By William J. vanden Heuvel
Keynote address of the fifth annual Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt Distinguished Lecture, held Oct. 17, 1996 at Roosevelt University in Chicago. See Lynn Y. Weiner's Introductory RemarksFor those who share Winston Churchill's judgment, and I do, that the Holocaust "is probably the greatest and most terrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world," there can be no greater indictment than to allege complicity with that crime. There are some whose legitimate concerns over those grievous events leads them to try and make America and Americans feel guilt and responsibility for the Holocaust. They write and talk with barely a reference to the colossal military struggle known as World War II in which 67 million people were killed, where nations were decimated, where democracy's survival was in the balance. The Holocaust was part of World War II. Any discussion of the Holocaust must put events, values and attitudes in their time and place.
The scholarship that informed a documentary presented on the Public Broadcasting System on April 6, 1994, entitled "America and the Holocaust: Deceit and Indifference" made our country and its leaders "accomplices" to the Nazi barbarism. It is such scholarship that has caused many young American Jews to criticize and even condemn their grandparents and parents for being "passive observers" of the Nazi genocide, accepting the inference that they did not want to know what was happening to Europe's Jews, that they were so absorbed in their effort to be accepted or assimilated in American society that they chose silence rather than public outrage at the Nazi crimes, that they gave their overwhelming support to a President who was indifferent to the fate of Europe's Jews despite his knowledge of what was happening to them. Accusing the United States not only of abandoning the Jews but of complicity in the Holocaust, one eminent spokesman for this viewpoint has written: "The Nazis were the murderers but we"--and here he includes the American government, its president and its people, Christians and Jews indiscriminately--"were the all too passive accomplices."
I am here today to offer a different point of view.
Five weeks after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Franklin Roosevelt became President of the United States. Roosevelt's loathing of the whole Nazi regime was known the moment he took office. Alone among the leaders of the world, he stood in opposition to Hitler from the very beginning. In a book published in 1937, Winston Churchill--to whom free humanity everywhere must be eternally indebted and without whose courage and strength the defeat of Nazi Germany could never have been achieved--described Hitler's treatment of the Jews, stating that "concentration camps pock-mark the German soil..." and concluding his essay by writing that "the world lives on hopes that the worst is over and that we may live to see Hitler a gentler figure in a happier age..." Roosevelt had no such hopes. He never wavered in his belief that the pagan malignancy of Hitler and his followers had to be destroyed. Thomas Mann, the most famous of the non-Jewish refugees from the Nazis, met with FDR at the White House in 1935 and confided that for the first time he believed the Nazis would be beaten because in Roosevelt he had met someone who truly understood the evil of Adolf Hitler.
Before the Holocaust: 1933-1941
To understand those years, we must differentiate between the German Jews who were the immediate and constant subjects of Hitler's persecution and the Jews of central Europe who were the principal victims of the Holocaust. The Jews of Germany numbered about 525,000 in 1933. They were the yeast of Germany's great culture--leaders in literature, music, medicine, science, in its financial and intellectual life. For the most part, they wanted to be thought of as Germans. They had been a proud part of Germany's army in World War 1. Anti-Semitism shadowed their lives but they were citizens who thought of Germany as their country and were deeply rooted in its existence. "We are either Germans, or without a country," said a leading Jewish writer. They witnessed Hitler's coming to power with disbelief and saw Nazi dominance as a temporary phenomenon. In the face of Nazi persecution, those who left Germany did so reluctantly, many seeking refuge in neighboring countries from which they expected to return to Germany when the Hitler madness subsided. In the early years, many--if not most--believed Hitler and his regime could not survive, that the Germany that was their country too, would disown the Austrian corporal who threatened their well being.
The annexation of Austria, the appeasement of the Nazis represented by the Munich pact, and especially Kristallnacht in November, 1938, changed the situation dramatically. Especially Kristallnacht. Using as a torch the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris by a 17-year-old Jewish youth whose father had been among the thousands of Polish Jews expelled from Germany and dumped across the Polish border just weeks before, Goebbels sparked an orgy of arson and looting in almost every town and city by Nazi thugs. Huge, silent crowds looked on. The police did nothing to contain the violence. Many German Jews for the first time understood the hopelessness of their situation.
The America which elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt its president in 1932 was a deeply troubled country. Twenty-five percent of its work force was unemployed--and this at a time when practically every member of that work force was the principal supporter of a family. The economy was paralyzed, despair hung heavy on the land. Disillusion with Europe after the sacrifices of the First World War encouraged profound isolationist sentiments. This is not the time or place to recount the accomplishments of the New Deal nor the daring, innovative leadership that brought about the peaceful social revolution that has earned the bipartisan, contemporary judgment of Roosevelt as the greatest president of this century. Let us rather discuss what was most relevant to Germany's Jews--our immigration laws and American attitudes to events in Europe.
