In the opening minutes of “The U.S. and the Holocaust” – a new three-part Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein documentary that premieres on PBS on Sunday, we hear the blunt truth that still haunts our nation today: “The exclusion of people and shutting them out has been as American as apple pie.”
The documentary lets no one – including American Jews – off the hook.
Of the film’s many characters, two Jewish leaders fighting back this exclusionary impulse stood out to me: Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and Peter Bergson. Both men believed that they represented the “true” opinion of the Jewish people and tried desperately to save the Jews of Europe. And both of them were labeled as “radical,” despite having very different beliefs.
Rabbi Wise, a quintessential American Jew, ultimately held greater faith in his American identity and government than were deserved. The tactics of Bergson, a foreign militant Zionist, were ultimately more effective at persuading the U.S. government to save Jewish lives.
A charismatic rabbi vs. the State Department
Born in Hungary, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise immigrated to the United States as a child and was an early leader in the American Reform movement. A founding member of both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Jewish Congress, he differed from his Reform colleagues in his zealous support for civil rights and Zionism.
Wise tirelessly pushed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to loosen immigration quotas and urged boycotts of German goods, with little success. He was ultimately the one who broke the news to the American public during a press conference on Nov. 24, 1942, of the comprehensive German plan to murder all of the Jews of Europe.
Yet despite Wise’s great faith in FDR, he was unable to convince the American president to intervene more directly to save the Jews. Even after the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps had finally become front page news in 1945, Americans still did not want to admit refugees, with only a meager 5% agreeing that the U.S. should accept more.
In the most tragic of ironies, the U.S. State Department during WWII boasted the most antisemites, racists and isolationists of any other governmental office at the time. The department was led by Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, who notably loathed Rabbi Wise and believed, without evidence, that Jews were especially dangerous to the U.S. Long called the hundreds of thousands of desperate German Jews already on the waitlist for a visa “a perfect opportunity for Germany to load the United States with Nazi agents.”
Long’s explicit goal was to bring immigration, particularly Jewish immigration, to a full stop, and the State Department under his direction intentionally made it as difficult as possible. Under his direction, refugees were not permitted to come to the U.S. if they had a job, as that took a job away from an American, but they could also not receive a visa without a job, as that meant they would need government assistance.
A divided people
But Wise wasn’t just fighting antisemites in office: He was fighting resistance from his fellow Jews. From the beginning of the Nazi regime, American Jews were divided on how to respond to Hitler’s persecution of German Jews. “I think a lot of American Jews were torn between wanting to ring the alarm, and not seem too alarmist,” writer Daniel Mendelsohn says in the documentary. “They had just precariously established their identities as Americans.” Renowned Holocaust historian and current U.S. Special Envoy to Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt goes one step further: “There was a legitimate fear that if we talk too much about this, Americans are going to say ‘Well, it’s right! Jews are like that! Jews are conniving.’”
Rabbi Wise abhorred these attitudes and excoriated those who held them. Recent immigres who had successfully navigated Long’s bureaucratic maze received anxious letters from family members trapped in Europe, begging for the $5,000 fee to obtain a visa – a sum that for the time represented a year’s salary for the average working American. Still, American Jews, particularly those in positions of power and wealth (like the leadership of the American Jewish Committee), were more comfortable quietly exhorting FDR to do something for German Jews than publicly demonstrating.
Shortly after Hitler gave a speech on Jan. 30, 1939, that called for “the annihilation of the Jewish race,” a bill that would permit 10,000 Jewish children per year to come to the U.S. died in committee without being brought to a vote – there were, again, fears its passage would negatively affect the well-being of American Jews. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, possibly the highest ranking Jewish American in government, privately told FDR that there was no possible way this vote would ever reach consensus among Congress, let alone among Jewish Americans.
Nearly a quarter of American Jews had opposed the proposed legislation, even as German Jews were losing their businesses, forced to wear yellow stars and desperately applying for visas to get out of Nazi Germany.
The man who likely did convince FDR to devote government resources to saving Jewish refugees found the American Jewish response to the mass murder of Europe’s Jews bafflingly timid. Peter Bergson, a founding member of the Irgun (a British Mandate-era precursor to the IDF), dismissed Wise as “a timorous American of Hebrew descent and not an authentic member of the Jewish nation” and believed that American Jews were not responding to the crisis at hand with the sense of urgency it required.
Bergson had a history, to put it mildly, of not playing by the rules. Born Hillel Kook (nephew of Israel’s first chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, Avraham Kook), Bergson changed his name in 1937 to protect his family from retribution for his political activities when he was sent to Poland to coordinate an underground network that was smuggling Jews into Palestine. Bergson’s mentor, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, sent Bergson to the U.S. in 1940 with the stated goal of raising a Jewish army to fight Hitler.
Two days before Yom Kippur in 1943, Bergson organized more than 400 Orthodox rabbis to march on Washington in protest of the Roosevelt administration’s perceived indifference to the mass murder of European Jews. This protest is believed to have influenced the creation of the War Refugee Board in early 1944, an organization that ultimately saved tens of thousands of Jews in the last years of the war. FDR did not meet with the rabbis on the advice of his Jewish advisers, who said that Bergson and his rabbis did not represent the mainstream Jewish opinion.
These advisors were not wrong: a significant portion of the American Jewish community did not want to draw attention to their Jewishness during WWII by advocating for the Jews of Europe. They feared antisemitic reprisals by their neighbors; despite their assimilation, they felt the tentative status of their relative acceptance in American society. There was also a palpable divide between wealthier, assimilated, largely German-American Jews and their poorer Eastern European brethren. A rabbi in the early 20th century said of the new Yiddish-speaking arrivals: “We are Americans and they are not. They gnaw the bones of past centuries.”
This attitude was, unfortunately, quintessentially American. Over and over, in Gallup poll after Gallup poll, Americans clearly said they did not want more Jewish immigrants. In 1938, shortly before the events of Kristalnacht, 60% of Americans believed that German Jews were responsible for their own persecution. In 1944, 76% of Americans believed that the gas chambers were real, but only 20% believed over a million Jews had been killed (at this point, the real number was 5 million dead).
Having visited the sites of concentration camps myself, I can understand the disbelief Americans experienced when confronted with the horrors of the Nazis’ extermination campaign. The breadth and scale of the Shoah confound the mind, and I was not surprised to see in the documentary the initial skepticism displayed by American journalists, politicians and citizens upon learning of the death camps.
Yet it was shocking to learn how mixed the response was within our own American Jewish communities. We are not immune from what seems to be the classic American immigrant cycle: as soon as our generation is allowed through the Golden Door, we want to shut it behind us.
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