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October 20, 2014 / 26 Tishri, 5775
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Rafael Medoff’

The Jewish Vote And The 1948 Election

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

THE JEWISH VOTE, THE HOLOCAUST AND ISRAEL
A conference sponsored by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies Fordham U. Law School
140 West 62 St. (between Columbus Ave. & Amsterdam Ave.)

Sunday, September 23 – 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
featuring Mayor Ed Koch, Prof. David Wyman and other prominent speakers
Info: 202-434-8994 or www.WymanInstitute.org

* * * * *

Bob Weintraub chuckled appreciatively the first time he heard that Barack Obama described his job before he went into politics as “community organizer.”

Bob knows a thing or two about community organizing: during the late 1940s, he helped organize a series of remarkable grassroots election campaigns in New York City that sent a powerful warning to President Harry Truman about the Jewish community’s unhappiness over his administration’s waffling on Zionism.

The story of Jewish activists who used local elections to influence America’s Mideast policy in the 1940s resonates strongly this election season – especially after Jewish voters in New York played such a crucial role in the unprecedented election of a Republican to fill Congressman Anthony Weiner’s old seat last September.

Weintraub grew up in Brooklyn’s East New York neighborhood and attended Thomas Jefferson High School during the politically tumultuous 1930s. “It was like a yeshiva in those days – 95 percent Jewish,” he told me in a recent interview. “But most of the Jewish kids had very little interest in Zionism or other Jewish concerns.”

As a result, a handful of students affiliated with the pro-Communist American Student Union and led by future historian Howard Zinn exercised disproportionate influence on campus. “Our teachers sometimes organized debates on issues of the day, such as disarmament, or the role of the federal government,” Weintraub recalled. “Usually Howard represented one side, and I represented the other.”

The events of the Hitler years convinced Weintraub that a Jewish state was the only solution for the Jews. “I was struck by photos in the newspapers of bearded, elderly Jews being forced to scrub the streets of Vienna, while crowds laughed and cheered,” he remembered. “I realized these kinds of outrages would never end unless the Jews had their own country.”

Most of his fellow students were “apathetic,” he said. “Even when news of the mass killings started reaching us, not many people seemed terribly concerned.”

“My parents were immigrants from Galicia,” he noted. “They corresponded regularly with their parents and siblings, who were still in Europe. As the years wore on, the letters from Europe told of things getting worse and worse for the Jews. And then at a certain point, the letters stopped coming.”

Eventually he learned that his father’s and his grandmother’s brothers and sisters, along with their spouses and children, were all murdered by the Germans and their Ukrainian collaborators.

Drafted in 1943, Weintraub was sent by the U.S. Army to Mississippi for infantry training before eventually being shipped out to Germany following the Battle of the Bulge.

* * * * *

When Weintraub returned home to East New York in the spring of 1946, he found a Jewish community engulfed in political turmoil.

The press was filled with stories about the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors in European Displaced Persons camps, waiting for permission to go to Eretz Yisrael. U.S. envoy Earl Harrison had recently returned from a visit to the camps and reported that the DPs suffered from inadequate medical care, shelter, food, and clothing. Some had nothing to wear but German SS uniforms. Conditions were so poor, Harrison asserted, “we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them.”

The overwhelming majority of the DPs wanted to go to Israel, but the British White Paper of 1939 had shut the country’s gates to all but a handful of Jews, and London showed no signs of relenting.

American Jews, Weintraub found, were deeply shaken as they came to grips with the full extent of the Holocaust. “People watched the newsreel footage in the movie houses of Allied troops liberating the death camps,” he pointed out. “They saw the piles of dead bodies. They were in anguish over what they were seeing. And more than a few felt guilty – and rightly so – that they had voted 90% percent for Roosevelt in 1944 as if nothing had happened.”

Honoring The Memory Of Jan Karski

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

By the time he was 26, Jan Karski had been imprisoned by the Soviets, tortured by the Gestapo, and nearly drowned while escaping from a hospital in German-occupied Slovakia.