The immigration laws of the United States had been established by legislation in 1921 and 1924 under Presidents Harding and Coolidge and by a Congress that had rejected the League of Nations and defined the new isolationism. The Congress controlled the immigration laws and carefully monitored their implementation. A formula assigned a specific quota to countries based on population origins of Americans resident in the United States in 1890. The law was aimed at eastern Europeans, particularly Russia and Poland which were seen as seedbeds of Bolshevik revolution. Italians were a target and Asians were practically excluded. The total number of immigrants that could be admitted annually was set at 153,774. The two countries most benefited were Great Britain (65,721) and Germany (25,957). As the Depression took hold, President Hoover tightened regulations by mandating that no immigrant could be admitted who might become a public charge. The Depression also encouraged an unusual coalition of liberal and conservative forces, labor unions and business leaders, who opposed any enlargement of the immigration quotas, an attitude that Congress adamantly reflected. The overwhelming majority of Americans agreed with the Congress, opposing the increased admission of immigrants, insisting that refugees be included in the quotas of countries from which they were fleeing. Jewish refugees from Germany, because of the relatively large German quota, had an easier time than anti-Communist refugees from the Soviet Union, not to mention the Chinese who were victims of Japan's aggression, or the Armenians or the Spanish fleeing a civil war where 500,000 were killed between 1936-39. Spain's annual quota, for example, was 252.
Hitler's policy never wavered in trying to force the Jews to leave Germany. After the Anschluss in Austria, Roosevelt, on March 25, 1938, called an international conference on the refugee crisis. Austria's 185,000 Jews were now in jeopardy. The conference met in Evian, France. There was no political advantage for Roosevelt in calling for a conference "to facilitate the emigration from Germany and Austria of political refugees." No other major political leader in any country matched his concern and involvement. The Evian Conference tried to open new doors in the western hemisphere. The Dominican Republic, for example, offered sanctuary to 100,000 refugees. The Inter-Governmental Committee (IGC) was established, hopefully to pressure the Germans to allow the Jews to leave with enough resources to begin their new lives. The devastating blow at Evian was the message from the Polish and Romanian governments that they expected the same right as the Germans to expel their Jewish populations. There were less than 475,000 German and Austrian Jews at this point--a number manageable in an emigration plan that the 29 participating nations could prepare, but with the possibility of 3.5 million more from eastern Europe, the concern now was that any offer of help would only encourage authoritarian governments to brutalize any unwanted portion of their populations, expecting their criminal acts against their own citizens to force the democracies to give them haven. The German emigration problem was manageable. Forced emigration from eastern Europe was not. The Nazi genocide was in the future--and unimaginable to the Jews and probably at the time unimagined by the Nazis. National attitudes then are not very different than today's. No country allows any and every refugee to enter without limitations. Quotas are thought even now to deter unscrupulous and impoverished regimes from forcing their unwanted people on other countries.
Immigration procedures were complicated and sometimes harshly administered. The immigration laws and quotas were jealously guarded by Congress, supported by a strong, broad cross-section of Americans who were against all immigrants, not alone Jews. Of course, there were racists and anti-Semites in the Congress and in the country--there are today--only now, after 60 years of government based on liberal values, they dare not speak their true attitudes. The State Department, which jealously guarded its administrative authority in the granting of visas, was frequently more concerned with Congressional attitudes and criticisms than in reflecting American decency and generosity in helping people increasingly in despair and panic. Roosevelt undoubtedly made a mistake in appointing and continuing in office Breckenridge Long as Assistant Secretary of State. Many allege Long was an anti-Semite. Others argue "that he was in an impossible situation with an insurmountable task." His presence at State was undoubtedly an assurance to the Congress that the immigration laws would be strictly enforced. On the other hand there were countless Foreign Service officers who did everything possible to help persecuted, innocent people--just as they would today. There was an attitude that there were many sanctuaries available in the world besides the United States, so the Department, controlled by an elite and very conservative officialdom, was quite prepared to make Congressional attitudes the guide for their administration of immigration procedures rather than the attitudes of the White House. Congress looked at the turmoil in Germany as a European problem in which it did not want America to be involved. Nevertheless, between 1933 and 1941, 35 percent of all immigrants to America under quota guidelines were Jewish. After Kristallnacht, Jewish immigrants were more than one-half of all immigrants admitted to the U.S. Of course, there were other countries of refuge--many of them preferred by German Jews who--like everyone else did not foresee the Nazi madness of conquest and extermination--and who wanted to stay in Europe. Public opinion everywhere in the democracies was repelled by the Nazi persecution. Great Britain, for example, after Kristallnacht granted immigration visas essentially without limit. In the first six months of 1939, 91,780 German and Austrian Jews were admitted to England, often as a temporary port en route to the Dominions or other parts of the Empire.
Seventy-two percent of all German Jews had emigrated before further emigration became impossible with the beginning of the war. Eighty-three percent of all German Jews under 21 emigrated. There are many reasons why the others did not get out--some were too old to leave, some believed it their religious duty to stay, some were in concentration camps and prisons, some just did not know what to do. Emigres were plundered of virtually all of their assets, and not until Jews faced the reality of terrorism and imprisonment were many of them prepared to give up their family's wealth and everything that they had worked for all of their lives.
In his painfully eloquent book, Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire, John Dipple writes:
Yes, there were tight restrictions on entering into the United States and other countries, but were Germany's Jews really blocked by them before 1938? Most evidence suggests that the Jews could have circumvented these obstacles in greater numbers if they had wanted to escape Germany badly enough, if they had grasped the desperateness of their plight earlier on. But they had not. Despite everything, Germany was still their home. And, despite almost everything they were prepared to stay there...
