The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945.
by David S. Wyman.
Pantheon. 444 pp. $19.95.
The Jews were Expendable: Free World Diplomacy and the Holocaust.
by Monty Noam Penkower.
University of Illinois Press. 429 pp. $21.95.
A Refuge from Darkness: Wilfrid Israel and the Rescue of the Jews.
by Naomi Shepherd.
Pantheon. 291 pp. $18.95.
The first shots fired by the British after the outbreak of World War II killed two Jewish refugees attempting to gain entry into Palestine. In 1944, while various Allied government agencies were invoking the lack of available shipping as a reason why Jews could not be taken to safety, Liberty ships were returning empty from Europe, their captains complaining about the difficulty of finding proper ballast. Chaim Weizmann aptly summarized the plight of European Jewry in those days: “The world is divided into countries in which Jews cannot live and countries which they must not enter.”
The three excellent books under review here provide answers to the question: why were not more Jews saved from the Holocaust? None suggests that Hitler’s extermination policy, once under way, could have been undone, or that more than a small portion of his intended victims could have been saved. All three, however, show in concrete detail that much, much more could have been done to rescue Jews.
From slight written sources and the oral testimony of acquaintances, Naomi Shepherd pieces together the story of an obscure hero. Wilfrid Israel, son of a totally assimilated, wealthy German Jewish business family, led a privileged aesthete’s existence. In mild rebellion against his father, he formed a sympathetic attachment to East European Jewish refugees during World War I and a commitment to Zionist socialism; he became a friend of Weizmann, Einstein, and Buber. Repelled by the business world, Israel nevertheless dutifully entered the family concern. In 1921, he involved himself in famine relief for Russia and witnessed for the first time human indifference to the deaths of millions.
With the rise of the Nazis in the early 1930’s, Israel quickly recognized the impending disaster for German Jews. Since he himself held a British passport, it would have been easy for him to get out of Germany in 1933. But he remained until just before the war, out of a sense of obligation to the weaker victims of Nazism. Using his connections, bribery, and great ingenuity, and relying on a wholly improbable stamina, he arranged the escape of many children to Britain and Palestine and managed to free numerous individuals from concentration camps. In England from late 1939. he functioned as a German expert for various groups, preparing position papers for postwar relief and resettlement and trying to convince the British of the deadly peril facing European Jews. Returning from a mission to Jewish refugee camps in Spain and Portugal in 1943, Israel died when the plane he, the actor Leslie Howard, and eleven other passengers were traveling in was shot down by the Germans.
It is well that Israel’s story has been preserved in this compassionate and restrained biography, which presents a view of rescue work as seen from the grassroots level. For this is an aspect of the story that neither David Wyman nor Monty Penkower deals with. Although both try to inject the personal element into their studies, their source material keeps them in the realms of high policy-making, where they concentrate on the role of the Allies in actually preventing large-scale rescue attempts of Jews.
Of the two books, Wyman’s is the more important. Impressively researched, balanced in its judgments, devastating in its discussion of untaken opportunities, and informed by an essentially moral purpose, The Abandonment of the Jews makes a clear, largely persuasive argument. Penkower’s The Jews Were Expendable is no less diligently researched, and in its own way represents exceptionally valuable scholarship. It takes the form of nine discrete articles, all related to the diplomacy of the Holocaust, four of them published previously. But the absence of an integrating interpretation or connecting narrative, and the frequent overlaps and repetitions, make it a difficult book to use. On all the central issues Penkower and Wyman are in basic agreement. In what follows I shall refer to both books, but the focus of my remarks will be on Wyman’s.
Drawing on his earlier Paper Walls: America and the Refugee Crisis 1938-1941 (1968), Wyman outlines the historical basis for America’s poor record in accepting refugees during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Fear of unemployment, deep-seated xenophobia, and widespread anti-Semitism among the American public supported a restrictive immigration quota system, in place since the 1920’s and strongly defended by Congress. Neither the laws nor the reasons behind them had lost their force by the time the U.S. entered the war.
Wyman’s narrative properly begins in the summer of 1942. In June and August of that year, information filtering out from Jewish and German sources revealed that the Nazis had begun the systematic murder of Jews and that an all-embracing program of annihilation had been decided upon in Berlin. (Penkower devotes an entire study to the tortuous process by which this news gained acceptance in the Western democracies.) By August 1942, 1.5 million Jews had already been murdered by the Einsatzgruppen and in the six death camps of Poland. But not until November 24, 1942 did the U.S. State Department admit the reliability of the evidence, by which time another million Jews had perished. Then, in Wyman’s terms, “fourteen lost months” passed before President Roosevelt gave the go-ahead to set up a special agency—the War Refugee Board—for the rescue of those facing death at the hands of Hitler.
