Jewish Political Studies Review 22:1-2 (Spring 2010)
In a recent issue of The Times Literary Supplement, Will Self, commenting on W. G. Sebald’s writing about the Holocaust, noted that events commemorating: “the remembrance of the Holocaust’s victims…far from ensuring a “Legacy of Hope” (the theme of this year’s Day), shore up a conception of history, of humanity, and of civilization that depends on a view of the Holocaust as an exceptional and unprecedented mass murder. It is not just in terms of the Zionist eschatology that the Holocaust is deployed as a symbolic event; we also require it as a confirmation of our own righteousness in the democratic and industrialized West.”
Indeed, can Western democracies look back and presume that their righteousness was confirmed when millions of Jews were methodically eradicated over a period of a decade in a process that at numerous dates could have been literally derailed? Dr. Rafael Medoff’s book insists not. Unfortunately, whereas the Holocaust was exceptional, this slim volume provides the evidence that the reactions, attitudes, and conceptions of government officials were not at all exceptional to the standards of indifference and even anti-Semitism that Jews have had to deal with over the centuries.
Moreover, Medoff’s assemblage of the evidence indicates that, just as a relatively small number of individuals were needed, administratively, to doom the Jews to their deaths and suffering, so too a small number would have sufficed to interfere, thwart, and attempt a rescue operation.
Medoff, both as a historian and a director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, brings his readers into the “lab,” as it were, and lays out the documents of testimony from within the belly of the administrative beast. He does not so much present his interpretation as allow readers to draw their own conclusions from memoranda, protocols, letters, directives, diary entries, and interviews. One peruses the raw material of the historical record. And one is shocked.
Ever since 1968 with the publication of Arthur Morse’s While Six Million Died, and the subsequent volumes of David Wyman and later historians, the essence of the evil of the relevant American and British bureaucrats has been known. Yet the extent of the absolute disinterest, the anti-Jewish hatred, and the simple need to say “no” so as not to do anything, erupts from these pages.
The story concerning Josiah DuBois, which Medoff traces through a paper trail, is one of inexplicable negligence. DuBois, who, as mentioned on page 22 in a passing reference, was not Jewish even though a good few of his fellow government employees thought otherwise, was a relatively low-level Treasury Department official. He managed to succeed in obtaining vital information, directly and deductively, that made it obvious that the highest officials of the government of the United States were quite content to let Jews die and not to lift a finger to save any or to pressure other Allies on this matter.
As related mostly in the first person through the documents, enabling one to look “over the shoulders” of the participants, it emerges that through deliberate acts of administrative sabotage and the falsification of communications records, Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long and underlings sought to hide vital information. They, and others, then attempted to vitiate the power of Congress through stonewalling and ignoring what they were directed to accomplish. Ultimately, exploiting President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s own unease with the “Jewish question,” they managed to delay, thwart, and halt rescue actions by, among other things – instead of actually doing anything – simply issuing press announcements and making administrative decisions of little effectiveness. It was to these ends that they worked while avoiding even the minimal responsibilities for which they were being paid.
DuBois, however, put the information to good use. He prodded, cajoled, and eventually made threats to expose the moral corruption that was in his way and that of America, as he understood that country’s soul and destiny regarding the protection of human life.
Medoff’s presence is quite light-handed. Short summaries of events, biographical information, and footnotes are about the extent of his additions to the main textual body of the book, along with an introductory chapter and concluding chapter. Acting less as author and more as editor and arranger, Medoff has notably succeeded in what could have been a daunting task. The book is both academic and popular; one hears the voices of the figures who did or did not do what was expected of them, and “sees” the history of the period. For the most part, little more is necessary, though it would have been helpful to identify Lew Douglas (32), who – it states rather intriguingly – “kicked his heels while lying on his back on a table,” which leaves the reader in wonderment, or to give the name of the U.S. army general who prevented aid from reaching Jews stranded on Rab Island (55-56).
This book, which is not without its drama, alters one’s thinking about what goes on in the corridors of power, both during World War II and more generally. Do personal prejudices stymie the democratic decision-making process; are officials provided with the full information they need; are worthy goals actually pursued? The book makes all too clear that the Jews had enemies in Washington and London and not only in Berlin.
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 Will Self, “Sebald, the Good German?” The Times Literary Supplement, 26 January 2010.
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YISRAEL MEDAD is Information Resources Director at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem and lectures on Zionist history in various forums.