It is important to say over and over again that it was a time and a place when no one foresaw the events that became the Holocaust. Given the reality of the Holocaust, all of us in every country--and certainly in America--can only wish that we would have done more, that our immigration barriers had been less, that our Congress had had a broader world view, that every public servant had reflected the attitudes of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. If anyone had foreseen the Holocaust, perhaps--possibly--maybe--but no one did. Nevertheless, the United States, a nation remote from the world in a way our children can hardly understand--the United States accepted twice as many Jewish refugees than did the rest of the world put together.
Among the events that cause despair and anguish when we read about it is the fate of the ship, the S.S. St. Louis of the Hamburg-America line which left Germany and arrived in Cuba on May 27, 1939, with 936 passengers, 930 of them Jewish refugees. This was three months before the outbreak of the war, and three years before the establishment of the death camps. Other ships had made the same journey, and their passengers disembarked successfully, but on May 5th the Cuban government had issued a decree curtailing the power of the corrupt director general of immigration to issue landing certificates. The new regulations requiring $500 bonds from each approved immigrant had been transmitted to the shipping line but only 22 passengers of the St. Louis had fulfilled the requirements before leaving Hamburg on May 13th. The 22 were allowed to land but intense negotiations with the Cuban government regarding the other passengers--negotiations in which American Jewish agencies participated--broke down despite pressure from our government. It was not an unreported event. Tremendous international attention focused on the St. Louis, later made famous as the Voyage of the Damned. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and others, including Eleanor Roosevelt, worked to avoid the harsh reality of the immigration laws, for example, by attempting to land the passengers as "tourists" in the Virgin Islands. Despite the legal inability of the United States to accept the passengers of the St. Louis as immigrants, our diplomats were significantly helpful in resettling them. None--not one--of the passengers of the S.S. St. Louis were returned to Nazi Germany. They were all resettled in democratic countries--288 in the United Kingdom, the rest in France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark. The Nazi genocide was in the future, unforeseen and unimaginable by the Jews and those who wanted to help them.
The Holocaust: 1941-1945
The persecution of the Jews and their emigration from Germany were the prelude to the Holocaust. Nazi policy changed radically after the outbreak of war. The possibility of emigration ended. Germany's Jews were now prisoners. The Holocaust--the systematic killing of 6 million Jews--took place between 1941-45. The likelihood is that Hitler did not expect Britain and France to go to war over Poland.
The Hitler-Stalin pact announced on August 24, 1939, stunned the world. The Soviets were enemies of Hitler, the rallying point for millions around the world who saw in them the only military force that might confront the Nazis. Suddenly, the Soviets and Germany ended their threats to each other, they divided Poland, Hitler gaining lebensraum and Stalin gaining a buffer zone from the Nazi armies he never trusted. Also in the package were more than 3 million Polish Jews, caught between Nazi brutality and Soviet degradation. Seemingly at peace on his eastern flank, occupying Austria, Czechoslovakia and Western Poland, essentially dominant in central Europe through satellite fascist movements, Hitler moved to the west, occupying Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands--and again stunning the world by conquering France in a six weeks blitzkrieg. France surrendered in June, 1940. Mussolini's Italy had become Hitler's active ally. Franco in a Spain prostrated by horrendous civil war owed his victory to Hitler's support. England stood alone. Its new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, expressed the defiance of Britain and its empire, but Britain facing invasion, desperately in need of arms, shaken by devastating Nazi bombings, looked to America for help and hope. Our debt to the British can never be adequately expressed. It was their "finest hour"--they held and salvaged the fate of freedom. In 1939, Roosevelt met with Albert Einstein and understood that new scientific discoveries would allow the development of atomic power, threatening a force that could destroy the world--or at least win the war for whichever nation first became its master. Roosevelt's decision to launch the Manhattan Project, giving it whatever resources it needed for success, began the nuclear age. It was as fateful a decision as any President has ever made. Hitler had the same option. German scientists were certainly capable of producing atomic weapons. Hitler had all of the necessary resources but he failed to pursue his option, not comprehending as Roosevelt did that the future of the world was at stake.
As Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term as President, he--better than any American--understood what lay ahead. He had confronted the economic collapse of the United States--but recovery was slow and painful. Now he faced the political collapse of Europe, the military collapse of China--and totalitarian governments in Germany and Japan that threatened America as never before. Nazi Germany, possessed of the most modern, best trained, best equipped military force in recorded history, occupied western and central Europe, confident that Hitler's dream of conquest would soon include Great Britain, the Soviet Union--and ultimately the United States itself. Roosevelt's priority was to repeal the Neutrality Act, so that he could provide help to Britain. In 1940--with Europe under Hitler's boot--U.S. military strength ranked as 7th in the world--behind Portugal. We led the world in the production of automobiles but had practically no munitions industry. Whereas Hitler had invaded Belgium and the Netherlands supported by 136 fully equipped divisions, America could barely muster five divisions. Nevertheless, isolationist sentiment remained powerful, fully reflected in the Congress. Three months before Pearl Harbor, the continuation of the Selective Service program was sustained by a single vote in the House of Representatives. Roosevelt undid the public image that the isolationists had projected of themselves as peace-loving patriots. His persistent attacks on them turned the tide of public opinion and they came to be seen as "narrow, self-serving, partisan, anti-democratic, anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi, fifth columnist, and even treasonous." At great political risk in the midst of the presidential campaign, Roosevelt engineered the deal that sent 50 desperately needed overage destroyers to Britain, a deed which helped save its lifeline from the unremitting attacks of German submarines. Hitler called it a belligerent act. It was. Roosevelt proposed Lend Lease--and built a bipartisan coalition to gain its Congressional approval. He announced the Four Freedoms as the goal that would justify the terrible sacrifices that lay ahead. He met with Winston Churchill, and together they announced the Atlantic Charter, the blueprint for the survival of democracy, and together they created the partnership that we hail today as the most important alliance of this troubled century. All this--and America was not yet at war. Nor had the genocide of Europe's Jews yet begun. America's isolationists continued to believe that the United States was protected from harm by the two vast oceans that separated it from Hitler's Europe and Japan's militarism. President Roosevelt believed otherwise. Pearl Harbor would prove Roosevelt's judgment correct--and give him a united country to mobilize for victory.
