| AMERICA AND THE HOLOCAUST
"To kill the Jews, the Nazis were willing to weaken their capacity to fight the war. The U.S. and its allies, however, were willing to attempt almost nothing to save them."
-- Historian David Wyman
The 1929 world depression is a decisive event in terms of understanding the attitude of the American people towards the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany (and, later, in Nazi-occupied Europe.).
Economic hardship (and the insecurity it inspired) had a profound impact upon Americans. It instilled a profound fear in the hearts of the average person: a fear that he or she would not be able to provide for their family. As a result, Americans became in inward-looking people, a people concerned first and foremost with their own economic well-being and concerned very little with the plight of the Jews (or the Poles, etc.) in Europe.
ROOSEVELT AND THE JEWS
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated president in 1933. The presence of several high ranking Jews in FDR's administration was seized upon by his enemies who popularized the notion that the president's "New Deal" was in fact a "Jew Deal." From the beginning of his presidency, Roosevelt had to contend with the view that he was pro-Jewish. His support among American Jewry was solid, and he did not have to worry about losing it. Paradoxically, the devotion of Jews to FDR was their political undoing. The president became much more interested in winning the support of his enemies, often conservative congressmen who were not in the least bit interested in offering shelter to refugees (i.e. Jews) or any foreigners.
In the summer of 1937, the rug was pulled from beneath the modest economic recovery the Roosevelt administration had engineered. Recession set in, and unemployment soared anew. Eight to ten million Americans were out of work (or fifteen percent of the work force). American confidence was shattered. The issue of jobs was paramount: you were unemployed, you knew someone who was unemployed, or both. Few American families were untouched by the catastrophe. It was precisely during this time of economic hardship in the United States that the Jews of Europe sought an avenue of escape from the Nazis. The visa (an official authorization appended to a passport, permitting entry into and travel within a particular country) became, quite literally, a ticket to survival. Dorothy Thompson, an American journalist who championed the cause of refugees, addressed the issue in terms that were stark and foreboding:
"It is a fantastic commentary on the inhumanity of our times that for thousands and thousands of people a piece of paper with a stamp on it is the difference between life and death."
In Washington, strident opponents of immigration argued for a reduction of the U.S. quota by 90%. The quota is the number of visas (for entrance to the U. S.) allocated to residents of a given foreign country. The opponents of immigration further demanded a halt to permanent immigration for ten years, or until unemployment fell to three million.
The U. S. quota for Germany and Austria was 27,370. Between 1933, when Hitler came to power in Germany, and 1938, when the Nazis seized neighboring (and fellow German speaking) Austria, a mere 10% of the U. S. quota was filled, despite the obvious danger to German and Austrian Jews. Until 1938, the debate in the U.S. was not about enlarging the quota. Far from it. The few proponents of the refugees realized this would jeopardize the existing quota. Instead, the debate was about whether the existing quota would be filled, or if it would be stretched beyond the existing 10%. In 1938, following Anschluss (the Nazi seizure of Austria) the friends of refugees won a victory. It was agreed that the U. S. quota would be filled. As it turned out, the quota was filled for only two years. The outbreak of war between the U. S. and Germany in 1941 effectively closed the doors to U. S. immigration entirely. U. S. officials argued that the threat of spies smuggling themselves into the country under the immigration process was too great.
When German troops entered Austria on March 12, 1938, they were met not by armed resistance but by flowers thrown at their feet by adoring Austrians who lined the streets of the villages and towns along the road to Vienna, the Austrian capital. The Austrian border guards were instructed not to resist the Germans. "Let us not spill our brothers' blood," said the Austrian Chancellor, Kurt Schussnigg, in a radio broadcast that was particularly ominous for the Austrian Jews. Immediately following Anschluss, or "union" between Germany and Austria, anti-Semitism was unleashed with a special fury, most notably in Vienna. SA men (Nazi storm troopers known as brown shirts who, long before the SS, were the foot soldiers of the Nazi movement) seized Jews randomly and forced them to scrub the streets free of anti-Nazi slogans. Crowds of Viennese gathered and watched the humiliation of the Jews, delighting in the spectacle. The American journalist William Shirer described the mistreatment of Jews as "an orgy of sadism."
