The Nazis estimated there were around 11 million Jews in Europe. In their calculations they included Jews in Britain and other nations that had not yet been murdered. Much is made of myth making. Pluckly little Britain with its Kinder transports of around 10 000 Jewish, middle-class children, for example. America, land of the free, with the Statue of Liberty epitomising ‘The Mother of Exiles: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. But all nations closed their borders to refugees. Charles Lindbergh, a national hero, with global fame and acclaim, was a fan of Adolf Hitler and his anti-Semitic policies. A spokesman for American Bund and fascist parties. American isolationism carried widespread public support in both Houses of Congress for letting in fewer Jews and no refugees in general. Industrialists such as Henry Ford also supported Hitler and kept his factories running full tilt in Germany as they prepared for war.
Pearl Harbour made such viewpoints less popular. Around 150 000 US serviceman lost their lives in the European arena. Russia, in comparison, lost millions. But old prejudices remained. Assistant Secretary of State, Breckinridge Long, for example, lied to Congress and continually thwarted any attempt to help Jews even after it had been shown that around 4.5 million men, women and children had already been murdered. There was blood on his patrician hands. American reporters such as W.H. Lawrence dismissed the massacre of over thirty thousand Ukrainian Jews at Babi Yar as fake news. And many bought into the story as war propaganda. America remained open for business but largely closed to Jews, even after the war had ended.
Polish nationalist politician’s attempts to make it a criminal offence to claim that their citizens were involved in the mass murder of Jews doesn’t even make good fiction in the mould of Robert Harris’s Fatherland. It’s as stupid and dangerous as followers of the moron’s moron and 45th American President at Charlottesville—‘those very good people’—drinking pints of milk, slapping their bare chests and chanting as they marched, ‘We will not be replaced by the Jews’.
Genocide is the intentional destruction of a people—usually defined as an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group—in whole or in part. Raphael Lemkin coined the term in 1944, combining the Greek word γένος (genos, “race, people”) with the Latin suffix -caedo (“act of killing”).[
After decades of open borders, a xenophobic backlash prompts the United States to pass laws restricting immigration. In Germany, Hitler finds support for his anti-Semitic rhetoric, and the Nazis begin their persecution of Jewish people, causing many to flee to neighbouring countries or America. Franklin D Roosevelt and other world leaders are concerned by the growing refugee crisis, but they fail to coordinate a response
After Kristallnacht, Germany’s Jews are desperate to escape Hitler’s tyranny. Americans are united in their disapproval of the Nazis’ brutality, but remain divided on whether and even how to act as World War II begins. Charles Lindbergh speaks for isolationists, while FDR tries to support Europe’s democracies. The Nazis invade the Soviet Union, and the Holocaust begins in secret.
The first reports of the killing reach the United States. A group of dedicated government officials establish the War Refugee Board to finance and support rescue operations. As the Allies advance, soldiers uncover mass graves and liberate German concentration camps, revealing the sheer scale and horror of the Holocaust. The danger of its reverberations soon become apparent.
The Homeless. The Tempest Tossed (1942–
Daniel Mendelsohn writer:
There are already people that think every Jew died in the Holocaust died at Auschwitz, died in a concentration camp, died in a gas chamber. No there’s whole chapters of this story.
There was another round-up, which was the biggest round-up in my family’s town. 2500 people. And my great-aunt, Esther. And the youngest girl, Bronia, who was 13 at the time. They kept them, this huge group of people in a square outside the city hall. And there were a lot of atrocities that took place. Mostly against children.
There were some Soviet documents that came to light, including a report, and they listed all the children that had been shot. Jager Bronia Samyelna 1929 was the first child listed. This was in September 1942. You know they were throwing children off the balconies of the city hall. Real terrible stuff. Whoever survived the couple of days of the roundup (Belzec memorial) were shipped to Belzec. And that’s where my great aunt, Esther died in the gas chambers.
I was able to find out that Schimiel was hiding with his second daughter, Fritka. And that was because there was a Catholic, Polish boy that was in love with her. And he was helping to hide her in the home of his local schoolteacher. And for some unknown amount of time they were being successfully hidden. The father and daughter in an underground dugout. Until someone betrayed them. Then they found them and took them and shot them both. Then they killed the schoolteacher too.
The oldest daughter, Lorca, joined a partisan group that operated with Polish partisans in a nearby forest. She was killed when the whole partisan group was wiped out. Except for my poor great Aunt, Esther, nobody was killed in a camp. They were killed in all different ways and all different manners and I think that is already being erased. The particularity of what happened.
