "for saving the surviving Jews of Europe." Plans were made to send food. But while deliberations dragged on, the gas chambers worked overtime. In the Soviet Union, foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov had also progressively devalued Jewish suffering. In his first article on Nazi crimes, Jews were shown as the chief victims. In his second, they were mentioned evenly with other persecuted nationalities. In the third, they weren't mentioned at all. COULD US Jews have done more? During the war, the refugee problem was the last on the Allied agenda. US consuls in Vichy could easily have saved many Jews, but saved only a few carefully chosen individuals. Here, too, fear of anti-Semitism took a heavy toll. The Nation charged US consuls with putting insurmountable obstacles in front of Jewish refugees. The man in charge, assistant secretary of state Beckinridge Long, kept America's doors tightly closed. In his testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he claimed that the US had already accepted 580,000 European refugees and would accept more. He allowed the Joint to send food to Jews in Transnistria and was trying to save 20,000 Jewish children. He said the Allies had sent strong warnings to Balkan countries through the Swiss regarding the treatment of Jews. The White House had allocated $300,000 to transport 3,000 Jewish children from the Balkans to Palestine, but Germany ordered Bulgaria and Romania to drop this plan. Turkey had agreed to transport Jews to Palestine by rail, but Germany also prevented this move. Long said ultimate relief would come with an Allied victory. As news about the ongoing genocide became known, the Jewish hush-hush policy was partly abandoned. Voices were heard arguing that Jews must be less cautious and more aggressive. But as the bearded rabbis protested in Washington, voices were heard claiming that this was counterproductive. The Bergson group demanded that Jews free themselves from the philosophy that sought to protect them from the public gaze; they must publish and demonstrate their grievances. The huge "Stop Hitler Now" Jewish rally in Madison Square Garden on March 1, 1943, attracted 75,000 people. The Jewish effort to persuade the Allies to save Slovakian and Hungarian Jewry by bombing the lines to Auschwitz had failed for lack of goodwill. Indeed, the British had asked: "And what shall we do with all these survivors?" They were well aware of who would claim Palestine after the war. In March 1943, Kirchney wrote: "The purge of Jews is not only a Nazi crime. In this country, you and I and the president of the US and the Congress and the State Department are accessories to this crime, and share Hitler's guilt. If we behaved like humane and generous people instead of complacent, cowardly ones, two million Jews lying in the earth of Poland and Hitler's other crowded graveyards would be alive and safe. And other millions yet to die would have found sanctuary. We had it in our power to rescue these doomed people and did not lift a hand to do it." Few Jews would have risked saying something like this in public. The Allied threats to punish the Axis for its criminal actions helped Romanian Jews, but only after Stalingrad. One could not scare Hitler, whose Thousand Year Reich depended on the notion of racial supremacy. The Holocaust put an end to European Jewry's hopes and aspirations, but the tragedy also led to American Jewry's reassessment of its potential and responsibility. Hamerow's biting humor through the tears, the treasure of quotes and little-remembered episodes all come together in one huge, revealing and provocative narrative, with an extensive index and bibliography. It certainly deserves an important place in our national library.