Guest Columnist: Why Kook is out

Yad Vashem can only cover what happened to the Jews in Europe - not the action or inaction of the Jews outside.

hillel kook 88 (photo credit: )
hillel kook 88
(photo credit: )
On July 8, The Jerusalem Post published an article by Isi Leibler, a Jewish leader of importance and a friend. Leibler attacked Yad Vashem's refusal to incorporate into its Holocaust History Museum an exhibit relating to efforts by Hillel Kook to persuade the US government to rescue the Jews of Europe. Originally an emissary of the Irgun Zva'i Leumi in the US, Kook and his team later became independent actors. Leibler also attacked the then leading personality of US Jewry, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, not only for hampering Kook's efforts to bring the tragedy of European Jewry to the attention of the American people, but also for not making public the famous cable of August 8, 1942, of Dr. Gerhardt Riegner, the secretary of the Geneva office of the World Jewish Congress, who tried to alert the WJC in London and New York to the danger of a mass annihilation of 3.5 million-4 million Jews in the coming fall. Leibler says that Wise finally asked president Franklin D. Roosevelt to intervene, and that Roosevelt said: "Tell your Jewish associates to keep quiet." But Roosevelt did not speak with Wise between August and December 1942, so this is an error. Leibler says that Wise's non-action was "the most shameful failure of Jewish leadership in the 20th century." Unfair, and inaccurate. IN THE summer of 1942, the Germans were racing toward Stalingrad. They were at El Alamein, and the danger to Palestine was obvious; the US had just barely managed to repulse the Japanese navy at Midway. The Germans were sinking more Allied ships in the Atlantic than the shipyards delivered replacements. Public opinion in the US, as Gallup polls showed, was increasingly anti-Semitic. This was the scene when Riegner's cable was received. It ended with the words: "We transmit information with all necessary reservation as exactitude cannot be confirmed. Informant stated to have close connection with highest German authorities and his reports generally speaking reliable." Riegner's cable thus cast doubt on the accuracy of its own information. Sumner Welles, the State Department undersecretary, asked Wise not to make the cable public because the information had to be verified, as the cable itself had implied. In any event, in the summer of 1942 there was no Allied army anywhere near the Jews, and the Allied air forces were incapable of reaching the Polish extermination sites. No one could have prevented the mass murder at that point. The situation changed in November 1943 - after that the Western Allies could have bombed the extermination sites, but refused to do so. In 1942 the Americans could not have rescued the Jews even if they had wanted to; in addition, they feared the accusation that they were fighting the war for the Jews. Was Wise right in yielding to Welles, when the cable itself cast doubt on its own contents? As historians David S. Wyman and Raphael Medoff write (A Race Against Death, 2002, page 8): "Wise believed he had no realistic choice but to comply, for he could not risk alienating the one government department whose cooperation was most needed in the effort to help the European Jews." He did inform Henry Morgenthau, the secretary of the Treasury, and Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, in the hope that they would reach the president. He informed his colleagues, and then he waited for confirmation, which arrived in November, from the American representative in Switzerland. He then arranged for a press conference to make the information public, and it was reported in The New York Times, on an inside page. Wise's fault? Should all this contradictory and controversial story, without any background and context, be shrunk into a panel in the Yad Vashem Museum? Hillel Kook was a young activist, and he did great work in trying to mobilize American opinion to influence the US administration to do something to save the Jews. He was hampered and attacked by the Jewish establishment of the day, with Wise at its head. Did he influence public opinion? Leibler mentions the big demonstration of supposedly 400 Orthodox rabbis in front of the White House on October 6, 1943, as proof of his effectiveness. It was indeed impressive, although Orthodoxy was then a small minority among American Jews, and its influence was minimal. The rabbis did not see Roosevelt, of course, but they were received on Capitol Hill by the vice president and some senators. Their demonstration was reported in The New York Times, and that was it. The media did not mention it afterward, and the effect on American public opinion is very doubtful. American anti-Semitism was to reach a peak in 1944, with 48 percent of the population expressing anti-Jewish views. Among members of Congress, the mood began to change later, in 1943, and part of that was no doubt due to the efforts of the Kook group; it was also partly the influence of Wise and his official Zionist group, which made contact with Morgenthau. Yet it was some intrepid non-Jewish Treasury staffers who persuaded Morgenthau to press the president, who then established the War Refugee Board. Leibler claims, wrongly, that the WRB was initiated exclusively by Kook, and rescued 200,000 Hungarian Jews (Wyman and Medoff say that 120,000 were rescued in Budapest). This is demonstrably wrong: The rescue of the remnant of Hungarian Jews was the result of an interplay of many factors, only one of which was the WRB, which financed, for instance, Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest, but with money from the Joint Distribution Committee - opponents of Kook, and the heart of the non-Zionist Jewish establishment. Leibler is right. Kook should be given an honorable mention, along with other Jews outside of Europe. But for that we need a different museum, as this one is devoted, by design, to what happened to the Jews of Europe, in Europe. The visitor will not find anything about efforts by world Jewry, or the lack of them, except for a comment by Jan Karski about his mission to the West. There is nothing there about the Yishuv, except for the parachutists; there is nothing there about the organization of Soviet Jews to support the Soviet war effort, almost nothing about Jews serving in Allied armies. Nor about Kook. Or Wise. Or David Ben-Gurion. Or Menachem Begin. Yad Vashem's Museum presents the story of the Holocaust - in detail. That is what people come to learn. Much even about what happened to the Jews in Europe had to be left out. If it introduced the story of world Jewish action and inaction during the Holocaust, and expanded on the attitude of the Allies and the neutrals, what does Leibler suggest should be kept out? Treblinka? Resistance? Judenrats? Isi Leibler's heart is in the right place. It is his analysis that is wrong. The writer is the director of the International Center for Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem.