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The State Department’s Shameful Past


Recently, the Romanian government unveiled a long overdue memorial to the 300,000 Romanian Jews and Roma who perished in World War II at the hands of their own government and the Nazis. Unfortunately, the U.S. State Department, whose wartime diplomats doomed tens of thousands of the Romanian Jews commemorated by the memorial, has yet to acknowledge its own role in the Romanian Holocaust.

During the war, the Romanian government forced hundreds of thousands of Romanian Jewish men, women and children out of their homes and made them march hundreds of miles to the killing fields of Transnistria, where the survivors were expected to die from cold, disease or starvation. A gift from Hitler to his Romanian ally, Transnistria was a grotesque chunk of land carved out of the Nazi-occupied Ukraine.

Romania turned it into the world’s largest concentration camp. In one Transnistrian town, tens of thousands of the deported Jews had to live in just a few hundred small houses made of clay, many in ruins from bombing and shelling.

“As to the Jews,” the Romanian leader, Marshal Ion Antonescu, told officials of his government, “I have taken measures to remove them entirely once and for all from these regions [of Romania]. If I do not purify the Romanian nation, then I have achieved nothing.”

In early 1943, the German army and its allies suffered a devastating defeat at the battle of Stalingrad. The Romanian army alone had 160,000 casualties. Antonescu, no longer confident about the outcome of the war and seeking to ease harsh peace terms, offered to allow the surviving Transnistrian Jews to emigrate to Palestine (after the war the Russians executed him anyway). The Romanian government requested $50 per Jew as a bribe.

By mid-1943, Jewish groups in the United States and Switzerland had put together an elaborate rescue plan, including escrowing the bribe monies in blocked Swiss bank accounts, and managed to get it before FDR.

“This is a very fair proposal,” FDR told his secretary of the treasury, who then issued the necessary license for the Jewish groups to transfer private funds for the rescue. Roosevelt assured them that “the matter is now awaiting a further exchange of cables between the State Department and our mission in Bern regarding some of the details.”

But very few Jews, blacks or women served in the wartime State Department and the few who did were largely relegated to backwater posts. The State Department bureaucracy was run by a cadre of diplomats who were callous toward Jewish suffering far beyond even the anti-Semitic norms of the era. Their elite, cloistered upbringings had cut them off from the ethnically divergent American mainstream and imbued them with a deep-rooted sense of Anglo-Saxon superiority, a “don’t rock the boat” mentality, and disdain for Jews and other minorities.

Whatever nerves transmit normal human empathy had simply atrophied in these officials. And, like all good bureaucrats, as one Washington journalist observed, these diplomats were “masters of the negative, the gentle objection, the postponement, the misplaced paper, the need for further consideration.”

The diplomats argued that the British would never permit the Transnistrian Jews, whom they termed “enemy aliens,” to emigrate to Palestine and therefore there was no place to put the dying Jews. After the American mission in Switzerland reported to the State Department on the Jewish massacres in Europe and on the plight of the Transnistrian Jews – “60,000 had already died and 70,000 were starving … living conditions indescribable” – the State Department dispatched a cable directing the mission to stop sending any reports about the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews, told inquiring U.S. senators that there was no foundation to the Romanian offer, and refused even to forward the Treasury Department license to the Jewish groups.

In late 1943, young, middle-class Christian lawyers at the Treasury Department, tough-minded bureaucratic infighters dedicated to the defeat of Nazi Germany, discovered the State Department’s sabotage of the Transnistrian rescue and cover-up of the Nazi extermination plan. They described the State Department officials as “an underground movement to let the Jews be killed,” “vicious men” who were “accomplices of Hitler,” and “war criminals in every sense of the term.”

In memoranda, the young lawyers explicitly accused the State Department of “willful attempts to prevent action from being taken to rescue Jews from Hitler,” effectively charging their own government with complicity in genocide.

Their morally redeeming outrage (and their direct threat to go public) eventually forced FDR to take refugee and rescue affairs away from the State Department. The new rescue agency, the War Refugee Board, which is generally credited with saving 200,000 Jewish lives in occupied Europe, did help to get thousands of Jews out of Transnistria. Had the U.S. acted earlier, tens of thousands more Romanian Jews would have survived.

Short of defeating Nazi Germany, the U.S. had no means to rescue most of the Jews who ultimately perished in concentration camps such as Auschwitz. But that was not true of the Transnistrian Jews and therefore their plight became a morally defining moment. The State Department should acknowledge its shameful past by creating its own memorial to the Romanian Holocaust victims. The memorial would not simply be an act of expiation, but rather a permanent reminder that, as the Talmudic saying goes, “To save one life is as if you have saved the world.”

About the Author: Gregory J. Wallance is a lawyer and writer in New York City and a long-time human rights activist. His most recent book is “America’s Soul in the Balance: The Holocaust, FDR’s State Department, and the Moral Disgrace of An American Aristocracy.”


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