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Holocaust ;Fail to rescue

Lenni Brenner|Sunday, August 2, 2009

Aid to European Jewry during the Second World War can only be dealt with in the context of the general war aims of the Allies. At all times the main concern of Britain and France, and then the United States, was the preservation of their empires and the capitalist system. The Soviet Union had no quarrel with this vision, except where its own troops actually penetrated Central Europe. London and Paris entered the war on the defensive, fearing both victory and defeat: the First World War had led to the collapse of four empires and the rise of Communism.  

Lenni Brenner   Zionism in the Age of the Dictators   The Wartime Failure to Rescue Aid to European Jewry during the Second World War can only be dealt with in the context of the general war aims of the Allies. At all times the main concern of Britain and France, and then the United States, was the preservation of their empires and the capitalist system. The Soviet Union had no quarrel with this vision, except where its own troops actually penetrated Central Europe. London and Paris entered the war on the defensive, fearing both victory and defeat: the First World War had led to the collapse of four empires and the rise of Communism.
  The attitude of the British government towards helping Jews escape the Nazi fury was carefully set down by Roosevelt’s intimate, Harry Hopkins. He told of a meeting on 27 March 1943 between the President, Anthony Eden and others, at which the question of at least saving the Jews of Bulgaria had arisen. Eden said:
  we should move very cautiously about offering to take all Jews out of a country like Bulgaria. If we do that, then the Jews of the world will be wanting us to make similar offers in Poland and Germany. Hitler might take us up on any such offer and there simply are not enough ships and means of transportation in the world to handle them. [1]
  Britain’s prime concern was that rescuing Jews would create problems with the Arabs, who feared that Jewish immigration to Palestine would lead to a post-war Jewish state. Naturally, London’s solicitous regard for Arab sensitivities in this respect was solely based on imperial calculation; according to Churchill, the Arabs were no better than “a backward people who eat nothing but camel dung”. [2] The British understood that the Zionists also saw the war and rescue through the Palestinian prism. The Zionists knew that the Arabs would be opposed to their British overlords, and they hoped to curry favour with Britain by their own loyalty. Their main wartime goal was the creation of a Jewish Legion, and with it they hoped to establish a military record which would compel Britain to grant them statehood as a post-war reward. Their first thought was how to turn the war to their advantage in Palestine. Yoav Gelber of the Yad Vashem Institute gives a good account of this view among the Labour Zionists in September 1939:
  the majority of the leaders tended to view Palestine and its problems as the touchstone of their attitude towards the war. They were inclined to leave the front-line fighting as such, if unconnected to Palestine, to the Jews of the Diaspora. [3]

Hashomer Hatzair took the sameposition, and opposed any volunteering that involved service outside Palestine. As one of their writers, Richard Weintraub, put it on 28 September 1939: “it would be politically unwise to attempt to revive an updated version of Jewish ‘missions’ in the world at large and to make sacrifices for their sake”. [4]
  During 1940 and 1941 the Jewish Agency Executive rarely discussed the Jews of occupied Europe and, aside from their half-hearted efforts at illegal immigration, the Agency did nothing for them. [5] Nor were their colleagues in neutral America much more helpful, despite the fact that Goldmann had arrived there for the duration in 1940 and both Ben-Gurion and Weizmann went there for several extended visits in 1940 and 1941. Furthermore, the American Zionist leadership campaigned against those Jews who were trying to aid the stricken. Aryeh Tartakower, who was in charge of aid work for the World Jewish Congress in America in 1940, has told some of the story in an interview with the distinguished Israeli historian, Shabatei Beit-Zvi:
  we received a call from the American Government, from the State Department, and they brought to our attention that sending parcels to the Jews in Poland was not in the interests of the Allies ... The first one to tell us to stop immediately was Dr Stephen Wise ... He said: “We must stop for the good of England.” [6]
  The British decided that it was the “duty” of the Germans as belligerents to feed the population in the territories they occupied. Food packages from the outside only aided the German war efforts. The WJC-AJC apparatus not only stopped sending food, but it pressurised the non-Zionist Jewish relief agencies to stop as well, and almost all did except the Aguda. They told the Zionists that Britain was no authority on what was good for the Jews and sent more packages. This aroused Joseph Tanenbaum, a Zionist and leader of the barely existent Jewish anti-Nazi boycott. He had not previously seen food packages as his responsibility until the State Department had suggested it. He then attacked the Agudists in the Zionist daily newspaper, Der Tog in July and August 1941:
  Why then do the English send, or the Yugoslavian representatives collect money to send food to the prisoners-of-war. This is a completely different issue. The prisoners-of-war are under the auspices of the Red Cross international convention which has already a long grey beard. [7]
  Aguda’s own grey beards continued to defy Tanenbaum, and his Joint Boycott Council of the AJC and the Jewish Labor Committee and – eventually – the British realised that they could never stop the Agudists and let them send 10,000 monthly packages. The anti-Semitism of British policy was later exposed when they supplied Canadian wheat to occupied Greece from 1942 to its liberation. The Greeks were conquered allies; the Jews were not.
    Wise suppresses news about extermination of Jews

