Part 1 of “Why Wasn’t Auschwitz Bombed?” explored how Jewish organizations in the United States, Europe, and British-ruled Palestine began appealing to the Allies in 1944 to take military action to interrupt the mass killing of Jews in Auschwitz.
The article traced the steady refusal of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration to heed these appeals, or to authorize military intervention that could save Jewish lives.
Why does it matter so many years later what FDR did or did not do regarding the Jews of Europe? Will probing the sinister dark side of this four-term president achieve anything useful?
In a groundbreaking new book, The Jews Should Keep Quiet, historian Dr. Rafael Medoff, director of the Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, lays bare some of the disquieting lessons and truths from those years of destruction that answer this question.
The book recounts a tragic chapter in the history of American Jewry when the pitfalls of placing trust in charismatic leaders who were secret bigots, or in leaders with a fatal attraction to public honor, blinded many Jews to the overriding need of the hour.
Using documents, diaries, personal correspondence and newspapers from that period, the book details the fateful relationship between FDR and prominent secular Jewish leader Dr. Stephen Wise.
FDR leveraged his friendship with Wise, who wielded considerable influence over the American Jewish community, to keep the Jews quiescent, if not supportive of his do-nothing policy toward European Jews, Medoff writes.
Roosevelt was admired almost to the point of reverence by American Jews, even as he was abandoning millions of their brothers to a monstrous fate. He was a hugely popular and powerful president who in 1941 had won almost 90 per cent of the Jewish vote for his fourth term in office.
How did the majority of the Jews of his day continue to support and even adulate this president who exhibited callous indifference to the slaughter of their people?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that when Roosevelt came into office, the most pressing problems for Americans were the terrible poverty and hopelessness produced by the Great Depression.
With his “New Deal,” Roosevelt created welfare programs to help desperately poor Americans. This won the grateful support of many American Jews who felt rescued and protected by Roosevelt’s social-democratic policies.
And yet, it is one of the enduring mysteries of the period that Jewish support for FDR barely wavered as Hitler’s “final solution” annihilated a third of world Jewry, while the president showed nothing but indifference.
The Jews Should Keep Silent probes this mystery. Medoff demonstrates that as news of Nazi atrocities and Hitler’s extermination campaign against the Jews filtered down to the grassroots, FDR’s continuing policy of inaction did in fact threaten to erode Jewish support for the president.
“We might have to do the very, very lamentable thing of crying out against the president who has not by a single work or act intimated the faintest interest in what is going on concerning German Jewry,” wrote none other than Stephen Wise to a friend in a letter, revealing both his anguish and his indecision about how to proceed. (The Jews Should Keep Quiet, p.18)
“It is hell, truly worse than hell. Germany has been preparing for this day by a thousand years and more of anti-Jewish feeling and conduct,” Wise wrote in another letter.
These words were written in 1933—prior to Kristallnacht and the outbreak of WWII when Nazi persecutions were mounting but were still limited to the Jews of Germany. Less than ten years later, 90 per cent of Polish Jewry had been slaughtered and plans were proceeding toward the extermination of millions more Jews in Nazi-occupied lands.
Wise’s public focus by then had shifted away from solidarity with European Jews and support for rescue, to solidarity with FDR. This change of focus was demonstrated by his strenuous efforts to suppress criticism of the president in American Jewish ranks.
Part of FDR’s success in retaining a strong hold on the loyalties of American Jews, writes Medoff, despite his continuing refusal to throw a lifeline to their tortured people, rested on his skill in manipulating Dr. Stephen Wise.
From Activist to Bootlicker
Wise was a towering figure in his day. In his sixties at the height of World War II, he was simultaneously heading five leading Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Congress, which he had founded, the World Jewish Congress, the American Zionist movement, a forerunner of the ZOA, the (Reform) Jewish Institute of Religion that trained “rabbis” to lead social justice causes, and his own Reform temple.
He came from distinguished forbears, but had abandoned his religious roots as a young man, becoming a Reform rabbi who preached social justice as the new Jewish “religion” of the day.