The Austrian Jews desperately sought to emigrate. It was obvious that there was no place for a Jew in the new Austria. Long lines appeared outside of foreign consulates in Vienna. Following Anschluss, 170 Jews committed suicide each day in Vienna alone. The Nazis cynically labeled these deaths as "traffic accidents."
The events in Austria and the subsequent pressures for immigration led the Roosevelt administration to call for an international conference to deal with the refugee situation. The American invitation to the foreign governments was cautiously worded. "No country," the invitation read, "would be expected or asked to receive a greater number of immigrants than is permitted by its existing legislation." Thirty-two nations agreed to meet at the French resort town of Evian to discuss the plight of the Jews. Poland and Rumania, interested principally in the prospect of getting rid of their Jews, sent observers to Evian.
THE EVIAN CONFERENCE
The U. S. refused to send a high ranking delegation to Evian. Its representative was the president's friend Myron C. Taylor. At the opening of the conference, Taylor said, "The time had come when governments...must act and act promptly. “At the end of the conference, reporting on its results, a reporter for Newsweek answered Taylor's call with bitter sarcasm: "Most of the governments represented acted promptly by slamming their doors against Jewish refugees."
The conference was held in July 1938. Its ostensible purpose was to facilitate the flow of Jewish emigration from Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied Austria, and to put pressure on the German government to permit the Jews to take with them a reasonable amount of property and wealth. No foreign country was interested in taking on impoverished Jews. However, the U. S. government called the Evian Conference with a different purpose in mind. A 1938 memorandum from the State Department referred to the increasing pressure on the U. S. government to assume the leadership of world efforts to deal with the refugee question. The pressure, the memorandum stated, emanated from journalist Dorothy Thompson and "certain Congressmen with metropolitan constituencies." As a result, U. S. Secretary of State Cornell Hull and Under Secretary Sumner Welles concluded that a strategy far preferable to trying to hold off this pressure would be "to get out in front and attempt to guide" the pressure, mainly in order to forestall moves for more liberal immigration legislation. In other words, the State Department felt that the best way to handle the refugee crisis would be to seize the initiative before pressure built and to spread the responsibility among the thirty-two nations instead of upon the U. S. With this rationale, the State Department recommended that President Roosevelt call the Evian Conference.
At the Evian Conference, U. S. representative Myron Taylor stated that the U. S. would make the German and Austrian quota fully available. Delegates from other countries despaired of admitting more refugees than currently allowed. The British delegate did not mention the prospect of British controlled Palestine (present-day Israel), the most logical place for the Jewish refugees. Instead, he asserted that the British Commonwealth was largely unavailable because it was already overcrowded and, in any event, the climate was too severe. Britain itself, the delegate continued, was completely out of the question as a place for refugees because of the high rate of unemployment. The French delegate said that France had already reached "the extreme point of saturation as regards admission of refugees. “The Belgian and Dutch representatives spoke similarly. The Australian delegate observed that thinly settled Australia should not be considered a refuge because "as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one." The Canadian delegate insisted that Canada's high unemployment precluded the admission of great numbers of refugees. The Canadian foreign minister, drawing the line on immigration and referring directly to the refugees, said, "None is too many." The delegate from New Zealand described Evian as "a modern wailing wall." The Dominican Republic was the only nation that offered any measure of hope to the refugees. The Caribbean country volunteered to contribute large (but unspecified) areas for agricultural cultivation. Jewish farmers in Europe, however, were few, except for young Zionists in whose heart Palestine was the only destination.
Jewish representatives at the Evian Conference failed to reach a unified approach to the refugee crisis. The "disintegration and rivalry" at Evian, wrote the "Congress Bulletin," a weekly publication of the American Jewish Congress, was "a spectacle of Jewish discord and disruption."