Deborah Lipstadt, Historian.
Here’s the tragedy. Millions of people could not be rescued. They were in the hands of the Germans. They were deep into Eastern Europe. They’re in Germany and Austria and France, Belgium, Netherlands. But there were people who’d got to Portugal. Who got into Spain. There were people who eventually get to North Africa. If you had taken more people from those places, maybe more refugees could have come in. Are we talking of rescues of hundreds of thousands? No. But if it’s your family it doesn’t matter if it’s one.
Just before the US entered the war, Germany barred the emigration of Jews from any country it had captured. For them occupied Europe had become a prison to which Adolf Hitler held the key.
Americans were still in no mood to welcome immigrants. The anxiety about alien subversion that preceded Pearl Harbour only intensified afterwards.
FDR declared the West coast a military zone. And forced 120 000 persons of Japanese descent to live there in internment camps. Most of them were citizens.
The justice department also interned so-called enemy aliens. German and Italian immigrants suspected to fascist sentiments.
This war can end in two ways Hitler insisted in early 1942. Either the extermination of the Aryan peoples or the disappearance of Jewry from Europe.
Within a few months the first report emerged that the Nazis had systematically started murdering every Jewish man, woman and child on the continent.
Deborah Lipstadt, Historian.
The mantra was we’ll rescue these people by winning the war. The problem was, and many people knew this, certainly within government circles, by the time the war would be won, very few of these people would be alive.
But the dominant idea in the American government is any act of rescue will be a diversion from the war effort. Both could have been done at the same time. But clearly nobody wanted these people.
It’s not one of those things that will go down in the long annals of good things America did. It goes in a different book.
Diary of Anne Frank (in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam). Otto and Edith Frank struggled to provide for their family.
12th June 1942. Daughter Anne’s 13th birthday. Among the gifts was a diary.
Eva Geringer, Amsterdam, neighbours.
The first few weeks nothing much happened. And we thought maybe they don’t want to do anything. The Dutch people were very eh, typical. They said you belong to us. We are going to protect you. You don’t have to worry about anything. But they didn’t really count on the measures the Germans were going to take.
In the first year it became a nuisance. It interfered with our way of life, but it was not dangerous. We were not allowed on public transport, for instance. But we all had bicycles. But then you had to hand in your bicycle. And then we had to wear the yellow star. Which means that people walking the street are recognisable as Jews. That started to become really dangerous. Because people just disappeared.
I didn’t want to wear it. I was stubborn. I know I’m a Jew. But why do I have to wear a star. For everybody had ID cards. And on Jewish ID cards it said you were a Jew. Sometimes a J stamped on it. So if you were stopped without wearing a star, and you asked for your papers, you would have been deported, immediately.
The same week the Franks disappeared (to their hiding place). The Geringer’s disappeared too.
Hans was 16. He’d been called up (like the oldest Frank daughter, who was the same age) for what the Nazi’s called labour service. My father called us together and my father said we are not going to send Hans.
Members of the Dutch resistance provided them with false papers. And places to hide. But the constant dread of raids by the Gestapo forced the Geringers to temporary split up. Eva to hide with her mother. Hans with her father.
I didn’t want to. I was very much attatched my brother and my father. But my father explained. If we are in two places. The chance to survive is very much bigger. That’s the first time I really realised it’s a matter of life and death. And that’s quite scary when you’re 13-years-old.
What do you mean? We will be killed? About once a week, in the night, there was a knock on the door. People had to open up and let them search their homes. So that we had been moving around. In another house the beds were still warm. So they demolished the whole apartment until they found the people. And, of course, the hosts were taken away as well. So when you hear stories like that people were saying we can’t take this tension any longer. You have to move. So we moved about 7 times my mother and me to different places. My mother used to be like a lamb. But suddenly she became like a tiger, protecting her children. My father when we went into hiding said, ‘don’t worry, it won’t be long. By Christmas the war will be finished’. End of 42, but, of course, it wasn’t.
Deborah Lipstadt, Historian.
Chicago Tribune, late June 42, reports the mass killings of Jews (printed one million Jews killed). Like many others, the Tribune puts it on page six or seven, in a tiny little article. You either missed it. Or if you saw it you think the editors don’t think this is true. If they thought this was true, this article would be on the front pages.
