The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Philadelphia offers an annual list of The Ten Most Absurd Statements About Allies’ Responses to the Holocaust. The list is a high point in the institute’s unceasing mission to keep the heat on President Franklin D. Roosevelt for having done nothing to stop the Nazi genocide (other than winning World War II and defeating Hitler, for whatever that’s worth).
In the spirit of this tradition, I am introducing a new feature that I call The Most Absurd Press Release of the Labor Day Holiday Weekend in Pursuit of an Obsessive Historical Grudge. The winner, I’m pleased to announce, is “Golda Meir Sought Bombing of Auschwitz, Researchers Find,” issued September 3 by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Philadelphia.
The press release touts a newly-published 2,900-word report from the Wyman Institute, based on recently discovered documents, showing that Meir wrote to a colleague in Washington in 1944 and urged him to press for the bombing of the death camp.
Bombing Auschwitz was an action some Jewish activists advocated during World War II as a way to shut down the camp’s killing machine. Under the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, the War Department refused to divert its planes for the purpose, on the claim that it would divert precious resources from the war effort. The debate continues to rage nearly seven decades later as the centerpiece of a larger debate over whether the Roosevelt administration could have saved Jews from extermination, whether anti-Semitism was behind the refusal and whether the Jewish community leadership of the day was too timid, or too loyal to Roosevelt, to face down FDR and force his hand.
Meir was then known as Goldie Myerson and was “a leader of the powerful Histadrut labor union,” according to the report. She had seen some of the desperate messages sent to the leaders of the Yishuv from Labor Zionist leaders inside Nazi-occupied Europe, and she forwarded one of them to “the union’s American representative, Israel Mereminski,” with the request that he “lobby the U.S. government and others to respond more forcefully to the plight of European Jewry, including urging the bombing of Auschwitz.” The report adds:
For years, defenders of President Roosevelt’s response to the Holocaust have claimed that important Jewish leaders opposed bombing Auschwitz; but now we know that one of the most revered figures in modern Jewish history, Golda Meir, was among those who tried to bring about the bombing of the Nazi death camp.
Astonishingly, despite the irresistible force of the Myerson-Mereminski one-two punch, the Roosevelt administration refused to bomb the camp. Even today, seven decades later, despite the determined, ongoing pressure of the Wyman Institute, successive American administrations still have not bombed Auschwitz. I assume the institute will keep up the pressure until the policy changes.
Interestingly, the report discloses that “researchers who have examined American Jewish organizations’ responses to the Holocaust have seldom come across Israel Mereminski’s name.” We might add that back in 1944, hardly anyone in Washington had come across Golda Meir-Myerson’s name, either. The Histadrut was powerful among the Jews of the Yishuv, but it was hardly a factor in decision making in this country. Her correspondence with Mereminski hardly changes our understanding of the balance of forces operating on U.S. policy at the time. But that’s not really what the Wyman Institute is after.
The Meir report seems mainly aimed at milking an earlier report from the Wyman Institute (the research institute doesn’t seem to date its publications) on the views of the rest of the Yishuv leadership toward bombing Auschwitz. Titled “The Roosevelt Administration, David Ben-Gurion and the Failure to Bomb Auschwitz: A Mystery Solved,” it is an 8,000-word narrative of the events surrounding one meeting of the Jewish Agency executive committee meeting, on June 11, 1944, in Jerusalem, where the idea of bombing the camp was discussed and rejected. It appears that the Yishuv leaders were under the mistaken impression that Auschwitz was “a large labor camp,” not a death camp. A few weeks later they found differently, and from that point on, the institute reports, some key figures began advocating bombing the camp, including Ben-Gurion himself.
Oddly, this raises as many questions as it answers. Was the Yishuv leadership unaware of something that everyone in Washington knew? Or was everyone on the Allied side unaware that Auschwitz was a death camp? And if so, why is it so surprising that it wasn’t bombed?
Also, what exactly was the mystery that we just solved?