The chief concierge at the Hotel Evian reflected on the proceedings: “Very important people were here and all the delegates had a nice time. They took pleasure cruises on the lake. They gambled at night at the casino. They took mineral baths and massages at the Esablissement Thermal. Some of them took the excursion to Chamonix to go summer skiing. Some went riding; we have, you know, one of the finest stables in France. But, of course, it is difficult to sit indoors hearing speeches when all the pleasures that Evian offers are outside."
Three months after Anschluss, the predicament of the Jews in the Greater German Reich became even worse. On November 8-9, 1938, the Nazis burned synagogues, plundered Jewish stores and homes, and arrested an estimated 30,000 Jewish men (those with visas were released). The glass littering the streets from the smashed windows of Jewish stores gave the pogrom its name: Kristallnacht, or Night of the Broken Glass. As a result of Kristallnacht, the refugee crisis became even more acute. In the U. S., however, government policy on the refugees remained the same. At his weekly press conference, President Roosevelt expressed his outrage at the latest Nazi atrocities.
But when he was asked if the U. S. intended to allow more European Jews into the country, the president replied, "That is not in contemplation. We have a quota system."
Even advocates of refugees did not propose raising the quota. The representative of "American Friends Service Committee" said, "To our knowledge, no one is trying to change the quota. It is considered highly dangerous to attempt such a step, and might jeopardize even the present quota."
In the Greater German Reich, an estimated 20,000 children had been left both homeless and fatherless by the Kristallnacht destruction and the imprisonment of Jewish men. In the U. S., Senator Wagner and Representative Rogers proposed the Wagner-Rogers bill that would allow these children to immigrate into the U. S. outside of the existing quota. The bill would permit the admission of only these children. It would not permit the admission of other children at a later date. It was a one time only affair. According to a Gallup poll conducted at the time, two thirds of the American public opposed the bill. In the end, the bill did not even reach the floor of Congress for debate. It was squelched in committee. During the debate on the Wagner-Roger's bill, President Roosevelt remained silent. Once, when the president was on a cruise in the Caribbean, his wife Eleanor Roosevelt telegraphed him to ask if she might state publicly that both of them supported the bill. The president answered, "You may, but it's better that I don't for the time being." The "time being" did not change. The president never voiced an opinion, one way or the other, on the Wagner-Roger's bill. He signed one memorandum on the bill, "File. FDR."
In 1940, when Nazi Germany attacked Western Europe and German bombs began to fall on England, great numbers of Americans offered refuge to British children who had been displaced by the bombings. This was in great contrast to the lack of refuge offered to Jewish children just two years before. The type of British child most typically requested by American families was "a six year old girl, preferably with blond hair."
So fraught with adverse consequences was the subject of refugees that when refugee ships arrived in the U.S., the agencies organizing the rescue made a deliberate effort to downplay the Jewishness of the refugees and to avoid publicity altogether. Newspapers were discouraged from reporting the arrival of refugee boats. "Behind this strategy," historian David Wyman has written, "lay anxiety that the public, exposed to story after story of ships unloading refugees, would believe the flow of immigrants really was a flood, particularly a Jewish flood."
THE ST. LOUIS
In May 1939, one month before the outbreak of World War II, the ocean liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, bound for the U. S. with several hundred Jewish refugees, none of whom had visas. The refugees figured they had nothing to lose and willingly took the chance. The St. Louis sailed up and down the Atlantic coast of the U.S. but was not permitted to dock at any port. It then sailed to Havana, Cuba, but the refugees were refused entry. In the end, the St. Louis sailed back to Europe. Its passengers disembarked at Amsterdam, Holland. Less than a year later, the German armies swept across western Europe and the former refugees of the St. Louis were swept up in the Holocaust. For his efforts to save the Jews on his ship, the German captain of the St. Louis was later named a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial organization in Israel.
In only one place in the world were Jewish refugees permitted to land without a visa: Shanghai. It became a refuge for thousands of Jews who otherwise would have perished.
THE AMERICAN PUBLIC IN 1938
In 1938, four different polls indicated that between 71% and 85% of the American public opposed raising the quota to help refugees. An estimated 67% of the American public wanted to keep all refugees out of the country.
