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Lawrence Kohn on Why We Watched: Europe, America, and The Holocaust

Filed under: Anti-Semitism, World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 21:3-4 (Fall 2009)

Theodore S. Hamerow, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin, discusses in this important work the role of anti-Semitism in America’s response to the Holocaust and the changing perception of the relationship between the Holocaust and the Second World War.

Professor Hamerow begins by smoothly and succinctly summarizing the changes in Jewish involvement with surrounding European society from the medieval to modern period, the “siren song” of Emancipation, and the ineradicable “Jewish question.” He describes the changing nature of European anti-Jewish feeling from religious hatred to “racially” based anti-Semitism and with the development of this latter concept the final closure of any doors of escape from the “Jewish condition.”  Hamerow provides the reader with an understanding of the strategic equations which guided the Americans and the Allies in the lead up to and during the Second World War, including Hitler’s march to conquest and America’s turn from isolationism to “neutral belligerence.” It was these equations and others which led the Allies to focus on their war efforts rather than attempting to rescue victims of the Nazi onslaught. He closes the book with a review entitled the “Twilight of European Jewry,” which discusses the period following the war and the emergence of the concept of the Holocaust as we recognize it today.

In addition to citing standard sources such as Henry Feingold and David Wyman,[1] Hamerow uses diaries, diplomatic memoranda, and extensive polling data throughout the book. By doing so, he draws a detailed picture of the fear of Jewish influence prominent among a significant minority of the American population and the near obsession of American officials to avoid creating the impression that the purpose of the war was to rescue Jews. Undergirding the belief in excessive Jewish influence and fear of increased anti-Semitism, along with declining support at home for a war strategy of unconditional surrender (with all the sacrifices of American men and resources this would entail) was the overwhelming opposition to changing the quota system, seen as a bulwark against the threat which immigrants posed to American jobs.

The unchanging existence of anti-Semitism throughout the war is clear from polling data cited by Hamerow. The results which he brings show more feelings of distrust toward Jews by Americans than almost any other minority group. This distrust only increased as the war continued, even after details about the massacres of Jews in Europe began to become public. Hamerow extends his analysis to Canada and Latin America. He examines the effects of the size of the Jewish community and the ratio between it and the local population on willingness to receive refugees, as well as the variety of attitudes demonstrated toward Jews on each continent.  Canada, for example, compared unfavorably to Latin America.

Hamerow makes it clear that there could have been a significant life-saving effect only before the war, since during the war itself Hitler’s accelerated massacres of Jews essentially destroyed European Jewry (apart from in Hungary and the Balkans) before the Allies had turned the tide of the war. However, the attitudes dominating an isolationist, quota-bound America when the Final Solution was yet to be formulated resulted in a lack of urgency that, in hindsight, assured European Jewry’s almost total destruction. Hamerow makes it clear how significant hindsight is in the chapter “The Emergence of the Holocaust,” in which he describes the transformation of the Second World War from a strategic necessity with an element of tragedy for a variety of victims – including Jews, but only on occasion noted as specifically connected to the Jews – to a war that served as a backdrop to the Holocaust. Yet, Hamerow emphasizes, this transformation, years after the war ended, only served as a means of commemoration; it could do nothing, of course, to save those already murdered.

Hamerow further argues that “the growing realization in Europe and America during the late 1950s that the problem of Jewish refugees had now been solved [as a result of their absorption by Israel] made possible the transformation of the Nazi genocide into the Holocaust.” By the time of the Eichmann trial, thanks to the Jewish state, focusing on Jewish victims no longer entailed the threat of a flood of refugees. Yet surely another factor, especially post-1964, has been the effect of the Civil Rights revolution on American views about religious, as well as racial, diversity? It would be interesting to hear Hamerow’s assessment of the movement of Soviet Jewry which involved both aliyah to Israel and entry into the U.S., yet did not seem to stir American anxieties about Jewish immigration. Would Hamerow argue that Israel’s absorption of a large number of Soviet Jews made the potential issue of a flood of refugees a moot point?

Another virtue of the book is the citation and analysis of data on anti-Semitism in the countries occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War. This analysis shows a relationship between the level of pre-war anti-Semitism and the percentage of the Jewish population murdered. As Hamerow writes, “the anti-Semitic measures initiated by the Nazi regime were applied much more rigorously in the countries occupied by the Wehrmacht than in countries that, although allied with the Third Reich, retained a considerable degree of independence.” The policies of countries such as Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary in this regard were certainly affected by the “growing perception that the Allies were likely to win the war.” But “some nations, though under direct occupation…were still able to save a far higher proportion…than nations officially allied with the Nazi regime.”