Once an outspoken advocate for certain Jewish causes, he fought for the Balfour Declaration and the Zionist movement, and later the boycott of German goods following the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party.
In his younger years, Wise was unafraid of aligning with unpopular causes. But as his prestige and leadership in the Jewish community grew, he tempered his activism, choosing to appear more as a loyal American than as the stereotypical “pushy Jew.”
According to one estimate, no less than 100 anti-Semitic organizations were active in America during this period. American Jews were still a young immigrant minority that was looked upon suspiciously by many Americans. Polls showed anti-Semitism surging during the Holocaust years, with many Americans blaming the Jews for dragging the country into a “Jewish war.”
The closer Wise got to the halls of power and to Roosevelt as the most prominent spokesman for the Jewish community, the more Wise distanced himself from high-profile activism that might offend American sensibilities.
He began to pour efforts into tamping down the cries for action on behalf of European Jewry coming from his own AJ Congress, as well as other Jewish groups. While waiting in vain for FDR to take concrete steps toward rescue, Wise assured his constituents that the president had the Jewish people’s interests at heart and was doing all that he could on their behalf.
This was pure sham and Wise knew it. But he could not bring himself to challenge FDR.
The Jews Should Keep Quiet suggests that Wise’s deep-seated craving for public honor was his undoing. This consuming hunger drove him to sacrifice his principles in favor of slavish devotion to FDR, which in turn won him increased prestige within the American Jewish community as a result of his privileged access to the Oval Office.
FDR found he could buy Wise’s devotion with the smallest of gestures, writes Medoff. The president invited him to the Oval Office for private chats, called him by his first name and occasionally sent him “affectionate regards” through a third party. Wise retuned his affection by often referring to the president as “the great man,” or “the all-highest.”
The Price Was Silence
But there was a higher price to pay for FDR’s favor than merely returning amenities. That price was silence. Keep the Jews quiet, was Roosevelt’s mandate to Wise; silence their criticism and burdensome demands for the rescue of Europe’s Jews.
The devoted Wise bowed to his leader’s bidding, swallowing his sense of responsibility to his own people that mandated he cry out, rally the public and plead for government intervention to stop the slaughter.
As early as 1933, Wise began to suppress his anguish and outrage about Nazi persecution of German Jews in favor of yielding to government officials requesting silence regarding the mounting crisis.
Incredibly, he remained silent when the President refused to permit the St. Louis, carrying nine hundred German Jewish refugees (primarily women and children), to dock on American shores.
Medoff carefully documents Wise’s “failure to grasp the overwhelming catastrophe” that confronted European Jews by 1942. Denial played a role in this failure, compounded by misleading reports from the State Department that played down the reports about the Nazis’ savage slaughter of Polish Jewry.
Shattering Report from Europe
On Aug. 8, 1942, the American Consulate in Geneva received an urgent visit from Gerhart Riegner, the Swiss representative of the World Jewish Congress, who conveyed devastating information he had just obtained from a German industrialist with high-level contacts inside the Nazi bureaucracy.
According to the industrialist whose credentials were trusted, the Hitler regime had launched an operation for the extermination of the Jewish people of Europe by means of poison gas in secret, industrialized killing centers in the East.
Riegner asked that a cable summarizing these revelations be sent to the State Department and then forwarded to Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the World Jewish Congress in New York. It was the first instance of reliable information about Hitler’s Final Solution reaching the U.S. government.
This chilling message was kept from the American people for over three months by the State Department, who also hid it from Wise. But a British official took the liberty of passing a copy of the cable to Wise, who immediately called Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles. The undersecretary made a pretext of being shocked at the news, asking Wise to maintain secrecy while the department checked the cable’s veracity.
Wise agreed to keep the matter confidential as this hypocritical game played out. During the next three fateful months, trains packed with Jews continued to roll into Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor and other killing centers in the East. The State Department continued keeping the report under wraps. Wise, too, kept quiet.
As more information about the death camps reached Washington from other sources, the State Department found it impossible to maintain the news blackout. Finally, on Nov. 24, more than three months after Riegner’s original telegram had arrived, Undersecretary Welles informed Wise that the cable had been verified and could now be made public.
