America And The Holocaust

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When Sumner Welles confirmed the truth of the Riegner telegram to Rabbi Wise, the rabbi wept, as countless Jews and non-Jews would do in those terrible years when the Nazis lay beyond the reach of the armies that would defeat them. Encouraged by Welles to hold a press conference to announce the news, Rabbi Wise did so, on November 28, 1942. Then he and his colleagues met with FDR and asked the President to warn Hitler and the Germans that they would be held individually responsible for what they were doing to the Jews. Roosevelt agreed immediately. An announcement to that effect in the name of the United Nations was made in Congress and in Britain’s Parliament on December 17, 1942. It was repeated many times throughout the war. Parliament stood in silence for the first time in its history to mourn what was happening to the Jews and to pray for the strength needed to destroy their persecutors. In America the labor unions led the nation in a ten-minute period of mourning for the Jews of Europe. It is difficult to argue that there was a conspiracy of silence regarding the fate of Europe’s Jews when the American broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, listened to throughout the nation, reported on December 13, 1942: “Millions of human beings, most of them Jews, are being gathered up with ruthless efficiency and murdered. … It is a picture of mass murder and moral depravity unequaled in the history of the world. It is a horror beyond what imagination can grasp… . The Jews are being systematically exterminated throughout all Poland… . There are no longer ‘concentration camps’— we must speak now only of ‘extermination camps.’”

American Jewry was no passive observer of these events. Despite issues that bitterly divided them, primarily relating to Palestine, the Jewish community in America spoke the same words in pleading to do whatever was possible for Europe’s Jews. Jewish leaders lobbied Congress. Mass rallies were held across the country with overflow crowds throughout those years, praying, pleading for action to stop the genocide. The unremitting massacre continued because no one, no nation, no alliance of nations could do anything to close down the death camps —save, as Roosevelt said over and over again, by winning the war.

Had FDR followed the national will, Japan would have been our military priority, but understanding the Nazi threat to civilization, he ordered Germany to be the focus of our efforts. Had Roosevelt listened to General Marshall and his other military advisers, he would not have sent the few tanks we had in 1942 to help General Montgomery win at El Alamein, thereby probably saving Palestine from the same fate as Poland. Roosevelt gave frequent audience to Jewish leaders; he sent messages to rallies of Jews across the country; he listened to every plea and proposal for rescue that came to him. But he knew that the diversion of resources from the purpose of defeating the Nazi armies might palliate the anguish felt by so many, would rescue no one, and in all likelihood would kill the would-be rescuers. As Richard Lichtheim, a representative of the World Jewish Congress in Switzerland and a hero in informing the world of the genocide, said in December 1942, “You cannot divert a tiger from devouring his prey by adopting resolutions or sending cables. You have to take your gun and shoot him.”

The historian Gerhard Weinberg answers those who question America’s policy by suggesting that they consider how many more Jews would have survived had the war ended even a week or ten days earlier—and how many more would have died had it lasted an additional week or ten days. Given that the slaughter of the Jews went on into the final moments of the Third Reich, that every day until the surrender there were thousands of deaths by murder, starvation, and disease, the number of Jews saved by winning the war as quickly as possible was vastly greater than the total number who could have been saved by any rescue efforts proposed by anyone between 1941 and 1945.

Serious proposals for rescue and response were not disregarded. For example, on September 16, 1944, the Hebrew Committee on National Liberation (HCNL) proposed to the State Department that a warning be issued “stating that unless the practice of using poison gas against the Hebrew people ceases forthwith, retaliation in kind will be immediately ordered against Germany.” The State Department forwarded the recommendation to the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces (JCS). A detailed senior JCS staff memorandum responded that such a warning would be disastrous, that the Nazis would continue their genocidal program, and that the proposed retaliation would unleash unrestricted gas warfare resulting in heavy civilian and military losses.