President Truman and the Jewish DPs, 1945-46: the untold story.

Author:Schiff, Mel
Position:Harry S. Truman's treatment of the Jewish displaced persons - Essay

Accounts of how the administration of President Harry S. Truman treated Jewish displaced persons (DPs) at the close of World War II allude to "operational support" of the clandestine Jewish exodus from Europe to British Mandate Palestine. While the recognition of the State of Israel in 1948 is a well-known legacy of Truman's, did he participate in the formation years of modern Israel prior to that time? And, particularly, did he support what became known as the 20th-century Jewish exodus from Europe to British Mandate Palestine? If so, why has this not been part of the American history dialogue of the post-World War II and Holocaust eras?

For decades, Americans have heard their presidents, and even presidential candidates, support the State of Israel with ubiquitous phrases such as calling Israel "the only democracy in the Middle East" and "America's ally" and noting that Israel's population has turned deserts into farmland and developed high tech industries. Regardless of international and domestic setbacks, the expected phrases pour forth consistently from the major political parties. Is this phenomenon simply a quest for political advantage, or is there a historic, raison d'etre underlying the American connection to Israel?

When he was a presidential candidate in 1960, John F. Kennedy stated that "Israel was not created in order for it to disappear--Israel will endure and flourish." (1) Twenty-two years later, President Ronald Reagan remarked, "Back in 1948, when Israel was founded, pundits claimed the new country could never survive." (2) Rather than refer to Truman's "recognition of the State of Israel in 1948," which is usually the touchstone of American support for Israel, they utilized the words "created" and "founded," which naturally preceded Truman's historic recognition.

Truman's behind-the-scene role is still not yet part of the American recollection of mid-20th-century history because Truman wanted it to be kept secret for many years, as this paper notes, and all of the participating entities, governmental and civilian, cooperated in that effort. Soon after Truman became president, his humanitarian concern for the people who had suffered most under the Nazi regime led him to become not only a primary motivator and facilitator in the major rehabilitation programs for Jewish displaced persons, but also, most significantly, a moving force in the clandestine exodus of thousands of Jews from Europe to British Mandate Palestine during several years prior to 1948.

Search and Uncover: "The Untold Story" Revealed

Truman's actions regarding the Jewish DPs has remained a truly untold story, primarily because of a cryptic statement that appears in both of Truman's memoirs:

"For reasons of national security and out of consideration for some people still alive, I have omitted certain material. Some of this material cannot be made available for many years, perhaps for many generations." (3)

Documents now available shed light on Truman's actions and their rationale. The implementation of Truman's policy supported Gen. Mark Clark, commander of the American Zone of Austria, in cooperating with refugee aid organizations. Those organizations included the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the Joint, or the JDC); the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA); and agents of the clandestine Mossad LeAliyah Bet, defined as "the Committee for Illegal Immigration." (4) While all participated to improve the lives of thousands of Jewish DPs encamped in Austria's American Zone, they also partnered with the United States in underground operations to facilitate the transit of Jews through Austria in their quest to reach British Palestine.

The Jewish Non-repatriables

Millions of refugees were spread throughout Europe when, on May 5, 1945, Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower directed all DPs to remain in place and await orders. (5) The U.S. military then commenced a massive program to repatriate those who wished to return to their native countries, if those nations approved.

Eisenhower had been newly designated the Combined Displaced Persons Executive in the wake of the July 14, 1945 termination of the Supreme Headquarters American Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). He realized by September of that year that the remaining multitudes of refugees from the Caucasus, Byelorussia and the Baltic States and elsewhere were refusing to go home. He acknowledged that the care of those displaced persons might continue for a longtime. (6)

Of the approximately 1.5 million to 2 million refugees in camps that had primarily been built by the U.S. Army after World War II ended, it was estimated that there were 200,000 Jewish displaced persons. (7) This group of refugees refused repatriation to virtually anywhere in Europe. As U.S. Ambassador to Poland Frederick Bliss Lane described the situation in Poland to Secretary of State James Francis Byrnes, it "was a cemetery with three million dead." (8) Additionally, Jewish survivors still faced many physical dangers, including harassment by antisemitic tormentors in DP camps that were originally organized solely by nationality. Beyond the camps, the Jewish DPs faced assaults by townspeople who had taken over their homes, as well as the possibility of death in antisemitic pogroms.