"All those unused visas, all those unheeded appeals, all those useless screams."
-- Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate
In late 1941, the murder of European Jews entered a new phase, a phase in which the death camps were utilized. Hitherto, the Jews of eastern and central Europe had been subject to disease, starvation, and random violence in the Nazi ghettos. In fact, an estimated 20% of Polish Jewry died in the ghettos. With the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, mobile squads of Nazi murders known as Einsatzgruppen swept the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) as well as Ukraine and Bylorussia. The Einsatzgruppen commanders included a former opera singer, a university professor, a Protestant pastor, and a large number of lawyers. In excess of one million Jews were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen. Typically, the Jews (men, women, and children) were shot in the back of the neck and dumped in ditches the Jews themselves had been forced to dig. There was, however, a problem with German soldiers killing unarmed Jews (who were labeled communists, partisans, or simply "enemies of the Reich"). It had a devastating psychological toll. The Jews were dead, but the men who killed them were also, in a sense, dead. As well, the expenditure of millions of bullets was not a trifle to the economic-minded Germans. There had to be a change if Hitler's instructions for "a final solution of the Jewish question" was to be realized. The decision was taken to establish death camps in which Jews were destroyed by, first, carbon monoxide, and, subsequently, by Zyclon B, a poisonous gas whose original purpose was the extermination of rodents.
On December 8, 1941, the Nazis opened the first death camp at the village of Chelmno, in western Poland. Here the Jews were murdered in gas vans (the size of large moving vans) by carbon monoxide. The bodies were burned in pits at a nearby forest. In the spring of 1942, the Nazis established death camps in eastern Poland outside the villages of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. In June 1942, the Nazis established Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest and most infamous death camp. It was located approximately thirty-five miles west of the Polish city of Krakow.
In July 1942, a German industrialist living near Auschwitz-Birkenau learned of the camp's existence through friends and contacts in the Nazi high command. The industrialist, Dr. Eduard Schulte, also learned of Hitler's determination to destroy all of the Jews in Europe. In the effort to alert the leaders of the western democracies about the genocide, Schulte traveled to neutral Switzerland (ostensibly on war-related business). In Geneva, he relayed information (through an intermediary) about the destruction of Jews to Gerhardt Reigner, an official of the World Jewish Congress. Reigner transmitted Schulte's information (by way of the American consulate in Geneva) to the British Foreign Ministry and to the U.S. State Department. Reigner specifically requested the State Department to forward the information to Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the World Jewish Congress. In August 1942, Reigner's telegram describing Schulte's information reached both London and Washington. Before this information reached the west, it was generally believed that terrible atrocities had been perpetrated against the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. However, no one understood that the terrible atrocities were a prelude to the total destruction of the Jews. Hence the importance of Schulte's message: he provided the western leaders with the information that there was a Nazi plan at the highest levels to eliminate all Jews and that all the deportations and ghettos and other individual measures were only steps along the way to total extermination. It was to be "a final solution" for all of the Jews of Europe.
When Reigner's telegram reached the State Department in Washington, officials described its contents as "fantastic allegations" and refused to pass on the information to Rabbi Wise. In an interview, Richard Breitman, author of Breaking the Silence, has said that the State Department officials felt that forwarding the information to Rabbi Wise would cause Jewish officials "to react in ways which the State Department did not think helpful. That is to say, to put pressure on the government to do things they believed not in the government's interest to do. In other words, to try to save Jewish lives."
Later, a State Department official wrote an internal memorandum explaining U.S. policy regarding refugees: "There was always the danger that the German government might agree to turn over to the United States and to Great Britain a large number of Jewish refugees."
For three months, the State Department refused to publish the information contained in the Reigner telegram. Indeed, the State Department instructed the American consulate in Switzerland to stop transmitting information about the destruction of the Jews because "it would expose us to increased pressure to do something more specific to aid these people."