Commentaor: Some papers did put the story on the front page. Including the Pittsburgh Courier. An African-American newspaper which said the Nazis could even teach Southern whites a few lessons.
3 years after their aborted voyage to Cuba, Sol Messinger finally made it to America, June 1942.
Sol Messinger, Buffalo New York.
Our sponsor was a man in Buffalo who had a furniture store. And he was a relative or a relative of a relative whom we knew in Berlin. He was the one that sponsored us. It was great to the in the United States. Not to be afraid of policemen. To be with relatives—who I never knew—but who obviously loved us. And you could feel or see how people were more or less relaxed. They weren’t worried about being picked up by the police and so on. It was just amazing.
Leon Silver. He was one of one and a half million kids killed by the Germans, including all my cousins.
Six killing centres.
Deborah Lipstadt, Historian. Gas chambers served one purpose and one purpose only. To kill as many people as efficiently as you can (Zyclon gas around a penny a victim).
Himmler so impressed with initial results promoted Hess and accelerated the programme every month.
Scholte, in Switzerland on a ‘business trip’ , was determined to get the story of the death camps out. He told his story to a Gerhart Riegner, World Jewish Congress in Geneva.
Rebecca Erbelding, Historian.
Riegner hears this third hand. The Nazis have a plan to gather the Jews together in the East and murder them before the end of the year. He obsesses over this. It keeps him up at night. Finally, 8th August 1942 he decides that he is going to spread this to the world. He is going to get the Allies to do something about this. So he goes the US consulate in Geneva and explains what he’s learned to the vice-consul there.
‘This morning Gerhart M Riegnar, Secretary of the World Jewish Congress, called in great agitation. He stated that he’s just receive a report from a German business man of considerable prominence, who is said to have excellent political and military connections in Germany and from whom reliable and important political information has been obtained on two occasions, the effect that there has been and is being considered in Hitler’s headquarters a plan to exterminate all Jews from Germany and German controlled areas in Europe after they have been concentrated in the East (presumably Poland). The number is three-and-a-half and four millions and the object is to permanently settle the Jewish question in Europe. The mass execution if decided upon would allegedly take place this fall.
Reigner said that according to his informant the use of prussic acid was mentioned as a means of accomplishing the executions. When I mentioned that the report seemed fantastic to me…’
But his [the vice-consul’s boss] was dismissive and added a covering note, [12th August 1942] warning Washington that Riegnar’s story had all ‘the earmarks of a war rumor’. That the Nazi persecuted the Jews was undeniable. But the notion that the Nazis were preparing to kill them was simply impossible for many in the State department to believe.
Rebecca Erbelding, Historian.
State Department official decide this is not good information. And this is crucial, they say even if this was true, there was nothing we could do about it. They believe they are doing all they can to assist the Jews, and that any sort of rally or petition or protest asking them to do more would be diverting resources from the war effort.
Many of these people were racist and anti-Semitic. And nativist… and you have to wonder if some of their concerns or annoyances are to do with the fact that they are being asked to help Jews.
But Riegnar had also told his story to a British consul official. Who passed it onto a Jewish Member of Parliament. (Care Mrs Schreebener). Who passed it onto Stephen Wise. The best know Rabbi in the United States.
Weiss took it to under-secretary of state, Sommner Wells who asked him to say nothing until he could find out how much truth was in it.
Wise was nearing 70, exhausted from over-work and in declining health. He told a friend these were the unhappiest days of his life. They have left me without sleep (he wrote). And I am almost demanded with grief about my people’s grief.
Over the next 2 months, reports from the Vatican, the Red Cross, from other witnesses supplied by Riegnar suggested that the horror he described was real.
[6000 killed daily]
Wells summoned Wise back to Washington again and gravely told him that the evidence justified his worst fears.
Rabbi (Dr) Wise called the associated press. There can be no doubt now. Two million Jews were already dead he told reporters, which would turn out to be a gross underestimate. Four million had already been killed. And the Nazis intended to go on killing Jews as long as there were Jews to kill.
The story finally made the front page of the New York Herald Tribune. With a report from the Polish government in exile, which described Jews in the ghetto
‘Half of the people arrived dead at the destination. Those surviving are sent to special camps at Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor. Once there they are mass-murdered’.
Rebecca Erbelding, Historian.
Riegnar’s message, when it finally reaches the American people in 1942, is the first information the American people really have verified that the Nazis have a plan to kill all the Jews of the earth.
