During a recent trip to Rwanda, former president Bill Clinton lamented his failure in 1994 to intervene in that country’s genocidal massacres. “I don’t think we could have ended the violence, but I think we could have cut it down. And I regret it.”
Clinton, perhaps in atonement, has helped raise money to build the Kilgali Genocide Memorial Center.
Clinton’s hindsight regret is relevant to a debate I recently had with another genocide memorial institution, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The debate concerned my book about the epic battle in 1943 between the Treasury and State departments over a plan by the World Jewish Congress to rescue tens of thousands of Romanian Jews trapped in the hellish land of Transnistria in the Nazi-occupied Ukraine.
The patrician diplomats in the State Department blocked the rescue while the middle class lawyers in the Treasury Department (all Christians) fought for it. The battle led directly to the formation of the War Refugee Board in early 1944, which is credited with rescuing 200,000 Jews, including surviving Transnistrian Jews.
In a critique, the museum’s historians disputed my book’s criticism of the State Department. Ordinarily, authors don’t direct readers to a negative review but because this one was so heavily dependent on a hindsight analysis to justify a failure to rescue (the opposite of President Clinton’s hindsight regrets), that is just what I am doing.
Now, the museum’s website displays remarks by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner at the 2012 National Day of Remembrance ceremony in Washington. He described how “State Department officials were systematically undermining efforts to save Jews in Europe” including in Transnistria, and “blocking the spread of information about the Holocaust.”
Without contesting these facts, the museum’s critique argued that the rescue would never have succeeded because, at least based on more recent information about “machinations” in Europe, the “Germans were stringing the Allies along . . .without any intention of freeing the Jews.”
Further, “the overwhelming majority of Jews who died in Transnistria were already dead” by the time rescue was proposed; there were limited “available resources,” such as ships, with which to transport the Jews from Transnistria; and an “evacuation by sea” would have exposed “Jews who would survive the war to lethal danger from German or Soviet submarines in the Black Sea.”
My response was that when the War Refugee Board finally was established, its agents overcame German resistance and rescued more than 50,000 surviving Transnistrian Jews. Enough shipping was available because the Board, as Secretary Geithner pointed out, “helped purchase boats to ferry thousands of refugees out of Romania.”
Jews, warned of the risks in advance, were ready to board any ship to get out of Transnistria (or anywhere else in the hell that was occupied Europe). Not all of the “Jews who would die” were already dead. At least 7,500 more died in 1943 during the Cabinet battle over rescue and the survivors endured much suffering. When Jewish orphans finally were rescued, they raised their hands to protect their faces as if expecting beatings.
The museum’s historians are well-credentialed scholars dedicated to Holocaust studies. But, as I argued, their hindsight analysis was flawed because the necessity of rescuing Jews from the Holocaust was not a sliding scale that rose or fell on a Jew’s odds of survival, even if such odds could have been calculated then. Nor should the difficulty of rescue have relieved the State Department of its humanitarian obligations, an inherent implication of the historians’ analysis.
That’s why the museum’s critique sounded eerily like the State Department’s do-nothing arguments in 1943 at one meeting with a Treasury lawyer that “It would be probably be impossible to work out satisfactory arrangements with the Romanian authorities. German consent would not be forthcoming. The Turkish government has refused entry to Jewish refugees.”
In the final analysis, no humanitarian intervention would ever be undertaken if it required proof in advance that, absent rescue, the victims will die (or, at least, more than 7,500 will perish), deems suffering short of death irrelevant, and requires an absence of risk and certainty of success. Of course, those conditions never existed in Nazi-occupied Europe. The Treasury lawyers battled the State Department over rescue because they understood that, since both lives and core American values (if not American honor) were at stake, no matter the obstacles, this country had to at least try to rescue Jewish victims of genocide.