Hamerow goes even further, asserting that “the degree of traditional ethnic hostility was in fact an even more important factor in the extermination of European Jewry…. That explains why the proportion of Jewish victims of the Holocaust was higher in Eastern Europe where anti-Semitism had been most pervasive and intense, than in Central Europe, the birthplace of National Socialism.” Hamerow cites that the percentages of pre-war Jewish populations murdered were 81% in Germany and 67% in Austria, compared to 85% in Poland, 90% in Lithuania, and 89.5% in Latvia. While these percentages are very important, it is not completely clear that these figures demonstrate that the degree of ethnic hostility was the paramount factor. Although the percentage of destruction in Austria was significantly less than that in Lithuania, Germany’s was quite close to that of Poland. Nevertheless, the works of Raul Hilberg, Yithzak Arad, and Hamerow himself two decades earlier, showed that, in the author’s words, “the effect of the Nazis’ genocidal program depended to a large extent on the attitude of the local population toward the motives and objectives of ethnic extermination” and that in “many parts of Europe collaboration [on the part of the local population] made a significant contribution to the murderous success of the Holocaust.”[2]

Hamerow also draws a link between the small percentage of the total population which Jews formed in countries in which nearly the entire Jewish population was rescued, such as Denmark. The link between popular opposition to German occupation and Denmark’s liberal, democratic values was important. Yet elsewhere, even amongst nations sympathetic to liberal values and open to Jewish advancement, the power of anti-Semitism was enhanced by the fear of being flooded with large numbers of Jews. Too many Jews, says Hamerow, could be viewed as tipping the delicate balance between distrust and sympathy and lead to increased anti-Semitism.

Hamerow demonstrates how American Jews were affected by these concerns. He brings examples such as the refusal of Henry Morgenthau Sr. and Bernard Baruch to join the Presidential Advisory Committee on Political Refugees, and the attempt by Arthur Hays Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times and himself a Jew, to prevent Felix Frankfurter from becoming an additional Jew in the U.S. Supreme Court. Similarly, Samuel Rosenman, a key advisor to Roosevelt, informed the President that it would be “highly inadvisable” to urge for expansion of the immigration quotas. Hamerow writes that Rosenman said that even if the quotas could be expanded the increase would result in a “Jewish problem” in the countries granting the increase. Even the dedicated Zionist Rabbi Stephen Wise, in a private letter cited by Hamerow, wrote that “Roosevelt’s re-election is much more important for everything that is worthwhile and that counts than the admission of a few people, however imminent their peril.”

A surprising aspect of Hamerow’s book is both his omission of any reference to Henry Ford’s mass distribution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the lack of emphasis he places on the effect of the tenure of the famous anti-Semite Breckenridge Long at the State Department. Despite the centrality of anti-Semitism in his analysis of America’s response to the Holocaust, Hamerow argues that the “anti-Semitism of State Department officials was not the main reason that the bulk of Euro-Jewry…could not find asylum but it contributed to the mental anguish and physical hardship” of the Jews. To Hamerow, anti-Semitism of a broader and deeper nature was more important. He believes that the chief obstacle was “enforcement of immigration laws designed to limit the entry of foreigners.” But key to Hamerow’s analysis is that this design was not accidental: “The quota system imposed the severest restrictions on immigrants from countries with the largest proportion of Jews in their population – chiefly those in Eastern Europe – an effect that was neither unforeseen nor unintended.” Furthermore, “the rise of the Third Reich did nothing to weaken the resolve of the American public to maintain the limitations.”

These significant and essential insights are followed by a far more controversial statement: that in providing asylum for nearly 200,000 Jews between the inauguration of Hitler and the end of the Second World War, American policy, while “pitifully inadequate” relative to the need, “at a time when fanatical anti-Semitism was raging in Europe…was neither heartless or shameful.” Against this statement stands the question posed by David Ben-Gurion as leader of the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine in 1944, which Hamerow cites later in the book that “if instead of Jews, thousands of English, American or Russian women, children and aged had been tortured every day, burnt to death, asphyxiated in gas chambers – would you have acted in the same way?”.

With the tide of war turning, the fate of Hungarian Jewry became an example of American-Allied reluctance to put rescue ahead of victory. In recounting efforts to convince the Allies to pursue the rescue of the Jews of Hungary, Hamerow under-plays the importance of the removal of Breckinridge Long – this followed his denunciation by colleagues as using obstructionist tactics, which had spurred the formation of the War Refugee Board (WRB). Hamerow documents Long’s reluctance to engage in rescue activities. However, it seems that Hamerow passes over this key moment, at which Long’s intransigence was too much even for colleagues who had been convinced by or hostage to a policy of “win the war first.” Nevertheless, Hamerow rightly argues that the efforts of the WRB, however helpful in saving some, were too little, too late, and that these efforts took place in an environment which Hamerow cogently calls a “statecraft of carefully calibrated compassion.” This policy took into account that “Roosevelt was fully aware of what was happening…. He knew the mortal danger threatening European Jewry.” At the same time “he also knew that ethnic prejudice was a serious problem at home…. He was too astute a politician, however, to risk his chances of remaining in office by appearing overly sympathetic toward Jewish concerns and interests.”

