Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise fought against the Bergson group which tried desperately to push American Jews to help European Jews caught in the Nazi death grip.

Rabbi Wise’s decision to delay publication of the Riegner report provoked severe criticism from his colleagues, contemporaries and scholars observed historian Zohar Segev. The extent of condemnation, Segev said, can be seen in the minutes and the debates of the first international Jewish conference held since World War II in November 1944. One thousand five hundred delegates attended the conference convened in Atlantic City, New Jersey under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress (WJC). They came from 26 countries, including Mandatory Palestine, South America, countries liberated from Nazi occupation, and from Jewish communities still under Nazi rule.  

Nahum Goldmann, a founder of the World Jewish Congress, appreciated the frustration and resentment this delay generated, but emphasized political discourse could not be conducted guided by such emotions. In Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew, Richard Breitman notes that other Jewish organizations followed Welles’s request as well. Under the circumstances, Wise’s decision was reasonable. Withholding publicity did not preclude Wise from publicizing other accounts of mass slaughter and sponsoring rallies. Breitman noted Wise spoke to Henry Morgenthau, Jr. about publicizing the report, and asked Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter to show it to the president. At Wise’s request, Segev said, the WJC representative in Europe informed Czechoslovakian president Edvard Beneš of the horrifying report they received from Switzerland. After the meeting, Jan Masaryk, representative of the Czechoslovakian Foreign Minister in exile, asked him to defer publicizing the information and not circulate it without reservation.  

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The Czechoslovakian leaders were highly suspicious of the veracity of the information. Beneš questioned the credibility of the document based on his belief that if the Germans were undeniably embarked on a campaign to destroy European Jewry, he would have previously heard about it from other sources. Still, he promised to assess the reliability of the report. The report raised concern the information might have been the provocative handiwork of the Nazi propaganda establishment to precipitate anti-German reaction throughout Europe enabling the Germans to increase acts against the local inhabitants. 

Segev added had Wise publicly revealed this information about the Riegner telegram without the approval of the State Department, this would have led to “dire” consequences for the WJC. The American leadership of the WJC needed to maintain contact with its European bureaus, which was only possible through the State Department’s communication system. An unsanctioned publication of the report, which had been transmitted through the American Embassy in Bern, would have terminated WJC’s entire operation. 

Acceding to Sumner Welles’ Request 

Defying “one of the few sympathetic men, and the most powerful at State” like Welles, would have alienated him Breitman said. Unlike those in the European Division in the State Department, Welles took Nazi policy toward Jews seriously. The questions he raised about the Riegner telegram took longer to answer than Wise and others anticipated. This meant that as late as September 1942, Welles doubted the Nazi’s were determined to murder all the Jews in Europe.  

Furthermore, “There is no sign that British intelligence had made their information available to American counterpoints,” Breitman asserted. The British intercepted and decoded radio messages that were sent from the German Order Police (Ordnungspolizei, Orpo) and their SS leaders within days of the start of Operation Barbarossa (June 22, 1941). British intelligence intercepted information about the mass slaughter of Jews since the Order Police Battalions, who massacred Jews and others in mass shootings, did not use the advanced coding machine known as Enigma, for radio transmissions. In its place, they used a “hand” encrypting system modified from one used by the British in World War I. This information provided “unimpeachable evidence of wholesale Nazi killings of Jews in the East.”  

When Reinhard Heydrich, principle architect of the Holocaust and chief of the Reich Security Main Office, sent radio messages to the Einsatzgruppen, he used the sophisticated Enigma cipher machine, developed to protect military communications. The Order Police used the outdated hand ciphers. Thus, messages and reports Heydrich received remained secret. By mid-September 1941, Breitman said, it was already too late to hide the “massive police executions of Jews—or to hide the order cutting off radio reports of execution totals—from British ears.”   

Failure to Publicly Criticize Roosevelt? 

The December 17, 1942 Allied Declaration condemning the “bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination,” did not include any mention of rescue, raising the question as to why Wise did not publicly pressure Roosevelt to save European Jewry. Segev posits Wise did not believe public criticism of Roosevelt would be productive. A press conference, originally scheduled for April, 1943, to explain the appalling plight of the Jews in order to stir the administration to act on their behalf, was cancelled by Wise and Joseph M. Proskauer, president of the American Jewish Committee. They feared the conference would undermine their cause, rather than advance it. The US Congress, which Wise viewed as antisemitic, would not be spurred to exert pressure on Roosevelt. On the contrary, the Congress would rally behind Roosevelt, if he were reproached for failing to aid the Jews of Europe. Wise and Nachum Goldmann didn’t want the president to vilified for being a friend of the Jews at the expense of American interests.  

A public rebuke of Roosevelt might have severely limited access Jewish activists to the administration and preclude any possibility of Roosevelt’s help in the future. Regev said Wise wanted Roosevelt to remain a friend, “who had and would continue to do everything in his power for the sake of rescuing Jews.” Another concern was the party and other Democrat candidates might lose Jewish backing  as result, limiting the president’s political freedom to govern. Wise, Goldmann and Proskauer regarded the possibility of this loss of support would jeopardize the US and world Jewry. In private correspondence, they recognized Roosevelt would not initiate anything more “than limited action” to save the Jews. 

Wise has paid a heavy personal price for pursuing a policy of restraint, which has been “etched in historical memory,” Segev observed. The ability to rescue only a comparatively few Jews, fades when one considers the magnitude of the catastrophe and the staggering enormity of the loss. In some ways, it intensifies the “perception of inactivity and failure.” 

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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.