The news was widely circulated by the Associated Press. Though its impact was lessened by the news of fighting in North Africa. Where American troops had just landed. And from Stalingrad, where the Soviets had finally broken the German siege (on 200-mile front).
CBS correspondent, Edward R Murrow perhaps the country’s most respected broadcaster was unsparing in his broadcast.
‘What is happening is this,’ he said. ‘Millions of human beings. Most of them Jews are being gathered up with ruthless efficiency and murdered.’
Jewish organisations worldwide declared 2nd December 1942, a day of mourning.
8th December, Stephen Wise and three other Jewish leaders met with the President. Unless action is taken immediately the Jews of Europe are doomed they told him.
FDR said he was aware of the Nazi horrors. But he had no remedy at hand. We are dealing with an insane man, he said. Hitler and the group that surrounds him are psychopathic. That is why we can’t act towards them with normal means.
He always maintained Hitler’s victims included all sorts of people. Not specifically Jews.
Rebecca Erbelding, Historian.
The War Department doesn’t even want American soldiers to know about the Jews because they feel like the soldiers won’t fight hard if they think they’re secretly being sent to save the Jews.
And Jewish organisations are very sensitive to this. They don’t want Americans to perceive this as a war for the Jews.
Still, 9 days after FDR met with Rabbi Wise the Allies joined in Joint Declaration (United Nations) issued simultaneously in London, Washington and Moscow. Protest on ‘Cold-Blooded Extermination’. Reiterated those responsible would not escape retribution. And would press on with necessary practical measures to this end. But no specific practical measure were recommended, other than victory in the battlefield.
Daniel Greene, Historian.
What does that declaration say?: We’re going to punish the perpetrators. Full punishment. We do rally as a nation to defeat fascism. We just don’t rally as a nation to help the victims of fascism.
Peter Hayes, Historian.
Three-quarters of the victims of the Holocaust are dead before ANY American soldier is in Continental Europe. 90% of the victims of the Holocaust die in the North East quadrant of the European continent. Poland, Ukraine, and today Belarus, but then the Soviet Union. They are all out of the reach of American aircraft and Great Britain. There is no way that American aircraft could have flown to those death camps and impeded the killing process, while it was at its most intense in 1942 and January 1943. I think the only thing they could have done was publicise what was happening more and organise behind-the-scenes resistance. But they were always inhibited about this. Remember Nazi propaganda was that Roosevelt and Churchill were the tools of the Jews. They were fighting the war for the Jews. And the Nazis used this propaganda to great effect and anything the Allies did that seemed explicitly defending Jews ran the risk of playing into the hands of that propaganda.
Despite the front-page coverage. Despite the Allies declaration, a Gallup poll taken in early 1943 showed that fewer than half its respondents could bring themselves to believe that the Nazis could possibly could have killed as many as two million Jews. Let alone, four million.
In early 1943, the tide of battle turned against the Nazis. At Stalingrad, the Soviets, armed and supplied with American trucks and tanks and aircraft had destroyed the entire Sixth Army.
In North Africa, British forces had captured 250 000 German and Italian prisoners. And saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews who had lived or sought sanctuary there.
Meanwhile, the pace of the Nazi slaughter or Jews slowed. Largely because so few survived to be killed. Those who did survive were needed for slave labour and lived mostly in Romania and Hungary. Countries that were allied with, but not controlled by the Nazis.
In America agitation for action against the killing accelerated (United Jewish War Effort). Rabbi Wise and the heads of other well-known Jewish organisations continued to offer advice to the FDR administration. But that advice had been rejected or ignored before. And they were soon faced with a rival group, more militant than them.
Its name kept changing but its philosophy remained the same. Its founder was Peter Bergson. A recent arrival from Palestine. And a member of the Irgun. A Zionist military group, who would dismiss Rabbi Wise and most of his allies, as timorous American’s of Hebrew descent. Not authentic members of the Hebrew nation.
Rescue now became Bergson’s cause. (A Proclamation on the moral rights of the stateless and Palestinian Jews). With help from the screenwriter Ben Heck, he produced an avalanche of newspaper advertisements. Charging the administration with ignoring the plight of Europe’s Jews.
