American responses to the Holocaust: new research, new controversies.

Author:Medoff, Rafael

The past decade has witnessed a surge of new scholarship concerning the responses of the American government, and American Jewry, to the Holocaust. Although only a small number of historians are actively engaged in this field, new research by this handful of veteran scholars, together with that of several newcomers, has shed fresh light on a number of important historical controversies. These include U.S. policy toward Nazi Germany in the 1930s; the search for havens for refugees, efforts by Jewish activists to influence American policy; the relationship between American Jewry and President Franklin D. Roosevelt; and, the most-discussed topic in this genre, the failure to bomb Auschwitz. Broadly speaking, the latest research reflects two trends. One is the uncovering of additional evidence that the Roosevelt administration squandered rescue opportunities and that some of its officials were motivated not only by political calculations but also by baser sentiments. The other concerns previously unknown instances of individual American diplomats, refugee advocates, and journalists attempting to aid the Jews. The new research has contributed significantly to scholarly understanding and at the same time has attracted substantial public interest and a widespread recognition that the lessons of those years may be useful in navigating some contemporary policy debates. (1)

President Roosevelt's reluctance to explicitly criticize Hitler's anti-Jewish policies in the early and mid 1930s--for fear of jeopardizing U.S.-German relations--has received considerably less attention than, for example, his later call for "quarantining" aggressive regimes. (His refusal to mention Nazi Germany by name in that famous 1937 speech could he considered telling, however.) A journalist, Erik Larson, recently cast a fresh spotlight on the subject in his New York Times bestseller In the Garden of Beasts, an account of William E. Dodd's tenure as U.S. ambassador in Berlin, from 1933 to 1937. Admittedly, much of the attention the book garnered was generated by its revelation that Dodd's daughter, Martha, was romantically involved with both a Gestapo leader and a Soviet diplomat-spy. Inter alia, Larson brought to the fore new details about an important episode that is mentioned only in passing in Dodds published diary. In early 1934, Nazi government officials repeatedly harangued Dodd about an upcoming mock trial of Hitler to be held at Madison Square Garden, at the initiative of the American Jewish Congress. At the conclusion of that March 7 event, the Nazi regime was "convicted" of having "turned its face against the achievements of modern civilization." Insulted, the Germans leaned on Dodd to prevent a repetition of the protest; he complied by working behind the scenes with presidential adviser Colonel Edward M. House to undermine plans to hold a second mock trial, in Chicago. They convinced one of the main speakers, former ambassador to Germany James W. Gerard, to cancel his appearance. Dodd argued that a mock trial would be inappropriate both because Hitler had decided "to ease up on the Jews," and because such anti-Nazi protests might increase public sympathy for the Hitler regime. Dodd told House he had personally assured Hitler "that Chicago Jews were not so wild" as the New Yorkers. The second trial never took place. The episode is significant because it helps to illustrate the lengths to which some administration officials went to safeguard relations with Nazi Germany during that period. (2)

The major American Jewish protest movement against the persecution of German Jewry in the 1930s was a campaign to boycott German goods. Moshe R. Gottlieb's 1982 study, American Anti-Nazi Resistance: An Historical Analysis, 1933-1941, is the only book-length scholarly treatment of the subject. On the question of the boycott's impact, Gottlieb concluded that the boycott hurt Germany ... in almost every area of German industry, especially exports," and that, in a few instances, it even resulted in "a temporary halt to the public manifestations of Hitler's virulent anti-Semitic campaign. Prof. Melvin I. Urofsky has suggested that the boycott would have had a better chance of undermining Hitler had it received earlier and stronger support from the major American Jewish organizations. "Hitler had promised to end the depression and unemployment and his base of popular support would diminish unless he could produce some results," Urofsky wrote in 1982. "A foreign boycott of German goods could have serious effects on the economy, a fact the chancellor's economic advisers well knew." (3) The groups dominated by German-born Jews--that is, the American Jewish Committee, B'nai B'rith, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee--opposed the boycott for fear that U.S. Jews would be accused of trying to drag America into a conflict with Germany. (4) Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress, also initially opposed the boycott, because of his conviction that American Jewry should support the Roosevelt administration's foreign policy. Strong pressure from the AJCongress rank and file forced Wise to reverse his position by the autumn of 1933, seven months after Hitler became chancellor.

