Churchill and Roosevelt's roles in WWII Jewish rescue - opinion

The “attitudes of much of the Foreign Office in Britain and of the US State Department,” says Groth, “were fundamentally hostile to Jewish rescue.”

 FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT and Winston Churchill – did they fail European Jewry?  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT and Winston Churchill – did they fail European Jewry?
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Alex Groth can rattle off baseball statistics with such impressive precision that you’d think he grew up playing stickball on the streets of New York.

But fate played it another way: Groth survived the Warsaw Ghetto, arriving in New York after World War II as a teenager – and then discovered baseball. 

“You know,” he recalls, “it also had a Jewish aspect to it because the voice of the New York Yankees was Mel Allen, but his birth name was Mel Israel. I had never seen a baseball game in my whole life... nor did I ever hear about baseball, but one day in 1949 I came across Mel Allen doing a New York Yankees game on the radio. I started listening and gradually got an idea of what this really was.

“And then in 1950 I really splurged and spent 60 cents on a bleacher seat in Yankee Stadium, and I saw a game sitting behind Joe DiMaggio in center field, Phil Rizzuto at shortstop and Yogi Berra catching. All three are now in the Hall of Fame. This is what Americanized me. I loved baseball once I got to know it, and I was hooked for the rest of my life...” 

Of course, Americanization had to wait. Groth remembers October 5, 1939, when he was seven years old and Nazi troops paraded before Hitler in Warsaw. Now retired after 34 years teaching political science at UC Davis, Groth recalls “the tremendous impression the German army made on me at that time – the impression of power, precision and command of arms.” 

 ALEX GROTH. (credit: ALEX GROTH) ALEX GROTH. (credit: ALEX GROTH)

His masterful study, Accomplices: Churchill, Roosevelt and the Holocaust (published in New York by Peter Lang in 2011), chronicles his powerful indictment of the two Allied leaders for failing European Jewry. 

Groth regards this failure as “essentially one of the great paradoxes of history because the two Allied leaders “made great contributions to the victory over Nazi Germany” with “profound consequences for the Jewish people.” So Groth is “certainly not calling for the complete repudiation of them because it is a terrible story, but it is within an even larger positive story.”

Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt practiced “studious indifference” to Hitler’s “Final Solution,” Groth states, with virtually “no exception in turning their backs... on all Nazi attempts to physically destroy the Jews.” 

The Allies acknowledged Hitler’s war on the Jewish people in their declaration of December 17, 1942, voiced by foreign secretary Anthony Eden. But after Eden’s statement, “no Allied leader ever personally mentioned the Declaration or alluded to it for the balance of the Second World War. It became a virtual non-event. Hitler and his henchmen went on with their grisly mission with not so much as a single ‘live’ public condemnation from the lips of their wartime opponents.”

Three deadly decrees

Groth goes on to explain that the Nazis issued three decrees concerning Jews in 1940, each “genocidal in their effect”:  Confiscation of Jewish property – basically everything needed to maintain life, including shelter and food. A 184-calorie food ration – “a death warrant.”  Indefinite imprisonment in the Warsaw Ghetto – all 450,000 people, children included, crammed into a 6.4-sq. km. area, “which in harsh climate guaranteed that a lot of people would die quickly.”

These decrees “flew in the face of the 1907 Hague Convention on the Conduct of War,” says Groth, but “there was no protest from either Britain or the US, either public or diplomatic or both.” 

All of this is evidence that the Allies were not interested in what was happening to Jews, which Groth relates to the important visit of Polish courier Jan Karski to the White House on July 28, 1943. 

Karski’s information about Jewish persecution was never followed up, something “in and of itself outrageous,” says Groth, but “absolutely typical of the conduct of both Roosevelt and Churchill…. No one asked: ‘Could we look into this, at least?’”

Meanwhile, there is the argument – Groth calls it a “myth” – that extermination camps in Poland were too far for Allied airpower to reach. In fact, there were 424 Allied flights to Poland from Britain and southern Italy between spring 1941 and summer 1944 to supply Polish resistance, plus 80 improvised Polish air fields – but none for Jews. 

There is also the argument that Allied bombing of extermination camps would kill innocent prisoners – an argument neglecting other Allied raids, like a raid on a Gestapo headquarters in Copenhagen, which hit a school and killed many children; a raid on the Amiens prison in France, which took the lives of innocent prisoners; and massive Allied bombing of Normandy, killing many French. 

Despite a 33-1 (D-Day) preponderance of air power over the Nazis, the Allies did not attempt, for example, to prevent the deportation of French Jews to Auschwitz. The last train for the death camp left Drancy, France, on July 31, 1944, after the Allied landing in Normandy – only about 240 km. away – on June 6. “And of course,” Groth asserts, “that train went completely untouched to Auschwitz where everybody was killed.”

The “attitudes of much of the Foreign Office in Britain and of the US State Department,” says Groth, “were fundamentally hostile to Jewish rescue.” A case in point: the tragedy of the Panamanian ship SS Struma, which carried 800 Jewish refugees from Romania hoping to reach Palestine. The ship sank in the Black Sea after Britain refused to guarantee their passage through Turkey. All the Jews drowned.