9th March 1943, he filled Madison Square Garden twice, with an elaborate pageant called ‘We Will Never Die’. Told largely from the viewpoint of the dead, it featured 200 rabbis and cantors and an all-star cast that included Edward G. Robertson, John Garfield and Paul Muni. The show would go on to Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago and the Hollywood Bowl. It’s composer Kurt Weill, himself a refugee from the Nazis was pleased by the big crowds it drew, but felt the pageant didn’t achieve much. All we have done is make a lot of Jews cry, he said. Which is not a unique accomplishment. But it did impress the First Lady and scored of Congressmen.
While the show was still touring, word came that some of the 70 000 Jews still alive in the Warsaw ghetto had risen up against the Nazis, rather than be deported to Treblinka. They had already buried artwork, diaries, poetry and final notes in steel milk cans in the ground. One teenager wrote, ‘he hoped to alert the world to what happened in the twentieth century. May history attest for us.’
The uprising was the largest Jewish rebellion of the war. It would take the Germans over a month to crush it. Level the ghetto and send the survivors to their deaths.
Fredya Kirkway, The Nation magazine. In this country, you and I, and the President, and the Congress and the State Department, are accessories to the crime and share Hitler’s guilt. If we had behaved like humane and generous people, instead of complacent, cowardly ones, the Jews lying today in Poland and Hitler’s other crowded graveyards would be alive and safe. And other millions, yet to die, would have found sanctuary. We had it in our power to rescue this doomed people and we did not lift a hand to do it. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say we lifted just one cautious hand. Encased in a tight-fighting glove of quotas and visas and affidavits. And a thick layer of prejudice.
Gerhart Reigner, whose report from Switzerland had alerted America to the ongoing Nazi policy of extermination, sent Washington another desperate message. Tens of thousands of Jews deported by the Nazis were now trapped in Northern Romania without warm clothing. They had just endured another hard winter. With help from the International Red Cross, Reigner thought he could keep them alive. He also thought he could help Jewish children still hiding in France, escape across the Swiss and Spanish borders.
Rebecca Erbelding, Historian.
Reigner had many connections with underground organisations and partisan organisations in these different countries. And his idea was if he could get the money he could funnel that money into France and into Romania to people that could buy clothing and food, who could buy fake documents, or pay off border guards to allow children to escape over the border.
Reigner’s organisation, The World Jewish Congress, could provide the money. But Reigner would need a special license from the Treasury Department which routinely prohibited all financial or commercial arrangements within enemy territory. On 23rd June 1943, Reigner’s request reached the desk of 34-year-old John Pehle, who ran the foreign funds control department at Treasury.
John Pehle U.S. Treasury (speaking now) The State Department was quite negative. It worried about funds falling into the hands of the Germans. However, we decided we could go back and put safeguards in the procedures so no foreign exchange could go to the Germans.
Pehle granted the license and sent it along to the State Department for transmission to Switzerland, assuming it would reach Reigner quickly.
But the staff of Assistant Secretary of State, Breckinridge Long, who had been adamantly opposed to helping refugee Jews from the beginning, quietly shelved it.
By the beginning of September 1943 (Allies Invade Italy) when American and British troops finally landed in Italy and gained their first foothold in Europe, John Pahle insisted the US government should take an active role in trying to rescue Europe’s surviving Jews. And he would do everything he could to help.
Rebecca Erbelding, Historian
John Pahle was the child of a German immigrant. His father had come when he was a teenager from Germany. And his mother was the child of Swedish immigrants. He grew up in Omaha. He went to college there. Then ended up at Yale. But came from a family that did not always have a lot of money. And was an immigrant family. And I think that made him a little more sympathetic to the plight of people who did not come from wealth or privilege. He also thinks the US is a force for good in the world. And a force of good for mankind. And that comes through a lot of his decisions. The US cannot be isolationist. We are part of a global community. That we need to treat everyone as a fellow citizen of the world.
28th July 1943. The Ambassador of the Polish Government in Exile brought a man named Yon Kosky(?) to the White House for a meeting with President Roosevelt. Jan Karski was a Catholic courier for the Polish underground who had survived Gestapo torture and had managed to smuggle himself in and out of the Warsaw ghetto. And a transit camp that exported Jews to a transit camp at Belzac. Roosevelt questioned him closely about the situation in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Karski: ‘Mr President I have also a mission from the Polish Jews. Without outside help, the Jews will perish in Poland. ‘
Before he left Karski asked what message he had for the Polish people.
You will tell them that we will win this war. You will tell them that the guilty will be punished. Justice and Freedom will prevail. You will tell your nation they have a friend in this House.
