Where was America during the Holocaust? Book traces a pattern of prejudice

The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945, by David S. Wyman. New York: Pantheon Books. 444 pp. $19.95. In recent weeks I have heard it said that David Wyman's ``The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust'' is a study on the failure of will. It is nothing of the kind. It is Wyman's view that, with rare exception, there was no will to save the Jews of Europe. They were left to their fate. The result is well known.

Wyman, author of ``Paper Walls,'' an important book on American refugee policy in the 1939-41 period, spent 10 years conducting exhaustive research to piece together the actions and reactions -- and inactions -- of prominent Americans and key institutions in response to the widespread knowledge of persecution and the mounting evidence that the threatened ``Final Solution'' was being systematically carried out. What he tells is a shameful story.

Looking back, it is possible to say that there were ``good reasons'' for not doing what might have saved thousands, perhaps millions: geopolitical considerations, interagency rivalries, inadequate information.

But beneath it all, he concludes, was deep-rooted prejudice in many parts of Europe and in the United States.

In the late 1930s anti-Semitism was a widespread phenomenon. In America it was fed by the propaganda of the Coughlinites (followers of Fr. Coughlin, the Roman Catholic fanatic), the anti-Semitic Pelley's Silver Shirts, and Protestant fundamentalists who called themselves ``Defenders of the Christian Faith.'' In addition to such home-grown fascists, there were many others in the depression-racked society who supported the stringent restrictions against immigrants (including political refugees) whom they perceived as threats to the jobs and benefits to which they claimed entitlement. Anti-alienism often dovetailed with anti-Semitism. For many, the Jews were the quintessential usurpers.

The Roosevelt administration, ever attuned to the social climate, responded to reports of Nazi policies in terms of political expediency: According to Wyman's account, it did almost nothing.

FDR was well aware that many thought of his White House as ``pro-Jewish'' (some had even spoken of his domestic innovations as a ``Jew Deal''). The President and most of his closest advisers (including several Jews) were wary of being seen as acquiescing to the special pleadings of ``Jewish interests.'' Despite counterarguments by Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and Congressman Emanuel Celler, and despite the irrefutable facts coming out of Europe, the administration avoided the issue.

Other parties tried to confront it. Most notable was the leadership of various Jewish organizations. As representatives of various groups and factions were alerted to the mounting dangers, they sought action. Yet disagreements over tactics, targets, and priorities often weakened their potential effectiveness. Many who were Zionists, critical of British policies that restricted settlement of Jews in Palestine, worried that offering other havens might weaken the case for a Jewish state. Others were more concerned with the immediacy of assisting the uprooted by providing temporary asylum anywhere. Some, like Rabbi Stephen Wise, lobbied the White House and the Congress and organized mass rallies of protest. Many contributed to private rescue, relief, and resettlement agencies such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Rabbi Wise and other Jewish leaders had counterparts in the non-Jewish community. Along with former President and refugee specialist Herbert Hoover, Alfred E. Smith, Wendell Willkie, Dean Alfange, and Dorothy Thompson tried to stir the public conscience and pressure the government to act. They stressed the fact that easing the plight of the refugees was a humanitarian -- and a Christian -- responsibility, not a ``Jewish problem.'' Yet, aside from Reinhold Niebuhr and a handful of theologians, and the invaluable good works of the service committees of the Quakers and the Unitarians, Wyman found that Christian organizations, church leaders, and rank-and-file parishioners rarely took a stand.

The media weren't much more helpful. They tended either to play down reports of categorical persecution of Jews or to universalize them, emphasizing the notion that the Jews were not the only victims.

Such was also true in the State Department. Wyman offers several explanations for its vacillating policies and inadequate responses.

``The failure stemmed in part from bureaucratic inefficiency . . . [and in part] from the absence of any comprehensive approach. . . .'' But the most critical factor was ``the fear that sizable numbers of Jews might actually get out of Axis territories.''

In this the Anglophilic policymakers at the State Deparment echoed the sentiments of those in Whitehall. For both, ``the basic policy was not rescue but the avoidance of rescue.''

There finally came a time when the State Department was forced to modify its approach. Toward the end of 1944, the President established the War Refugee Board, which, in cooperation with Jewish agencies, set forth a program geared to evacuate Jews and other endangered people from occupied areas, to find places to which they could be sent, to use threats of postwar reprisals to prevent further deportations and murders, and to ship relief supplies into the camps themselves. By and large the efforts of the board -- in Turkey, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, and the US -- were too little and too late.

``The Abandonment of the Jews,'' written by a man who ably combines the professional skills of a careful scholar with an outsider's perspective -- in this case that of a caring Christian -- is a significant and troubling work. It is significant because it fills a large void in Holocaust studies and in the assessment of US wartime activity; it is troubling because, as Wyman says in his preface:

``One does not wish to believe the facts revealed by the documents on which [this book] is based. America, the land of refuge, offered little succor. American Christians forgot about the Good Samaritan. Even American Jews lacked the unquenchable sense of urgency the crisis demanded. The Nazis were the murderers, but we were the all too passive accomplices.''

Peter I. Rose, a sociologist and writer, is now a visiting scholar at Harvard, where he is working on a new book, ``In Aid to the Tempest-Tost.''

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