Had he chosen then to end his service in the World War II-era Polish underground, few would have challenged his decision. Instead, he to chose to risk his life again, to bring news about Hitler’s mass murder of European Jewry to the outside world.

At a White House ceremony on May 29, Karski was awarded, posthumously, a Presidential Medal of Freedom for his courage and sacrifice, and taking action when, as President Obama recently said, “so many others stood silent.”

Karski, a Polish Catholic, was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, as the Nazis were deporting hundreds of thousands of Warsaw’s Jews to the gas chambers of Treblinka. Walking through the ghetto, he saw corpses piled in the gutter, emaciated children clothed in rags, dazed men and women slumped against decrepit buildings.

At one point, gunfire erupted and Karski’s comrades pulled him into a nearby apartment. He saw two uniformed teenagers with pistols in the street. “They are here for the ‘Jew hunt,’ ” Karski was told. For sport, Hitler Youth members would venture into the Jewish part of the city and shoot people at random.

Days later, Karski and a compatriot, disguised as Ukrainian militiamen, took a six-hour train ride to a site in southeastern Poland called Izbica. It was a “sorting station”; when Jews were shipped to a death camp, Karski learned, the Germans would first take them to Izbica, rob them of their last belongings, and then send them off to the gas chambers.

Having seen hell on earth, Kaski now was determined to alert the world to what he had witnessed. His life in danger at every step, he traveled by train across occupied Belgium, Germany, and France. Thanks to an injection from a sympathetic dentist that swelled his jaw, Karski was able to avoid conversation that might have revealed his Polish identity. He hiked across the Pyrenees into Spain, and from there traveled to London.

Karski was able to secure a meeting with British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, but Eden showed little interest in Karski’s account of the slaughter of the Jews. The prime minister, Winston Churchill, was said to be too busy to see him at all. Karski did succeed in generating a number of sympathetic reports in the British press and on BBC Radio.

The enterprising young Pole arrived in the United States in July 1943. One of his first meetings was with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Karski described the Warsaw Ghetto, the Izbica transit station, and the systematic annihilation of European Jewry. Frankfurter’s response: “I am unable to believe you.”

On July 28, the young Polish courier met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the Oval Office, for more than an hour. Karski began by describing the activities of the Polish underground. The president listened with fascination, asked questions and offered unsolicited advice, some of it a bit eccentric – such as his idea of putting skis on small airplanes to fly underground messengers between England and Poland during the winter. But when Karski related details of the mass killings of the Jews, Roosevelt had nothing to say. The president was, as Karski politely put it, “rather noncommittal.”

Roosevelt seemed to view the suffering of the Jews as just another unfortunate aspect of what civilians suffer in every war. He did not believe it was justified for the U.S. to use its resources to rescue Jews from the Nazis. And he did not want hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees on his hands, clamoring to be admitted to the United States.

Although disheartened by his encounter with the president, Karski did not give up. He authored a harrowing first-person account of the situation in Hitler’s Europe, “Story of a Secret State,” and spent much of 1945 delivering hundreds of lectures around the United States about his experiences.

In the waning days of World War II, Karski was called upon for one last mission – this time, for Herbert Hoover.

The former president feared the new Soviet-backed regimes in Eastern Europe would confiscate, alter, or destroy documents relating to the activities of the governments-in-exile that had fled to London when the Nazis invaded. The Kremlin had every incentive to delegitimize the regimes they had supplanted. Hoover recognized that the documents would be a crucial source of information about the exiles’ wartime efforts, including their attempts to publicize the plight of the Jews and promote rescue. So he enlisted Karski to save the historical record.

Letters To The Editor

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

Jews And Obama (I)
I was alarmed by the report that a majority of American Jews support President Obama for reelection in November (“With Election Six Months Away, Obama Still Leads Among Jews,” front page news story, May 4).

It is difficult for me to understand how American Jews could be taken in by the president. As you have noted in your editorials for many months, there is little to suggest that his sharp about-face on the Middle East was dictated by anything other than his fear of losing the support of the Jewish community and other supporters of Israel.