Daniel Greene, Historian.
FDR also tells Karski to meet with Felix Frankfurter (Supreme Court Justice) who’s on the Supreme Court at the time. Frankfurter is Jewish. He tells Frankfurter what he’s seen in Warsaw and other parts of occupied Poland.
‘He only tell me, do you know I’m a Jew? Tell me what is happening to the Jews in your country? There are conflicting reports here. After I finish, he said I’m unable to believe what you told me. The Ambassador, you can’t tell him to his face that he is lying? Mister Ambassador, I did not say this young man is lying. I said I’m unable to believe what he told me.’
Deborah Lipstadt, Historian
The Soviets bring a group of reporters to Babi Yar where one of the early mass killings of Jews took place. And they are walked through by two people the Soviets say are survivors of this massacre. And they walk them through these fields where these killings have taken place. And there’s bits of bones and broken eyeglasses and teeth and all sorts of things that indicate what has happened.
Headline. ‘50 000 Kiev Jews reported missing. Soviet Atrocity Group Hears Nazis machine-gunned group in September 1941’.
There were American reporters in the story of Babi Yar and one of them (W.H.Lawrence) wrote a report that was so riddled with doubts, so riddled with questions (‘Remaining Evidence is Scant’) if I were a person reading that and I harboured the least bit of scepticism about the veracity of what was going on I could dismiss this as war propaganda. As atrocity stories. And atrocity stories are shorthand for fake news. I’m sitting at home in Chicago, De Moines, St Louis, New York, wherever it might be, and I’m reading those kinds of reports, and I’m saying this can’t be true, can’t be true.
In early October 1943, Heinrich Himmler attended a meeting of his SS commanders. By then nearly 4.5 million Jews had been murdered.
Heinrich Himmler : ‘Most of you know what it means when 100 bodies lie together, when 500, or 1000 lie there. We have carried out the most difficult task for the love of our own people. And we have suffered no harm to our inner self, our soul, our character, in so doing. This is a chapter of glory in history that had never been written, and which will never be written.’
Himmler was doing all he could to keep that chapter from being written. He ordered his men to dismantle and disguise the killing sites at Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka, where more than 1.5 million human beings had been killed. And he insisted that prisoners be forced to dig up the dead. Burn their corpses and grind their bones to powder. Then he had the prisoners who done the ghastly work shot. So no one would ever tell what they had seen or done.
Meanwhile, on the Eastern Front, special exhumation squads were now retreating ahead of the Red Army. Seeing to it that the mass graves the Einsatzgruppen and their accomplices had murdered back in 1941 and 1942 were emptied as well.
But in Nazi-occupied Poland two killing centres continued their daily, deadly, work. Majdaneck and Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Daniel Mendelsohn, Writer.
Interviewing survivors, one that could give first-hand accounts, where young adults when this happened. You hear things that…you think you’ve heard it all and you haven’t heard it all. Trust me. There are… ‘there is no bottom’, as one of my survivors said of the things that people will do to one another. The structures of what we like to think of our civilised lives, they fall apart very easily. Surprisingly easily.
‘I left behind me a few photos of my nearest ones. In the hope that somebody will find them while digging in the earth. And this person will be so kind to transmit them to one of my relatives or friends in America or Palestine. If there will still be any of them left. My name is Freda Nevselovitch, born in Vigova.’
Two days after Himmler’s secret speech, and three day before Yon Kippur, The Jewish Day of Atonement, Peter Bergson arranged for 400, mostly orthodox Rabbis, to march to the Capital. For fear of encouraging anti-Semitism, FDR’s chief speech writer, Sam Rosen and most of the members of Congress had opposed their coming.
The Rabbis sang The Star Spangled Banner, recited the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead and met with Vice President Henry A. Wallis
Rabbi Wolf Gold made a speech appealing to FDR to save the remnant of the people of the Book, the people of Israel.
The President did not see the Rabbis. But they had an impact, nonetheless.
Several Senators and Congressmen introduced a resolution calling for a new commission tasked with somehow saving the surviving Jewish people of Europe. Assistant Secretary of State, Breckenridge Long attempted to fight against it for four hours behind closed doors. He said, ‘There was no need for such a commission. The State Department had welcomed 580 000 refugees to America since 1933.’ It was not true. The real refugee number was one-third that.
Deborah Lipstadt, Historian
Breckenridge Long in his testimony, clearly misrepresents, some would say, lies. The best you can say is it’s a total misrepresentation of America’s record. He was crazed about preventing any refugees from coming here.