When did the Western Jewish establishment and the Allies discover that Hitler was systematically killing Jews? Reports of slaughter in the Ukraine started reaching the Western press in October 1941, and in January 1942 the Soviets issued a detailed report, the Molotov Announcement, which analysed the workings of the Einsatzgruppen. The memorandum was dismissed by the WZO in Palestine as “Bolshevik propaganda”. [8] In February 1942 Bertrand Jacobson, the former representative of the Joint Distribution Committee in Hungary, held a press conference on his return to the USA and relayed information from Hungarian officers about the massacre of 250,000 Jews in the Ukraine. In May 1942 the Bund sent a radio message to London that 700,000 Jews had already been exterminated in Poland, and on 2 July the BBC broadcast the essence of the report in Europe. The Polish government in-exile used the Bund alarm in its own English-language press propaganda. Yet on 7 July 1942, Yitzhak Gruenbaum, then leading the Jewish Agency’s Vaad Hazalah (Rescue Committee), refused to believe similar accounts of massacres in Lithuania, because the numbers of the estimated dead were larger than the pre-war Jewish population in the country. [9] On 15 August Richard Lichtheim in Switzerland sent a report to Jerusalem, which was based on German sources, about the scope and methods of extermination. He received a reply, dated 28 September:
  Frankly I am not inclined to accept everything in it literally ... Just as one has to learn by experience to accept incredible tales as indisputable facts, so one has to learn by experience to distinguish between reality – however harsh it may be – and imagination which has become distorted by justifiable fear. [10]
  Gruenbaum and his Rescue Committee acknowledged that terrible things were going on, but he kept minimising them as “only” pogroms.
  On 8 August Gerhart Riegner of the Geneva office of the WJC obtained detailed accounts of the gassing programme from reliable German sources, and he forwarded these to the WJC’s London and New York offices via British and American diplomats. The WJC in London received the material, but Washington withheld the message from rabbi Wise. On 28 August the British section of the WJC sent Wise another copy, and he called the State Department and discovered that they had kept back the information. They then asked him not to release the news to the public pending verification; he agreed and said nothing until 24 November – 88 days later – when the State Department finally confirmed the report. Only then did Wise make a public announcement of a Nazi plan to exterminate all the Jews in their grasp. On 2 December he wrote a letter to “Dear Boss”, Franklin Roosevelt, asking for an emergency meeting and informing him that:
  I have had cables and underground advices for some months, telling of these things. I succeed, together with the heads of other Jewish organisations, in keeping them out of the press. [11]
  Wise and Goldmann, who was in the United States throughout the war, never doubted that Riegner’s report was true. According to Walter Laqueur, they feared that publicity would add to the despair of the victims. [12] Yehuda Bauer is certain that the American Jewish leaders were already aware of the Bund report. [13]
    “There is no Need to Reveal Them in Public”

In November 1942 some 78 Jews holding Palestinian citizenship arrived from Poland in exchange for some Palestinian Templars. The Jewish Agency could no longer doubt the reports that had been coming into the country for months and, like Wise, they finally declared that the Nazis were systematically exterminating the Jews. But, as with Wise, some WZO leaders in Palestine had been convinced of the truth of the reports well before they chose to make the facts public. On 17 April 1942, even before the Bund broadcast, Moshe Shertok wrote to General Claude Auchinleck, the commander of the British Eighth Arm in North Africa. He was concerned with what might happen to Palestine’s Jews, if the Afrika Korps broke through Egypt.
  The destruction of the Jewish race is a fundamental tenet of the Nazi doctrine. The authoritative reports recently published show that that policy is being carried out with a ruthlessness which defies description ... An even swifter destruction, it must be feared would overtake the Jews of Palestine [my emphasis]. [14]
  In other words, while Gruenbaum, the official in charge of the rescue efforts of the WZO, was sceptical about the reliability of the reports about the massacre of the people he was supposed to be helping, the head of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency was utilising these same reports to convince the British to arm the Zionist movement in Palestine.
  With the announcements by Wise and the Jewish Agency, attention was turned to what could be done about it. The Jewish Agency’s statement triggered off a spontaneous feeling of guilt throughout the Yishuv, as the reality of the horror facing their own kin sank in. However, there was no change in political focus amongst the Zionists. A Jewish state after the war remained their priority, and the Holocaust was not going to jeopardise this. Accordingly, when the local Journalists’ Union cabled similar organisations abroad asking them to focus on the slaughter, Dov Joseph, the acting director of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department, cautioned them against:
  publishing data exaggerating the number of Jewish victims, for if we announce that millions of Jews have been slaughtered by the Nazis, we will justifiably be asked where the millions of Jews are, for whom we claim that we shall need to provide a home in Eretz Israel after the war ends. [15


Yoav Gelber tells us of the immediate effect of Dov Joseph’s intervention: “Vociferous protests were therefore toned down and instead, ways of responding more ‘constructively’ were sought.” [16] Ben-Gurion talked of “requests” that the Allies should threaten retribution and try and rescue Jews, particularly children, or exchange Germans for Jews, etc. In the same breath, he continued to call for concentration on building support for the Jewish Army proposal. [17] The Jewish Agency just soldiered on; no special effort was made for the rescue operation. Gruenbaum continued with several other duties in addition to heading the Rescue Committee. [18] Professor Bauer has given a stark scholarly assessment of Gruenbaum’s captaincy of their efforts:
  On the basis of research done at the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University, I would say ... the mood of some of the leaders – especially of Yitzhak Gruenbaum ... turned to utter despondency. He and some of his close associates thought that nothing could be done to save Europe’s Jews, and that money sent to Europe for escape, resistance, or rescue would be wasted. But they felt that the effort was worthwhile in order to be able to say after the war that everything possible had been done. It should be stressed they did not say the effort should not be made; but they felt it would inevitably fail. [19]

