Double Review: ‘Millions of Jews to Rescue’ and ‘Herbert Hoover and the Jews’ (REVIEW)
Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the “Jewish Vote” and Bipartisan Support for Israel, by Sonja Schoepf Wentling and Rafael Medoff (Washington: Wyman Institute, 2012).
Millions of Jews to Rescue: A Bergson Group Leader’s Account of the Campaign to Save Jews from the Holocaust, by Samuel Merlin. Edited and annotated by Rafael Medoff (Washington: Wyman Institute, 2012).
One of my earliest childhood memories is politically tainted. In November 1944, when I was not yet eight, my father assigned me to distribute “Vote for FDR” leaflets near (probably illegally near) a Brooklyn polling station. It was not a task that required courage. In my Brownsville neighborhood, it would have been easier to find a Jew who ate pork than one who would deny Roosevelt a fourth term as president in favor of Republican Thomas Dewey. Every segment of American Jewry embraced Roosevelt. From right to left, east European to German, working class to middle class, Jews adored the Commander in Chief of the war against Hitler. Rabbi Stephen Wise, the most important American Jewish leader of the time, said that American Jews “rightly look up to [FDR], revere him, and love him…No one would more deeply sorrow than I…if this feeling of Jewish homage…should be changed.” Wise sycophantically (Jeremiah might have said, idolatrously) referred to FDR as “the All Highest.”
Yet the record of Roosevelt’s administration with regard to the European Jews being hunted and murdered by Nazism was shameful. Wise himself wrote to a colleague in 1933 that “FDR has not lifted a finger on behalf of the Jews of Germany.” Indeed, ever since the publication of David Wyman’s Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-41 (1968), and Henry Feingold’s The Politics of Rescue (1970), it has been common knowledge that although the U.S. under FDR admitted more Jewish refugees than other Western nations between 1933 and 1945 its record was actually worse than theirs. “American ability to absorb immigration,” Wyman wrote, “was vastly greater than that of the small European countries …Viewed in relation to capacity, the English, Dutch, French and others …were more generous than the United States.”
The whole tangled question of the abandonment of European Jewry by Roosevelt’s administration and the political failure of American Jewish leadership is the subject of two new books by the founding director of the David Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, Rafael Medoff, one of the most meticulous and imaginative historians of his generation. In Herbert Hoover and the Jews, Medoff and co-author Sonja Wentling demonstrate that it was Hoover (as little liked by Jews as Governor Dewey) who “urged opening America’s doors to Jewish refugee children, and Roosevelt who kept those doors closed “; it was Hoover who during the Holocaust years “repeatedly spoke out for the Jews, while Roosevelt repeatedly turned away.” Among Hoover’s efforts on behalf of the hunted European Jews was his public support (as honorary chairman) of the Bergson Group’s Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe in July 1943.
Millions of Jews to Rescue is the detailed story (edited, annotated, and profusely illustrated by Medoff) of the desperate, perhaps quixotic, partially successful Bergson campaign, as told, exhaustively and powerfully, by Samuel Merlin, one of its leaders. As a young man, Merlin had left his studies at the Sorbonne in 1932 to become secretary-general of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionists. By 1938, he felt the need to go beyond Jabotinsky’s reliance on politics and diplomacy to armed revolt against the British; but the exigencies of World War II brought him back to Jabotinsky’s side when the latter campaigned for creation of a Jewish army to fight alongside the Allies against Germany. By late 1942, however, even that campaign seemed less urgent to Merlin than the need to rescue European Jewry—or rather to cajole America and Britain into doing so. This would be a work of political protest: rallies, marches, theatrical productions, full-page newspaper advertisements. Peter Bergson was the group’s leader and main public spokesman, Merlin its organizer of political strategy. In the new state of Israel he became co-founder, with Menachem Begin, of the Herut Party, and served in the First Knesset. In 1956 he returned to the United States and in the 1960s began work on the book that, thanks to the diligence and skill of Medoff, now (very belatedly) stands before us. It is due not only to the dogmatism of “establishment” historiography but also to Merlin’s dilatoriness that books about America’s response to the Holocaust published in the late sixties and early seventies say almost nothing about the activities of Bergson, Merlin, and their embattled comrades. His resentment at having been written out of the official story of the Holocaust is evident—perhaps to excess—in this book.
If David Wyman had not already published in 1984 a book called The Abandonment of the Jews , that should be the title affixed by Medoff to this remarkable book that Merlin left unfinished at his death in 1996. He left behind multiple versions of his manuscript, from which Medoff has constructed a coherent , eminently readable, and now indispensable historical study. But whereas Wyman’s “abandonment” referred primarily to the dereliction of duty—indeed, of decency—by the Roosevelt administration between 1941 and 1945, Merlin has a larger cast of villainous abandoners, starting with perfidious Albion. “A crucial decision in the months preceding the outbreak of the war was taken not by the Nazis but by Great Britain, by issuing the White Paper on May 17, 1939, precisely when the survival of the Jews under Nazism hung in the balance.”