The truth is not quite as complicated as all that. The idea of bombing Auschwitz didn’t really come up until near the end of the war. It wasn’t a ground-swell demand, but a proposal from some leaders, opposed by other leaders. There were compelling arguments both for and against.
The Wyman Institute is the brainchild of a single researcher, Rafael Medoff, and is devoted to vindicating the wartime work of the so-called Bergson Group, a circle of dissident Jewish activists who favored bombing the camp. Historians remember the Bergsonites as militants who believed the mainstream Jewish leadership was guilty of timidity or worse in the face of what they called the callous indifference of the Roosevelt administration. The Wyman Institute regularly releases new research to prove the point: Bergson and company were right, Roosevelt and his ally, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, were wrong. The Golda Meir report is offered as the latest bit of evidence.
Here’s where a bit of historical context is needed. Peter Bergson was actually Hillel Kook, a young Israeli-Palestinian follower of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Zionist Revisionist movement, who came to the U.S. in the summer of 1940 to assist the leader. Jabotinsky was based in New York, trying to build opposition to his arch-enemy, Ben-Gurion, and BG’s liberal allies here, led by Rabbi Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress and the most visible spokesman of the American Jewish community in that era.
Jabotinsky had been at war with Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann and the rest of the mainstream Zionist leadership since the 1920s. He rejected their policies of cooperating with the British authorities and trying to get along with the Arab population. He also rejected the governing structure of the World Zionist Organization, which was a confederation of parties with different philosophies—Labor Zionists, Religious Zionists and so on—that regularly held worldwide elections to choose its leaders. Jabotinsky thought the system needlessly divisive. He advocated a single, unified command under a single leader (namely guess who). When Ben-Gurion was elected chairman of the Zionist executive in 1935, Jabotinsky seceded and formed his own world Zionist organization, the New Zionist Organization. In the name of unity, of course.
Unfortunately for young Hillel Kook, Jabotinsky died a few weeks after the younger man arrived in the States, in August 1940. Unable to return to Palestine, Kook took on a false name, Peter Bergson, and began organizing a variety of organizations to move the ball forward, including the bombastically named Committee for a Jewish Army and Emergency Committee to Save the Jews of Europe. Kook was a charismatic and brilliant organizer, and he recruited some prominent allies.
He and Jabotinsky proved prescient in some key respects. They foresaw the scope of the Nazi genocidal threat long before others. They were prescient in their understanding of the depth of Arab hostility to Zionism. Kook’s militant campaign for rescue is generally credited with helping spur Roosevelt to set up the War Refugee Board in January 1944, 14 months after the news of the final solution first reached the outside world, to find ways of rescuing Jews; it’s believed to have saved about 200,000 lives in the 14 months until the war ended.
Alas, Jabotinsky and company undermined themselves by their unremitting, venomous hostility to the mainstream community leadership. (In 1932, Jabotinsky wrote an article on the Histadrut titled “Yes, Break It!” which hardly improved relations among the rivals). Ben-Gurion reciprocated by calling Jabotinsky “Vladimir Hitler” (this was before most people understood Hitler’s genocidal plans; opponents of Hitler were focused on his dictatorial philosophy of fascism, which BG claimed Jabo’s Revisionism resembled).
Here in the U.S. of A., Kook continued his mentor’s confrontational, take-no-prisoners approach. He often worked with FDR’s Republican opponents, who unfortunately were the same people who had opposed entering the war in the first place and in fact were the people who blocked every effort during the 1930s to open the door to Jewish refugees. This didn’t help Kook’s popularity.
After the war Kook and his allies continued their campaign to discredit BG, Wise, FDR and the rest of the liberals, arguing that they had done nothing to save the Jews from Hitler. One key Bergsonite, Oscar-winning screenwriter Ben Hecht, wrote a seminal book in 1961, “Perfidy,” that pursued the case in devastating terms.