What took so long? Who or what was responsible for the dreadful delays, the heartbreaking missed chances so thoroughly documented by Penkower and Wyman?
Some time was needed to overcome the sheer unbelievability of the news about the Final Solution. A death sentence on an entire people was unique in history. Wyman cites opinion polls showing that, for a significant part of the American public, the Holocaust remained unbelievable right up to the liberation of the camps at the end of the war. Jews themselves, even the Jews of Palestine and the leaders of the Zionist movement, were slow to accept the truth or grasp the scope of the disaster. Those less personally touched reacted more cautiously and callously: documents from the British Foreign Office and the State Department speak of “typical Jewish hysteria” and exaggeration, well after the accumulated evidence pointed to an unprecedented human catastrophe.
Wyman searches for the reasons behind the lack of credence given the Holocaust, and ascribes responsibility to two sources. The mass media, despite abundant material from the wire services and the Jewish press, devoted little coverage to reports of the massacres or of independent rescue efforts. What stories did appear were often buried deep in the paper. In the ten newspapers from across the nation which Wyman has studied, the Holocaust was very rarely front-page news. The same can be said of the mass-circulation magazines. The record of the Nation and New Republic was better but, with their small circulation, hardly an adequate remedy for the silence of Time, Life, and Newsweek.
Wyman candidly admits to being at something of a loss to explain such negligence. Perhaps it was the baleful legacy of the atrocity stories knowingly spread by the Allies in World War I that made newspapers so cautious. Perhaps the news media were merely reflecting the indifference of the American public toward Jewish suffering. Whatever the reasons, the lack of interest is indisputable.
The other major bearers of responsibility for the remoteness of the Holocaust from the consciousness of Americans were the churches. The near-silence of the Protestant and Catholic churches—a matter of personal anguish to Wyman, the grandson of two Protestant ministers—is thoroughly documented in his book. With few exceptions, churchmen did little or nothing to change the attitudes of Christians regarding immigrants, anti-Semitism, or the persecution of the innocent. Christian America (again with notable exceptions) simply did not care enough.
Neither Penkower nor Wyman, however, will accept the lack of awareness as a sufficient reason for the apathy of government or the diffidence of Jewish leaders. For whatever was the case in the mass media or among the public at large, responsible leaders in the Jewish community and in the organs of British and American government did have plenty of authenticated evidence. Why did they not do more?
Wyman rests part of his argument here on a muted but nonetheless clear criticism of the American Jewish leadership. Penkower is equally critical. But readers of these two books will find in them no evidence of inertia or passivity on the part of Jews. Public demonstrations, private contact with government leaders, fund-raising, courageous intervention in the danger zones, and personal sacrifice all form part of the historical record.
Wyman does not question the level of this activity but its quality. Its “. . . effectiveness was importantly diminished by [the] inability to mount a sustained or unified drive for government action, by diversion of energies into fighting among the several organizations, and by failure to assign top priority to the rescue issue.” There is some truth in all these points. The established Jewish leaders in America, especially Stephen S. Wise, failing in health and hectically active, remained too uncritical of Roosevelt’s patently clear indifference to Jewish survival. Many of FDR’s Jewish advisers were reluctant to embarrass him with what might look to the world like special pleading for Jews. The rivalries among Jewish organizations—Wyman seems unaware of how constant a feature this is of Jewish life—led to some unedifying open conflicts.
But they never led to paralysis. Both Penkower (to the point of passion) and Wyman emphasize the effectiveness of one group, the so-called Bergsonites, in building public pressure that eventually helped lead to the creation of the War Refugee Board. This small group of Irgunists, who arrived in America to lobby for a separate Jewish armed force but soon turned their attention to rescue operations, were militants, unrestrained by any of the more staid conventions of American Jewish or mainstream Zionist political activity. Full-page newspaper advertisements, the recruitment of Hollywood personalities, the staging of elaborate pageants, an occasionally questionable use of funds—these were the weapons employed in their often sensational enterprises. They provoked opposition from the established organizations but also goaded them into a short-lived show of unity.