  But did Gruenbaum really do anything? There were many in Palestine who were appalled at the WZO’s defeatism and its continuing preoccupation with the goals of Zionism while their relatives were being slaughtered, and these people cried out for action. They were no immediate threat to the hegemony of the WZO leaders, but the leadership felt the pressure. Most of it was directed at Gruenbaum, who finally gave way at a meeting of the Zionist Executive on 18 February 1943. He accused his critics and his friends of letting him take the blame, while they did nothing either. Later he set down his incredible speech in his post-war book, Bi-mei Hurban ve Sho’ah (In the Days of Holocaust and Destruction).
  However, among us – permit me to speak of this side of the picture – there is one solution that is universal to every bad event, to every Holocaust. First of all, we attack the leaders; they are to blame ... had we cried, had we demanded, everything possible would have been done to save, to help. And if nothing was done, that was because we did not cry or make demand ...
  I want to destroy this assumption ... in order to save, to take out people from the occupied countries ... it would be necessary for the neutral countries to provide refuge, that the warring nations open their gates to the refugees. And when we suggested demanding this through the help of our friends ... there were those who said:
  “Don’t touch this matter; you know they won’t admit Jews onto North Africa, to the United States, don’t put our comrades into such a situation. The public is unable to accept these considerations, they don’t understand them, nor do they wish to understand them” ...
  Meanwhile a mood swept over Eretz Yisrael, that I think is very dangerous to Zionism, to our efforts for redemption, our war of independence. I do not want to hurt any one, but I cannot understand how such a thing could occur in Eretz Yisrael, something that never happened abroad. How is it possible that in a meeting in Yerushalayim people will call: “If you don’t have enough money you should take it from the Keren Hayesod, You should take the money from the bank, there is money there.” I thought it obligatory to stand before this wave ...
  And this time in Eretz Yisrael, there are comments: “Don’t put Eretz Yisrael in priority in this difficult time, in the time of destruction of European Jewry.” I do not accept such a saying. And when some asked me: “Can’t you give money from the Keren Hayesod to save Jews in the Diaspora?”, I said: “no!” And again I say no. I know that people wonder, why I had to say it. Friends tell me, that even if these things are right, there is no need to reveal them in public, in time of sorrow and concern. I disagree. I think we have to stand before this wave that is putting Zionist activity into the second row. Have I said this to glorify my own tenets? And because of this, people called me an anti-Semite, and concluded that I am guilty, because we do not give priority to rescue actions.
  I am not going to defend myself. The same as I’m not going to justify or defend myself if they would blame me for killing my mother, so I’m not going to defend myself in this case. But my friends did not have to abandon me in this battle and then comfort my soul later: “If you were connected with any political party we would have put the reins on you.” I think it necessary to say here Zionism is over everything ...
  I wish to end with suggestions. Naturally, it is incumbent upon us to continue all action for the sake of rescue and not neglect one chance to end the slaughter ... At the same time we must guard Zionism. There are those who feel that this should not be said at the time a Holocaust is occurring, but believe me, lately we see worrisome manifestations in this respect: Zionism is above all – it is necessary to sound this whenever a Holocaust diverts us from our war of liberation in Zionism. Our war of liberation does not arise from the fact of a Holocaust in a straightforward manner and does not interlock with actions for the benefit of the Diaspora in its time, and this is to our detriment. This situation does not exist for any other nationality. We have two areas of action, and they connect and interlock, but are actually two separate areas of work though they sometimes touch. And we must guard – especially in these times – the supremacy of the war of redemption. [20]
  In 1944 a Hungarian Zionist, Joel Brand, arrived in Jerusalem on an extraordinary mission (The mission will be described in greater detail in the following chapter; here it is sufficient to state that until 1944 the Germans had not occupied Hungary and that it had become a refuge for those fleeing Nazi territory.) Brand had been a prominent figure in Budapest’s own Zionist Rescue Committee and as such had been taken to see Gruenbaum. He later told of one of his pathetic encounters with the director of the WZO’s rescue operations:
  He said to me at once, “Why haven’t you rescued my son, Herr Brand? You should have been able to get him out of Poland into Hungary.” I replied: “We have not usually undertaken the rescue of individuals.” “But you ought to have thought of my son, Herr Brand. It was your duty to do so.” I respected his gray hairs, and I said no more. [21]
    “For only with Blood shall we get the land”

The Nazis began taking the Jews of Slovakia captive in March 1942. Rabbi Michael Dov-Ber Weissmandel, an Agudist, thought to employ the traditional weapon against anti-Semitism: bribes. He contacted Dieter Wisliceny, Eichmann’s representative, and told him that he was in touch with the leaders of world Jewry. Would Wisliceny take their money for the lives of Slovakian Jewry? Wisliceny agreed for 50,000 in dollars so long as it came from outside the country. The money was paid, but it was actually raised locally, and the surviving 30,000 Jews were spared until 1944 when they were captured in the aftermath of the furious but unsuccessful Slovak partisan revolt.
  Weissmandel, who was a philosophy student at Oxford University, had Volunteered on 1 September 1939 to return to Slovakia as the agent of the world Aguda. He became one of the outstanding Jewish figures during the Holocaust, for it was he who was the first to demand that the Allies bomb Auschwitz. Eventually he was captured, but he managed to saw his way out of a moving train with an emery wire; he jumped, broke his leg, survived and continued his work of rescuing Jews. Weissmandel’s powerful post-war book, Min HaMaitzer (From the Depths), written in Talmudic Hebrew, has unfortunately not been translated into English as yet. It is one of the most powerful indictments of Zionism and the Jewish establishment. It helps put Gruenbaum’s unwillingness to send money into occupied Europe into its proper perspective. Weissmandel realised: “the money is needed here – by us and not by them. For with money here, new ideas can be formulated.” [22] Weissmandel was thinking beyond just bribery. He realised immediately that with money it was possible to mobilise the Slovak partisans. However, the key question for him was whether any of the senior ranks in the SS or the Nazi regime could be bribed. Only if they were willing to deal with either Western Jewry or the Allies, could bribery have any serious impact. He saw the balance of the war shifting, with some Nazis still thinking they could win and hoping to use the Jews to put pressure on the Allies, but others beginning to fear future Allied retribution. His concern was simply that the Nazis should start to appreciate that live Jews were more useful than dead ones. His thinking is not to be confused with that of the Judenrat collaborators. He was not trying to save some Jews. He thought strictly in terms of negotiations on a Europe-wide basis for all the Jews. He warned Hungarian Jewry in its turn: do not let them ghettoise you! Rebel, hide, make them drag the survivors there in chains! You go peacefully into a ghetto and you will go to Auschwitz! Weissmandel was careful never to allow himself to be manoeuvred by the Germans into demanding concessions from the Allies. Money from world Jewry was the only bait he dangled before them.
  In November 1942, Wisliceny was approached again. How much money would be needed for all the European Jews to be saved? He went to Berlin, and in early 1943 word came down to Bratislava. For $2 million they could have all the Jews in Western Europe and the Balkans. Weissmandel sent a courier to Switzerland to try to get the money from the Jewish charities. Saly Mayer, a Zionist industrialist and the Joint Distribution Committee representative in Zurich, refused to give the Bratislavan “working group” any money, even as an initial payment to test the proposition, because the “Joint” would not break the American laws which prohibited sending money into enemy countries. Instead Mayer sent Weissmandel a calculated insult: “the letters that you have gathered from the Slovakian refugees in Poland are exaggerated tales for this is the way of the ‘Ost-Juden’ who are always demanding money”. [23]