Should he end up being reelected with the support of the Jewish community and indeed revert back to his past positions on the Middle East, we will have only ourselves to blame.
Richard Wilner
(Via E-Mail)

 

Jews And Obama (II)
It may be an uncomfortable reality for those of us in the Orthodox community to accept, but most non-Orthodox Jews have never shared our vision of a greater Israel beyond the Green Line. They are therefore comforted by Obama’s constant refrain of his “rock solid” commitment to Israel’s security – even though that commitment does not necessarily refer to East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

And of course the vast majority of American Jews support the liberal agenda of the Democratic Party. So despite the constant – and indeed mindless – demonization of Obama on many Orthodox blogs and websites, most of our fellow Jews will happily vote for him in November. And then we’ll realize just how small and relatively insignificant a force we are in national politics.
Miriam Adelman
Los Angeles, CA

 

Jews And Obama (III)
If Obama wins a second term he will be free to restart his attacks on Israel, decimate the economy and military and pursue his stated goal to “fundamentally transform” America.

Obama enjoys the support of almost every Jewish politician and a majority of American Jews despite his clear hostility to Israel and the damage he has done to the interests of Jews and all other productive, working Americans.

Jews who support a president who is a danger to Israel and wants to fundamentally transform the best country in history for Jews exhibit a profound self-destructive mental pathology that defies logic and understanding.
George Rubin
New York, NY

 

Wiesel And Obama
It is not surprising that Elie Wiesel would say nothing about President Obama’s homogenizing the Holocaust but bend over backward to create the false impression that Prime Minister Netanyahu did the same thing and criticize him for it (“Wiesel Versus Netanyahu,” editorial, May 4.)

Wiesel, for all his gravitas and dues he has paid, has long been a Democratic Party partisan. Only recently he called upon Mitt Romney to condemn the Mormon practice of posthumously baptizing Jews. It is a deplorable practice, to be sure, but what does Romney have to do with it? He is a presidential candidate who happens to be a Mormon, not “The Mormon Candidate.” Why do I believe Wiesel was trying to make the American public uncomfortable with Romney’s faith?

I don’t recall Wiesel calling on candidate Obama to denounce the Reverend Wright or criticizing Obama for being Wright’s devoted parishioner for more than 20 years.
Max Greenstein
(Via E-Mail)

 

Pollard And Peres (I)
Last week’s Pollard editorial (“The Pollard Petition”) pointed to an interesting anomaly. President Shimon Peres is soon to be presented with America’s highest civilian award by President Obama, doubtless with great rhetoric. Yet someone who spied for Israel during Peres’s term as Israel’s prime minister will continue to languish in jail unless Obama grants him a pardon, something he and his predecessors have refused to do despite calls for the same from many former high U.S. government and elected officials.

If the spying episode, for which the former prime minister is ultimately responsible since it happened on his watch, is not considered reason enough to deny Peres such great honor, why is it considered reason enough to keep the hapless Pollard in jail?
Saul Kaminer
(Via E-Mail)

 

Pollard And Peres (II)
I’m not sure I understand the logic of petitioning Israeli President Shimon Peres to do more to persuade President Obama to release Jonathan Pollard. Peres has done much on Pollard’s behalf, as has Prime Minister Netanyahu, all to no avail.

The resistance to freeing Pollard has come from several U.S. presidents and American defense and intelligence bureaucrats.

Yes, the continued incarceration of Pollard under a life sentence is unprecedented given his spying for an ally of the United States and is grossly disproportionate to the sentences meted out to spies who pleaded guilty to the level of crime he committed. And it is all too often overlooked that Pollard did not plead guilty to espionage, but to stealing classified documents, a much lesser crime. But what does any of that have to do with Israeli leaders?
Asher Weinberg
Jerusalem

Benzion Netanyahu’s Role In American Politics

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

Benzion Netanyahu – historian, one-time political activist and father of Israel’s prime minister – died Monday in Jerusalem at 102. An accomplished scholar and the patriarch of one of Israel’s most important political families, he also played a surprising and little-known role in American political history.