The object of this unity was not, however, rescue. The American Zionist Emergency Council, lobbying nationwide and in Washington, won three-fourths of the U.S. Congress to the idea of a Jewish commonwealth after the war. Wyman regrets this campaign as premature and deflecting, but argues that as an example of relatively unified Jewish activism it proves that the government could have been moved to genuine deeds of rescue earlier than it was. Had such unity been in place from the beginning, he implies, the fourteen months need not have been lost.
Yet the brunt of responsibility for the failure to rescue Jews falls not on American public opinion, or on Jewish disunity, but on the governmental agencies of the Allies, particularly the British Foreign Office and our State Department. The evidence both in Wyman and in Penkower is overwhelming. Every concrete proposal of rescue or relief, whether developed by Jews or non-Jews, whether by groups or individuals, met with resistance, obstruction, or outright sabotage.
The idea that Jews deserved special consideration because they were singled out by Hitler for total destruction was branded unpatriotic. The formula was voiced early and endlessly that the only hope for Jews was swift Allied victory, and that nothing should impede this effort, even though many of the rescue plans would not have required a significant diversion of war resources. (Wyman’s chapter demonstrating the feasibility of bombing Auschwitz to destroy or at least slow down the machinery of death leaves contrary arguments in a shambles.1) Simply and directly, Wyman shows that the Foreign Office and State Department pursued policies “aimed at obstructing rescue possibilities and dampening public pressure for government action.”
Penkower aims his palpable anger at the British, who, by sealing off Palestine and adhering heartlessly to the 1939 White Paper restrictions on Jewish immigration, caused the loss of thousands of lives. Other countries, like neutral Spain, Switzerland, and Turkey, lacking assurance that Jews would move on elsewhere, slowed the inflow of refugees to a trickle. British documents abound in references to these “useless people,” and voice the fear that Hitler might “dump unwanted Jews” simply to embarrass His Majesty’s Government.
Such inhumanity is indefensible. But Penkower goes too far when he implies that the Nazis turned to mass murder only after it became clear to them that the Jews could not be forcibly expelled to Palestine or elsewhere. There is no evidence for such a contention. He also gives too little credence to the reasons for British implacability. There were solid grounds for believing that a dramatic increase in Jewish immigration to Palestine might result in serious Arab unrest. British concessions to the needs of Jewish refugees might have provided an extra incentive to several Arab leaders, already openly flirting with the Nazis, to enter more fully into the enemy camp. The consequent need to divert British troops to maintain order in the Middle East had to be another concern of the Foreign Office. Yet Penkower is surely right to point out that the British did less to save Jews than their diplomatic or military position would have warranted. They had no legitimate grounds for opposing the establishment of havens for Jews outside Palestine; nevertheless, they did so oppose it.
With less passion but no less forcefulness, Wyman indicts the State Department. In my opinion, this is a more proper emphasis. The United States possessed greater resources for launching a meaningful rescue program and would have had to face fewer serious political-diplomatic consequences. Yet thanks to the administrative policies of the State Department only 21,000 refugees were allowed to enter the United States during the war, a mere 10 percent of what was admissible under the stringent quota system.
The lax leadership of Secretary of State Cordell Hull allowed middle-and low-level officials, primarily in the Visa and European Affairs divisions, to set policy and to perform classic acts of bureaucratic obstructionism. Foot-dragging, the withholding of information, the impulse to protect departmental turf and to block “outside” initiatives, the reflex of referring urgent plans to moribund committees—these techniques were in constant use during the fourteen lost months. Thus, what in peacetime would have been no more than an annoyance became, during the war, a death sentence for thousands who might have otherwise been saved.
In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt wrote about a new kind of crime that became visible for the first time during the Holocaust: bureaucratic murder. Remote though he was from the actual killing, Eichmann was nonetheless more responsible for the deaths of innocent Jews than the actual wielders of the fatal weapons. On the evidence provided by these three books, readers may be tempted to consider another new category of crime: bureaucratic complicity in murder.
Wyman resists this temptation. He, Penkower, and Shepherd are concerned to show that there were decent, compassionate men working in official capacities for the Allies; there were just not enough of them. Moreover, even when examining the motives of the State Department obstructionists, Wyman sticks carefully to the demonstrable facts. Some actually believed that the Jews could not be helped, or that dealing for Jews with Hitler’s shaky allies was still dealing with the enemy. Others worried that Roosevelt’s reelection chances might be jeopardized among the electorate at large if significent numbers of Jews were allowed into the country; FDR had always been subject to charges of catering to Jews.