That evening Wise held a press conference in Washington, D.C., to announce the U.S. government had confirmed that Hitler had “ordered the annihilation of all Jews in Europe” and 2 million had already been murdered. As predicted, the announcement sent anguished shock waves across the Jewish community.
Five reporters attended Wise’s conference, none from either of the country’s two leading newspapers, The New York Times and Washington Post. These publications ran a few paragraphs from the wire services, burying Wise’s announcement deep inside other news items. Time and Newsweek ignored the news entirely.
Throughout the next three years, as FDR continued his policy of refusing to apportion military resources to aid refugees on any level, Wise not only failed to publicly challenge this policy, but continued colluding with it. In effect, he became complicit with the NY Times and other mainstream media that kept the annihilation of European Jews buried in the back pages.
“Keep the Jews quiet” was the president’s mandate—at times conveyed as a blunt order—to his Jewish “friend.” Wise dutifully complied, using his prestige and influence to veto proposals for mass public demonstrations to protest Nazi atrocities and FDR’s indifference.
Wise continued making excuses for Roosevelt and shielding him from criticism even as he watched FDR turned away refugees to the U.S. Virgin Islands where they would have been welcomed. He continued hushing up the Jews even as the president allowed his State Department to throw up “paper” roadblocks so that Jewish immigration quotas remained unfilled.
Wise watched as FDR refused to grant even temporary residence to desperate Jews fleeing for their lives. He watched the president repeatedly refused to authorize the bombing of Auschwitz or the railways by planes that were already flying over the death camp.
Observing his hero’s absence of compassion for victims of the Nazis may have pained Wise but not enough for him to endanger his privileged relationship with “the great man” by protesting.
As power and prestige grew increasingly important to Wise, and as his health declined in the 1940s and he was urged to share his duties with younger leaders, “he refused to loosen his grip on his various leadership posts,” writes Medoff.
Perhaps nothing highlights Wise’s moral downslide as much as his reaction to the Peter Bergson saga.
The Bergson Group was a small group of Irgun activists led by Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook), a 30-year-old Jew from Palestine/Israel stuck in the U.S. for the duration of the war.
Kook had been a young officer in Jerusalem in the Zionist underground group, Irgun Tzvai Leumi. In 1940 he was sent on a mission to the United States to work with Irgun head Ze’ev Jabotinsky to create a separate Jewish army that would join the Allies against the Nazis.
Jabotinsky died in 1940 and Kook, now Bergson, took over as leader of the committee. After Wise’s press conference about the Riegner cable, Bergson and his colleagues suspended Zionist activities and devoted all their political energies to rousing public opinion about the extermination of European Jews.
“We came to this country in 1941 with a sense of urgency to save Jews,” Bergson colleague Sam Merlin said many years later in an interview. “Here in America, there was no sense of urgency at all. Jews here, except for the Orthodox, did not emotionally identify with the masses of Jews in Europe…They were not shocked to their innermost being when terrible things happened to them.”
Bergson and his associates soon found themselves on a collision course with Wise and other leaders of the American Jewish establishment. The group’s blazing activism challenged to the core everything Wise and the American Jewish and Zionist leaders stood for.
Who Appointed You?
Jewish establishment leaders hated Bergson for being a firebrand who would surely alienate and embarrass FDR, and whose noisy clamor for rescue they feared would spark an anti-Semitic outbreak in the country.
They also resented the Bergson Group for stealing the public limelight from them, and worried the group would co-opt resources they wanted for their Zionist enterprises.
In addition to organizing marches, rallies and meetings, the Bergson group launched a full-scale public campaign to create a separate government agency devoted solely to rescuing European Jews. They took out full-page ads in the New York Times, publicizing the unfolding atrocities against the Jews and calling for emergency measures to halt the killing
Wise was infuriated by the actions of a rival group stirring up public outcries that made the president look bad. He became even more outraged after the Bergson group helped organize a march by 400 Orthodox rabbis from the Capitol to the White House in October 1943, in a moving display of unity to rescue Jews from Nazi extermination.