It may never be possible to reach a definitive conclusion as to whether a boycott that had broader support, and which was undertaken during Hitler's shaky first months in power, could have driven the regime to collapse. However, recent scholarship has enriched our understanding of some of the sociological aspects of the boycott movement. Richard A. Hawkins (in American Jewish History in 2007) and Gregory Kupsky (in the American Jewish Archives Journal in 2011) chronicled the work of an early boycott leader, Samuel Untermyer, who despite his German parentage and Wall Street financial success led a movement dominated by Yiddish-speaking working-class Russian Jews. Untermyer was the exception that proved the rule among his socioeconomic class. These studies also described how Rabbi Wise avoided being usurped by Untermyer as American Jewry's preeminent leader by assuming the helm of the boycott effort. It was an instructive early example of dissidents galvanizing established organizations to embrace activism. The interested reader also will want to review Rona Sheramy's 2001 essay in American Jewish History about the unheralded pivotal role of the Women's Division of the American Jewish Congress in managing much of the organization's boycott activity. The participation of women in Jewish organizational life during the period is an aspect of American Jewish responses to the Holocaust that has not yet been adequately explored (more on that below). (5)

One important segment of American society that not only did not boycott the Nazi regime in the 1930s, but also actually sought to build relations with it was the Ivy League. Stephen Norwood (University of Oklahoma), in his groundbreaking 2009 study The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower, explained how Harvard, Columbia, and other elite universities cultivated ties with Nazi-controlled universities in the 1930s, sending delegates to their events in Germany, inviting Nazi representatives to speak on their campuses, and exchanging students. The Hitler regime selected its exchange students to serve as--in the Nazi leadership's words political soldiers of the Reich." Their personal encounters abroad were part of a strategy to help soften Germany's image. In campus publications front the period that Prof. Norwood mined, students returning from a semester or a year in Germany spoke glowingly of the new regime's cleanliness and punctuality. Two critics challenged Norwood's work, from different directions. Alan Brinkley (Columbia University) argued that it was unfair of Norwood to criticize university officials since thousands of leaders and citizens" were involved in "financial, commercial, cultural and political interactions with Nazi Germany" during the 1930s. Richard Breitman (American University) suggested that American universities friendly ties with the Nazis were unimportant because those institutions "carried little political weight." While some may view the political realm as the only sphere of consequence in these discussions, a more nuanced understanding of America's response to the Holocaust should also consider the ways in which American public attitudes toward Nazism and the Jews were influenced by cultural factors, including the role of major educational institutions. (6)

The pioneering research of another scholar in this area likewise points to the need to study segments of American society outside the Capital Beltway. Laurel Leff (Northeastern University), speaking at an Association for Jewish Studies session in 2005, described how U.S. journalism schools declined to hire Jewish refugee journalists fleeing Hitler and how the American Newspaper Publishers Association refused to grant a Harvard scholar ten minutes at its 1939 convention to speak about the plight of persecuted journalists. (In a fitting gesture, its successor, the Newspaper Association of America, publicly expressed regret for its actions in the 1930s and invited Prof. Leff to address its board.) (7) At the 2010 Biennial Scholars Conference on American Jewish History of the American Jewish Historical Society, Leff unveiled her research on the lobbying by U.S. doctors, as well as by the American Medical Association, to prevent German Jewish refugee doctors from practicing in the United States. Even though there was a shortage of doctors in Massachusetts in 1943, the Massachusetts Medical Society barred from hospital work all doctors who had already been granted medical licenses in the state but were not yet American citizens. Leff also described how Harvard University president James Conant--whom Norwood has shown to have been a leading proponent of relations with Nazi Germany--took steps to prevent Jewish refugee doctors...

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