Hitler's conquest of the European continent let loose the full force of his psychopathic obsession about Jews. With the start of the war on September 1, 1939, emigration from Germany was prohibited. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of German Jews escaped across borders into Holland, Belgium, and Switzerland. But by June, 1940, with the fall of France, Europe became a prison for the Jews. Unoccupied France was still an escape route. Despite intense criticism from the political Left, FDR continued to maintain diplomatic relations with Vichy, France--which allowed the escape route to remain open. The International Rescue Committee--a group in which Eleanor Roosevelt remained very supportive--sent a team headed by Varian Fry which helped countless refugees--mostly Jews--find sanctuary in Spain and Portugal. But the vise was tightening. With the invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941, the lock was put on the most terrible dungeon in history. Special squads of the German SS--the Einsatzgruppen--began the slaughter of 1,500,000 Jews behind the German lines in Russia. The Wansee conference was held in the suburbs of Berlin in January, 1942. The administrative machinery was put into place for the Final Solution.
The Jews of central Europe, the Jews from the occupied nations of western Europe, the Jews of the Soviet Union--the principal victims of the Holocaust--were not refugees either before or after 1939. They were prisoners in a vast dungeon from which there was no escape and no possible rescue. They were not subject to Nazi rule or persecution prior to the war and few imagined that they ever would be, let alone that they would be murdered in history's greatest genocide. Just as German Jews imagined that Hitler and the Nazi rule would pass quickly, Jews outside of Germany did not imagine themselves in mortal danger. Zionism was not a dominant force in their communities. In 1936, in the Jewish community elections in Poland--the most highly organized Jewish community in Europe--the Social Democratic Bund won a sweeping victory on a pledge of "unyielding hostility to Zionism." Their leaders wanted Polish Jews to remain in Poland. The policies of the Soviet Union forbid emigration. In the Netherlands--a country whose Jewish population suffered a greater percentage of loss in the extermination camps than any other in western Europe--not more than 679 individuals, Jews and Gentiles, migrated in any one year before 1940--far less than the Dutch quota would have allowed. The assumption was that Hitler would respect Dutch neutrality just as the Kaiser had in the First World War. Once Hitler's armies marched, the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe no longer had the possibility of being refugees. Now it was too late. They were prisoners. And only the physical liberation of their prisons--the extermination camps of central Europe--could save their lives.
The doors had been closed, not by the United States or its allies, but by Hitler. In November, 1940, the Nazi government in Poland, announcing a ban on Jewish emigration, said: "continued emigration of Jews from eastern Europe would allow a continued spiritual regeneration of world Jewry--a process urgently needed by American Jewish organizations. It is America's Jewry forcing the struggle against Germany." Similar edicts followed in all countries under Nazi control. Jews were now prisoners of a psychopath who was also the absolute dictator of Europe. On January 30, 1942, Hitler, speaking to the Reichstag, said: "This war can end in two ways--either the extermination of the Aryan peoples or the disappearance of Jewry from Europe." Since the mid-1920s, Hitler had never voluntarily spoken to a Jew. He allowed himself no contact with them. He was the most determined ideologue of racial superiority and racial conflict who ever led a country--and Germany in 1940 was the most powerful country on earth. He was more extreme than anyone around him--he was a psychopath with total power over the psychopaths who served him. Lucy Dawidowicz said it well: "The Jews inhabited Hitler's mind. He believed that they were the source of all evil, misfortune and tragedy, the single factor, like some inexorable law of, nature, that explained the workings of the universe." His central obsession, the life's mission of this deranged, monomaniacal psychopath, was to kill as many Jews as he could. Nothing diminished this mission--not the defeat of his armies, not the destruction of his country. As Germany lay in ruins, as the demented dictator prepared to end his life in his bunker in Berlin, his Nazi acolytes continued his mission above all else, diverting even urgently needed reinforcements for his retreating armies to complete the assignment of the Final Solution. The extermination camps were the efficient mechanisms of these disciplined lunatics--but 2 million Jews were murdered before Auschwitz was opened--and after it was closed in November 1944, hundreds of thousands more were shot, strangled or starved to death.