From all over Europe, Jews who had reached the safe havens of the American Zones in the West, especially in Austria, found safety, rehabilitation and, if they desired, assistance in escaping to Palestine. Since nations worldwide had generally sealed their borders to noncitizen refugees, the Jewish DPs found no doors open for immediate entry.

U.S. Senator, Truman Speaks Out For European Jews During War

Truman's interest in the Jews under Nazism did not begin in the Oval Office. As a U.S. Senator, Truman delivered a speech on April 14, 1943 at the "United Rally to Demand Rescue of Doomed Jews" (9) in Chicago Stadium. Under the Nazi regime, he declared, "The people of the ancient race, the Jews, are being herded like animals into the Ghettoes, the concentration camps, and the wasteland of Europe." Referring to the Nazis, he added: "We know that they plan the systematic slaughter throughout all of Europe, not only of Jews but of vast numbers of other innocent peoples."

The senator urged action: "Americans are fighting with honor and glory," and the home front is helping with supplies, but "we must do more than that." He added: "Today--not tomorrow--we must do all that is humanly possible to provide a haven and place of safety for all those who can be grasped from the hands of the Nazi butchers."

Two years later, as president, Truman was primed and ready to act. Just six days after his inauguration, he received "a special communication" on Palestine from the U.S. State Department. (10) The communication noted: "It is very likely" that "efforts will be made by some of the Zionist leaders to obtain from you at an early date some commitments in favor of the Zionist program ..." The commitments included "unlimited Jewish immigration into Palestine and the establishment there of a Jewish State." This was termed the "Palestine question." Precisely two days later, Dr. Stephen S. Wise, chairman of the American Zionist Emergency Council, conferred with the president and discussed the problem of resettling the Jewish victims of Nazi persecution. This "led naturally to a discussion of a proposed Jewish state and homeland in Palestine."

Truman's memoirs record his mentioning to Wise that he "was in agreement with the expressed policy of the Roosevelt administration on Palestine" and that he would "carry out that policy." But, Truman clarified neither his forthcoming actions nor his understanding of the former president's policy. During their meeting, and possibly to assuage the unintentionally harsh impact of his own statement on the previous administration's policy, Truman then informed Wise: "I had carefully read the Balfour Declaration, in which Great Britain was committed to a homeland in Palestine for the Jews." He added that he was familiarizing himself with the history of the British and the Arabs in the Middle East.

The newly minted American president wrote that he had also expressed his opinion "about some of the views and attitudes of the 'striped-pants boys' in the State Department. It seemed to me," he wrote, "that they didn't care enough about what happened to the thousands of Displaced Persons who were involved. It was my feeling that it would be possible for us to watch out for the long-range interests of our country while at the same time helping these unfortunate victims of persecution to find a home."

In Volume Two of his Memoirs, Truman clearly stated his feelings about his earliest action plan for the Jewish DP's: "In my own mind, the aims and goals of the Zionists at this stage to set up a Jewish state were secondary to the more immediate problem of finding means to relieve the human misery of the displaced persons."' (11)

One week after the conversation with Wise, the Office of Strategic Services prepared a "Confidential Report" (12) (dated April 2.7, 1945) based on an agent's detailed observations of Jewish organizational speakers at the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco. Representatives from a wide spectrum of Jewish organizations appeared at the conference, including those who were Zionist, non-Zionist, religious or secular. The conference attendees came to no agreement regarding a political design for a Jewish national entity. For example, the religious Agudath Israel of America wanted a Jewish commonwealth, but only one with a "religious constitution."

However, the reporting agent detailed one emphatic consensus: Great Britain should open Palestine to Jewish immigration. Even the spokesperson for Agudath Israel stated that if it could not get the type of constitution it wished, nevertheless, it "will demand free immigration." The secular...

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