Newspaper Headline: Assistant Secretary Accused of Misinforming Congress.
The resolution stalled in the House. And when Long’s testimony became public, a couple of weeks later, Brooklyn Congressman Emmanuel Celler asked Long to quit.
At the end of 1943, Gerhart Reiger was still waiting for the license he needed to help Jews in Romania and France, which John Pahley had approved 5 months earlier. Breckinridge Long and his staff continued to stall. Using every possible potential barrier. Even though the President himself was on record favouring it.
John Pehle U.S. Treasury.
The State Department seemed such that rather than facilitating entry of refugees. Obstructions were thrown in their way. It’s as simple as that.
Treasure Secretary Henry Morgenthau Junior was the President’s close friend and upstate neighbour. As well as the only Jewish member of his cabinet. All through the Hitler years he had been careful to be seen not to be seen seeking special treatment for his fellow Jews. But this was too much. He confronted Long and the Secretary of State Cordell Hull. The license was finally issued. But an investigation of the reason for the lengthy delay Morgenthaus’s staff found that the State Department had deliberately suppressed Reigner’s reports from Switzerland about the extermination of the Jews.
John Pehle U.S. Treasury.
People in the State Department were saying don’t send any other messages over about what’s happening to the Jews.
Rebecca Erbelding, Historian
The State Department were being deliberately obstructionist. They had been delaying relief money that could have went to Jews in occupied Europe. And lying about it. So people would stop rallying. Stop protesting. And they’d stop asking the government to do more.
Morgenthau’s outraged aides wrote an internal report setting forth the evidence of the State Department’s deceit.
‘It appears that certain responsible positions of this government were so fearful that this government might act to save the Jews of Europe, if that gruesome facts of Hitler’s plans to exterminate them became known that they attempted to suppress the facts. We leave it for your judgement whether this action made such officials Hitler’s accomplices in this programme and whether or not these officials are not war criminals in every sense of the term.’
Treasure Staff entitled the document: Report to the Secretary on the acquiescence of this government on the murder of the Jews.
But Morganthau, who understood his boss better than most, toned down the accusatory rhetoric and named it simply: Personal Report to the President.
Morganthau’s own father, who had been the Ambassador to what had been then The Ottoman Empire, between 1915-16, had tried unsuccessfully to persuade President Woodrow Wilson to intervene on behalf of hundreds of thousands of Armenian civilians, who were being systematically massacred by Ottoman troops. He had called it race murder.
Rebecca Erbelding, Historian
Henry Junior, when to Turkey, went to Constantinople, now Istanbul, to see his father as all these event were unfolding. He points to that directly to Roosevelt. He says, you remember what my father saw. Remember what I saw in Armenia. We can’t let this happen again. To be the Secretary of the Treasury, to be in the position to actually point his friend to the past. And to say, we have a chance to do better this time.
After a meeting with Morgenthau and Pahle, Roosevelt issued an Executive Order on January 1944. Establishing The War Refugee Board. The only government agency created by any of the allies, specifically to do what it could for the Jews still under Nazi threat.
Treasury was in charge. And John Pahle was made Director. Determined to perform what he said was a life-saving job.
John Pehle U.S. Treasury.
The most important thing about The War Refugee Board was it dramatically changed the policy of the US overnight.
Rebecca Erbelding, Historian
Five million Jews have already been killed in Europe. But there are millions still there. Who are in hiding. In concentration camps. Who are still, they think, in relative safety. Who could get out. Could get rescued across borders. Could be kept alive long enough to be liberated.
The work taken on by the Board in Europe was improvisational and clandestine. Official US policy forbade paying bribes. Pahle’s men paid little attention.
Rebecca Erbelding, Historian
The first thing The War Refugee Board does is to streamline the license process. Meaning, humanitarian aid organisations can send money into Europe much easier. By the end of the war The War Refugee Board has approved around $11 million in humanitarian aid to go into Nazi Europe. That money was used to buy guns for the underground. It was used to pay off border guards.
The plight of Jews varied depending where you were in Europe. If you were in France you might be able to escape through the border in Spain or Switzerland. And so the US puts pressure on border guards in Spain and Switzerland. If you were in Romania or Bulgaria you might be able to board a ship to Turkey and take a train to Palestine.
So The War Refugee Board works with governments to make that process easier.