Video clips exist of a few electrifying moments of the event, showing the rabbis’ solemn, dignified advance toward the White House some 77 years ago. At the steps of the Capitol, they paused to offer a prayer to Hashem, and to implore “our most gracious President Delano Roosevelt to consider this momentous hour of history, and the responsibility that the Divine Presence has laid upon him that he may save the remnant of the People of Israel…We shall dedicate our most solemn prayer on this coming Day of Atonement for victory on all fronts for our beloved United States of America…”
For Wise, the march of bearded, black-clad Eastern European-looking Jews down the streets of Washington was mortifying. As is well-known, FDR, heeding the counsel of his Jewish advisors, declined to receive the delegation.
FDR’s pointed snub to the rabbis – and their shock and disappointment at being treated in so shabby a manner — would later boomerang against the administration and its do-nothing approach. The event unleashed a flood of media spotlight on the purpose of the Rabbis March, and speculation over FDR’s no-show.
Shortly after the march of the rabbis, Wise and Peter Bergson had their only face-to-face meeting. Wise, 68 at the time and in declining health, accused Bergson of “endangering American Jewry” with his “publicity stunts.”
“Who appointed you?” Wise demanded, months of accumulated ire and resentment spilling out.
Bergson answered that no one appointed him, which was why he was free to act according to his conscience. (Race Against Death; Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust, David Wyman)
Wise responded by mobilizing the entire American Jewish establishment to discredit Bergson politically, ethically and ideologically. In this effort, he had the backing of FDR who repeatedly urged him to take steps to suppress the Bergson Group.
A Single Point of Unity
“In the face of the immense catastrophe befalling European Jewry,” noted historian David Wyman, “American Jewish leaders could not pull together for the sake of rescue. The single point of unity within the American Jewish establishment at this time, as bizarre as it sounds, was their hatred of the Bergson Group.”
“The bitter attacks came predominantly from the main Zionist organizations led by Rabbi Stephen Wise, the foremost Jewish leader of the era,” the historian said.
Facing both communal apathy and fierce opposition from the American Jewish Establishment, and recognizing that the president could not be moved on the rescue issue, the Bergson group circumvented the White House and appealed directly to the American people and their elected representatives in Congress.
Bergson had a knack for building coalitions across party and ideological lines. Prominent American politicians from both sides of the aisle joined the committee’s campaign for the creation of an official U.S. rescue agency, including pro-New Deal Sen. Will Rogers Jr., Republican Sen. Guy Gillette and New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.
Ultimately, Bergson had about 163 congressmen and about 40 senators backing his Emergency Rescue resolution.
Poison Pen Letters
Jewish establishment leaders tried every avenue at their disposal to convince Bergson’s supporters to repudiate him. Wise and other prominent Jews denounced him to the State Department as a dangerous radical, convincing the FBI to investigate him. FBI operatives opened his mail and went through his trash. The State Department started deportation procedures against him. They also attempted to have him drafted.
In Race Against Death, Wyman cites a State Department memorandum in which Stephen Wise bashes Bergson to State Department officials for being “as great an enemy of the Jews as Hitler.”
The moral deterioration of Stephen Wise is on display in a “poison-pen” letter to a Bergson supporter that has recently come to light. Wise takes a pompous, threatening tone to Harold Ickes, then Secretary of the Interior, accusing him of allowing himself to be used by the Bergson Group and warning that he will regret it.
“Dear Friend Ickes,” Wise wrote, I was very sorry to note, as were others among your friends, that you had accepted the chairmanship of the Washington Division of the Committee to Rescue the Jews of Europe… The time will come, and come soon, when you will find it necessary to withdraw from this irresponsible group, which obtains funds through using the names of non-Jews like yourself. (Library of Congress; Harold Ickes Papers)
FDR With a Gun to His Head
By the end of 1943, despite the relentless opposition of Wise and his cadre, the Bergson group was close to achieving its major objective. Congressional hearings were scheduled for a resolution, introduced by Sens. Rogers and Gillette, calling on the administration to establish the rescue agency.