The courier who brought Mayer’s reply had another letter with him from Nathan Schwalb, the HeChalutz representative in Switzerland Weissmandel described the document:

There was another letter in the envelope, written in a strange foreign language and at first I could not decipher at all which language it was until I realised that this was Hebrew written in Roman letters, and written to Schwalb’s friends in Pressburg [Bratislava] ... It is still before my eyes, as if I had reviewed it a hundred and one times. This was the content of the letter:

“Since we have the opportunity of this courier, we are writing to the group that they must constantly have before them that in the end the Allies will win. After their victory they will divide the world again between the nations, as they did at the end of the first world war. Then they unveiled the plan for the first step and now, at the war’s end, we must do everything so that Eretz Yisroel will become the state of Israel, and important steps have already been taken in this direction. About the cries coming from your country, we should know that all the Allied nations are spilling much of their blood, and if we do not sacrifice any blood, by what right shall we merit coming before the bargaining table when they divide nations and lands at the war’s end? Therefore it is silly, even impudent, on our part to ask these nations who are spilling their blood to permit their money into enemy countries in order to protect our blood – for only with blood shall we get the land. But in respect to you, my friends, atem taylu, and for this purpose I am sending you money illegally with this messenger.” [24]

Rabbi Weissmandel pondered over the startling letter:

After I had accustomed myself to this strange writing, I trembled, understanding the meaning of the first words which were “only with blood shall we attain land”. But days and weeks went by, and I did not know the meaning of the last two words. Until I saw from something that happened that the words “atem taylu” were from “tiyul” [to walk] which was their special term for “rescue”. In other words: you, my fellow members, my 19 or 20 close friends, get out of Slovakia and save your lives and with the blood of the remainder – the blood of all the men, women, old and young and the sucklings – the land will belong to us. Therefore, in order to save their lives it is a crime to allow money into enemy territory – but to save you beloved friends, here is money obtained illegally.

It is understood that I do not have these letters, for they remained there and were destroyed with everything else that was lost. [25]

Weissmandel assures us that Gisi Fleischman and the other dedicated Zionist rescue workers inside the working group were appalled by Schwalb’s letter, but it expressed the morbid thoughts of the worst elements of the WZO leadership. Zionism had come full turn: instead of Zionism being the hope of the Jews, their blood was to be the political salvation of Zionism.  

Minimal Response to the Extermination

Even after Wise’s belated announcement of the extermination campaign, the response of the American Jewish establishment was minimal. They heeded a call from one of the Zionist chief rabbis in Palestine for a day of mourning, which they called for 2 December 1942, and the anti-Zionist Jewish Labor Committee added a ten-minute Jewish work stoppage. But much more had to be done before the Roosevelt administration would ever take concrete action. He would have to be pushed hard, if he was going to do anything to help the Jews of Europe.

Roosevelt had ambivalent attitudes toward Jews. He had one in his Cabinet and had appointed another to the Supreme Court, and he had several among his confidential advisers. But he never made the slightest move in the 1930s to amend the anti-Semitic immigration laws. Although Jews were prominent in the northern and western Democratic machines, there were several outspoken anti-Semites among the Dixiecratic contingent in Congress and Roosevelt would never think of separating from them. He never expressed any public anti-Semitic sentiments, but there is no doubt that he held them. Years later, the United States government published the notes of the Casablanca Conference, held in January 1943, and it was revealed that he had told the French:

The number of Jews engaged in the practice of the professions (law, medicine, etc) should be definitely limited to the percentage that the Jewish population in North Africa bears to the whole North African population ... The President stated that his plan would further eliminate the specific and understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany, namely that while they represented a small part of the population, over fifty per cent of the lawyers, doctors, schoolteachers, college professors, etc. in Germany were Jews. [26]

The inadequacy of the Jewish establishment’s response was so glaring that it brought forth a furious denunciation by the veteran Labour Zionist, Chaim Greenberg, in the February 1943 issue of the Yiddishe Kemfer:

the few Jewish communities remaining in the world which are still free to make their voices heard and to pray in public should proclaim a day of fasting and prayer for American Jews ... this American Jewish community has fallen lower than perhaps any other in recent times ... We did not even display sufficient ability to set up (temporarily, for the duration of the emergency only) some kind of a general staff that should meet every day and think and consult and consider ways to engage the help of people who may, perhaps, be in a position to help us ... One clique tries to outmanoeuvre the other – Zionists and anti-Zionists ... What has such rescue work to do with political differences and with the entire ideological clap-trap which we have produced during the past couple of generations? [27]

Greenberg’s powerful attack on American Jewry’s leaders spared no one, least of all his fellow Zionists, who were becoming the strongest force in the community. Without naming names, he denounced the defeatism and obsession with Palestine to be seen in many of the leading Zionist circles.

There have even appeared some Zionists in our midst who have become reconciled to the thought that it is impossible to stay the hand of the murderer and therefore, they say, it is necessary “to utilise this opportunity” to emphasise to the world the tragedy of Jewish homelessness and to strengthen the demand for a Jewish National Home in Palestine. (A Home for whom? For the millions of dead in their temporary cemeteries in Europe?)

