Eighty years ago, in January 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. Barely a month later Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated president of the United States. For the next twelve years, until their deaths eighteen days apart in April 1945, they personified the horrors of dictatorship and the blessings of democracy.
Hitler remains the incarnation of evil. But it is no small irony that Roosevelt, renowned for the humane vision expressed in his “Four Freedoms” address to Congress, has come under increasing scrutiny – and criticism – for his abandonment of those chosen by Hitler for annihilation.
The ghastly horrors of the “Final Solution” have been extensively documented. Its six million Jewish victims are widely memorialized in death as their fate was everywhere ignored while they were alive.
We know, for example, that news of the Holocaust was “Buried by The Times,” (the title of Laurel Leff’s piercing account of the determination of New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger to exclude the systematic slaughter of Jews from news that was “fit to print” in his newspaper).
There is continuing, often acrimonious, debate among historians over the acquiescence of State Department officials, Roosevelt’s Jewish advisers, and the president himself in obstructing the rescue of desperate Jewish refugees. Among the more disturbing questions that still requires exploration, as painful as it might be, is the acquiescence of American Jews in Roosevelt’s indifference to the plight of millions of persecuted, imperiled, then relentlessly slaughtered, Jews in Europe.
The two great waves of Jewish immigration to the United States – from Germany in the mid-19th century and Eastern Europe around the turn of the 20th century – accounted for nearly five million American Jews by 1940. They hardly comprised a single unified bloc – religious, social, or cultural. But despite their internal differences and disagreements they shared the fierce determination to demonstrate their loyalty as Americans to the United States and to its elected leaders. That would determine their response, or failure to respond, to what historian David Wyman aptly labeled “the abandonment of the Jews” by the president and his government between 1933 and 1945.
The formative proclamation of American Jewish loyalty came from Louis D. Brandeis, long revered as the American Isaiah. Too Jewish for the Boston Brahmins among whom he practiced law, he was viewed by the respected banker and philanthropist Jacob Schiff as insufficiently Jewish for a position in Woodrow Wilson’s Cabinet. Brandeis acknowledged he had been “to a great extent separated from Jews. I am very ignorant in things Jewish.” It was his stature as a liberal reformer that qualified him for Jewish leadership. His opportunity came when World War I severely impeded the work of the European Zionist movement.
In his memorable definition of Zionism as Americanism, Brandeis proclaimed: “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.” Bridging the gap between Jewish and American loyalties, his non sequitur enabled Brandeis to become the revered leader of American Zionism. He unerringly identified, and instantly obliterated, the conflict of divided loyalty that tormented American Jews then and has continued to do so ever since.
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Among those who were inspired by Brandeis’s synthesis was the Budapest-born Reform rabbi and progressive reformer Stephen S. Wise, who eventually became tortured by competing claims on his loyalty. Like Brandeis, he was determined to fuse Zionism and Americanism. He embraced Zionism as the modern national affirmation of the striving for social justice proclaimed by the ancient Hebrew prophets and as the Jewish expression of American liberal values. In time, however, Wise came to personify the American Jewish dilemma of divided loyalty.
Wise was instantly attentive to the menace of Nazism. Urging a Jewish boycott of Nazi Germany in 1933, he declared: “The time for prudence and caution is past. We must speak up like men.” But he had his doubts about the new president. After Roosevelt’s nomination Wise had complained to Felix Frankfurter: “There are no deep-seated convictions…. He is all clay and no granite.” The more concerned that Wise became over the Nazi danger to German Jews, the more he despaired over Roosevelt’s failure to respond to it.