Even taking into account all the limitations, the US could and should have done so much more.
We have not seen the documentary, “The US and the Holocaust,” scheduled to air for three nights on PBS beginning Sept. 18. But we have published a long story on it and read about it elsewhere.
The question raised by the documentary — why did the US not save more Jews from the Nazis? — breaks down into two separate historical foci: the period before the the mass murder of the Jews and the period after the genocide began. The period of the genocide in turn breaks down into two periods: before it was authoritatively known by the State Dept., in 1942, and after.
I. 1930s Before the genocide
The reason the US did not do much for Jews under the rise of Hitler is that America was preoccupied with the Depression. Does that mean the US could not have done more for the Jews?
Daniel Greene, a curator at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, points out that when there were bread lines in the US and one in four Americans was unemployed in 1933, letting in Jewish refugees was unrealistic.
Reasonable though that may have been, it really skirts the issue. For an administration — Roosevelt’s — that later argued that the best way to help the Jews was not to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz but to defeat the Nazis, the administration paid precious little attention to the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. If the way to help the Jews was to defeat the Nazis, then one would have expected the Roosevelt administration to have implemented strong anti-Nazi policies during the 1930s. One would be wrong.
To our knowledge, not once did President Roosevelt speak out even against the growing pro-Nazi sentiment in the US.
To our knowledge, not once did President Roosevelt put an end to General Motors’ active supply of vehicles to Hitler.
Depression in the US had nothing to do with the right thing to do: moral condemnation and diplomatic isolation of the Nazis in the 1930s. It was not necessary for the US to accept a single Jewish refugee during the 1930s for Roosevelt to set a tone, to make it clear that the US opposition to Nazism was more than opposition to fascism. It was opposition to the massive and brutal discrimination against Jews.
When we talk about potential “United States” actions against the rise of Nazism, this must include United States Jewry. It too did not acquit itself as it should. Yes, there was a segment of US Jewry that did speak up against Nazism and did do its best to aid German Jews. And yes, US Jewry in the 1930s did face a level of anti-Semitism that is difficult to grasp even today, with anti-Semitism on the rise.
That said, there was also a fawning, obsequious, American Jewish elevation of Roosevelt in the Jewish community that rendered it easy for the president to dismiss Jewish calls to do or say more for German Jews or against Nazism. “Di velt, di andere velt, un Roosevelt” — this Yiddish phrase, widespread in the American Jewish community at the time, loses in translation, but suffices to convey its meaning: Roosevelt was G-d. With this approach, US Jewry undercut whatever advocacy on behalf of German Jews it undertook.
II. The Holocaust
That the Jews were the special object of Hitler’s hatred was well known in the US well before WW II began on Sept. 1, 1939. What was not well known was the genocidal extent of Hitler’s fanaticism, and this for two reasons. First, little authoritative information got out. Second, the information that did get out was literally unbelievable. “It couldn’t be happening, it couldn’t be true” was the response. In part, this response was due to stories of atrocities during WW I that turned out to have been exaggerated.
But in 1942, the US received authoritative information of the Nazi genocide. The Intermountain Jewish News itself reported in June, 1942 that the Nazis were using poison gas to murder Jews en masse. By the fall of 1942, this information had been delivered to the State Dept. What did the State Dept. do? What did Roosevelt do? Precisely nothing.
Again, part of the issue was the attitude of “Di velt, di andere velt, un Roosevelt.” Rabbi Stephen Wise would not demand of his friend President Roosevelt that the US act against the horror.
But what could the US have done?
It turns out, a lot. This measure, “a lot,” must be carefully defined. Could the US have halted the Holocaust? No. Not with its positions on the ground and not with its armed forces in life-and-death battles with the Nazis. In other ways, could the US have saved millions of Jews? No, it couldn’t. That said, “a lot” means that the US could have saved tens or hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives without detriment to its war effort.
It could have bombed the concentration camps. It could have bombed the rail lines to the concentration camps. Now, one of the points that we understand will be made in the upcoming documentary is that military precision 80 years ago is not what it was today. An attempt to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz could have missed by five miles. Frankly, so what? This imprecision did not put a halt to the Allied bombing of the Nazis. Whatever missed, missed. This did not cause the US to halt its air war against the Nazis. Nor should it have deterred the bombing of the rail lines to Auschwitz. Besides, follow the logic: Had a given attempt to bomb the rail lines missed by five miles, then that would have been additional Nazi territory hit.
It is not relevant how many Jews would have been saved by Allied bombings of the camps or of the rail lines to the camps. Whatever the number, it would have qualified as “a lot.” Every human life counts!
However, keep in mind that in the spring of 1944 alone, some 400,000 Hungarian Jews were shipped by rail car to Auschwitz and gassed there. Keep in mind that it was not until 1944 — after D Day — that it was realistic for the Allies to bomb these areas. Allied bombs could have saved at least some 400,000 Hungarian Jews. This indeed is “a lot.”
Another justification for the Allied inaction in this sphere is the view that it would not have taken long for the Germans to rebuild whatever train tracks the Allied would have destroyed. This view is certainly contradicted by the experience of the Bielski partisans in the Novogrudok region of Belarus in 1944. They had immeasurably smaller and fewer weapons at their disposal than the Allies, but they found when they succeeded in exploding a German rail line it did not get quickly rebuilt, if at all. Keep in mind, in 1944 the Germans were on the run, without the luxury of time to rebuild bombed out weapon depots, positions and rail lines.
President George W. Bush himself handed the maps of the Auschwitz area to Elie Wiesel, who was on one of those infamous train rides in 1944. The maps verified how feasible it would have been for the US to bomb the camp or the rail lines to the camp.
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