By the late autumn of 1942, sources in Europe had confirmed the contents of Reigner's telegram. One source was the Polish underground courier Jan Karski. He entered both the Warsaw ghetto and the Belzec death camp to witness the Nazi policies so that he could authoritatively report that Jewish destruction is not a rumor and that he saw it himself. Karski then smuggled himself out of Nazi-occupied Poland and to Britain from which he traveled to America. He informed western governments of what was happening to the Jews in Poland.
On November 24, 1942, Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles informed Rabbi Wise, "I regret to tell you, Dr. Wise, that these (documents) confirm and justify your deepest fears" about the annihilation of European Jewry. The same evening, Rabbi Wise gave a press conference in which he detailed the destruction of the Jews in Europe based upon information the State Department had confirmed. Wise estimated that two million Jews had already been murdered. Sadly, that estimate was less than the actual number of murdered Jews. The following day, November 25, 1942, the New York Times published an account of Wise's press conference. Rabbi Wise was quoted as saying: "The State Department finally made available today the documents which have confirmed the stories and rumors of Jewish extermination in all Hitler-ruled Europe." The article, describing the U.S. government's first acknowledgment of the Holocaust, appeared on page 10 of the New York Times. It is of note that only five of the nineteen most widely circulated newspapers in the U.S. put the story of Jewish destruction on the front page. None of the articles in any of the nineteen papers were prominently placed. Two of the nineteen papers did not include information about Rabbi Wise's press conference.
During the three months between the arrival of the Reigner telegram in Washington and the confirmation of the Holocaust by the State Department, an additional one million Jews had been murdered.
THE BERMUDA CONFERENCE
On April 19, 1943, the very same day as the outbreak of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt, British and American diplomats (of a relatively low rank) met on the island of Bermuda ostensibly to discuss what might be done to relieve the plight of European Jews. It should be noted that tens of thousands of Jews were still alive in countries beyond the reach of the Germans: Bulgaria, Spain, Hungary, and Rumania. The Bermuda Conference was held largely as a result of growing public pressure in England.
However, as historian David Wyman has said, "Rescue was not the purpose of Bermuda. The purpose was to dampen growing pressures for rescue." In a phrase, Bermuda was "a facade for inaction."
The first task of the U.S. diplomats was to locate a prominent American who would be willing to represent the U.S. at the conference. Myron Taylor, the U.S. representative at the Evian Conference five years before, and the American with the most experience on the refugee issue, was rejected by President Roosevelt. Associate Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts rejected the offer, a rejection to which President Roosevelt lightheartedly replied, "I fully understand, but I am truly sorry that you cannot go to Bermuda, especially at the time of the Easter lilies! After my talk with you, the State Department, evidently decided (under British pressure) that the meeting should be held at once instead of waiting until June." The president of Yale University at first accepted the offer to represent the U.S. at Bermuda, but then rejected it under pressure from his board of directors. Finally, the president of Princeton University, Harold W. Dodds, accepted the appointment. Wyman caustically observed, "It was not a good spring for finding distinguished Americans who could devote time to the tragedy of the Jews of Europe."
Bermuda was selected as the site of the conference because travel to the island was strictly limited under war-time conditions. There would be a few (hand picked) reporters and no nettlesome Jewish representatives hovering over the shoulders of the diplomats, who stayed at the Horizons Oceanside resort "set among hibiscus and oleander and lilly fields in bloom for Easter." The State Department made it very clear to the diplomats at Bermuda that there would be no special emphasis placed upon the suffering of the Jews. This was "strictly prohibited." In addition, it was made clear that the Roosevelt administration did not have the power to relax or to rescind the immigration laws. It was not mentioned, however, that the administration did have the power to permit the quota to be filled to its legal limit. During the Second World War, the U. S. quota was virtually untouched: 21,000 refugees, most of them Jews, were admitted into the country. This number constituted ten percent of the allowed quota. In other words, nearly 190,000 openings went unfilled while the slaughter of Jews continued unabated. The State Department appointed two congressmen to head the U.S. delegation to Bermuda. Neither of the men had any prior experience with the refugee problem, the very subject of the conference.
