by Claudia Moscovici
If any country could have helped save a significant proportion of the European Jews from the Holocaust it’s the United States. Reliable news about concentration and death camps started trickling into the country, via the World Jewish Congress and the State Department, in 1942. Moreover, the U.S. had a large number of Jews who, unlike European and Soviet Jews, were free from the Nazi threat. American Jews did not face annihilation. As the United States did not have a significant Nazi movement, Jews in the U.S., numbering approximately 4,800,000 million, could hope to influence public policy. In fact, most American Jews supported President Roosevelt. Granted, few Jews in the U.S. were rich and powerful and only one—Henry Morgenthau, U.S. Secretary of Treasury—was a prominent figure in the Roosevelt administration. Nevertheless, as Raul Hilberg documents in Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders (HarperCollins Publishers, 1992), there were two relatively influential Jewish organizations in the U.S. at the time that could have swayed national policy and made a difference in the fate of the European Jews.
The main Jewish Organizations in the U.S. during WWII
The first organization, the (non-Zionist) American Jewish Committee, was headed by Cyrus Adler. The second organization, the (Zionist) American Jewish Congress (which expanded into the World Jewish Congress) was headed by Rabbi Stephen Wise. Both organizations could have taken a decisive stance on behalf of their fellow Jews in Europe once they found out that the latter were faced with total annihilation. For the most part, however, they offered only belated, and cautious, support.
More significantly, saving the Jewish populations in Europe was never a priority for the Roosevelt administration, whose efforts focused entirely on winning the war. Making the war a priority is perfectly understandable, of course. But saving the Jews in Europe, or at least making a concerted effort to help them, would not have impeded the war effort. The policy of both the American Jewish organizations and particularly that of the Roosevelt administration—America First—became the determining factor in the decision not do to much to help save millions of European Jews from deportation, slave labor, death squads, starvation and disease in ghettos and concentration camps.
Information about death camps
In 1942, the Allies received reliable information about Hitler’s plans to annihilate the Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe. This information came from three main sources: Nazi leaders uncomfortable with Hitler’s plans to destroy the Jews; Polish officers opposed to the Nazi regime occupying their country; and Jewish escapees or other eyewitnesses. Hilberg notes in Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: “During July 1942… several Germans crossed into Switzerland with fundamental revelations. One of them was Ernst Lemmer, a founder of the German Democratic party in 1918 and Minister in West Germany during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Lemmer… met with several Swiss public figures in Zurich that July and told them about ‘gas chambers, stationary and mobile, in which Jews were killed’” (236). Lemmer was not alone. Other trustworthy sources corroborated this information. Gerhart M. Riegner, the leader of the World Jewish Congress in Geneva (the sister organization of Wise’s American Jewish Congress), began collecting this data. He then met with the British and American consuls to warn them about Hitler’s plans for the annihilation of the European Jews. Gerhart asked the Allied governments to investigate these claims and to inform Rabbi Wise in the United States about them. The government officials didn’t deliver this information immediately. When Rabbi Wise finally received the news, he and other Jewish leaders set up a meeting with President Roosevelt.
The meeting between U.S. Jewish leaders and Franklin D. Roosevelt
This meeting took place on December 8, 1942. The Jewish delegates were conservative in their estimates. They stated that 2 million Jews had been killed by death squads and in concentration camps, whereas the actual figure was double. But they were sufficiently alarmed to ask the President to respond. They proposed that the U.S. offer Germany and its allies a warning. They also suggested that the government collect more information about Hitler’s plans to kill the Jewish population in Europe by mass shootings, gassing and other means. By any standard, these were modest requests. Even if implemented they might not have accomplished much. Roosevelt, Hilberg informs us, “assented to the warning proposal and asked whether the delegates had other recommendations. When the Jewish leaders could not think of anything, Roosevelt switched to other topics” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 245). Following this meeting, however, the President didn’t keep his word. The U.S., for the most part, did not offer safe haven for Jewish refugees; it did not bomb the Auschwitz gas chambers (despite doing recognizance flights around Auschwitz and bombing its factory); it did not do anything to prevent the deportations and killings of approximately 400,000 Hungarian Jews as late as 1944, after Germany occupied the country.
The Roosevelt administration, like the American Jewish organizations themselves, did not want to give the impression that the United States was fighting a “mercenary” war on behalf of the Jews. The noninterventionist efforts of Charles Lindbergh, under the motto “Defend America First,” did not succeed in keeping America out of the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The next day the United States Congress declared war on Japan. But such nationalist pressures did succeed in generating a noninterventionist policy when it came to the tragic fate of the European Jews, many of whom could have been saved were it not for the policy of “America first”.
Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory