Jews Failed to Spot Hitler's Menace

Americans and Germans Were Slow To See the Nazi Danger

Rising Menace: Despite the obvious writing on the wall, many American and German Jews failed to adequately recognize the devastating threat posed by Nazism.
getty images
Rising Menace: Despite the obvious writing on the wall, many American and German Jews failed to adequately recognize the devastating threat posed by Nazism.

By Andrew Nagorski

Published June 19, 2012, issue of June 22, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

After Kristallnacht, which took place November 8 and 9, 1938, and the September 1, 1939, German invasion of Poland that launched World War II, there was near panic among German Jews, and they besieged the U.S. Embassy in Berlin seeking visas. But given the strict quota system the United States maintained, even consular officials who were sympathetic to their plight ended up turning away many of them.

And some Americans in Germany became hardened to the desperate appeals of local Jews. Howard K. Smith, a young reporter who would later go on to be the co-anchor of the ABC Evening News, received a knock on his door at 2 a.m. in October 1941 from a young Jew who reported that he had been briefly detained by the Gestapo, which was raiding apartments of Jews across town. He pleaded for Smith’s help in getting an American visa. As Smith wrote in his memoir about his Berlin experiences, he told his visitor that he was exaggerating the danger, and then he offered him a cigarette and shoved him out the door. To his credit, Smith felt guilty later and wrote about his “callousness,” but noted that there was little he could have done in any case.

By contrast, some Americans displayed remarkable courage. Muriel White, an American woman who had married a German count in 1909 and settled in Germany, attended a dinner at the Adlon Hotel, in Berlin, in the summer of 1937. An American diplomat witnessed her exchange with a gauleiter, a Nazi district leader, seated at her table. She asked him whether it was true that the party sometimes called “deserving” Jews honorary Aryans. When he replied in the affirmative, she asked, “Can you tell me, then, how I could become an honorary Jew?”

Despite the overall American record of failing to marshal anything close to an adequate response to what was happening to Jews in Germany and later in Nazi-occupied Europe, there were other acts of courage and compassion — although not necessarily with happy endings. Murphy didn’t forget about his German Jewish colleague, Drey, after the Nazis took power. As late as 1938, Murphy flew back to Munich to urge him to flee the country, assuring his friend that he’d find a job for him elsewhere. Drey thanked him but turned him down, saying that the “temporary madness” in his country would soon pass. Drey died later in Dachau.

With the benefit of hindsight, such behavior appears perplexing, even infuriating. But for many well-educated Jews, non-Jews, Germans and Americans, Hitler’s rants and behavior seemed too bizarre, too far removed from any rational frame of reference, to be taken seriously. Which is why so many appeared to be in denial about what was happening until it was too late.

The fact that Jews were no exception in this regard is not a reason for shame. But it is a reason for reflection.

Andrew Nagorski, a former Newsweek foreign correspondent, is the author of “Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.