Title: America First: The Story of Sol Bloom, the Most Powerful Jew in Congress During the Holocaust
By Elliot Resnick
In this book, Elliot Resnick – a former editor of The Jewish Press and scholar of Jewish History – offers a scholarly biography of Sol Bloom (1870-1949), the U.S. Congressman who served as Chairman of the House Foreign Affair Committee from before World War II until after the war. Bloom has been much maligned by some Jewish historians for failing to help save the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust despite his prominent position in Congress. In this book, Resnick convincingly argues that Bloom never betrayed the Jewish people, but continued to do whatever he could to help fellows Jews. Instead, as alluded to in the title of Resnick’s book, Bloom decided to put his responsibility to America and the American people first, and only helped the global Jewish community when that did not conflict with how he perceived his role as an elected member of the House of Representatives.
In the early chapters of the book, Resnick sets the tone by introducing the reader to the biographical details of Bloom’s early life growing up in San Francisco to a family of Polish immigrants. Although Mr. Bloom was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family and he proudly identified with that stream of Judaism, he was not personally observant. The author gives us a glimpse of Bloom’s early ambition and spunk by discussing his early career as a promoter and his prominent role in the 1893 Fair in Chicago that celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas.
Eventually, Bloom relocated to New York and entered politics, representing the 19th district of New York in the House of Representatives. In that early part of his career in Congress, Bloom showed just how proud he was of his Jewishness by standing up to the antisemitism espoused by carmaker Henry Ford’s newspaper The Dearborn Independent and calling him out on his unacceptable characterization of Jews. He also vigorously fought the proposal to switch the calendar to an eight-day week because he recognized the hardship that would bring upon observant Jews keeping the Sabbath.
Throughout his career, Bloom gained a reputation of being the go-to guy for Jews in need. Many families and important Jewish leader turned to him for help in smoothing along whatever bureaucratic or legal issues stood in their way. Yet, despite having maintained a sterling reputation in the Jewish community both before and after World War II, Congressman Bloom has often been maligned in some circles for his behavior during World War II and the Holocaust. They claim that Bloom even deliberately sabotaged the strategic-level rescue activism by such heroes as Hillel Kook (aka Peter Bergson). It is claimed that Bloom colluded with progressive Jewish leaders like Stephen S. Wise (a prominent Reform clergyman) and Nahum Goldman (head of the World Jewish Congress) to block rescue efforts that tried to save Jews in Europe who were susceptible to the Nazi’s nefarious machinations. They argue that Free World Jewish leaders including Bloom have blood on their hands for their inaction during the Holocaust.
However, as Resnick makes it clear, these accusations invariably fail to consider all the nuances and circumstances behind Bloom’s opportunities. For example, when appointed to represent the U.S.A. in the 1943 Bermuda Conference in which the U.S. government officials and their British counterparts discussed the question of Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied territories in Europe, Bloom was given clear instructions that opening the U.S. or British Mandator Palestine to more Jewish immigration was not on the table. His hands were tied before the discussion could even begin.
Moreover, Resnick adduces documents – including numerous “thank you” letters – as clear evidence that even when Bloom seemingly did not act in the best interest of European Jewry, he continued to help those who turned to him behind the scenes to secure for them safe passage or naturalization whenever possible. Yet, Bloom’s strong moral convictions led him to resolve never to go against the law, so all the good work he did in helping others was always within the framework of whatever laws existed on the books.
Indeed, Bloom never criticized the U.S. immigration policy and its quotas on how many Jews may be admitted because he did not want to jeopardize his close relationship with fellow Democrat President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) and his administration, which might hinder his ability to help those who turned to him. He also saw the spirit of the time as supporting American isolationism and felt that any effort to overturn to those immigration policies would ultimately backfire and lead to even more limitations.
Resnick convincingly argues that if Bloom had pushed more to save Jews, it could have majorly gone wrong and compromised popular U.S. support for England, which would potentially have made for an even more disastrous Holocaust had the Nazis been able to subdue their greatest opponent in Europe.
Resnick’s book brings to light much nuance that has been lost in discussions about the Holocaust and who acted nobly. Indeed, the whole topic is a bit murky, but Resnick provides the reader with enough information to make his own informed decision. He essentially concedes that the historians have valid arguments in their claims against Bloom, but that the situation was far less black and white than they portray it to have been.
In doing research for this book (which was based on his doctoral dissertation), Elliot Resnick availed himself of the Bloom papers held in the NYPL archives, as well as other archival documents and publicly available newspaper articles and press releases. He often employs strategically placed direct quotations from these primary and secondary sources to make his points, instead of simply asserting them himself. This reflects the due diligence of a scholar interested in mining the depths of history to find the truth – as opposed to a rhetorician advocating for a certain position or a propogandist trying to whitewash history. Indeed, even as Resnick defends Bloom’s actions and words, he also duly criticizes Bloom when he feels necessary. All in all, Resnick shows that Sol Bloom was a life-long proud Jew and dedicated Zionist, cogently deflecting much of the criticism leveled against him as misdirected.