Netanyahu was born in Poland in 1910 to a family deeply immersed in the world of religious Zionism. His father, Rabbi Nathan Mileikowsky, a popular Zionist preacher, brought the family to British-ruled Palestine in 1920. He Hebraicized the family name to Netanyahu.

In the wake of the Palestinian Arab riots of 1929, Netanyahu was attracted to the militant wing of the Zionist movement, Revisionist Zionism, headed by Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky. His literary talents were recognized early on, and he served as editor-in-chief of the Revisionist newspaper HaYarden in the 1930s.

In 1940, Jabotinsky sent several of his leading disciples, including Netanyahu and future Knesset member Hillel Kook (better known as Peter Bergson), to the United States to seek funds and public support for the rescue of Europe’s Jews and creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

“It was a brand new world for us,” Netanyahu told me in one of my interviews with him. “I had never been to America. But I had to learn quickly – there was no time. The world of European Jewry was going up in flames.”

Netanyahu became executive director of the U.S. wing of the Revisionist Zionist movement and editor of its magazine, Zionews. His essays were notable for their passion, political insights and high level of fluency in a language he only recently had mastered. One 1944 editorial criticized mainstream Jewish leaders as “too cautious, too appeasing, and too ready to swallow the meaningless statements of sympathy that [are] issued from high places.”

Bergson and Netanyahu employed tactics not commonly used by the American Jewish community at the time, including placing full-page advertisements in The New York Times and other newspapers. Some of the ads challenged the Roosevelt administration’s stance on refugees. Others took aim at the British government’s White Paper policy of closing Palestine to Jewish immigration. One that Netanyahu authored was headlined “The White Paper Must Be Smashed, if Millions of Jews are to be Saved!”

Netanyahu divided his time between Revisionist headquarters in New York City and Capitol Hill, where he sought to mobilize congressional backing for the Zionist cause. At the time, mainstream Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Stephen S. Wise were strong supporters of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and stayed away from the Republicans. Netanyahu, by contrast, actively cultivated ties to prominent Republicans such as former president Herbert Hoover, as well as dissident Democrats such as Sen. Elbert Thomas of Utah, a Mormon.

In 1944, Netanyahu sought to have the Republican Party endorse Jewish rescue and statehood.

In the months leading up to that year’s Republican national convention, the Revisionists undertook what they called “a systematic campaign of enlightenment” about Palestine among GOP leaders such as Hoover, Sen. Robert Taft, who chaired the convention’s resolutions committee, and Rep. Clare Booth Luce, wife of the publisher of Time and Life magazines.

The GOP adopted an unprecedented plank demanding “refuge for millions of distressed Jewish men, women, and children driven from their homes by tyranny” and the establishment of a “free and democratic” Jewish state. The Republicans’ move compelled the Democrats to compete for Jewish support and treat the Jewish vote as if it were up for grabs. The Democratic National Convention, which was held the following month in Chicago, for the first time endorsed “unrestricted Jewish immigration and colonization” of Palestine and the establishment of “a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth.”

These events helped ensure that support for Zionism and later Israel would become a permanent part of American political culture. Every subsequent Republican and Democratic convention has adopted a similar plank. To do less became politically inconceivable.

In recent years, pundits have speculated on the extent to which Benzion Netanyahu may have influenced his son’s actions as prime minister. While it is difficult to draw a direct connection between father and son on specific policy matters, there is a parallel in their efforts to cultivate support for Israel on both sides of the political aisle.

While working as a political activist in the 1940s, Benzion Netanyahu also managed to complete a doctorate in medieval Jewish history at Dropsie College in Philadelphia. He later taught Jewish history at Dropsie, and then at the University of Denver and Cornell University. Netanyahu’s magisterial study, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, widely considered a groundbreaking work in his field, was published in 1995. He spent time in both Israel and the United States over the years, returning to Israel permanently in 1976, the same year his son Yoni was killed while leading the Entebbe rescue operation.