Wyman is chary of accusing the culprits of personal anti-Semitism. On this count, he states, his scrutiny of the evidence is inconclusive. That may be owing to his notion of anti-Semitism, which is rather narrowly limited to the coarser varieties of the phenomenon, the sort that produces hate-mail and doggerel, and that shows up in the expressed opinions of those too unsophisticated to hide their beliefs. To me, at least, the evidence Wyman does present concerning the attitudes of State Department personnel strongly suggests the existence of anti-Semitism of the elitist variety. In any case, anti-Semitic attitudes do not always leave their imprint on the written record. Deeds are a better indication than diaries and memoranda. And in this regard, one thing is certain: these men treated Jews differently from the way they treated other Europeans fleeing Hitler. Wyman and Penkower cite numerous instances of much greater flexibility when it came to saving Yugoslavs and Frenchmen, or when it came to bringing relief to starving Greeks. In these cases, the usual excuses about inadequate shipping and fears of aiding the enemy by feeding his victims were swept away.
Motives aside, Wyman builds his case against the State Department so strongly that he somewhat weakens the other strand of his argument, raising doubts that even a totally unified, sustained public campaign waged by American Jews could, of itself, have led to an earlier creation of the War Refugee Board (WRB). What finally prompted FDR to abolish the State Department monopoly on refugee questions was not only the effective propaganda of the Bergsonites—a resolution in favor of a WRB-like body was threatening in Congress—but the approaching elections and a brewing political scandal.
The State Department had quashed a plan to ransom 70,000 Rumanian Jews who had been driven into the squalid camps of Transnistria. This aroused the suspicions of four (non-Jewish) lawyers in the Treasury Department, who thereupon undertook to investigate the full record of State Department obstructionism. On the basis of the detailed report they submitted, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau was prodded into intervening personally with FDR.
Both Penkower and Wyman properly give much weight to Treasury’s action, which was independent of the campaign of the Bergson group. (One of the four lawyers, outraged at the State Department’s delaying tactics, described them as a case of para delicto—equal guilt; presumably, he meant guilt equal to that of the Nazis.) Without Morgenthau’s initiative and the threat of exposure, even a far more unified Jewish public-relations campaign might have failed in its objectives. It is doubtful, therefore, that Wyman’s “fourteen lost months” between acknowledgment of the Holocaust in November 1942 and creation of the WRB could have been drastically foreshortened by more determined Jewish efforts.
In the sad history of attempts to save Jews from the Holocaust, even the creation of the WRB comes as an anticlimax. It really looks good only in relation to what went before. Bureaucratic delay still impeded its work. Two weeks passed before an executive director could be named. FDR lost interest immediately. The Board received almost no appropriations, and had to rely on Jewish organizations for 90 percent of its limited funds. And it still had to deal with rear-guard actions from the State Department and the British Foreign Office.
Nevertheless, a few dedicated, energetic, and imaginative people, working closely with Jewish and non-Jewish agencies of relief and rescue, were able to save approximately 200,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews before the end of the war. Wyman is quite correct: the WRB was what had been needed from the beginning.
The lessons of these three books are dispiriting. They have to do with power and powerlessness. It was tragic for the Jews that only their enemies perceived them as enormously powerful. Hitler, even from his bunker, never ceased regarding them as the omnipotent fomenters of war. Himmler thought that offering to save a few Jewish lives would be sufficient leverage to win a separate peace for Germany with the West. Antonescu of Rumania and Horthy of Hungary operated under similar fantasies.
But the “friends” of the Jews, the Western democracies, knew exactly how negligible a factor they were. Britain could be sure that the Jews had no option but to work for Allied victory. FDR similarly recognized how powerless American Jews were politically. His indifference to the fate of European Jewry was made easier by the knowledge that American Jews could not bring themselves to vote for anyone else.
Ultimately, it was not the lack of will but the lack of military, governmental, or even financial resources—the lack of power—that kept American Jews from doing more, that thwarted their efforts to persuade those who did have power to use it in time to save more Jews. In this sense, above all, the Jews were expendable and abandoned.
1 This chapter originally appeared as an article in COMMENTARY, “Why Auschwitz Was Never Bombed,” May 1978.