What Should American Jews Have Done to Rescue Their European Brethren?

by Leonard Dinnerstein

American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust. American Jewry During the Holocaust. Submitted by Seymour Maxwell Finger. New York, 1984.

In June 1981 a group of Jews, headed by former United States Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg, formed an American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust. Composed of 33 members, including 10 rabbis, eight formerly elected or appointed political officials, a dozen or so Jewish community leaders, and one professor of history, the new commission set out "to record and publish the truth, as nearly as we would determine it, as to what American Jewish leaders did, and what indeed they might have been able to do in all of the circumstances to mitigate the massive evils of the Holocaust."1 To that end a professional staff, headed by Ambassador Seymour Maxwell Finger, was put together and individual historians and journalists were asked to do scholarly research on the subject. Their collective findings are reported in Finger's summary and many appendices, which include the original research papers that were done and some miscellaneous material. Together this was printed in 1984 under the title American Jewry During the Holocaust. Most members of the Commission refused to endorse the report, but that fact is buried in one of the bizarrely paginated appendices.2 Another commission member, Elizabeth Holtzman, former Congresswoman and current District Attorney of Kings County (Brooklyn, New York), wrote, "the creation of the American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust may have given rise to unrealistic expectations that a definitive study would result. No such study did."3

That American Jewish politics and personal prejudices affected the formation and ongoing work of the Commission seems certain. When Arthur Goldberg announced the Commission's formation, he indicated that the researchers would delve into the question of what the Jews in the United States knew about Hitler's plans to exterminate the Jews and when they knew it, what American Jewish leaders and organizations did once they received that knowledge, and "could the persecution of Jews have been limited if American Jews had shown more concern for their coreligionists in Europe and exerted their influence on President Roosevelt and on Congress?"4

The framing of the last question suggested that the answer would not reflect well on the actions of American Jewish leaders during World War II in regard to rescue. But in case anyone missed that point, Ambassador (as he likes to be called) Finger emphasized, before the research had even begun, that the findings would be 11 'potentially embarrassing' to some American Jewish groups and are 'likely to be controversial in any case.'"5

During the next two-and-a-half years Finger, who is not a trained historian, directed a research staff while members of the Commission, and others, differed over its course and goals. An original financial sponsor, Jack P. Eisner, dissatisfied with what the group appeared to be finding, withdrew from the project, and Goldberg pledged that he would get other funds. One sentence in an early draft of the report, written by researcher Seymour Merlin, who was an outspoken activist for rescue during the war years, read, "Jewish organizations and their respective leaders were emotionally as well as ideologically so absorbed with their internecine struggles, rivalries and efforts to achieve hegemony in the Jewish community that the perception of the urgency of the rescue was, if not ignored, at least greatly diminished."6 Apparently, too many Commission members, but not Eisner, objected to both the sentiment and the phrasing, and when that sentence, along with such an abrasive position, was deleted, Eisner and Merlin both left the Commission.7 A revised draft was prepared, and Merlin, without having read it, allowed The New York Times to quote him as saying, "I don't have to read it to know that the purpose of this report is to whitewash the responsibility and guilt of the Jewish leadership of that time."8

Naturally, with that kind of background, those who followed the story in The New York Times may have assumed that the work of the Commission did not proceed smoothly, that malcontents chose to air their differences in public, and that the ultimate report would have to be politically acceptable before members of the Commission would give it their stamp of approval. Whatever else might be said on the subject, this is not the kind of process that professional historians engage in when they embark upon their independent endeavors.

The thrust of the report that was finally printed in 1984 (1 gather that no reputable publisher could be found to issue it) is that American Jewry, and specifically American Jewish leaders, did not engage in "a united, sustained campaign for all out mobilization of American Jews and their organizations on behalf of massive rescue" during the Holocaust years.9 Whether they could have done more is problematic. But that they should have done more is the theme.

Ambassador Finger summarized the events before and during the war, highlighting efforts of American Jewry. What they achieved, Finger notes, "must not be dismissed as insufficient, particularly in view of their limited power and influence. Indeed, our research indicates that they did more than is generally realized."10 Among the topics discussed are the inhibiting factors of American antisemitism, the indifference of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill toward rescue, the hostility of the American State Department, the media's failure to bring more attention to Hitler's atrocities, the American public's reluctance to believe what some Jews said Hitler was actually doing, and so forth.

