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September 3, 2012 12:05 pm

Double Review: ‘Millions of Jews to Rescue’ and ‘Herbert Hoover and the Jews’ (REVIEW)

avatar by Edward Alexander

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Millions of Jews to Rescue: A Bergson Group Leader's Account of the Campaign to Save Jews from the Holocaust, by Samuel Merlin.

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).

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  • Abraham Stubenhaus

    This is a super wonderful and revealing article! Bravo!!!
    Talk about research!! Oh my!!! Great job!
    Stephen Wise also was directly in charge of an “orphan” home in uptown Manhattan and we unfortunately lost many Jews through that institution. My friend who was 16 and pregnant over 50 years ago, was put into that “home” where she gave birth to a child whose father was black. Even though our Torah law states unequivocally that the child follows the lineage of the mother (and she was from a well known Jewish family), they came into her room and got her to sign papers giving the baby away for adoption, because in those days it was taboo to bring up a child who was colored, and her parents couldn’t handle that. So, after fighting with various agencies and organizations and public records etc, for more than FORTY YEARS, she finally learned that her son was brought up and lived with the Negro community and he became addicted to drugs and died of an overdose at the age of 34. Subsequently she learned about and befriended other mothers in similar situations who were cast off by the non religious Jewish community after having also gone through the “help” of the Wise organization.
    Anyway, thank you so much for a true expose of the true facts behind the Roosevelt who was mistakenly “loved” by many Jewish-American citizens.
    Excellent article!
    Thank you to Samuel Merlin. Edited and annotated by Rafael Medoff and Sonja Schoepf Wentling and Rafael Medoff, all of the Wyman Institute

  • HaDaR

    The Shoah did not happen by itself. Among Germans, Austrians, Ukrainians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Romanians, Hungarians, Italians, Belgians, Dutch and French, there were those who physically took part in it by murdering Jews and those who physically took part in it by standing idle, turning their heads, collaborating even by omission of help, while Jews were being discriminated, isolated, concentrated, gathered for annihilation and then industrially slaughtered. An infinitesimally small percentage of those Peoples, at times in less than one digit percentage, were innocent because they did help.
    Most Americans had no idea: the info – CLEARLY GIVEN since 1941 – was kept by the Roosevelt administration very tight to their chest, REFUSING to help even if just by spreading it.
    Most Jewish American leaders did nothing and actually HELPED the FDR Administration hiding of the truth for political considerations and absolute distance from JEWISH, that is TORAH-TRUE values – ESPECIALLY S.S.Wise, who was concerned mostly by keeping favor in the eyes of Roosevelt, who treated him like the typical court Jew -, except the Orthodox, who were the ONLY active through Rav Kotler’s Vaad Hatzalah and the so called Bergson Group, founded by Rav David Kook’s son, Hillel Kook (a.k.a. Peter Bergson), which worked in tight connection with rav Kotler’s.
    Inaction and collaboration are – in Jewish terms – COMPLICITY.

  • Ilbert Phillips

    I find this article fascinating because it is a prime example of how Jews praise President Roosevelt and were, in my opinion, very lucky he was dead when the war ended and Truman was president. I am not certain that the United States would have supported the creation of the state of Israel if Roosevelt had been alive. In addition, it is important to see what role powerful American Jews played in this fiasco of the Holocaust. It all demonstrates why Israel cannot rely on the United States or anyone else on its survival.

  • charlotte

    Stop blaming Jews for the Holocaust, Zeev. Jews saw how Western countries behaved and were frightened that if they did agitate, they would be kicked out of these countries. This was a real fear. They could not go to any European country, except Denmark- and how would they get there in wartime Europe with the Germans everywhere? Even so called neutral countries like Switzerland sent Jews who had fled back to Germany. Sweden was not friendly towards Jews either. Which other countries were neutral????? Those Jews who did manage to flee the Nazis were interned in the UK. Some were even sent to Australia on the SS Dunera to be interned there. There was anti-semitism in the UK and the US. Australia said they didn’t want to import a Jewish problem.South Africa was in the grip of Afrikaner National Socialism, had many pro Nazi supporters and would not allow Jews in at all. Where could the Jews go to if they were kicked out? STOP BLAMING JEWS FOR THE JEWISH GENOCIDE.

    • No, Charlotte, I am not “blaming Jews for the Holocaust”. However, we should keep a sense of proportion, and bear in mind that history is not as clear-cut as one might wish.

      “Jews … were frightened that if they did agitate, they would be kicked out…” Indeed so! At a certain time several Swedish-Jewish officials feared that flooding their country with refugees might result in increased anti-Semitism. At that time there was even an official statement on this in Sweden’s parliament. This caused some excitement.

      “They could not go to any European country, except Denmark…” This is patently incorrect. My own father was admitted to England in June 1939. My mother and I entered Sweden on 28 August 1939. And so did thousands of others.

      “Sweden was not friendly towards Jews…” Permit me to differ:
      During the Second World War Sweden opened its borders to:
      a. Thousands of Jews from Germany & Austria (including my mother and myself)
      b. The entire Danish Jewish community
      c. More than half of the Norwegian Jewish community
      d. Thousands of KZ survivors (including my wife) towards the end of the war, thanks to the intervention of the Swedish Red Cross and its director Count Folke Bernadotte.

      In addition, Sweden saved the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews (including my grandparents) thanks to the valiant Raoul Wallenberg.

      As to the charge that Sweden assisted the Germans during the early years of the war, one may ask what choice they had in the matter, surrounded as they were by German forces. During the latter years, they assisted the British war effort by supplying steel products etc.

      Also worth mentioning is the less known story of the Swedish journalist Gunnar Th:son Pihl who was the Berlin correspondent of a prominent Swedish daily, until his arrest by the Gestapo in August 1943 and expulsion. In October 1943 he published a book “Germany’s Last Round”.
      An interesting observation: This book contained a chapter on the fate of European Jewry. It subsequently proved to have been fearfully accurate. To say that the book reviews that appeared in Sweden’s two Jewish periodicals (Nov. and Dec. 1943) were disappointing, – would be a huge understatement.

      “Those Jews who did manage to flee the Nazis were interned in the UK.” My own father joined the British Army in December 1939. He was NOT interned. And neither were thousands of others.

      “South Africa … would not allow Jews in at all.” I wonder if this indeed is accurate.

      In conclusion: I think we might do well to remember that in 1940/41, at the time of the Blitz, the British faced the Luftwaffe on their own. The French had surrendered. The Americans were neutral. And the Soviets had their Pact with Germany. It may not be an exaggeration to claim that had it not been for the gallant people of Britain, there might not be a Jewish State today.

  • EthanP

    I’m hardly a expert on this topic. I should like to point out that in Churchills “The Grand Alliance”, he complains that while the outcome in the western desert was still in doubt, 100,000 British troops were enforcing the white paper and keeping the pro-German Arabs in line. He wonders why not arm the Jews to do the job and free up those troops. I realize Churchill may have been speaking after the fact. But as head of a coalition War Cabinet, he may have had limited influence on a cabinet and foreign office filled with anti-semitic, pro Arabists who were to prove that bias again and again in the following years

  • Again and again we hear what FDR, the Americans, and the British FAILED to do to rescue Jews in the 1930s and early 40s.
    I wonder when we shall see some research on what Jews, in particular Jews in neutral countries -perhaps- failed to do.
    Such research would appear to be long overdue.