America and the Holocaust

Where were the United States government and the American Jewish community during the destruction of European Jewry?

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Information regarding the mass murder of Jews began to reach the free world soon after these actions began in the Soviet Union in late June 1941, and the volume of such reports increased with time. During 1942, reports of a Nazi plan to murder all the Jews--including details on methods, numbers, and locations--reached Allied and neutral leaders from many sources, including the underground Jewish Socialist Bund party in the Warsaw ghetto; Gerhard Riegner, the representative in Geneva of the World Jewish Congress; and the eyewitness accounts of Polish underground courier Jan Karski and of 69 Polish Jews who reached Palestine in a civilian prisoner exchange between Germany and Britain in November. On December 17, 1942, the Allies issued a proclamation condemning the "extermination" of the Jewish people in Europe and declared that they would punish the perpetrators.

Regardless of the information that the U.S. government had about the "extermination" of the Jewish people in Europe, the State Department had insisted that the best way to save victims of Nazi Germany was to win the war as quickly as possible. The Allies were concerned, moreover, with the immediate refugee problem caused by the war. By 1943, the war had created millions of refugees in Europe. The Bermuda Conference, jointly sponsored by the United States and Great Britain in April 1943, discussed potential solutions to the refugee problem, but failed to settle on a single plan. In 1943, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau presented a report to President Roosevelt providing details about the Final Solution. It was not until January 1944, however, that the President responded by establishing the War Refugee Board, an independent agency charged with rescuing the civilian victims of the Nazis. The refugees helped by the War Refugee Board were not from Nazi-occupied areas but rather from liberated zones.

By the spring of 1944, the Allied governments knew of the mass gassings at Auschwitz-Birkenau. For some time, Jewish leaders had begged the U.S. government to bomb the gas chambers and railways leading to the camp, to no avail. From August 20 to September 13, 1944, the U.S. Air Force bombed the Auschwitz-Monowitz industrial complex, less than five miles from the gas chambers in Birkenau, but it did not bomb the railways used to transport prisoners or the gas chambers themselves. However morally reprehensible it may seem to us today, the U.S. government's decision not to bomb Auschwitz-Birkenau was in accordance with U.S. wartime policy.

Recently, American Jewry has been criticized for not continually or strongly pushing for rescue efforts. During the war, however, organized American Jewry did press for rescue in a variety of ways, but in general, rescue was not a high priority for major American Jewish organizations. American Jewry feared that agitation for rescue would exacerbate domestic anti-semitism, or compromise the strong connection that they held with the Roosevelt administration. Moreover, Jewish organizations often placed the creation of a Jewish state above rescue efforts on their list of priorities. The establishment of a Jewish state would settle the Jewish refugee issue and would provide a place where Jews could be safe as Jews. Also, the Roosevelt administration seemed to be more supportive of the creation of a Jewish state than initiation of the wartime rescue efforts.

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Susan D. Glazer is a graduate student in the Department of Comparative History at Brandeis
University. She is writing a dissertation about the activities of a German-Italian insurance organization during World War II.