Professor William Rubinstein whose forthcoming book The Myth of Rescue, in my judgment the most important new contribution to the history of the Holocaust, states categorically that "not one plan or proposal. made anywhere in the democracies by either Jews or non-Jewish champions of the Jews after the Nazi conquest of Europe could have rescued one single Jew who perished in the Holocaust." Like all categorical statements, there are undoubtedly exceptions to what Professor Rubinstein argues but reviewing all of those proposals made between 194145, I believe his conclusion to be essentially correct. The prisoners of Hitler could only be saved by the total, unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany--and that was a task that required four years and the unprecedented mobilization of all of the resources, human and material, of Great Britain, the Soviet Union and the United States.
The critics of America and President Roosevelt say the news of the annihilation of Europe's Jews was deliberately kept secret so that our people would not know about it--and if Americans had been aware of the Final Solution, they would have insisted on doing more than what was done. They suggest that anti-Semitism in the State Department--or elsewhere or everywhere in our government and in our country--determined that the news of the extermination process be kept secret. That is totally untrue. President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, General Eisenhower, General Marshall, the intelligence services of the Allied nations, every Jewish leader, the Jewish communities in America, in Britain, in Palestine, and yes, anyone who had a radio or newspaper knew that Jews in colossal numbers were being murdered. They may have received the news with disbelief. There was no precedent for it in human history. But the general information of the genocide was broadly available to anyone who would read or listen. The Riegner telegram in August, 1942, was not even the first knowledge that a Death Camp later to become known as Auschwitz with its gas chambers and ghastly crematoria had been built--but Auschwitz, like every extermination camp, was treated as a top secret project by the Nazis. We publicized what we knew but the Nazis tried to keep as much information as possible away from everybody. As Martin Gilbert points out, the details and even the name of Auschwitz were not confirmed until the escape of two prisoners in April, 1944--two years after its murderous processes had begun. The names, locations and procedures of the death camps may not have been known--some not until the end of the war--but the fact of the genocide and the Nazi determination to carry it out were not in doubt.
When Rabbi Wise was given the Riegner telegram, Sumner Welles asked him not to publicize it until its information could be confirmed by sources available to the Czech, and Polish governments in exile. There was no video of this original version of "ethnic cleansing" such as we had available to us in Bosnia. There were no enterprising reporters who could photograph the butchery of the Nazis or report the workings of their brutality as we had in Rwanda. Of course, everyone with any sense of decency was incredulous--and many remained so as fragments of what was happening trickled across Nazi borders carried by brave messengers who frequently were not eyewitnesses but rather reporting what they had heard. The experience of World War I where atrocities attributed to the Germans turned out to be wrong--or Allied propaganda--caused many to wonder whether the incredible reports coming from the continent of Europe would ultimately prove false as well. Tragically, the reports were true. Even the men, women and children being loaded into the boxcars taking them to certain death in uncertain places generally described as "locations in eastern Europe" did not know Auschwitz or Dachau or Maidanek by name or purpose.
When Sumner Welles confirmed the truth of the Riegner telegram to Rabbi Wise, the Rabbi wept--as countless Jews and non--Jews would do in those terrible years when the Nazis were beyond the reach of the armies that would defeat them. Rabbi Wise and his colleagues met with the President. On November 28, 1942, Rabbi Wise held a press conference. His announcement of the Nazi plan to annihilate Europe's Jews was widely reported. Joined by Jewish leaders from all over the country, he asked the President to warn Hitler and the Germans that they would be held individually responsible for what they were doing to the Jews. Roosevelt agreed immediately. An announcement to that effect in the name of the United Nations was made in the Congress and in Britain's Parliament on December 17, 1942. It was repeated many times throughout the war. In Washington, in America, in London, in Great Britain, the reports of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews were heard in stunned incredulity. The Parliament for the first time in its history stood in silence to mourn what was happening to the Jews, to pray for the strength needed to destroy the Nazi barbarians. In America, the labor unions led the nation in a ten-minute period of mourning for the Jews of Europe. Who can possibly argue that there was a conspiracy of silence regarding the fate of Europe's Jews when America's most popular broadcaster, Edward R. Murrow, listened to by millions, on December 13, 1942, reported: "Millions of human beings, most of them Jews, are being gathered up with ruthless efficiency and murdered... It is a picture of mass murder and moral depravity unequaled in the history of the world. It is a horror beyond what imagination can grasp... The Jews are being systematically exterminated throughout all Poland... There are no longer 'concentration camps'--we must speak now only of 'extermination camps'." Six months earlier, on June 30, 1942, the New York Times had already carried a report from the World Jewish Congress that the Germans had by that date already massacred one million Jews, that the Nazis had established a "vast slaughterhouse for Jews" in eastern Europe. The world knew, our government knew, Roosevelt and Churchill knew that Hitler's genocide had begun.
American Jewry was not a passive observer of these events, cowering in silence for fear of letting loose waves of anti-Semitism in America. Despite issues that bitterly divided them, primarily relating to Palestine, the Jewish community in America spoke the same words in pleading to do whatever was possible to reach out to Europe's Jews. Plan after plan was produced to rescue the Jews of Europe. Jewish leaders lobbied the Congress. Mass rallies were held across the country with overflow crowds throughout those years, praying, pleading for action to stop the genocide we now know as the Holocaust. The unremitting. remorseless massacre of the Jews--carefully concealed by top secret arrangements of the Nazi murderers--continued because no one, no nation, no alliance of nations could do anything meaningful to close down the Death Camps--except, as Roosevelt said over and over again, by winning the war and destroying the Nazis with absolute determination as soon as possible.