He attacked Wise’s American Jewish Congress:

at a time when the Angel of Death uses airplanes, the AJ Congress employs an oxcart-express ... [it] delegated rescue work in Europe to a special committee ... this committee permits itself the luxury of not meeting for weeks on end ... It displayed a lack of the courage of despair, of that “aggressiveness of spirit” which characterises the hour of doom, of the ability to act on its own on a suitable scope or to attract people from other circles and activate them for such a generally self-evident cause as the attempt to rescue those who can still be rescued.

Greenberg lashed out at the Revisionists’ Committee for a Jewish Army for expensive advertisements publicising a Jewish Army for 200,000 stateless Jews: “knowing very well that this is a mythical figure ... all the Jews in Europe, to the last one, would be murdered long before such a force could be recruited, organised and trained”. [28]  

The Emergency Committee

Only one of the Zionist groups understood that rescue had to become their top priority. A small number of Irgunists had gone to the USA to raise funds for their illegal immigration, and when the war broke out they added a demand for a Jewish Legion which they, like the WZO, saw as Zionism’s immediate goal. In April 1941 they noticed some articles by Ben Hecht, one of America’s most famous journalists, in PM, a liberal New York daily paper, deploring the silence of Jewish social, political and literary figures on the situation of European Jewry. The Irgunists convinced Hecht to help them set up a “Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews”. Hecht approved of the idea, because he could see they were fighters and that was what he wanted: a Jewish army that would kill Germans in revenge for the Jews Hitler humiliated and murdered. Hitherto the Irgunists had played a very minor role in the Jewish political scene; however, with Hecht on their committee the Revisionists became a semi-serious force. He knew everybody in Hollywood and the publishing world. When their advertisements appeared in the major newspapers they looked as if they were an actual part of wartime politics.

Although the Irgunists had missed the full significance of the earliest massacre reports, Wise’s statement convinced their leader, Peter Bergson, that they had to push for American government action specifically on behalf of the Jews. They planned to bring a pageant, They Shall Never Die, to Madison Square Garden on 9 March 1943. Some of the most famous theatrical people of the age – Kurt Weill, Billy Rose and Edward G. Robinson amongst many others – started to put it together. This was too much for Wise, who was not willing to be upstaged by any Fascist interlopers. The Jewish establishment suddenly announced its own rally in the Garden for 1 March. The Committee for a Jewish Army tried to bring about unity by offering to withdraw as exclusive sponsor for the 9 March event, if the establishment would agree to co-sponsor it, but it refused. [29] The result was that two separate rallies on the same Jewish tragedy took place in the Garden only nine days apart. Both were well attended; the Hecht-Weill pageant filled the arena twice on the same night. The real difference was that the circle of followers around Wise were primarily moved by their hostility to the Irgunists and had no genuine plans for a sustained mobilisation, whereas the Committee for a Jewish Army toured America’s major cities with their pageant. Wise’s American Jewish Congress, infuriated by their success, ordered its local branches around the country to try to keep the pageant out of auditoriums wherever it could, and the pageant was denied a performance at Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Buffalo at least. [30]

“But what have we really achieved?” Kurt Weill asked. “The pageant has accomplished nothing. I know Bergson calls it a turning point in Jewish history, but he is stage struck. Actually all we have done is make a lot of Jews cry, which is not a unique accomplishment.” [31] In fact the pageant did establish the Committee for a Jewish Army as a force to be reckoned with. Nevertheless, latter-day apologists for the Holocaust Jewish establishment, like Bernard Wasserstein of Brandeis, still would argue that:

Congress, and the majority of the general public were at one in their adamant refusal to contemplate any tinkering with the strict letter of the national origins quota restrictions ... It requires a vivid imagination to be convinced that a campaign of Jewish “activism” would have changed these harsh realities. The more probable consequences would have been to arouse increased antipathy toward Jews ... Jewish leaders were only too aware of this: hence their general scepticism as to the efficacy of activism. [32]

In fact there is no evidence to suggest that anti-Semitism increased as a result of the committee’s activities. Rather the opposite: momentum built in Congress for action. The Irgunists, including the deeply committed Weill, felt that if they put all their strength and energy into rescue they could force the government to start doing something. From spring 1943 to the end of the year, the committee – now renamed the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe – virtually had the rescue field to itself, as the Jewish establishment either did nothing or else tried to sabotage their work.

Their practical experience in mobilising soon taught the committee that they had to move away from the Palestine issue. By 1943 Zionist sympathies were rapidly growing among Jews, but the anti-Zionist elements were still powerful and non-Jews had not the least interest in causing trouble for their British allies in the Middle East, although many ordinary Americans were convinced that their government should try to save the Jews. Now Wise and Goldmann brought a new charge against the Emergency Committee: they had betrayed the sacred cause of Palestine. Bergson tried to reason with Wise: “If you were inside a burning house, would you want the people outside to scream ‘save them’, or to scream “‘save them by taking them to the Waldorf Astoria’?”, It was all to no avail; Wise would never concede. [33]

The committee mobilised 450 orthodox rabbis for an October march to the White House, but Roosevelt would not see them; he rushed off to dedicate four bombers to the Yugoslav exile air force, but the campaign continued. Peter Bergson emphasises: “The rich Jews, the establishment, always fought us. It was always the little Jews – and Gentiles-who sent in the money for our ads.” [34] Sensing that there was now clearly enough public support for the cause, their leading congressional friends, Senator Guy Gillette and Representatives Will Rogers Jr and Joseph Baldwin, put in a Bill for a rescue commission. They pointedly emphasised that their proposal had nothing to do with Zionism. Hearings in the Senate in September were friendly, but in the House Foreign Relations Committee the Chairman, Sol Bloom, a Jewish Tammany Democrat from Brooklyn, bitterly attacked Bergson and the hearings went against the proposition. For good measure, American Zionism’s most prestigious figure, rabbi Stephen Wise, came to Washington to testify against the rescue Bill because it did not mention Palestine.