In recent years, this careful calibration has received the criticism it deserves. Yet the circumstances unleashed by the war itself, especially after the Final Solution was underway, made many, though not all, rescue efforts moot. A quotation from the Swedish Foreign Minister to a WRB representative cited in Dalia Ofer’s Escaping the Holocaust: Illegal Immigration to the Land of Israel 1939-1944, supports Hamerow’s interpretation: “You simply do not understand. The reason for the German refusal [to allow safe conduct passes in 1944] is quite simple – Hitler’s plan to destroy the Jews. Before their defeat they will try to murder and exterminate every Jew under their control.”[3]

As for efforts to feed Jews already under Nazi control, in his book, Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Extermination, Saul Friedlander notes that “two weeks before Passover, on March 23, 1944 some 800 Jews had assembled at the main Athens synagogue for a distribution of matzoth promised by the Germans. All were arrested, driven to the Haidari transit camp and in early April deported to Auschwitz.” Regarding the idea of bombing German cities in revenge for, or, to stop massacres of Jews, the Allied bombing of Hamburg, according to Friedlander, was simply interpreted by Hitler as the work of world Jewry, which of course stood behind the Allies.

It is true that a heavy Allied bombing raid on Budapest following threats from President Roosevelt led the Horthy government temporarily to stop the Hungarian deportations in July 1944 (although Eichmann managed to get two more transports out), enabling the rescue of 100,000 Jews. But in October the Nazis forced a change in government and the transports were resumed. The famous Christmas 1944 bombing of a section of Auschwitz 5 miles from the gas chambers, cited by Rafael Medoff of the Wyman Center for Holocaust Studies, Washington D.C., took place just after the killing center was closed. American officials were as yet unaware of its closure, and therefore were laid open to criticism for refusing to utilize even an existing bombing mission so close by. However, the fact remains that a diversion at that time was already too late to have helped. Bombing earlier in the year might have slowed down, but not ended the killing process and saved some lives. These facts do not deduct from the significance of Hamerow’s argument that even though open or “parlor” anti-Semitism (the latter exhibited by Roosevelt) and an emphasis on winning the war to the exclusion of rescue can be criticized, the rescue of the great mass of European Jewry depended on pre-war actions that never came. No one wanted huge numbers of Jews, so the Jews were left with nowhere to go.

The fundamental fact was that the implementation of the Final Solution sealed European Jewry’s fate. The adoption of a forceful rescue policy at best might have saved hundreds of thousands – a significant humanitarian result – but could never have saved European Jewish civilization or the vast majority of the six million murdered. The core suspicion of Jews, the never ending “Jewish question” that was a hallmark of European civilization could not be erased by the hopes and dreams of emancipation. Its failure was demonstrated to deadly effect by the helplessness of European Jewish leaders at the July 1938 Evian conference on refugees and the promulgation of the British White Paper essentially closing Jewish immigration to Palestine in May 1939.

Hence the Zionist message of this book is of central importance, albeit mostly implicit and never romanticized. Hamerow makes clear that the American Jewish success story today involves “the steady assimilation of the Jewish community,” a community that has “altered its traditional character” not only religiously but also culturally.

However, he writes, “the situation in Israel, the other center of contemporary Jewry, is different. Here, Jews are not an accepted and acculturated minority; they are a majority and are determined to remain [so]…. Israel is deliberately different from the Jewish communities elsewhere in the world – different in language, culture, character, and belief.” The distrust and fear of masses of East European Jews in the interwar period which Hamerow discusses makes it clear that the only road open to those Jews was a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which achieved independence too late to help. Hamerow concludes his valuable and enlightening addition to the record of American and Allied attitudes and actions, or lack thereof, during European Jewry’s greatest cataclysm with a wish, rather than a prediction, for Israel’s survival, as an alternative answer to Hitler’s mostly successful solution to Europe’s Jewish question, something that cannot be wished away.


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[1]. Henry L. Feingold, The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust 1938-1945 (New York: The Holocaust Library, 1970); David S Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust 1941-1945 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).

[2]. Raul Hilberg, Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945 (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), chapter 8; Yitzhak Arad, “The Final Solution in Lithuania in the Light of German Documentation,” Yad VaShem Studies 11(1976): 234-272; Theodre S. Hamerow, “The Hidden Holocaust,” Commentary (March 1985).

[3]. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 274.

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Lawrence Kohn has completed his thirtieth year as Education Director of Temple Beth El in Madison Wisconsin. He has conducted workshops for Madison Public School teachers on teaching the Holocaust, served on the Yom HaShoah committee of the Madison Jewish Community Council, and has written regularly on Middle Eastern affairs in Midstream.