The Mormon Senator Who Tried To Save Anne Frank

Wednesday, February 29th, 2012

The news that a Mormon temple in the Dominican Republic recently conducted a posthumous proxy baptism of Anne Frank, the most famous diarist of the Holocaust, undoubtedly will cause some offense in the Jewish community. Evidently the baptizers believe they were saving Anne’s soul. Of greater significance, however, is what Mormons tried to do to save Anne’s life.

Millions of Americans know the story of the German Jewish teenager who hid for more than two years in an Amsterdam attic until she and her family were discovered by the Nazis and sent to the death camps. Anne Frank’s heartbreaking diary is required reading in schools throughout the United States.

What was not known, until a few years ago, is that before they went into hiding, the Franks requested permission to immigrate to the United States but were turned away. Anne’s mother, Edith, wrote to a friend in 1939, “I believe that all Germany’s Jews are looking around the world, but can find nowhere to go.”

Immigration to the U.S. was determined by quotas that had been set up in the 1920s to reduce the number of “undesirable” immigrants – particularly Jews and Italians. Even those quotas were almost never filled because the Roosevelt administration imposed bureaucratic obstacles designed to disqualify visa applicants. As a result, during the Holocaust, only 10 percent of the quotas from Axis-controlled European countries were utilized – and nearly 190,000 quota places went unused.

Most Americans opposed more immigration. Fear of foreigners and the difficulties of the Great Depression hardened many hearts. But there were exceptions. One was the most famous and influential Mormon in America, Sen. William H. King, Democrat of Utah. In early 1939, refugee advocates in Congress proposed legislation to admit 20,000 German Jewish refugee children outside the quota system. One of the children who theoretically could have qualified to come to the U.S. under the bill was Anne Frank. Senator King supported the bill, although that meant defying most of his Democratic colleagues, as well as President Roosevelt.

Laura Delano Houghteling, a cousin of FDR and wife of the U.S. commissioner of immigration, typified opposition to the bill when she remarked that “Twenty thousand charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.”

Unfortunately, Houghteling’s sentiment carried the day. The legislation was buried. On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded the Netherlands and completed its conquest in five days. Trapped under the heel of the Nazi jackboot, the Franks and other Jews in Holland now found themselves in an increasingly desperate position.

Coincidentally, that same week in Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives held hearings on legislation sponsored by Senator King to open Alaska to European Jewish refugees. This bill, too, might have enabled Anne Frank and her family to come to America.

Sparsely populated and strategically located, Alaska was in urgent need of development. Immigrant laborers could serve a vital national purpose. The Labor Department and the Interior Department endorsed King’s bill. But President Roosevelt told Interior Secretary Harold Ickes he would support only a watered-down version of the plan in which just 10 percent of the workers would be Jews, so as “to avoid the undoubted criticism that we would be subjected to if there were an undue proportion of Jews.”

The State Department and anti-immigration groups strongly opposed using Alaska for the resettlement of any refugees, and Roosevelt soon dropped the whole idea. The bill went nowhere.

Meanwhile, throughout 1941, Otto Frank continued writing to American friends and relatives, and U.S. government officials, in the hope of securing permission for his family to immigrate.

Little did he know the Roosevelt administration was quietly inventing new ways to shut the nation’s doors even tighter. In the summer of 1941, the State Department began automatically disqualifying all visa applicants who had “close relatives” in occupied Europe – on the specious theory that the Nazis might hold the relatives as hostage to blackmail the emigrants into becoming Axis spies. (No such spies were ever discovered.)

The new regulation may have disqualified the Franks, since one of their “close relatives,” Anne’s paternal grandmother, Rosa Stern Hollander, was ill with cancer in late 1941 and probably would not have been able to make the cross-Atlantic journey.