As Richard Lichtheim, a representative of the World Jewish Congress in Switzerland and a hero in informing the world of the genocide, said in December 1942: "You cannot divert a tiger from devouring his prey by adopting resolutions or sending cables. You have to take your gun and shoot him." Franklin Roosevelt understood that and he mobilized in America an arsenal of such strength that the world would still marvel fifty years later at how the miracle was accomplished.
The only meaningful way to save the survivors of Hitler's murder machine was to win the war as quickly as possible. Professor Weinberg answers the cynics who question America's policy by suggesting to them that they consider how many more Jews would have survived had the war ended even a week or ten days earlier--and conversely, how many more would have died had the war lasted an additional week or ten days. Given the determination of the Germans to fight on to the bitter end, and knowing what Roosevelt understood then and that all of us should know now--that Hitler would never let the Jews go, that until his dying day his obsession was their destruction, that the slaughter of the Jews went on into the final moments of the Third Reich, that every day until the final surrender there were thousands of deaths by murder, starvation and disease, we should know with certainty that the number saved by winning the war as quickly as possible would be vastly greater than the total number of Jews who could be saved by any rescue efforts proposed by anyone from 1941-45.
The proposal to bomb Auschwitz has become the symbol of American indifference and complicity in the Holocaust. The War Department's rejection of this proposal on the ground that it would divert air support from the war effort was, according to David Wyman, the author of The Abandonment of the Jews merely an excuse. "The real reason," Professor Wyman writes, was that "to the American military, Europe's Jews represented an extraneous problem and an unwanted burden." Is there any doubt as to what George Marshall or Dwight Eisenhower would say to that indictment of America and its armed forces. For America's Jews today, I find there is nothing that disturbs them more, that causes them to question Jewish admiration of FDR more, that permits them to accept the judgment that America's passivity and anti-Semitism makes us complicitous in history's worst crime than the so-called refusal to bomb Auschwitz. Nothing is more important therefore than to review the facts.
The polemicists would have us believe that many American Jewish groups petitioned our government to bomb Auschwitz. That allegation is thoroughly wrong and discredited. The focal center of the Holocaust Museum's exhibit on bombing Auschwitz is a letter from Leon Kubowitzki, head of the Rescue Department of the World Jewish Congress, in which he forwarded, without endorsement, a request from the Czech State Council (in exile in London) to the War Department in August, 1994 to bomb Auschwitz. Much is made of John McCloy's response to Mr. Kubowitzki explaining the War Department's decision not to undertake such a mission. What is not on display and rarely mentioned is Leon Kubowitzki's July 1, 1944, letter to the executive director of the War Refugee Board arguing against bombing Auschwitz because "the first victims would be the Jews" and the Allied air assault would serve as "a welcome pretext for the Germans to assert that their Jewish victims have been massacred not by their killers, but by Allied bombers."
Every study of the military problems related to bombing Auschwitz makes one wonder what its proponents are talking about. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Powell, an ULTRA intelligence officer in World War II, when asked in 1985 about the judgment of Allied military commanders that innocent Jews should not be deliberate victims of American attacks, was incredulous that anyone would even suggest that Allied forces bomb Auschwitz. "I am perfectly confident," he responded, "that General Spaatz would have resisted any proposal that we kill the Jewish inmates in order to temporarily put Auschwitz out of operation. It is not easy to think that a rational person would have made such a recommendation."
We are talking about the summer of 1944. American forces were fully engaged with Japanese aggression across the total expanse of the Pacific Ocean. In Europe, the invasion of Normandy began on June 6th. Despite the fact that two-thirds of the Nazi armies were on the Russian front, D-Day and an Allied success were by no means assured. The German armies were holding our forces at bay in Italy, causing heavy casualties, making us fight for every road and hill--just ask Senator Dole or Senator Inouye what was happening on the Italian front. The Allies were planning the invasion of southern France for August 15th. America and our allies were stretched dangerously across western and southern Europe. The Allied bombing strategy was totally directed toward destroying Nazi fuel supplies, their synthetic oil industries, the oil fields of Rumania, and their communication and transport lines wherever possible. James Kitchen and Richard Levy have written separate analyses of the Auschwitz bombing proposal that have caused the Holocaust Museum this past June to revise considerably its original exhibition on the question. We are grateful to them and to the Holocaust Museum. With Richard Levy, I continue to hope that the Holocaust Museum will change its Exhibit at least one more time by displaying both of Leon Kubowitzki's letters which would essentially cancel the meaning of the so-called request to the War Department regarding the bombing of Auschwitz.