They remained marginal until 1968, when the American Jewish self-image turned upside-down. The experience of Israeli isolation in the weeks before the Six Day War in 1967 had left a deep scar on Jews everywhere and created a sense of abandonment and helplessness (somehow missing the fact that Israel had won the war handily in six days). In 1968, a book titled “While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy” by Arthur Morse sparked an explosion, describing in devastating detail the FDR administration’s failures. David Wyman’s 1984 “The Abandonment of the Jews” laid out the thesis in even further depth.
Curiously, both books describe the enormous depth of American opposition, both popular and political, to any efforts to save Jews before and during the war, but then somehow ignore that and go on to say that Roosevelt should have Done Something Anyway. Wyman outlines the brick wall in particular detail, and then dismisses it with the bizarre assertion that if FDR had pushed hard enough Americans would have acquiesced, because most Americans are Christians and Christianity is a religion of love.
Lucy Dawidowicz, the late Holocaust historian and leading neoconservative scholar, no friend of liberals, published a powerful monograph in Commentary in 1983, “Indicting American Jews,” painstakingly detailing the birth, evolution and success of the Bergsonite campaign to rewrite history and spread the notion that FDR, Wise and Ben-Gurion abandoned the Jews for reasons of callousness, cravenness or in FDR’s case, anti-Semitism. The essay is included in her 1992 anthology “What Is the Use of Jewish History?” Unfortunately, it has largely been forgotten.
Historian Peter Novick, in his 2000 book “The Holocaust in American Life,” devotes a chapter to the bomb-Auschwitz debate, showing the complexity of the debate at the time and reminding those of us who have forgotten, who are so quick to judge that generation, just how terrified and confused Jews were during that war. Advocates of bombing Auschwitz maintained that it would shut down the death factory and so save lives—and that the people already in the camp were doomed anyway. The reply they received from the War Department was that it would divert planes and personnel from the paramount goal of winning the war. Today’s advocates note that American bombers were bombing Nazi oil refineries just a few miles from the camp and could easily have been diverted for a raid to save Jews. Novick says that the bombers were highly inaccurate—they actually missed five of the six refineries and over Auschwitz they could well have missed the crematoria and hit the barracks—but that admitting how useless the bombing raids were would have badly hurt public morale.
Finally, no serious student questions that there was an element of anti-Semitism within the bureaucracy that deterred bold action. The major questions are how decisive it was, whether Roosevelt shared the indifference, and whether more militant action by Rabbi Wise and company could have tilted the balance.
My own 1996 book, “Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment,” has a chapter analyzing the transformation of American Jewry’s self-image in 1968. We have forgotten that American Jewish self-confidence, the belief that Jews could influence events, is something very new. We have forgotten how close Hitler seemed to victory, how desperate Jews and other Americans were to save the world from a triumphant evil that seemed already to have swallowed the Jews of Europe and was about to swallow the whole world.
We’ve also forgotten what it was that Jews loved about FDR. His opponents weren’t in favor of fighting harder against Hitler—they were against going to war against Hitler at all. They used to call him “Franklin Rosenfeld.” When The American Jewish Year Book began publishing in 1899, it featured an annual list of all the American Jews who held public office, from cabinet and Supreme Court to county sheriff. In 1933 that feature was dropped from the book because the number exploded—FDR opened the doors of public service to Jews, allowed Jews to serve in high administration positions for the first time. Thousands of Jews went to work for the federal government. That had been utterly inconceivable just two years earlier. It outraged a vast swath of the American public—and that, in turn, frightened many Jews. Jews today are too dismissive of Holocaust-era Jewish fear. Jews in 1942 had a lot to be frightened about.
One of the oddest things about the Wyman Institute’s Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion reports is that they actually do add to our understanding of the period. They show how the Labor Zionist leadership of the Yishuv was actually engaged, anguished and pushing for some sort of action to save the Jews—contrary to the craven, callous image created and promoted for decades by Ben Hecht in “Perfidy” and a host of other publications by his fellow Bergsonites. The Wyman Institute reports might have acknowledged that a critical debate over Holocaust history had now been resolved, and that part of the Bergson case was now being withdrawn for lack of evidence. But that would require a commitment to truth over partisanship that one doesn’t see much of these days.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).