In a quick first reading one might get the impression that this study was a carefully balanced analysis of what had actually occurred within the ranks of American Jewish leaders and their attempts to save some people from Hitler's ovens. But it is not. Underlying the whole report is an indictment of American Jewish leaders for their timidity, their failure to unite with one another to maximize the possibilities for rescue, their misconception that Hitler and his allies shared the same attitudes toward the Jews, and their early faith that Roosevelt and Churchill really were trying to save those condemned by the Nazis.

By focusing on what America's Jews might have done, or explaining why they did not do more, Finger and the researchers upon whose reports he relied have really missed the eye of the needle. To be sure, in retrospect we see clearly that a greater effort should have been made. And, had all of the options been as easy to see then as they are today, other steps, no doubt, would have been taken.

If any indictment is to be made it should be against President Roosevelt. He knew what was happening and was unwilling to take the necessary political risks that rescue would have entailed. No group could have badgered him to do what he did not want to do. His advisors, Jews and Gentiles alike/ protected him from people he did not want to see. He rarely dealt with rescue because it was not a subject that he chose to entertain. Anyone who knows anything about administration is aware that associates and subordinates who continually bring up topics that the leader cares not to discuss are exiled from the inner circle. What good would it have done if White House advisors like Samuel Rosenman and David Niles had brought unwelcome pressure upon the President? Would they have continued long in close relationship with him?11

There are many reasons for the failure to rescue the European Jews, but the lack of American Jewish efforts is not among the most salient. Great Britain, in order to placate the Arabs who they feared might align themselves with the Nazis, did not want many more Jews in Palestine. Our State Department supported this position and Roosevelt did not waste much of his political capital trying to countermand it. Besides, the British were urging the United States to alter its extremely tight immigration policy and Roosevelt had little desire to tamper with it.

While it is quite true that the President could have ordered the State Department and Breckinridge Long, the Assistant Secretary in charge of the Visa Division, to be more lenient and humane in interpreting the law, he failed to do so. In other words, he knew what was being done and did not interfere with the process. Roosevelt did consult with Sam Rayburn, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and Alben Barkley, the Democratic Senate Majority leader, about admitting more immigrants and/or refugees to the United States, but they told him Congress would never approve of such a proposal.12 He did not press the issue.

Roosevelt knew, too, of the depth and intensity of antisernitism throughout the country. He and his key associates were quite sensitive to assaults upon the "Jew Deal" and they were not about to provide grist for the mill by making any special efforts to save Jewish refugees. The President maintained that the best way to stop Nazi barbarities was to win the war quickly-and he maintained that stance until his death on 12 April 1945.

What neither Finger nor any of the other scholars who have written about the United States, Great Britain, and the Holocaust come right out and say is that Roosevelt and Churchill knew the consequences of their inaction. Yet they preferred to let the Jews die rather than stir up dissension within their own countries and among the Arabs, or use the full extent of their powers to save Jewish lives.

Roosevelt, especially sensitive to public opinion in the United States, always held his wet finger to the wind. He sensed what the public would support. Only once as President, when he tried to pack the Supreme Court in 1937, did he misjudge popular sentiment. He was a strong and popular President because he led the people in the direction that they wanted to go. He was neither a risk taker nor a Don Quixote fighting windmills. He had no intention of dividing the country and diverting the war effort by going out on a limb to rescue Jews.

Another factor which affected American rescue policies, but which I do not recall Finger discussing, was the conservatism of the 78th Congress, elected in November 1942. The results of that election shocked both the Democrats and neutral observers. The Republicans came within eight votes of capturing control of the House of Representatives and isolationists in both parties grew stronger. This Congress turned out to be the most fractious and conservative legislature with which Roosevelt had to work during his 12 years as President. Members of the conservative coalition (most Republicans and most southern Democrats) spoke out against liberal legislation and policies, and the Ways and Means Committee in the House of Representatives turned down the President's request for broader wartime powers, including the right to suspend federal statutes "affecting movement of war goods, information and persons into or out of the United States." On 13 February 1943 a representative in the British Embassy in Washington sent back a report to his government in London which stated that "the administration is under fire from many quarters and is showing signs of trimming its sails before the winds of opposition which are blowing strong."13