It is often noted that American bombers were carrying out raids in the summer of 1944 on industrial targets only a few miles away from Auschwitz. The allusion by America's critics is that this shows how easy it would have been to bomb the gas chambers. They point to the huge blow-ups of reconnaissance photographs that show not only the Farben synthetic fuel plant--the target of the raids--but the outlines of Auschwitz and columns of prisoners. In truth, however, all such strategic raids on military-industrial bases proceeded only after months of preparatory intelligence work, entailing the creation of a target folder with specific information about the size, hardness, structure placement, and defenses, of the target and detailed aerial photography. These were costly, dangerous raids against heavily protected, frequently remote targets. The losses in men and planes were tragically heavy. The Allied Air Forces totally lacked the intelligence base necessary to plan and execute a bombing raid against the Auschwitz extermination camp. It would have been a nonmilitary mission. Only Roosevelt or Eisenhower could have ordered it. No one--no one proposed it. Jewish leaders would have excoriated them for doing it then--and now. Also, the aerial photographs of Auschwitz on display were not developed until 1978--and their details were only readable then because advanced technology, developed by the CIA more than 20 years after the end of World War II, made it possible.
If we had bombed Auschwitz with the inevitable consequence of killing hundreds, perhaps thousands of Jewish prisoners, I have no doubt that those who defame America for inaction would denounce us today for being accomplices in the Nazi genocide. Certainly Hitler and Goebbels would have justified their madness by claiming that the Allies, by their deliberate bombing of Auschwitz, had shown their own disdain for the value of Jewish lives.
The War Refugee Board was created in January, 1944, by President Roosevelt immediately upon presentation of the case for doing so by Henry Morgenthau. There were thousands of refugees stranded on the outer peripheries of Nazi Europe. With the invasion of Italy in 1943, thousands more sought safety in camps in the south. Tito's success in Yugoslavia enabled many to escape from Croat fascism and Serb hatred. But these were refugees who were already saved. These were not escapees from the Death Camps. Under pressure from Roosevelt and Churchill, Spain kept open its frontiers, stating as its policy that "all refugees without exception would be allowed to enter and remain." Probably more than 40,000 refugees, many of them Jewish, found safe sanctuary in Spain. Makeshift transit camps in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and North Africa housed them in abysmal conditions. Those who fought for these refugees to come to America were right to do so. I have been part of the International Rescue Committee all of my adult life and have worked with refugees in Berlin, Hungary, Angola, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cuba and Cambodia. Refugees are generally powerless and voiceless. Governments have to be reminded constantly of our humanitarian responsibilities. But perhaps the allied nations can be forgiven in the midst of a war for survival for not doing more for refugees whose lives had already been saved. Perhaps not. In remembering what we did not do, perhaps we can measure our response to today's tragedies and ask whether we--now the richest, most powerful nation in history--have responded adequately to the "ethnic cleansing" of Bosnia, to the genocide in Rwanda, to the Killing Field of Cambodia.
Roosevelt's intervention with the government of Hungary, (which by then understood that Nazi defeat was inevitable), the actions of the War Refugee Board such as retaining Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest whose heroism we will always gratefully acknowledge, the bombing of the Budapest area--all played roles undoubtedly in the rescue of one-half of the Jewish community in Hungary. President Roosevelt was deeply and personally involved in the effort to save the Jews of Hungary. Listen to his statement to the nation on March 24, 1944:
"In one of the blackest crimes of all history--begun by the Nazis in the day of peace and multiplied by them a hundred times in time of war--the wholesale systematic murder of the Jews of Europe goes on unabated every hour. As a result of the events of the last few days hundreds of thousands of Jews who, while living under persecution, have at least found a haven from death in Hungary and the Balkans, are now threatened with annihilation as Hitler's forces descend more heavily upon these lands. That these innocent people, who have already survived a decade of Hitler's fury, should perish on the very eve of triumph over the barbarism which their persecution symbolizes, would be a major tragedy.
It is therefore fitting that we should again proclaim our determination that none who participate in these acts of savagery shall go unpunished. The United Nations have made it clear that they will pursue the guilty and deliver them up in order that justice be done. That warning applies not only to the leaders but also to their functionaries and subordinates in Germany and in the satellite countries. All who knowingly take part in the deportation of Jews to their death in Poland or Norwegians and French to their death in Germany are equally guilty with the executioner. All who share the guilt shall share the punishment.
In the meantime, and until the victory that is now assured is won, the United States will persevere in its efforts to rescue the victims of brutality of the Nazis and the Japs. In so far as the necessity of military operations permit this Government will use all means at its command to aid the escape of all intended victims of the Nazi and Jap executioner--regardless of race or religion or color. We call upon the free peoples of Europe and Asia temporarily to open their frontiers to all victims of oppression. We shall find havens of refuge for them, and we shall find the means for their maintenance and support until the tyrant is driven from their homelands and they may return."
Although one had read about the Final Solution and heard witnesses who had seen the camps and read the accounts of the War Refugee Board of three eyewitnesses to Auschwitz published in November 1944, no one understood what really had happened until they could see it for themselves.
On the day on which Franklin Roosevelt died, April 12, 1945, General Eisenhower visited Ohrdruf Nord, the first concentration camp liberated by the American army. "The things I saw beggar description," he wrote General Marshall. According to his biographer, Stephen Ambrose, "Eisenhower had heard ominous rumors about the camps, of course, but never in his worst nightmares had he dreamed they could be so bad." He sent immediately for a delegation of Congressional leaders and newspaper editors. He wanted to be sure that Americans would never forget the depths of the Nazi horror. Five months later he dismissed his close friend and brilliant army commander, General George Patton, for using former Nazi officials in his occupation structure and publicly likening "the Nazi thing" to differences between the Republicans and Democrats. Patton had visited the Ohrdruf camp with Eisenhower and had become physically ill from what he had seen.