That reversal of Britain’s pledges made in the Balfour Declaration (1917) signaled to Hitler that Jewish survival was of “little or no consequence” to the British government. The British, in Merlin’s view, set the stage for Hitler’s war against the Jews, first by its sacrifice of Czechoslovakia in 1938, then by the White Paper. He acknowledges that Churchill made eloquent speeches against the White Paper when it was being debated in the Commons in May 1939, but is scathing in his criticism of Martin Gilbert for exonerating Churchill of responsibility for the Jewish catastrophe. “Throughout all the years of the Holocaust, under Churchill, the White Paper was rigorously and mercilessly enforced. In the meantime, Jews perished by the millions.” If historian A. J. P. Taylor was justified in asking of the Hitler-loving David Irving, “Is it really conceivable that Hitler was the only man in Europe who did not know …that the gas chambers existed?” then Merlin feels justified in asking of Martin Gilbert’s apologia for Churchill: “Is it possible that only two people in Europe were not aware of the nature and dimensions of the Holocaust: Hitler and Winston Churchill?”
Merlin also excoriates the American Zionist leadership, who were not (so he alleges) in the “rescue business” but in that of establishing a new society in post-war Palestine. Were they disabled by their Zionist virtues, and psychologically impeded from devoting themselves to the majority of European Jews, who were not “progressive” and idealistic, not potential builders and pioneers? Most fatally—Merlin alleges– they could not tolerate the Bergson Group because “it was independent and acted outside the organizational framework of the World Zionist Organization.”
Nevertheless, for Merlin too the chief villain was the Roosevelt administration. Attuned to the modernist writers, he saw in FDR’s stone-hearted treatment of the Jewish refugees the existential realization of Franz Kafka’s “prophetic vision, in his novel Amerika, of the Statue of Liberty not with a torch in her uplifted arm in a gesture of welcome, but with a drawn sword.” This was epitomized by the way in which Roosevelt turned the most promising and hopeful proposal of the Bergson Group into its greatest disappointment.
At the urging of the Bergson Group’s Emergency Committee, and in response to considerable pressure from Congress , FDR seized the initiative and created the War Refugee Board on January 22, 1944. Its main task was to assist in the immediate rescue of European Jewry, and it was given broad powers to forestall “Nazi plans to exterminate all the Jews.” Even Merlin and the other Bergsonites were at first optimistic. True, millions had already been murdered in death factories and outdoor killing centers by the Nazi war machine; but there were still two million Jews desperate for rescue. (Hungary, with its 750,000 Jews, was still untouched by deportations to the killing centers.) John Pehle, the man appointed executive director of the Board, was ready to work closely and amiably with the Bergson activists. He also shared their view that “there is one basic obstacle which lies athwart all our efforts. This is the simple fact that the United Nations have not been prepared to supply even temporary havens of refuge for substantial numbers of the persecuted peoples of Europe, particularly the Jews. …The United Nations must not merely threaten our enemies and ask them to stop killing Jews; the United Nations must offer to take the Jews themselves. Only in that way can the great moral issue involved be made clear.”
But what really became clear was that the WRB would encounter the very same obstacle that had caused both the Evian conference of 1938 and the Bermuda conference of 1943 to fail: unwillingness to provide sanctuary for the Jewish refugees. The same patterns of cynical evasion again took hold. At a press conference of May 20, for example, FDR espoused the establishment of “Free Ports” but added that they did not need to be in the United States. This, comments Merlin, was preposterous because “no other country could be expected to establish rescue camps in their territory if the United States refused to establish them in its own.” On June 9 FDR announced that the U.S. was “ready to share the burden of caring for refugees … approximately 1,000 refugees.” But why not 100,000 in frigid upstate New York (Oswego) when the Allies had been able not long before this to accommodate 325,000 Axis prisoners of war in sunny southern California? Why were the ships that could transport so many predators unable to carry their potential victims? And so on and on, ad nauseam, until, Merlin observes, “once again, the Allied leaders proved how good they were at taking great ideas promoted by the Bergson Group and whittling them down to pale versions of their original conception….[Thus] the proposal for Free Ports that would shelter hundreds of thousands was transformed into one camp for 982 refugees.”