And if you are in Poland you might need food packages or documents that would allow you to hide. So The War Refugee Board [WRB] give help with that. And so they had a whole host of different plans that had real impact on the lives of the people who managed to survive.
Much of the Board’s most effective work was focussed on Hungary. Which in early 1944 was still home to some 800 000 Jews. The largest remaining population in Europe. It’s Regent Admiral Miklos Horthy had been a Nazi ally since 1941, when his troops joined the German invasion of the Soviet Union. But most of the Hungarian army had been destroyed at Stalingrad. Because Nazi defeat now seemed inevitable, Horthy began exploring whether a separate peace with the Allies might be possible.
When Hitler got word of it, he sent in troops to occupy the country. And insisted the Horthy cooperate in Hungary getting rid of its Jewish population.
Between May and July 1944, some 440 000 Hungarian Jews would be rounded up and deported. 338 000 were killed immediately at Auschwitz. So many that the four crematoria were not enough. And fire pits had to be dug and tended to dispose of all the corpses.
Members of the Polish underground managed to smuggle a camera into Auschwitz so that five courageous inmates could document what was happening to the Hungarians and other prisoners. While four men kept watch, a fifth snapped four pictures from the hip. Not daring to take the time to focus. The film was smuggled out of the camp inside a tube of toothpaste. They remain the only photographs of the killing process at Auschwitz.
In Hungary the WRB helped orchestrate an international series of threats and condemnations, aimed at persuading Horthy to stop cooperating the with Nazis. [Swedish King Bids Horthy Help the Jews, Stockholm, July 4th ]
Then on 2nd July US bombers hit oil refineries on the outskirts of Budapest. And dropped leaflets on the city promising punishment for the perpetrators.
Five days later, Horthy called a halt to the deportations. Hungary’s provinces had been emptied of Jews. But some 230 000 still survived in Budapest itself. Subject to persecution. Fearful that transports might resume at any time. To protect them and glean first-hand accounts of what was happening in Hungary the WRB called upon neutral nations, including Switzerland, Portugal and Sweden to expand their diplomatic presence in the country.
Their diplomats started issuing so-called protective documents to desperate Jews. Sheets of paper emblazoned with coats of arms and peppered with official looking stamps. Intended to persuade Hungarian police and German officials that the bearer was under international protection.
Timothy Synder, Historian.
It’s no coincidence that the WRB begins to make a difference in Hungary. Because that’s a country that still has a sovereign state and still has diplomats. Where a diplomat can be sent in. With briefcases full of money. And issue documents and make a difference.
9th July, a 31-year-old Swedish businessman named Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Budapest to accelerate that process. Appointed a Swedish attaché. But recruited and partly financed by the WRB, he saw his mission as carrying out an American programme. He established hospitals, nurseries and a soup kitchen. Issued thousands of protective papers. And rented 32 safe houses for those who carried them.
Diplomats from other neutral countries also participated in rescue operations. Most notably the Swiss vice-consul, Carl Lutz.
Soon some 37 000 Jews were living under Swedish and Swiss protection. In what was called the international ghetto.
When Hitler replaced the Horthy government with more ardent fascists who resumed the deportations of Jews, Wallenberg intervened as often as he could to intervene with those with protective or forged papers.
Of the nearly 150 000 Jews in Budapest who would survive the war, some 120 000 are thought to have owed their lives to Wallenberg and his fellow diplomats from neutral nations.
It is impossible to tally how many lives the WRB saved. Directly, or indirectly.
Rebecca Erbelding, Historian
These were American’s who were really trying to do good. And we have forgotten them. Because, in part, we have this longer narrative and trajectory in our memory on the US. Not doing enough. Being indifferent. Being deceitful. Not trying to save people. There is a group of people in the US government who were trying. And who saved tens of thousands of lives by the end of WW2. That is not insignificant.
‘BBC HOMESERVICE, communique number 1. Issued by Supreme Headquarters, Allied Forces.
People of Western Europe, a landing was made on the western coast of France. Troops of the Allied expeditionary force.
This landing is plan of the concerted liberation of Europe. Made in conjunction with our great Russian allies. I have this message for all of you…The hour or your liberation is approaching.’
Diary of Anne Frank: ‘6th June 1944. This is D-Day. The BBC announced it today. The invasion has begun. The best part of the invasion is I feel that friends are on their way. Those awful Germans have oppressed and threatened us for so long that the thought of friends and salvation mean everything to us.’