Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Franklin D. Roosevelt

*Editor’s Note: This is part XXIV in a series. You can read Part XXIII, here  

Arthur Morse, The New York Times, Congress Weekly and the Forward reported that on December 8, 1942  President Roosevelt received a delegation of prominent Jewish leaders, who handed him a 20-page  country-by-country analysis of the annihilation entitled “Blue Print for Extermination.” Roosevelt expressed his profound shock to learn that two million Jews had already died. The delegation appealed for action to stop the Nazi massacres and urged the US to appoint a commission to investigate the atrocities committed against civilian populations and shared with the conscience of the world. Roosevelt said the Allies were “doing everything possible to ascertain who are personally guilty.”  As the meeting came to a close, the question Wise asked “what would victory mean to the dead” was never answered. 

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Morse asked “but beyond the issue of human survival lay other fundamental questions. What would the effect of Allied disinterest be on the captive peoples of Europe who might shelter the oppressed at the risk of their own lives…on Axis troops weighing the  commission of atrocities…or on churchmen in Nazi-occupied lands wrestling with consciences…or on German commanders contemplating their own futures?” 

Having decided not to oppose Allied policy, the most American Jews could hope for was a joint statement by the Allies condemning the extermination of European Jewry, and other declarations of support and sympathy. The Allied declaration was issued on December 17, 1943. Pope Pius the XII added his own prayer in his Christmas Message on December 24, 1942. 

Jan Karski Meeting with President Roosevelt 

Roosevelt should not have been surprised. On July 28, 1943, Jan Karski, a member of the Polish underground resistance movement, and Jan Ciechanowski, the Polish ambassador in exile, met with Roosevelt to inform him of his firsthand account of the Nazi effort to destroy the Jews of Europe. In Story of a Secret State Karski said he was told Roosevelt “wanted to hear from me personally about the events in Poland and occupied Europe.” The president was “amazingly well informed about Poland,” Karski said, “and wanted still more information. His questions were minute, detailed and directed squarely at important points. He asked me to verify the stories about the German practices against the Jews.”  

Karski also provided information gained by visiting the Warsaw Ghetto twice and by posing as a guard at Izbica, a transit camp, where he witnessed masses of Jews being primed to be deported to concentration camps. Walter Laqueur said one of Karski’s most significant points he made to Roosevelt concerned the Final Solution:  “The unprecedented destruction of the entire Jewish population is not motivated by Germany’s military requirement. Hitler and his subordinates aim at the total destruction of the Jews before the war ends and regardless of its outcome. The Allied governments cannot disregard this reality.  The Jews in Poland are helpless. They have no country of their own. They have no independent voice in the Allied councils. They cannot rely on the Polish underground or population-at-large. They might save some individuals—they are unable to stop the extermination. Only the powerful Allied governments can help effectively.”  

This information was shared with many individuals and institutions in the US. This included the State and Justice Departments, writers, newspapermen and women, and Catholic and Jewish leaders including Nachum Goldmann, Stephen Wise, Samuel Margoshes, and many others. Karski also met with US Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, accompanied by Frankfurter’s friend, Jan Ciechanowski. Walter Laqueur writes that when Karski told Frankfurter of his experience, the judge responded, “I can’t believe you.” Ciechanowski told Frankfurter Karski represented the Polish Government, and he was telling the truth Frankfurter said: “I did not say this young man is lying, I said I cannot believe him. There is a difference.” Either Frankfurter found the thought of Jews being killed in this fashion inconceivable or he knew that if he acknowledged the systematic destruction, he would have to act publicly in their defense. 

The delegation appealed for action to stop the Nazi massacres and urged the US to appoint a commission to investigate the atrocities committed against civilian populations and shared with the conscience of the world. Roosevelt said the Allies were “doing everything possible to ascertain who is personally guilty.”  As the meeting came to a close, the question Wise asked “what would victory mean to the dead” was never answered. 

Morse asked “but beyond the issue of human survival lay other fundamental questions. What would the effect of Allied disinterest be on the captive peoples of Europe who might shelter the oppressed at the risk of their own lives…on Axis troops weighing the  commission of atrocities…or on churchmen in Nazi-occupied lands wrestling with consciences…or on German commanders contemplating their own futures?” 

Having decided not to oppose Allied policy, the most American Jews could hope for was a joint statement by the Allies condemning the extermination of European Jewry and other declarations of support and sympathy. The Allied declaration was issued on December 17, 1943. Pope Pius the XII added his own prayer in his Christmas Message on December 24, 1942. 

The Joint Declaration by Members of the United Nations against Extermination of Jews December 17, 1942 

“The attention of the Governments of Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, the United States of America, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and Yugoslavia and of the French National Committee “condemn in the strongest possible terms this bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination. They declare that such events can only strengthen the resolve of all freedom-loving peoples to overthrow the barbarous Hitlerite tyranny. They re-affirm their solemn resolution to ensure that those responsible for these crimes shall not escape retribution, and to press on with the necessary practical measures to this end.” 

 Pope Pius the XII’s Christmas Message on December 24, 1942 

In the Pope’s Christmas Message on December 24, 1942, he declared, “Mankind owes that vow [of bringing back society to the center of gravity, which is the law of G-d]  to the hundreds of thousands of persons, who without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or a slow decline.” 

US State Department Annoyed  by Public Pressure and Protest 

In his autobiography Challenging Years, Wise wrote that Riegner continued to send information to the State Department, some of which was forwarded to him. On January 19, 1943, Riegner reported that Jews in Poland were being murdered at the rate of six thousand a day. After being inundated by public pressure and protests, the State Department decided to find a way to stop the harassment. Wise quotes  Henry Morgenthau, Jr. secretary of the treasury, who wrote in his diary, how the State Department “tried to shut off the pressure by shutting off the source of the flow of information which nourished it.”  A few days after Riegner’s cable arrived at the State Department on January 21, 1943, (cable 354)Leland Harrison was instructed, according to Morgenthau, “not to send back any more of Riegner’s information—any more stories of atrocities which might provoke more mass meetings and more public protest.”  

The cable was signed by Welles, although it is clear he knew nothing about the request based on his “well-known record on the subject.” Furthermore, on April 10, he cabled Leland Harrison for additional information from Riegner. Harrison replied that such critical information should not be subjected to the constraints imposed by cable 354.  

Wise noted the “crime of the bureaucrats, however, was far more serious than the attempt to withhold information.” In early 1943, Riegner informed them that approximately 70,000 Jews in France and Rumania could be saved, and a number of Polish Jews fled to Hungary, where the Germans had not yet begun a coordinated effort to destroy the Jews if funds could be sent to Switzerland. The money would be deposited in banks under the names of Nazi officials, where it could be withdrawn only after the war. Funds were available Wise said, however, they needed government approval and consent to transfer the money.  

An initial approach had been made to meet Roosevelt, but it was not until July 22, that Wise went to the White House. “The President’s immediate response astonished me and delighted me,” Wise said. “Stephen,” Roosevelt said, “Why don’t you go ahead and do it?” Roosevelt picked up the phone and told Henry Morgenthau, Jr, “This a very fair proposal which Stephen makes…”  

Not until December 18 did the State Department issue instructions that a foreign funds license be issued to Gerhart Riegner-“five full months after the same license had been approved by the President of the United States, and the Secretary of the Treasury [italics in the original]. “Let history, therefore record for all time,” Wise declared, “that were it not for[US] State Department and [British] Foreign Office bureaucratic bungling and callousness, thousands of lives might have been saved and the Jewish catastrophe partially averted.”  

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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.