The Senate included vitriolic opponents of the President's internationalism, such as Senators Hiram Johnson (R., California), Henrik Shipstead (R., Minnesota), William Langer (R., North Dakota), Burton K. Wheeler (D., Montana), and Robert R. Reynolds (R., North Carolina). Some of them had been somewhat outspoken in their antisernitic feelings. Tangling with them over the issue of rescuing Jews would have opened up the field for charges that Roosevelt was once again subverting American interests for Jewish causes. Given the tension that already existed between many in Congress and the President, the renewed strength shown by the isolationists after the 1942 elections, and the existing fear that the move toward the right among the electorate portended a postwar shift to Republican isolationism, it becomes easier to understand why Roosevelt refused to make any bold moves toward rescue and why the efforts of American Jews faced steeper hurdles.14

One must also recognize that millions of Americans would have been equally indifferent to the annihilation of Jews even if they had known all of the details of Auschwitz. Since the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Catholics and Catholic publications had railed against the Jews for supporting the Loyalist cause even though Loyalists raped and killed nuns and burned Catholic Churches in Spain.15 The division of American opinion over the Spanish Civil War, in fact, gave impetus to the strongly antisernitic Christian Front in the late 1930s and 1940s, especially in New York and Boston. Furthermore, not only did antisernitic incidents in the United States punctuate the weeks and months of the war, but polls showed that Americans regarded Jews as the greatest menace to this country after the Germans and the Japanese.16

In addition to the virulent antisemites there were the genteel bigots. Opinion leaders who spoke softly, rarely uttered a vulgarity, and never would have thrown a stone at anyone, nevertheless lived in restricted communities, played golf in exclusive country clubs, and did not hire Jews. These people had what might euphemistically be called "clout," but they certainly had no intention of using it to save Jews and might even have exerted counterpressure had there been visible signs of diverting the war effort. Nor did spokesmen for the major American Protestant denominations or members of the hierarchy of the American Roman Catholic Church speak out for the need to make a special effort to rescue Jews.

Perhaps the major reason for the failure to implement rescue was that no country wanted more Jews. Suppose the Jews had been saved? Britain did not want them at home or in Palestine. The United States did not want them. Canada did not want them. Where would they have gone? Critics of the failure to rescue seem unable to come to terms with what was then reality: almost every nation and world leader preferred to ignore the Jews rather than to admit them to their own countries. This is the fact that must be faced, not the lack of vigor on the part of American Jewry. David Wyman, in his book The Abandonment of the Jews (New York, 1984), stated the issue clearly. During the war, he wrote,

... the plain truth is that many Americans were prejudiced against Jews and were unlikely to support measures to help them. Antisemitism had been a significant determinant of America's ungenerous response to the refugee plight before Pearl Harbor. During the war years, it became an important factor in the nation's reaction to the Holocaust.17

Thus when Finger writes a report showing how much or how little Jews did to rescue their coreligionists I think he ought to have dwelt more on the context in which they lived and worked. To be sure, he mentions all of the salient points but then goes on to say "public opinion in both the United States and Britain included not only anti-Semitic elements but many enlightened influences as well, and many non-Jewish as well as Jewish voices in both countries were raised against the official policy of inaction."18Finger is, of course, quite right about this. But how influential can dissidents be when a strong President resists their pressure? Protests against the Vietnamese War in the United States began in 1965, grew through 1968, and continued into the early 1970s. President Lyndon B. Johnson chose not to run for office again because of the protests and his successor, Richard Nixon, held well publicized negotiations with the North Vietnamese. But the war did not end until January 1973, with the most massive bombing attack taking place in December 1972. At other periods during our lifetime people have been brutally treated in South Africa, Chile, El Salvador, and other nations. Protest groups in the United States have publicized atrocities in those countries, but their cries have had little effect on American policy. Why, then, should we presume that American Jewish leaders would have been able to arouse an antisernitic public into pressuring President Roosevelt to alter his wartime policies in order to save Jewish lives?