Senator Scott Lucas, a Democrat from Illinois, said that he was "not acquainted with the refugee problem but intended to study it carefully." Sol Bloom, a Yiddish speaking vaudevillian comedian who became a New York congressman and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, was widely recognized on Capitol Hill as no friend of the Jews in Europe. Bloom, who was Jewish, "was a sycophant of the State Department," said Emanuel Celler, one of the seven Jews in Congress. The diplomats at Bermuda did not reach any conclusions regarding the rescue of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. Perhaps because of the "poverty" of their results, the diplomats did not issue a final report.
Representative Sol Bloom said, "Winning the war is our first step. We as Jews must keep this in mind." "The job of the Bermuda conference apparently was not to rescue victims of Nazi terror," said Rabbi Israel Goldstein, "but to rescue our State Department and the British Foreign Office." "Not even the pessimists among us expected such sterility," said Sam Dickstein of the House of Representatives.
Several months after the Bermuda Conference, the Jewish newspaper "the Frontier" wrote, "The Warsaw ghetto is liquidated. The leaders of Polish Jewry are dead by their own hand, and the world which looks on passively is, in its way, dead too."
A WHITE HOUSE MEETING
In March 1943, one month before the Bermuda Conference, Secretary of State Cornell Hull, President Franklin Roosevelt, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, and British ambassador to the U.S. Lord Halifax, met at the White House. At one point in the wide ranging discussions, Secretary of State Hull raised the subject of the 70,000 Bulgarian Jews and the possibility of their rescue from the Nazis.
According to the transcript of the meeting, Eden replied, "The whole problem of the Jews in Europe is very difficult. We should move very cautiously about offering to take all the 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 in Germany."
In an interview, historian David Wyman offered this comment: "Eden was afraid that large numbers of Jews would be saved. This was his fear and everybody in that room knew then what was the fate of the European Jews. They had known for four months. In that room were the foremost leaders of the two great western democracies with the one exception of Winston Churchill. As far as the record shows, nobody objected to that statement."
The British, for their part, were not interested in the prospect of Jewish refugees from Europe finding their way to Palestine (present day Israel), which was then a British mandate. In 1939, British authorities issued a White Paper placing a restriction on Jewish immigration to Palestine. The presence of additional Jews in Palestine would place immense pressure on the British policy of placating the Arab population of the region. It is of note that after the Second World War the British tried to thwart Jewish emigration to Palestine, leading to the incarceration in British camps of Jews who had survived Hitler's camps.
THE WAR REFUGEE BOARD
Fourteen months after the State Department confirmed the Nazi extermination of the Jews, the Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board, a government agency whose purpose was to rescue Jews still alive in Europe.
The Roosevelt administration was reluctant to be seen as friendly to Jews even at this late date. The War Refugee Board was formed only begrudgingly. Public pressure had been growing, and it had become evident that the government, particularly the State Department, was avoiding the task of Jewish rescue altogether. The U. S. Treasury Department, under Secretary Morgenthau, realized that the State Department was actually obstructing efforts to rescue Jews. Indeed, the State Department (led by Breckenridge Long) had issued secret instructions to suppress information about atrocities on Jews and to postpone issuing visas to Jews trying to escape the Nazis. Disgusted, Morgenthau had his subordinates at Treasury prepared a report detailing the State Department's actions, or lack of actions, regarding the Jewish question. The report, titled "On the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of Jews," was sent to the president on January 15, 1944. David Wyman has written, "Roosevelt was finally cornered into the position that he had to do something or a scandal was going to break."
On January 22, 1944, the president established the War Refugee Board. The executive order the president signed establishing the War Refugee Board (known as the WRB) specified that it would have the support of every government agency, specifically the support of the State Department, Treasury Department, and the War Department (today's Pentagon).
The most notable achievement of the War Refugee Board was the successful transport of 982 refugees (89% of them Jewish) from unoccupied territories in Europe to the small community of Oswego in upstate New York.