Anne O'Hare McCormick, the renowned foreign affairs reporter of the New York Times, wrote in December, 1944, of a visit of a congressional delegation to the war front in Italy. The Congressmen expressed shock at the rigors of the Italian campaign, of its inhuman conditions. They were quoted as saying that this was one of the toughest battles of the war--and Americans were not being told about it. Miss McCormick wrote: "The stories have been written and have been printed. They have even been overwritten and printed so m, any times that readers don't see the mud or blood anymore. They don't hear the screams of the shells or the thunder of the rockets. Congress either didn't read the accounts of the war in Italy or they couldn't take in the meaning of what they read. They had to see it. It is not their fault. It is because the thing is indescribable..." How much more true is this insight regarding the Death Camps.
In the last seven months of the war, more than 80,000 Dutch citizens starved to death because the German occupiers of northern Holland wanted to punish the Dutch for insurrection and strikes following the failed Market Garden assault on Arnhem, the fabled Bridge Too Far. The Allies knew what was happening. Allied armies were everywhere around this occupied segment of the Netherlands; air rescue, or at least the capacity for organizing food drops, was minutes away. Still, 80,000 men, women and children--for the most part non-Jews--starved to death and the forces that could have saved them remained intent on their objective of military engagement with the Germans that would lead to victory in the shortest possible time. Perhaps these military commanders were wrong but their decisions were not made because of hatred or bias against the Dutch--nor, regarding Auschwitz, because of anti-Semitism.
The events that we are talking about--the genocide of six million Jews--was not referred to generally as "the Holocaust" until some years after the War. No one of us, including scholars and historians, can review the bestial crimes of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi thugs and all those who carried out their orders to kill innocent men, women, and children without hanging our heads in sorrow. But we must never forget that it was the Nazis who committed this most terrible crime led by a psychopath, Adolf Hitler. America--this wonderful and generous country--was a reluctant participant in the world of the 30s. Our parents and grandparents were not fools. It was their courage and strength that made America the leader of the Free World. We should be so brave and strong--we should do so well--in our own time, with our own problems. Had Israel existed in 1939 with the military strength that it has today, the terrible story of the Holocaust might have had another outcome. Because of the Holocaust, Israel was born and America has been its unfailing supporter.
How ironic that our greatest president of this century--the man Hitler hated most, the leader constantly derided by the anti-Semites, vilified by Goebbels as a "mentally ill cripple" and as "that Jew Rosenfeld," violently attacked by the isolationist press--how ironic that he should be faulted for being indifferent to the genocide. For all of us, the shadow of doubt that enough was not done will always remain, even if there was little more that could have been done. But it is the killers who bear the responsibility for their deeds. To say that "we are all guilty" allows the truly guilty to avoid that responsibility. We must remember for all the days of our lives that it was Hitler who imagined the Holocaust and the Nazis who carried it out. We were not their accomplices. We destroyed them.
Those who write about the Holocaust have an obligation to write in a context, a context that reflects the standards, the political realities, the value systems of the years that surrounded it--not to impose the reality of the present with a self-righteous morality that condemns others for what happened generations ago but allows us to remain silent and passive in the crises of our own time.
Winston Churchill once said that Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest man he had ever known. President Roosevelt's life, he said, "must be regarded as one of the commanding events of human destiny."
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, more than any other American, is entitled to the historical credit for mobilizing and leading the forces that destroyed the Nazi barbarians and so saved western civilization. In the years of his leadership, he gave Jews dignity and self-respect as did no one before in American history. He understood and shared the anguish of the Holocaust as it unfolded.
Let us reflect for a moment on who he was and what he did.
Franklin Roosevelt was the voice of the people of the United States during the most difficult crises of the century. He led America out of the despair of the Great Depression. He led us to victory in the Great War. Four times he was elected President of the United States. By temperament and talent, by energy and instinct, Franklin Roosevelt came to the presidency, ready for the challenges that confronted him. He was a breath of fresh air in our political life--so vital, so confident and optimistic, so warm and good humored. He was a man of incomparable personal courage. At the age of 39, he was stricken with infantile paralysis. He would never walk or stand again unassisted. The pain of his struggle is almost unimaginable--learning to move again, to stand, to rely upon the physical support of others--never giving into despair, to self--pity, to discouragement. Just twelve years after he was stricken, he was elected President of the United States and took command of a paralyzed nation. He lifted America from its knees and led us to our fateful rendezvous with history. He embraced a desperately troubled world and gave it hope.
He transformed our government into an active instrument of social justice. He made America the arsenal of democracy. He was Commander-in-Chief of the greatest military force in history. He crafted the victorious alliance that won the war. He was the father of the nuclear age. He inspired and guided the blueprint for the world that was to follow. The vision of the United Nations, the commitment to collective security, the determination to end colonialism, the economic plan for a prosperous world with access to resources and trade assured to all nations--such was the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt.
In these autumn days of 1996, more than 50 years after his death, we remember the triumph of his life, confident that those who seek to undermine that triumph now will be no more successful than those who vilified and hated him then.