Eisenhower and the Jews: A Legacy of Moral Responsibility
Ninety-one-year-old architect Frank Gehry, whose Jewish mother was born in Poland, recently witnessed the completion of his memorial in Washington, DC for President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The bond is special for Gehry, who in the 1950s served in the Third Army — of which Eisenhower was once Chief of Staff.
As Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces during World War II, Eisenhower made it a point to personally tour a Nazi concentration camp in order to witness the Holocaust firsthand.
The labor camp of Ohdruf in Thuringia was liberated by American armored forces on April 4, 1945. Days before this, the Germans made many of the 13,000 inmates participate in death marches to Buchenwald. Others prisoners were evacuated on railroad cars; those too weak to walk to the rail yard were lured with the promise of food, where the SS shot them and left their bodies in the open. Back in Ohdruf, mass graves were reopened so that the SS could burn the corpses. Over half the inmates were worked to death, starved, or shot.
On April 12, Eisenhower and Generals Bradley and Patton toured Ohrdruf. Eisenhower later cabled General George C. Marshall about what he saw at a nearby camp:
The things I saw beggar description. While I was touring the camp I encountered three men who had been inmates and by one ruse or another had made their escape. I interviewed them through an interpreter. The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty, and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where they were piled up twenty or thirty naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said that he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to “propaganda.”
General Patton wrote in his diary:
When we began to approach with our troops, the Germans thought it expedient to remove the evidence of their crime. Therefore, they had some of the slaves exhume the bodies and place them on a mammoth griddle composed of 60-centimeter railway tracks laid on brick foundations. They poured pitch on the bodies and then built a fire of pinewood and coal under them. They were not very successful in their operations because there was a pile of human bones, skulls, charred torsos…
On April 19, Eisenhower again cabled Marshall with a request to bring members of Congress and journalists to the newly liberated camps so that they could bring the horrible truth about German Nazi atrocities to the American public.
As president, Eisenhower allowed Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to minimize US relations with Israel. He ordered the Israelis, British, and French to withdraw during their 1956 conflict with Nasser’s Egypt. Even so, the US continued its commitment to the survival of the Jewish state.
Gehry’s monument memorializes Eisenhower as the resolute Kansas farm boy destined to carry the moral weight of civilization’s survival on his shoulders. Today, American soil seems no longer to nurture such great men.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).