Wise’s Congress Weekly boasted how the hearings were “utilised by Dr Wise for lifting the discussion from the plane of abstract plans to the most immediate practical measures of rescue, and in the first place to the opening of Palestine”. But there was more to it; the article denounced the Emergency Committee for “utter disregard of all existing Jewish organisations and their years of effort through and with the government agencies created to deal with the rescue problem”. [35] For years the press and the politicians had deferred to Wise as the leader of American Jewry. Now an outsider, Ben Hecht, and a group of the hated Revisionists were trying to tell Roosevelt how to save the Jews.

Bloom’s action against the Bill could not stop the pressure for a rescue commission. Before the Emergency Committee could launch a new plan, the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morganthau Jr, handed Roosevelt a report on a plot by a group of State Department officials to suppress information on the massacres. Breckenridge Long, the former ambassador to Italy, a pre-war admirer of Mussolini, whom the department had assigned to handling refugee problems during the Holocaust, had been found to have altered a vital document to obstruct exposure. At the congressional hearings Long had been the administration’s main witness against the proposal for a rescue commission, and now Morganthau had to warn the President that the situation could easily “explode into a nasty scandal”. [36] Roosevelt knew he was beaten, and on 22 January 1944 he announced the establishment of a War Refugee Board.

Credit for the establishment of the Refugee Board has been debated by Holocaust historians. Those who identify with the Zionist establishment derogate the work of the Emergency Committee and argue that the Board was wholely the work of Morganthau. Thus Bernard Wasserstein insists that “activism” did not and could not get results for the Jews. The Board was the result of Morganthau’s intervention and nothing else: “Morganthau’s protests yielded some results ... It is an example of what was feasible as a result of energetic behind-the-scenes activity by Jewish leaders.” [37] However, Nahum Goldmann conceded that John Pehle, who drafted Morganthau’s report and became the Director of the WRB, “had taken the position that Bergson’s Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe had inspired the introduction of the Gillette-Rogers resolution, which in turn had led to the creation of the War Refugee Board”. [38] Yet Goldmann and Wise continued their own campaign against Bergson. Goldmann went to the State Department on 19 May 1944 and, according to a department memorandum, he “alluded to the fact that Bergson and his associates were in this country on temporary visitors’ visas ... He added that he could not see why this government did not either deport Bergson or draft him.” In the same memorandum the reporter noted that Wise “had gone so far as to inform Mr Pehle that he regarded Bergson as equally great an enemy of the Jews as Hitler, for the reason that his activities could only lead to increased anti-Semitism”. [39]

The Board turned out to be only of minimal help to the Jews. Arthur Morse wrote in his book, While 6 Million Died, of 50,000 Romanians directly saved, and indirectly, through pressure on the Red Cross, neutrals, clergy and underground forces, the Board saved an additional few hundred thousand. [40] More recent calculations lower the figure to approximately 100,000. [41] The Board was never a powerful agency. It never had more than thirty staff, and it could not circumvent the State Department in dealing with the neutrals or the collapsing Nazi satellites. It had no power to guarantee that escaped Jews would eventually be given refuge in America, where so many had kin. Shmuel Merlin, who directed the public relations aspects of the Emergency Committee’s work, has explained why the Board was so relatively weak:

We knew we were defeated when the Jewish organisations offered to put up the money for the Board. Naturally we had envisioned a serious program on the part of the Administration. That meant the government had to lay out money in exactly the same way it does for anything else it really wanted. Instead Roosevelt and Congress were taken off the hook by the Jewish establishment. They offered to pay the Board’s basic expenses. They put up about $4,000,000,000 seed money and a total of $15,000,000 during the WRB’s entire existence. The sum was so paltry they could always laugh and say “first wait until the Jews put up some real money”. [42]

The Joint Distribution Committee put up $15 million of the $20 million spent by the Board. Other Jewish groups added $1.3 million. If the board had more money, it could have done far more. If the Jewish establishment had united with the Irgunists in a further campaign for government funding, it is highly likely that the money would have been forthcoming. Before the Board was set up, the government warded off demands for such a commission on the grounds that other agencies were doing all that could be done. Once the Board had been established, there was a formal government commitment to rescue; however, the Jewish establishment remained implacably opposed to the Irgun activists and they continued to demand the deportation of Bergson, instead of uniting with the Emergency Committee.

In 1946 the Revisionists re-entered the WZO and eventually some of the enmity evaporated, but Bergson, Merlin, Ben-Ami and other committee veterans could never listen to the establishment figures who dominated Israel until 1977 without recalling their previous obstructionism. In recent years, they have been able to prove the perfidious backstage role of Wise, Goldmann and others by means of previously secret documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act; as a result the controversy over the conflicting rescue efforts has never really died down. Thus Wasserstein insists that the silence of the leaders is a “myth”:

It is no accident that this legend has grown up. On the contrary, this is an accusation first voiced during and immediately after the war by a specific group: the Revisionist Zionists and their various offshoots ... This was their rallying cry which they used in their attempts to mobilise Jewish youth in a misguided and morally tainted campaign of invective and terror. [43]

In fact the first explanation of why the establishment was doing nothing came from the Trotskyist Militant on 12 December 1942.

Truth to tell, these organisations, like the Joint Distribution Board and the Jewish Congress, and the Jewish Labor Committee, feared to make themselves heard because they were afraid of arousing a wave of anti-Semitism here as a result. They feared for their own hides too much to fight for the lives of millions abroad. [44]

Certainly the former leaders of the Emergency Committee have tried to expose their old enemies, but since the war they have also been critical of their own efforts and they readily admit that they started too late. They did not understand the significance of the massacre reports until after Wise’s announcement in November 1942. However, a broader criticism of the committee relates to their original demand for a Jewish army. This was pure Zionism and of no relevance either to the plight of the Jews or the fight against Nazism. A second criticism must be their failure to put the Jews directly on to the streets. A mass march to the immigration service in New York by many thousands of Jews would have been far more worrisome to the administration than the mobilisation of 450 rabbis. A hunger strike organised by the committee would have propelled the movement forward. The activists criticise themselves today for not having done so, and explain this omission in terms of their own political personalities. They were in America as the representatives of the Irgun, a military organisation that had always, preached against “Jewish Gandhism”.  