Historians know that events do not occur in a vacuum. A much better analysis of the activities of the Jewish leaders and organizations than Finger's appears in David Wyman's The Abandonment of the Jews. If the Goldberg Commission and Finger had waited, their report, American Jewry During the Holocaust, would have been unnecessary. Wyman puts the American Jews and their efforts into a much broader context, shows what they did try and at which points they were rebuffed, and indicates as well how the confluence of circumstances circumscribed their goals. The Jews tried to have their European brethren rescued, but the prime American Jewish movement was for a Jewish state in Palestine after the war. Maybe they miscalculated; maybe the thrust for rescue should have been more intense. But maybe they were too demoralized, too frightened by the antisernitism that had been growing in the United States since the 1920s, and too insecure to challenge vigorously a popular President in diverting the war effort.

Furthermore, too many Jews were frightened by American conditions and felt powerless to do anything about them. Washington newspapers reported an increase in antisernitism in the nation's capital in 1944 and in January 1945, one pleading Jew asked, "What Can the Jews Do?":

Anti-Sernitism has not yet become a national menace to the United States. It is only at the stage where it is a personal tragedy that humiliates, frightens, and embitters individuals. It is obviously beyond the capabilities of the minority of Jews-the group against whom it is directed-to stop the progress of anti- Semitism here. They are too weak and too few. The greater part of the task of up-rooting anti-Semitism must be done-if at all-by the Gentile majority with the Jewish minority cooperating.19

Such views permeated the thoughts of many Jews at that time and it reined in any bold efforts that other Jews might have had about mobilizing this nation to rescue coreligionists in Europe.

Other factors to which the American Jewish Commission's report fails to give sufficient weight are the divisions in the American Jewish community and the lack of dynamic leadership. Some of the better educated and more articulate Jews like judge Jerome Frank had already committed themselves. On the eve of Pearl Harbor, for example, Frank wrote, " . . . however much I might be anguished at the plight of the oppressed people in other countries, Jews or Gentiles, I [do] not believe that America should sacrifice its welfare to rescue them."20 Frank spoke for many Jews who later helped form the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism in 1943 and whose views received prominence in the pages of The New York Times because its publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, sympathized with the group's position. The Zionists, themselves split into factions, also did not focus on rescue. Although the Zionists certainly did not want to see even one Jew killed, Hitler's policies provided them with the dramatic opening needed to pursue relentlessly their cause for a Jewish state in the Middle East. Their zealousness and commitment in that area led them to call frequently for the opening of the gates to Palestine, but it also clouded their vision and concern for other possible areas of escape for Europe's Jews.

America's Jews needed another Louis Marshall, the brilliant head of the American Jewish Committee from 1912 until his death in 1929. Thereafter the Committee, which had been the leading Jewish defense organization to that time, suffered through several weak presidents until the end of the 1940s. Judge Joseph Proskauer, AJC President during the war years, was too concerned about his status as a patriotic American, privy to conversations with State Department officials, to have exerted the kind of direction the Committee had experienced with Marshall at the helm.21

That is not to say, of course, that no efforts at rescue were made. Finger acknowledges several in his report. The President, State Department officials, and members of Congress were petitioned. A massive rally calling for rescue was held in Madison Square Garden on 1 March 1943. Within 48 hours, however, Roosevelt threw out a placebo of his own and the Jews had to wait before doing much more. The State Department issued a press release announcing that a conference about rescue would be held with the British in the spring. Shortly thereafter the place, too, was made public: Bermuda. Certainly rescue advocates could do little until after the conferees met and announced their decisions. So more time elapsed-with nothing of consequence done and little that rescue advocates could do but wait. People now know that the Bermuda Conference accomplished nothing and wasted everyone's time, but contemporaries were informed by the State Department that "steps are now being taken to put into effect the recommendations made by the Conference."22

Not until December 1943, after Breckinridge Long's severely restrictive immigration policies had been exposed, did the Senate Foreign Relations committee call upon Roosevelt to do something to save Hitler's victims. It was a month later that Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., approached Roosevelt about changing our rescue policy. And it was in response to these efforts that Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board. But as Morgenthau confided to his associates, " . . . the thing that made it possible to get the President really to act on this thing was the Resolution which at least had passed the Senate to form this kind of a War Refugee Board.... I think six months before I could not have done it."23

Even with the establishment of the War Refugee Board only thousands, not millions, were saved. Roosevelt, shrewd politician that he was, set up the Board but provided insufficient financing for its operations. And then it took him several more months to approve of a shelter in the United States-for 1,000 refugees whose lives were not in danger in Italy. One shelter at Fort Ontario was all that the President would support. He believed the political risks in trying for more outweighed any possible gain. To be sure, the War Refugee Board did save thousands of Hungarian Jews and others as well. But the President was not ready to do anything about rescue before 1944, and unwilling to do more than he did.