In order to assuage that part of the American public that was against the admission of refugees, President Roosevelt pledged that the 982 refugees bound for Oswego would return to Europe after the war's end. In fact, the refugees were required to sign a document promising to do just that, although the overwhelming majority of the refugees had lost their entire families to the Nazis. Despite the pledge, the refugees were met by hostility on the part of many residents of Oswego. After the war, President Truman (who became president when FDR died in April 1945) issued an executive order permitting the Oswego refugees were permitted to remain in the U.S.
The journalist I. F. Stone remarked that Oswego was “a kind of token payment of decency, a bargain counter flourish in humanitarianism."
John Pehle, a Treasury Department official who lent his full energies to Jewish rescue, said this to say about the War Refugee Board: "What we did was little enough. It was late...late and little."
THE BOMBING OF AUSCHWITZ
In the spring of 1944, the Jewish population of Hungary, over half a million people, remained untouched by the Holocaust that had swept through neighboring countries. Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany, but in March 1944 the Germans violated the alliance by occupying the country. Led by SS officer Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi expert on deportations, the machinery of death went to work. In less than two months, 439,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland. It was an unparalleled act of Nazi destruction, the high point of Eichmann's murderous career.
During the period when the Hungarian Jews were deported to their death, the Germans were trying to stop the Soviet offense in the east. However, Hitler ordered that trains carrying Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau have priority over trains carrying supplies to the eastern front. The destruction of Jews was more important than the rescue of the German soldier.
The Jews of Hungary went to their death completely unaware of what lay ahead. As Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel has said, "The diplomats in the western capitals knew about the Holocaust, but the Jews of Hungary did not." Wiesel's village was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 1944.
In the summer of 1944, while the deportations from Hungary to Auschwitz-Birkenau were underway, Jewish underground leaders in Europe forwarded information about the destruction of Hungarian Jewry to London and Washington. They requested that the U.S. air force bomb the railroad lines to the death camp, and bomb the death camp itself. The request was received by the War Refugee Board in Washington and was forwarded to the War Department, which rejected it on the grounds that the aircraft could not be diverted to a target that was not "military related." The War Department also insisted that bombers flying from Britain did not have the ability to attack a site in distant Poland.
In fact, U. S. and British bombers stationed in Italy were already flying missions to Poland. This was because Auschwitz-Birkenau was not only a death camp but a vast labor camp utilizing both Jewish and non-Jewish slave labor. In the immediate vicinity of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Germans had established numerous synthetic oil refineries. In the effort to destroy those refineries, and cripple the German war effort, the U. S. air force, flying from Italy, repeatedly bombed the region around Auschwitz-Birkenau precisely at the time when the Hungarian Jews were being deported there. On two occasions, the camp itself was accidentally bombed and both Jewish slaves and their SS masters were killed. Once the railroad line leading into the death camp was struck, forcing the destruction process to come to a temporary halt.
The War Department, when it received the request to bomb Auschwitz-Birkenau, did not investigate the possibility of doing so, despite President Roosevelt's executive order legally obliged the War Department to assist the War Refugee Board. The War Department rejected the request without investigating the possibility of assistance.
Once, while bombing the nearby synthetic oil refineries, a squadron of U.S. bombers flew directly over one of the crematoriums at the death camp and photographed it. No intelligence officer analyzing the photograph, however, determined the deadly nature of the facility.
In conclusion, Wyman had this to say about President Roosevelt's reaction to the Jewish catastrophe in Nazi-occupied Europe: "One of the key reasons Roosevelt didn't act, I'm convinced, and definitely the key reason the State Department wouldn't act, was the fear of the anti-Semites in Congress, and the hell they'd raise if any moves were made in that direction. The anti-Semitism in congress was reflective of the anti-Semitism in American society." Evidently, FDR did not lose his political touch.
In January 1943, when Polish Jewry had been destroyed and the rest of European Jewry was on the verge of destruction, a Roper poll asked Americans a simple question: "Would it be a good idea, or a bad idea to admit more refugees (ie Jews) after the war?"
Seventy-eight percent of the respondents answered it would be "a bad idea." In 1944, a survey of Americans identified "the most dangerous group to the USA" as 1. Jews (24%) 2. Japanese (16%) 3. Germans (8%).