The Irgun Revolt in 1944

The American Irgunists were to commit many worse mistakes when the Irgun began its revolt in Palestine in January 1944. After Begin arrived in Palestine in May 1942 he found Revisionism in total disarray. He called for the reorganisation of the Irgun and was eventually appointed its commander. At no time was the Irgun representative of more than a small minority of the Jews in Palestine. Most Palestinian Jews saw them as crazy Fascists, who brought disaster to the Zionist cause by attacking Britain while she was fighting Hitler. They were even repudiated by the old-style Revisionist political apparatus. They were a tiny force; a few full-time members and a few hundred more part-time. The Haganah, which saw them as Fascists, started rounding them up in collaboration with the British, although the Irgun refused to strike back against the Haganah as they knew that after the war they would join together to try to drive out the British. They also did not attack military targets, so that they should not appear to be interfering with the war effort.

In most respects therefore the revolt was largely symbolic, but in the United States and Britain it diverted attention from the Jews of Europe to the Jews of Palestine. Wise had a chance to regain credibility, and he accused the Emergency Committee of backing terrorism. However, the Americans – now calling themselves the Hebrew Committee for National Liberation – as well as the Emergency Committee, did not see the revolt as drawing attention from Europe, but rather as enhancing awareness of the Jewish plight. Peter Bergson still stoutly defends the revolt and the committee’s relation to it:

I know that there are some historians who say that in the end we were no better than the establishment, that we also diverted our energies from rescue work to presenting the case for the Irgun. They are wrong. You are supposed to revolt if the British are not rescuing your own kin in Europe. I would be ashamed for the Jews of Palestine, as people, if there was no one in the country that rose up. [45]

Shmuel Merlin maintains that the revolt upset some Jews more than it did the Gentiles. [46] Only Jews read the Jewish press and they were more influenced by the publicity put out by the establishment against the Irgun. However, once the Irgun revolted, the committee started back down its own road to political fanaticism. Hecht and others began to rant against all Germans in the columns of their organ, The Answer: “Where ever a German sits or stands, weeps or laughs – there is abomination. The years will never clean him.” [47] Their inspiration became Hecht’s pathetic A Guide for the Bedeviled:

I consider the Nazi government not only as suitable for Germans, but ideal from the point of view of the rest of the world as a German government. It should be left to them, after they are defeated, as a gift from Tantalus. They should be allowed to remain Germans in the open, with a good spiked fence around them such as is used in rendering a zoo harmless. Within this Nazi zoo maintained by the world for the diversion of philosophers, the Germans could listen to Beethoven and dream of murder and inconvenience no one ... Locked firmly in the middle of Europe as Nazis (with storm troops, concentration camps, hangmen and Gestapo intact) the Germans would handle their own problems of extermination their own way. Their massacre would not have to be on our conscience ... But such sensible things never come to pass in the world. Our statesmen will insist ... that the enemy resume its masquerade as members of the human race. Thus we will reap from the victory the reward of allowing the Germans to delude us again. [48]

That the American Irgunists did more than all other Zionists to help the Jews in occupied Europe is clear. That Begin’s revolt did absolutely nothing to help those same Jews is also clear. The American Irgunists pushed for Begin to start his campaign; therein lay their strength and their weakness. They did not expect the British to give them Palestine; they had broken with them before the war and fully expected to fight them during and after the war. They saw themselves as having to tear “what they wanted from out of the hands of the imperialists, and that psychology carried over into their approach to rescue. They outflanked Stephen Wise because they represented the “little Jews”. The ordinary Jews wanted “Action not Pity” and they supported the Emergency Committee because it articulated their own outrage at what was happening to the Jews of Europe. But in Palestine Begin did not have the sympathy of the ordinary Jews. Had the Irgun mobilised the Jewish masses in a direct challenge to Gruenbaum, it is possible that they could have overturned the supremacy of the WZO. As it was, the cause of Palestine was once again a distraction.  

“We must not disturb the war effort ... by stormy protests”

It is impossible to excuse the delay on the part of the leaders of the WZO to acknowledge publicly the Nazi extermination, although, again, Wasserstein has attempted to defend them:

Given the nature and extent of the terrible reality it is hardly surprising that it was only when the early, uncorroborated, and incomplete reports were confirmed beyond doubt that the Jews in the West could bring themselves to face the grim truth. [49]

Others had brought “themselves” to foresee the likelihood of the extermination of millions of Jews even before the war. After Kristallnacht, on 19 November 1938, a statement was issued by the National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). “Let the Refugees into the US!” it read. “The Brown-shirted monsters do not even bother to conceal their aim: the physical extermination of every Jew in Great-Germany.” [50] Again, on 22 December 1938, Trotsky foresaw the annihilation of the Jews.

It is possible to imagine without difficulty what awaits the Jews at the mere outbreak of the future war. But even without war the next development of world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews ... Only audacious mobilisation of the workers against reaction, creation of workers’ militia, direct physical resistance to the fascist gangs, increasing self-confidence, activity and audacity on the part of all the oppressed can provoke a change in the relations of forces, stop the world wave of fascism, and open a new chapter in the history of mankind. [51]

While the American Jewish Congress was co-operating with the State Department in suppressing the Reigner report, it was divulged from Stephen Wise’s office and on 19 September 1942 the Trotskyist Militant ran an article obviously based on the information. The State Department has meantime – so we are informed – suppressed information that it received from its consular agents in Switzerland. This information has to do with the treatment of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. Evidence of the greatest atrocities has occurred there in connection with the renewed campaign to exterminate all Jews. Rumour even has it that the Ghetto no longer exists, that the Jews there have been completely wiped out. The reason this report has been suppressed by the State Department is that it does not wish any mass protests here that will force its hand on policy. [52]

It was not merely the State Department that was suppressing the report, and it was not merely the State Department that had no wish for protests in America. The final verdict on the record of the Zionists in the rescue of European Jewry should be left to Nahum Goldmann. In his article Jewish Heroism in Siege, published in 1963, he confessed that:

we all failed. I refer not only to actual results – these at times do not depend on the abilities and wishes of those who act, and they cannot be held responsible for failures resulting from objective considerations. Our failure was in our lack of unwavering determination and readiness to take the proper measures commensurate with the terrible events of the times. All that was done by the Jews of the free world, and in particular those of the United States, where there were greater opportunities than elsewhere for action, did not go beyond the limits of Jewish politics in normal times. Delegations were sent to prime ministers, requests for intervention were made, and we were satisfied with the meagre and mainly platonic response that the democratic powers were ready to make.