On Jan. 22, 1944, two days before the full Senate was scheduled to vote on the Rogers-Gillette rescue resolution, the president suddenly created the new agency by executive order, calling it the War Refugee Board.
Roosevelt biographers later pointed to this achievement as evidence of FDR’s humanitarianism but documents from the period reveal that he created the WRB as a concession to intense political pressure.
The pressure had reached a breaking point, as FDR was faced with an impending outbreak of a scandal exposing shenanigans in the State Department, whereby officials were caught lying about the numbers of Jews admitted to the country in order to close the doors against additional Jewish refugees.
“The president had no choice. It was an election year. He had a gun to his head,” commented a cabinet member in his memoirs.
Severely underfunded and understaffed, the WRB was able to accomplish far less than the Bergson Group had hoped and dreamed. Still, by some estimates, the rescue agency was instrumental in saving as many as 200,000 Jews who faced deportation to death camps and forced death marches.
To the end of his life, Bergson believed that his work was a failure. Had the WRB been created earlier in the war… had it not been downgraded to a charitable organization as opposed to a war department that could carry out rescue operations, countless more Jews might have been saved. Bergson was convinced that a united community could have made all the difference.
“In all human decency,” Bergson said years later, “one has to ask, what did the Jewish leaders do to shake Roosevelt? When 12,000 Jews were being killed every day, the famous Jewish solidarity didn’t hold, it didn’t pass the test.”
The Jews Should Keep Quiet describes how, at the very moment he was resisting appeals from American Jews to rescue Jews fleeing Hitler, FDR approved the creation of a U.S. government commission to rescue medieval paintings and other valuable cultural artifacts in European battle zones.
The author points to the hypocrisy of the administration saying it could not “divert” even minimal military resources to save Jewish refugees, while at the same time it was sending U.S. soldiers into danger zones to save artwork.
Other examples of FDR’s inconsistency emerge from the book, hinting at some dark force underlying the president’s rejection of all opportunities to rescue Jews.
Why rescue paintings but not people? Why bomb oil factories next to Auschwitz, but object to knocking out the gas chambers or railways leading to them?
Most of all, why turn away Jewish refugees when the immigration quotas were 70 per cent unfilled?
Private comments by FDR to friends and colleagues, quoted in private papers that have been studied by archivists, reveal the answer. Roosevelt more than once conveyed his belief that the United States “was by nature, and should remain, an overwhelmingly white, Protestant country.”
Claiming that Jews possessed “certain innate and distasteful characteristics,” he opposed bringing more of them to American shores. As for those Jews who were admitted, FDR recommended “spreading them thin” around the country, so they would not concentrate in any one area and “dominate” the economy.
These bigoted comments are consistent with a telling anecdote in the “The Abandonment of the Jews,” in which leading historian David Wyman describes a meeting that took place in Casablanca in 1943. The meeting was between American and local French officials who, following the imminent Allied liberation of North Africa, were expected to head the governments in liberated Morocco, Tunisia and Libya.
Questions were raised concerning the 300,000 Jewish citizens of these countries who had been stripped of their rights under the Vichy regime. After liberation, under the French government administration, should full rights be restored to them?
FDR’s instructions on this point, as recounted by Wyman, are highly revealing.
Roosevelt urged that quotas be imposed on the Jewish presence in various occupations, to prevent Jews from “dominating” any one area. He defended this position by citing Germany before the war, where Jews occupied more than half the positions in education, medicine and law. The Germans had become fed up “and we all know the outcome of that,” he said.
The bigotry in Roosevelt’s suggestion that German persecution of the Jews was an understandable reaction to Jewish “overrepresentation” in the economic and professional spheres is chilling.
Roosevelt’s disparaging comments about Jews were made discretely and are not well known. Sources quoted in The Jews Should Keep Quiet, taken from the diaries of Treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., vice president Henry Wallace and the private correspondence of members of Congress who met often with the president, illuminate FDR’s true sentiments about Jews.