During the Holocaust, ultra-Orthodox American rabbis focused on saving several hundred Polish Talmudic scholars, ignoring the suffering of millions of other Jews, who were eventually murdered by the Nazis. So Efraim Zuroff has been telling anyone who would listen (AP, The Jerusalem Post, Baltimore Sun) in order to promote his new book, The Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States to the Holocaust.
That charge contains as many lies as words (and fodder for several columns).
Would that the American communal framework had been as devoted to rescue as the Orthodox, or devoted at all. David Wyman, author of The Abandonment of the Jews (and a non-Jew with no axe to grind), characterizes American Jewish leaders during the Holocaust as "unable to break out of a business-as-usual pattern."
When Polish underground leader Jan Karski set out to alert the Jews of Britain and the United States in late 1942 to the Final Solution, his Jewish comrades told him sardonically, "Jewish leaders abroad won't be interested. At 11 in the morning you will begin telling them about the anguish of the Jews in Poland, but at 1 o'clock they will ask you to halt the narrative so they can have lunch."
The attitude of the Orthodox could not have been in sharper contrast. The leaders of American Orthodoxy spared no effort. The greatest Eastern European rabbis then in America - Rabbi Aharon Kotler and Rabbi Avraham Kalmonowitz - and the leaders of Agudath Israel violated the Sabbath on numerous occasions for vital rescue activities having nothing to do with yeshivas. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgantheau Jr., recorded in his diary how Kalmanowitz "wept and wept and wept" in his office. The old rabbi's tears helped turn Morganthau into the most ardent supporter of rescue within the Roosevelt Administration. And the fear that the "rabbis will tear the town apart," proved the prod for many a reluctant bureaucrat.
By contrast, Stephen Wise, the leader of mainstream American Jewry, consistently wavered and hesitated in pushing for greater Allied rescue efforts out of his absolute devotion to FDR. His fellow Reform rabbi and rival for leadership of American Jewry, Abba Hillel Silver, was too committed to postwar Jewish statehood to participate at all in the campaign for government rescue action, according to Wyman.
The leaders of American Jewry were neither unified nor mobilized on behalf of rescue. Indeed it was the Orthodox who frequently took the lead in pushing for unity around the cause of European rescue. On August 28 1942, Wise received a telegram from Gerhart Riegner of the World Jewish Congress describing Hitler's plan to wipe out all European Jewry. Wise had previously received similar information of the extermination of Polish Jewry from Bundist sources. He did nothing other than send the cables to the State Department for confirmation.
Only when Jacob Rosenheim, head of World Agudath Israel, received a similar cable from Isaac Sternbuch in Switzerland (through the Polish government-in-exile diplomatic pouches, which only the Orthodox were willing to use to evade State Department censorship), did things begin to move. Rosenheim and Kalmanowitz pressured Wise to call a meeting of all Jewish groups.
At that meeting , September 6, Wise accused the Orthodox of spreading "atrocity tales" and made all participants swear secrecy so as not to embarrass the president.
That meeting eventually led the creation of the Jewish Emergency Committee, but after a December meeting with FDR, in which the president regaled the Jewish leaders for most of the time and not one concrete rescue proposal was advanced, Wise disbanded the JEC. By the Pittsburgh Conference of Jewish organizations the next month, rescue was again on the backburner. The original invitation spoke only of "the post-War status of Jews and the building of a Jewish Palestine." Only Orthodox protests succeeded in placing rescue on the agenda.
At the American Jewish Conference at the end of August, 1943, nearly a year after Roosevelt had confirmed the substance of the Riegner and Sternbuch cables, the major resolutions passed all dealt with Silver's call for the creation of a Jewish state. Rescue was mentioned in only the most general terms.
There is no gainsaying Wyman's conclusion "that during the Holocaust the leadership of American Zionism (the best organized segment of American Jewry) concentrated its major force on the drive for a future Jewish state in Palestine. It consigned rescue to a distinctly secondary position."
Worse, internecine Zionist feuding substantially impeded some of the most promising rescue activities. In March, 1943, the Revisionist Zionists mounted a pageant at Madison Square Garden, starring Edward G. Robinson and Paul Muni, entitled "We Will Never Die," to dramatize the plight of European Jewry. It drew arecord crowd of 40,000, and 60,000 in five other cities. Mainstream Jewish organizations, however, pressured local sponsors to withdraw support, and it was not performed again.
After the October 6, 1943 march of 400 Orthodox rabbis on Washington, Congress began debating a Revisionist-sponsored Rescue Resolution calling for the US government to establish a body charged with saving the remaining Jews of Europe. Again mainstream Zionist groups, fearful of Revisionist influence, worked behind the scenes to scuttle the Rescue Resolution. To head off passage of the resolution, FDR announced in January 1944, the creation of the War Refugee Board, which, despite continued State Department obstructionism, succeeded in saving between 100,000 and 200,000 Jews by the end of the War.
Admittedly it was never in the cards for American Jewry to save most of the Jews still alive as of 1943, given British and American concern that Hitler would actually release the millions of Jews under his power and saddle the West with millions of unwanted Jews. But had mainstream leaders shared the absolute commitment to rescue as the highest imperative of Orthodox activists in America and Europe - a commitment which allowed no defeatism and caused them to explore every opportunity - hundreds of thousands more might have been spared. Certainly it would not have taken 16 months from the receipt of the Riegner cable to the establishment of the WRB. And once the WRB was created it would have had much more political support.
Zuroff charges that the Orthodox do not stand on Holocaust Remembrance Day out of embarrassment over their wartime failures. If so, one wonders, who can stand.