No wonder, then, that in an interview of 1978, Merlin replied as follows to a question about what his (Bergson) Emergency Committee had achieved:
” I personally don’t delude myself about the scope of our achievements. I am aware of our tragic failure to save masses of Jewish people. I don’t underestimate the importance of the limited achievements. First, concerning ‘illegal immigration,’ and then, our initiative in bringing about the creation of the War Refugee Board as well as our part in the rescue efforts from Switzerland and Turkey….thousands upon thousands of Jewish men, women, and children were saved, and each human life that was saved is a tremendous achievement. But at the same time, one cannot be oblivious to the fact that almost the totality of the Jewish people of Europe was exterminated.”
The usual rationalization offered by FDR’s apologists for his unwillingness to admit Jewish refugees to this country, or to bomb the rail lines leading to Auschwitz has been that, in the first instance, he was stymied by antisemites entrenched in the State Department or (and this was largely conjecture) anti-refugee sentiment in the country at large. In the second, winning the war against Nazism was supposed to be the best way to rescue European Jewry. It was not, they claim, FDR’s fault that by the time the war was won, there were relatively few Jews left to be rescued. Even accusers like Merlin do not go beyond alleging that Roosevelt was indifferent to Jewish survival and cynical in the way he made it seem entirely subservient to Allied war aims; but Medoff has brought forth documentary evidence that suggests still darker explanations of the recesses of Roosevelt’s mind.
Two examples should suffice:
1. The Roosevelt Papers contain the following “Memorandum for the President’s Files” on The Casablanca Conference of January 1943:
“The President stated that … the whole Jewish problem should be studied very carefully and that progress should be definitely planned … the number of Jews engaged in the practice of the professions…should be definitely limited to the percentage that the Jewish population in North Africa bears to the whole of the North African population….The President stated that his plan would further eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany, namely, that while they represented a small part of the population, over fifty percent of the lawyers, doctors, school teachers, college professors, etc., in Germany, were Jews.”
2. The Diaries of Henry Morgenthau , Jan. 27, 1942: “Then Leo [Crowley] said that for no apparent reason whatsoever the President proceeded to give him the following lecture. ‘Leo, you know this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and the Jews are here on sufferance…It is up to both of you [Crowley and Morgenthau] to go along with anything that I want at this time.'”
When the results of the 1944 election were tallied President Roosevelt had won over 90 % of the Jewish vote. This seemed to prove that -to quote Irving Howe —”Jewish organizations lacked political leverage with the Roosevelt administration precisely because the American Jewish vote was so completely at the disposal of the president. Had they been able to threaten that, unless the government took more courageous steps to save the refugees, crucial swing votes in crucial states might be withdrawn, it is at least possible that they could have had some effect.”
But Howe was misled by the wheedling voice of common sense. Medoff and Wentling present a more complicated, perhaps more optimistic, view of American Jewry’s relationship with the Republican Party. Although Wise and the Jewish “establishment” kept their distance from Hoover and Republican politicians generally, the Yiddish-language press began, in late 1943, to allege that “Roosevelt has betrayed the Jews,” taken them and their votes for granted. Elements in the Republican Party, for humanitarian and Christian as well as political reasons, responded with alacrity to this overture. Hoover himself, Senator Robert Taft and Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce espoused strongly pro-Zionist and pro-rescue planks that were incorporated into the Republican convention’s 1944 platform. Only this threat to their monopoly of the “Jewish vote,” Medoff and Wentling argue, forced FDR and the Democrats to adopt similar planks , which have ever since remained unshakable for both parties. Republican cynics like James Baker may continue to say “F**k the Jews; they don’t vote for us anyway.” But the importance of that initial long-ago concession to the Jewish vote is clear when we remember that it is the reason why America remains, even now under a president in whose apparently warm heart there is always a cold spot for the Jews, Israel’s sole reliable ally.
A final point: in looking at the blaring, sensational full-page ads that the Bergson advocates of rescue placed in major American newspapers in the years 1943-44 one is taken aback by the contrast between their unassailable assertions and their bold-faced graphic crudity. SAVE THE 4,000,000 REMAINING JEWS OF EUROPE: ACTION—NOT PITY!
Or (referring to a proposal for 25 square miles of rescue camps, not only in Ellis Island but around the world, where Jews in flight from Hitler might find refuge) 25 SQUARE MILES OR 2,000,000 LIVES: WHICH SHALL IT BE?
Did they have to be so crass and tasteless? And then one is ashamed of being ashamed, and understands why the Yiddish writer Shmuel Niger wrote, bitterly, about the American Jewish literati who in 1944 still repudiated any responsibility for their fellow Jews being done to death in Europe: “We suffer not only from Jews who are too coarse, but also from Jews who are too sensitive.”
Edward Alexander’s most recent book is The State of the Jews: A Critical Appraisal (Transaction Publishers, 2012).