William H. King concluded his Senate service in 1941 and returned to Utah having failed to open America’s doors to European Jewish refugees – but not for lack of trying. His state had few Jewish voters, and his party was largely against more immigration, but King was driven by his Mormon faith to aid the downtrodden. Another Mormon U.S. senator from Utah, Democrat Elbert Thomas, would soon pick up where King left off and help lead the campaign to rescue Jews from the Nazis in the 1940s.

Anne Frank occupies a special place in the hearts of Jews, and any affront to her memory naturally arouses Jewish ire. Some members of the Jewish community have even urged presidential candidate Mitt Romney, today America’s best-known Mormon, to speak out against posthumous baptisms of Holocaust victims.

The Mufti Influences An American Election

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

A Palestinian mufti has called for violence against Jews, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding Palestinian leaders disavow him and America’s presidential race could be affected.

That could be the lead sentence of a news report week before last.

Or from 1946.

Sixty-five years ago, another Palestinian mufti, another Netanyahu and another American presidential race likewise intersected in an unexpected round of high-stakes Middle East politics and diplomacy.

At the center of the current controversy is Sheik Muhammad Hussein, the mufti of Jerusalem, who is the Palestinian Authority’s senior religious official. In a recent speech Hussein, citing a traditional Islamic text, urged Arabs to “fight and kill the Jews.” Later he explained he was “only quoting the words of the Prophet Muhammad.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded by saying, “Whoever wants peace should not permit such incitement and should not allow calls to murder Jews.”

Hussein’s “morally heinous” statements, he added, were reminiscent of one of his predecessors, the mufti Amin el-Husseini, who fled to Germany in 1941 and collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust. Husseini’s pro-Nazi radio broadcasts were beamed from Berlin to the Arab world – including a March 1, 1944 tirade in which he exhorted his listeners, in language similar to that of last week’s controversy, to “Kill the Jews wherever you find them.”

What is not well known is the impact of the mufti on the 1948 U.S. presidential race.

In the aftermath of World War II and the revelations of the full extent of the Holocaust, American Jews and Christian Zionists pressed President Harry Truman to endorse creation of a Jewish state. Truman, fearful the U.S. would be dragged into sending “half a million troops” to Palestine, preferred to stay at arm’s length from the conflict.

But his political advisers saw trouble looming in the 1946 midterm congressional elections. New York State Democratic chairman Paul Fitzpatrick warned that if Truman failed to support Jewish statehood, “it would be useless for the Democrats to nominate a state ticket this fall.” And another longtime New York Democratic Party leader, Ed Flynn, predicted that if Truman backed down on Palestine, “the effects will be severely felt in November.”

Enter the mufti. In the waning days of World War II, Husseini made his way to France, where he was placed under house arrest. Yugoslavia indicted him for war crimes committed by members of an all-Muslim SS unit he organized in Bosnia, but did not seek his extradition. The French and the British, nervous about angering the Arab world, likewise took no action.

While Husseini was relaxing in his French villa, a series of exposes in the New York Post, PM and The Nation in early 1946 revealed new details of his wartime activities, including his sabotage of a prisoner exchange with the Germans that would have saved the lives of 4,000 Jewish children.

Furious American Jewish groups wanted Truman to intervene. The American Zionist Emergency Council sent the State Department a 13-page memo urging the United States to indict the mufti.

Another notable voice of protest was that of Benzion Netanyahu, the father of Israel’s current prime minister, who in the 1940s was director of the U.S. wing of the militant Revisionist Zionist movement. He sponsored large newspaper advertisements headlined “The Mufti Must Be Brought to Trial!” and featuring a photograph of Husseini meeting with Hitler. The administration ignored the protests.

To make matters worse, in May 1946, the mufti escaped to Cairo – with what seemed to be the connivance of the French and British – and promptly renewed his efforts to incite the Arabs in Palestine against the Jews. For American Jewish leaders, it was another sign that London, with Washington’s tacit support, was taking the Arabs’ side.

Even Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, usually the most pro-Truman voice in the Jewish leadership, publicly urged the president to “speak sharply and act decisively in relation to the [Palestine policy of] the British government.