He went even further:

I do not doubt (and I was then closely acquainted with our struggle and with day-to-day events) that thousands and tens of thousands of Jews could have been saved by more active and vigorous reaction on the part of the democratic governments. But, as I have said, the main responsibility rests on us because we did not go beyond routine petitions and requests, and because the Jewish communities did not have the courage and daring to exert pressure on the democratic governments by drastic means and to force them to take drastic measures. I will never forget the day when I received a cable from the Warsaw Ghetto, addressed to Rabbi Stephen Wise and myself, asking us why the Jewish leaders in the United States had not resolved to hold a day-and-night vigil on the steps of the White House until the President decided to give the order to bomb the extermination camps or the death trains. We refrained from doing this because most of the Jewish leadership was then of the opinion that we must not disturb the war effort of the free world against Nazism by stormy protests. [53]  

  Notes 1. Robert Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, p.717. 2. Anthony Howard, Duplicity and Prejudice, New York Times Book Review (16 September 1979), p.37. 3. Yoav Gelber, Zionist Policy and the Fate of European Jewry (1939-1942), Yad Vashem Studies, vol.XIII, p.171. 4. Ibid., p.170. 5. Ibid., p.192. 6. Shabatei Beit-Zvi, Post-Ugandan Zionism During the Holocaust, post p.251 (unpublished English translation). 7. Joseph Tanenbaum, A Final Word Regarding Packages to Poland, Der Tog (10 August 1941) (unpublished English translation). 8. Gelber, Zionist Policy and the Fate of European Jewry, p.190. 9. Yehuda Bauer, When Did They Know?, Midstream (April 1968), p.51. 10. Gelber, Zionist Policy and the Fate of European Jewry, p.191. 11. Eliyhu Matzozky, The Responses of American Jewry and its Representative Organizations, November 24, 1942 and April 19, 1943, unpublished Masters thesis, Yeshiva University, app.II. 12. Walter Laqueur, Jewish Denial and the Holocaust, Commentary (December 1979), p.46. 13. Bauer, When Did They Know?, p.53. 14. Laqueur, Jewish Denial and the Holocaust, p.53. 15. Gelber, Zionist Policy and the Fate of European Jewry, p.195. 16. Ibid. 17. Ibid. 18. Beit-Zvi, Post Ugandan Zionism During the Holocaust (unpublished English synopsis), p.1. 19. Yehuda Bauer, From Diplomacy to Resistance, pp.viii-ix. 20. Yitzhak Gruenbaum, Bi-Mei Hurban ve Sho’ah, pp.62-70. 21. Alex Weissberg, Desperate Mission (Joel Brand’s story as told by Weissberg), p.206. 22. Michael Dov-Ber Weissmandel, Min HaMaitzer (unpublished English translation). 23. Ibid. 24. Ibid. (Hebrew edn), p.92. 25. Ibid., p.93. 26. Bernard Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe 1939-1945, p.207. 27. Chaim Greenberg, Bankrupt, Midstream (March 1964), pp.5-8. 28. Ibid., pp.7-10. 29. Matzozky, The Responses of American Jewry, p.45. 30. Sarah Peck, The Campaign for an American Response to the Nazi Holocaust, 1943-1945, Journal of Contemporary History (April 1980), p.374. 31. Ben Hecht, A Child of the Century, p.540. 32. Wasserstein , The Myth of “Jewish Silence”, Midstream (August 1980), p.14. 33. Peck, Campaign for an American Response to the Nazi Holocaust, p.384. 34. Author’s interview with Peter Bergson, 27 February 1981. 35. On the Question of Rescue, Congress Weekly (10 December 1943), p.3. 36. Arthur Morse, While 6 Million Died, p.79. 37. Wasserstein, The Myth of “Jewish Silence”, p.14. 38. Attitude of Zionists Toward Peter Bergson, memorandum of conversation, 867N.01/2347, Department of State (19 May 1944), pp.3-4. 39. Ibid., pp.2,4. 40. Morse, While 6 Million Died, pp.257, 307. 41. Eliyhu Matzozky (letter), Midstream (March 1982), p.44. 42. Author’s interview with Shmuel Merlin, 16 September 1980. 43. Wasserstein, The Myth of “Jewish Silence”, p.15. 44. A. Roland, The Slaughter of the Jews, Militant (12 December 1942), p.3. 45. Interview with Bergson. 46. Interview with Merlin. 47. Ben Hecht, My Dark Prayer, The Answer (1 May 1944), p.7. 48. Ben Hecht, A Guide for the Bedeviled (1944), pp.126-7. 49. Wasserstein, The Myth of “Jewish Silence”, p.10. 50. National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party, Let the Refugees into the US!, Socialist Appeal (19 November 1938), p.1. 51. Leon Trotsky, Appeal to American Jews Menaced by Fascism and Anti-Semitism, On the Jewish Question, pp.29-30. 52. A. Roland, The Plight of the Jews and the Democracies, Militant (19 September 1942), p.3. 53. Nahum Goldmann, Jewish Heroism in Siege, In the Diaspersion (Winter 1963/4), pp.6-7.  
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