And now I come back to a point already made before that I think needs restatement. How, exactly, does one deal with a leader who does not want to move in a particular direction? Presidents cannot always effectuate their policies, but they certainly have the power to curtail what they do not want done. Administrative officials are always attuned to presidential policies. Sometimes they derail them but more often than not they reflect the will of the leader. American policy in regard to rescue stemmed from Roosevelt and what he considered viable during World War Il. No one should blame the victim. American Jewish leaders of the period were among the victims, not the perpetrators, of this nation's failure to achieve more. The members of the Goldberg Commission probably had high hopes when they agreed to serve. But those hopes were frustrated and ultimately disappointed by the methods used and the results obtained. Elizabeth Holtzman noted that "commission members had only a limited role in preparing the final report; they never held hearings or took oral testimony." The reports and papers commissioned by the staff, Holtzman continued, "do not provide a comprehensive or final analysis of the response of American Jewish organizations and leaders to the Holocaust and certainly do not provide a definitive evaluation of the response of American Jewry as a whole."24

Comments of another Commission member, Rabbi Morris Sherer, suggest that at the end heated discussions may have occurred among the commissioners and that inadequate direction may have been given earlier to the staff:

The decision reached at the Commission's final meeting on September 20, 1983, to take no formal action as a Commission to reach joint conclusions or to approve or disapprove the report, was indeed wise as well as just. There is no way that one can reconcile the divergent views of the Commission members about what actually took place in the various circles of American Jewish leadership during the bitter years of the Holocaust. The very fact that the Commission could not unite on a report in itself is clear testimony that the chasm that separates its members is so wide that it is simply not bridgeable.25

Rabbi Sherer's remarks remind us of the pitfalls that await a group project when its leaders lack expertise in areas relevant to the enterprise. Whatever accomplishments Arthur Goldberg and Max Finger may otherwise have, they are not in the field of history. Having them supervise and oversee such an important project was equivalent to having the football coach teach high school history.


1. American Jewry During the Holocaust, p. ii.

2. Ibid., appendix 3, p. 15.

3. Ibid., appendix 3, p. 14.

4. New York Times, 27 Sept. 1981, p. 40.

5. Ibid.

6. New York Times, 21 Mar. 1984, p. B 4. See also S.E. Peck, "Campaign for an American Response to the Nazi Holocaust, 1943-1945," Journal of Contemporary History 15 (1980): 377.

7. New York Times, 9 Mar. 1983, p. B 11.

8. Ibid.

9. American Jewry During the Holocaust, pp. 36-37.

10. Ibid.

11. Rosenman had been a close advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt from the time he was Governor of New York (1929-32) until the President's death in 1945. Niles started working for President Roosevelt in 1935 and was officially appointed Special Assistant to the President in 1942. Minority affairs was one of his chief responsibilities, and he had very close relations with officials of the leading Jewish agencies as well as other important American Jews.

12. Robert Dallek, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy (New York, 1979), p. 446.

13. H.G. Nicholas, ed., Washington Dispatches, 1941-1945 (London, 1981), p. 117.

14. Ibid., pp. 117, 120, 147-48, 195, 269.

15. See, for example, J. David Valaik, "In the Days Before Ecumenism," Journal of Church and State 13 (Autumn 1971): 465-77.

16. C. H. Stember et aL, Jews in the Mind of America (New York, 1966), p. 124.

17. David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews (New York, 1984), p. 9.

18. American Jewry During the Holocaust, p. 8.

19. David L. Cohn, "What Can the Jews Do?" Saturday Review of Literature 28 (27 Jan. 1945): 9.

20. Jerome Frank, "Red White and Blue Herring," The Saturday Evening Post 214 (6 Dec. 1941): 9, 10, 83, 84, 85.

21. Jerold S. Auerbach, "Joseph M. Proskauer: American Court Jew," American Jewish History 69 (1979): 103-16.

22. Quoted in Wyman, Abandonment of the Jews, p. 122.

23. Quoted in American Jewry During the Holocaust, appendix 6, p. 10.

24. Ibid., appendix 3, p. 14.

25. Ibid., appendix 3, p. 15.

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