Meanwhile, the Republicans were taking up the Zionist cause. In 1944, the GOP had adopted the first-ever platform plank endorsing Jewish statehood (which the Democrats then had to match). From 1945 to 1948, the likely contenders for the Republican nomination, Sen. Robert Taft and Gov. Thomas Dewey, repeatedly urged creation of a Jewish state and criticized the Truman administration for waffling on the issue.

The mufti’s escape and the revelations about his World War II activity were part of the tumultuous series of events in 1946-48 that helped inflame American Jewish voters against the Truman administration and, by association, the Democratic Party. It contributed to the Republican landslide in the 1946 midterm congressional elections (including the election of the first Republican senator from New York in 30 years) and the shocking defeat of Truman’s candidate in a congressional election in New York City in early 1948.

FDR and the ‘Voyage of the Damned’

Monday, November 14th, 2011

Miami Beach was certainly a fitting choice as the site for this month’s reunion of passengers from the ill-fated SS St. Louis, the ship of Jewish refugees that sailed from Nazi Germany in May 1939. As children, they gazed at the lights of Miami as the St. Louis hovered off the Florida coast, hoping desperately for permission to land.

In the 70 years since that tragic voyage, the story of the St. Louis has been told and retold, taught and studied, researched and pondered. It has been to Hollywood, in the 1976 film “Voyage of the Damned,” starring Faye Dunaway. It was the subject of a U.S. Senate resolution expressing remorse over what happened. It was featured in a full-page political cartoon in the Washington Post (by Art Spiegelman of “Maus” fame and this author). It was the focus of a project by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to trace the fate of each of the more than 900 passengers.

And it continues to fascinate historians – including an Israeli scholar who has uncovered a new document that sheds light on President Franklin Roosevelt’s attitude toward the St. Louis.

The Saddest Ship Afloat

Hans Fisher, today a professor at Rutgers University, grew up in the German city of Breslau. He still vividly remembers the torments he and other Jewish children endured there in the early years of the Hitler regime.

“When my friends and I would come out of our school building, members of the Hitler Youth would be waiting nearby,” he recalls. “They would chase us, and if they caught us, they would beat us.”

His father, George Fisher, was one of the tens of thousands of Jewish men arrested during the November 1938 Kristallnacht program and sent to concentration camps. After nearly two months in Buchenwald, George was released on condition he leave the country within two weeks. He secured a visa to Cuba and immediately upon his arrival there began making arrangements for Hans, his sister Ruth, and their mother to join him. They purchased tickets to sail on the SS St. Louis in May 1939.

Hans’s grandparents, Wolf and Emma Gottheimer, chose to stay behind.

“My grandfather was convinced that since four of his sons had given their lives for Germany in World War I, the Nazis would never persecute him,” Hans explains. “In fact, my grandparents had gone to Palestine in 1935, but then returned to Germany, to the shock and amazement of their friends.”

Hans’s grandparents would eventually perish in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

The two-week voyage from Hamburg to Havana proceeded without incident. “I was young, I was happy that we were getting away from Nazi Germany, I certainly couldn’t appreciate how tenuous our position was,” Hans says.

“When we reached Havana, all of our suitcases were brought up to the deck as we got ready to disembark. It was a terrible shock to be standing there by the rail, our suitcases in hand, and told we could not get off the ship.”

All but thirty of the passengers held documents granting them entry to Cuba as tourists, which they had purchased in Germany, at the astronomical sum of $500 each, from an unscrupulous Cuban government official. Cuba’s authorities, furious at the backroom profiteering and sensitive to domestic anti-Semitism, refused to recognize the validity of the entry documents.

The St. Louis remained in the Havana port for several days as officials of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee negotiated with Cuban leaders. Meanwhile, relatives of the passengers rented small boats and rowed close to the St. Louis, hoping to catch a glimpse of their loved ones.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/fdr-and-the-voyage-of-the-damned/2011/11/14/

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