The League of Nations Mandate of 1922 and the Anglo-American Treaty of December 5, 1925 were also both brushed aside by Churchill and Roosevelt. Moreover, as Groth points out, if legally-established quotas were an issue in the US, there were areas to which the US had access and were not subject to quotas: Alaska, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands and even the Philippines (until the Japanese seized them). 

Moreover, if Allied leaders had been truly interested, attacks on the whole Nazi extermination apparatus could have been justified militarily by the obvious fact that Hitler’s Germany derived the most fungible war resource of all – money – from the bodies and personal effects of camp victims.

Straight from the Warsaw Ghetto

GROTH’S UNDERSTANDING of the war has a personal side, of course. He lived in the Warsaw Ghetto with his mother and stepfather until early July 1942, when the Nazis began deporting Jews to the gas chambers. 

His mother was assigned to fold socks in a German army factory, where, against Nazi rules, she had smuggled in young Alex. “One day,” Groth remembers, “the SS came in with guns blazing, literally, and yelled ‘Juden raus’ (‘Jews out’). They conducted an inspection of all the Jews in the factory... deciding who goes to the gas chambers and who stays. My mother in a very heroic way..... grabbed me and held me to her side.

“We appeared before an SS officer who was holding a leather whip, deciding who would go where. One way you just went free and you could go home, and the other way they would put you with a group of people, and you could just look at them and see, some were old, some were very young – they were obviously sending them to the gas chambers. 

“So my mother and I stepped up to this SS officer, and she showed him her papers, obviously in violation of Nazi rules. But this officer looked at her and me completely impassively – there was not a twitch in his face – and with a wave of the whip he let us go, a decision which I cannot explain even to this day.”

Groth and his mother found shelter outside the ghetto with a non-Jewish couple – “good people who were taking a chance,” while his stepfather hid separately with a friend. 

“You know,” Groth notes, “the idea was you didn’t want too many Jews hiding in one place because that would call attention to it, even in terms of how much food was brought into the house... which people could notice, and if they did, they could report you to the Gestapo, which would come and kill you right away. In Poland they might just kill you and leave the bodies around. 

“This was actually incentivized by the Nazis because if you turned in a Jew, you could get a certain amount of food as a ration and a cash reward... and of course, in addition, maybe you could rob these Jews before you turned them in. So there were many things you had to worry about... and for that reason we split up.” 

Groth and his mother hid in a section of Warsaw controlled by Polish partisans, but his stepfather was in a Nazi-controlled area and was murdered along with his friend. 

Groth also remembers seeing thick smoke rising from the ghetto where Mordechai Anielewicz and his Jewish fighters were battling the Nazis without Allied help. During the non-Jewish Polish revolt, however, Great Britain and the US “made enormous efforts propaganda-wise and above all military” to help the Poles, including four-engine American planes – which Groth saw – dropping supplies to the Poles. 

Because similar assistance was not extended to Jewish fighters, for Groth “it was clear by implication that the Allies did not give one... damn as far as the Jews were concerned.” Moreover, the Jewish uprising “was never mentioned by either of the top Western leaders, not while it was in progress and never after its conclusion.”

But in 1944, foreign secretary Eden demanded that Hitler treat surrendering Polish fighters as regular combatants of war. That was critical because it saved many of them, including their leader, Tadeusz Bor-Komorowski. Could the Allies have made similar demands for the Jewish partisans? In fact, there was “not a public word.” 

Indeed, Roosevelt held 423 press conferences between the outbreak of the war and his death, during which he never brought up the subject of the Jews. Indeed, after Eden’s declaration, Roosevelt held a press conference the next day, telling reporters: “I don’t think I have anything for you...” (There was just one printed handout on March 24, 1944).

Roosevelt and Churchill “exchanged many messages” concerning assistance to Polish resistance fighters, but during the Jewish uprising they “did not exchange a single message” – a fact noteworthy for Groth because the Jews fought longer than Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Yugoslavia and Greece in the 1940-1941 period.

End-of-war woes

GROTH ALSO deals with the establishment of the War Refugee Board by Roosevelt in January 1944, noting that it was helpful to many Jews, but only after the vast majority were already killed – so it was too little, too late, with a minuscule operating budget of about half a million dollars.

After the Polish uprising, Hitler ordered the total evacuation of Warsaw, sending people to other Polish cities in open box cars. But some – like the Groths and the couple who had sheltered them – were sent to concentration camps – though they did not know this when they got on the train.

When their train stopped to change engines, Groth remembers that “a very courageous Polish railroad worker... walked along... and... kept saying, ‘They are changing the engine and they are taking you to Auschwitz. Save yourselves, whoever can.’”

After German guards had passed, the Groths and the couple jumped off, hid in the bushes, and then ran to the nearest house, pounding on the door. Friendly people gave them bread and water and directed them to a village where they hid until the Russian liberation several weeks later in January 1945.

Groth and his mother returned to Warsaw and buried his stepfather’s body in the Jewish cemetery. In 1946, they sailed to Sweden for an 11-month “cultural decompression chamber” and an opportunity to learn English. 

New York beckoned in 1947, and Groth enrolled in the famed High School of Commerce, continuing to City College of New York (graduating magna cum laude) and Columbia University, where he received his Ph.D. in political science in 1960. 

Today, he reminds readers that while “political myth” surrounds the role of Allied leaders – the suggestion that they did what they could to save Jews – is an idea that’s “not surprising, but not justified.”