On Wednesday evening, May 6, Dr. Rafael Medoff, Founding Director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, D.C. and author of 20 books and hundreds of papers on America and the Holocaust, delivered the second webinar for Project Witness on the topic, America’s Response to the Holocaust: New Research; New Controversies.

Below are two of the many reviews we received after the first webinar:

THANK YOU.  The caps are done on purpose.  He [Dr. Medoff] is a truly focused historian without an ego or agenda.  To say that he is well informed is an understatement as most historians are well-versed in their subject matter.  He is different.  His manner is easy to listen to, [he] gets to his point quickly and even though the historical facts that he presented are well published, his analysis and the method of presentation taught me so much….He is a true historian.  His words are measured and he is fair….  I have heard from some of our most knowledgeable presenters. He qualifies as being from the best. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the informative webinar.
[The] topic was interesting and the information was so well researched and presented.  
It was excellent overall! Thanks for facilitating this! Looking forward to more fascinating webinars!

Mrs. Blimie Twerski, the webinar MC and Project Witness’ Conference Coordinator, welcomed Dr. Medoff and announced that in light of Covid-19, Project Witness has expanded its website offerings at Projectwitness.org and is offering assistance and advice to educators. Interested individuals are invited to take advantage of the rich reservoir of original Project Witness materials available at no charge. 

Dr. Medoff started his lecture by picking up where he had left off the previous week by asking what and when the American government learned about the systematic murder of the Jews?  He then proceeded to answer these and many more questions by starting from June 22, 1941, the date of the German invasion of the Soviet Union.  This is when the mass murder of the Jews began in an organized fashion. These killings were perpetrated by groups of killers, called Einzatsgruppen, SS mobile killing units that spread out through the newly conquered territories, rounding up hundreds of thousands of Jews, taking them to forests and fields, and shooting them to death. This has become known as Holocaust by Bullets. At that time the United States was not yet at war with Nazi Germany and therefore American diplomats stationed in Germany and the Nazi-occupied territories were able to channel information about this catastrophe to Washington through diplomatic channels. It was still possible for fragmentary information about the situation to arrive, albeit somewhat late — and indeed, it did.   

By September and October, 1941, some of the information about these horrendous activities reached the U. S. and was reported upon by the New York Times and other newspapers, albeit mostly in the newspapers’ back pages. The Sulzberger family, the publishers of the New York Times, though they had Jewish roots, wanted to appear patriotic. By and large, most American newspapers downplayed this information. The ostensible reasons given were because the newspaper editors were not always sure of the authenticity of the reports and also, because, by December 1941, with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, newspapers were otherwise engaged.

 Since President Roosevelt enjoyed a very positive relationship with the press, he was not publicly criticized for his lack of action in connection with the reported mass killings. Tragically, by the end of 1941, more than 1 million Jews in the East had been murdered by the Einzatsgruppen. Following the Wansee Conference at the beginning of 1942, Nazi Germany implemented the Final Solution by building death camps with gas chambers.

The first details of the Final Solution as a policy for systematic mass murder were received in May, 1942 by the Polish Government in Exile in England. By August 1942, the Reigner Telegram arrived from Switzerland and described the Nazi intention to exterminate 3 and ½ – 4million Jews by Fall, 1942. The State Department to which it was sent kept it under wraps because they were afraid that if they sent it — as Mr. Reigner requested in his telegram — to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the leading Reform rabbi of that period who had much interaction with major Jewish organizations such as the American Jewish Congress, the World Jewish Congress and the American Zionist Movement, there would be pressure on the U.S. government from Jewish leaders to take in Jewish refugees. However, although Wise later received the telegram through another channel, and although he went to the Secretary of State to discuss it, the State Department deceived him. They requested that he not notify the public, promising that they would get back to him but delaying doing so for several months. Rabbi Wise didn’t want to imperil his supposedly excellent relationship with President Roosevelt. Although he had the ear of the President, his warm relationship with him did not yield results. The Roosevelt administration felt that the plight of the Jews of Europe was not its problem. and claimed that the only way it would be able to help the Jews would be by Rescue through Victory. In other words, only once the war had been won would it be possible to help those refugees affected by the Nazis (with no mention of the Jews!).

Finally, due to pressure on the government of Britain, the United States and Britain held a conference in Bermuda in Spring, 1943 on the problem of refugees. Nothing was accomplished, because secretly the 2 participants had agreed to take no action other than the Rescue through Victory policy. However, cleverly, they concealed the minutes of what took place at the 10-day conference by saying that there had been discussions of the possible ways rescue could occur, but that the results would have to remain secret due to wartime protocol.

Meanwhile, realizing that nothing was being done to help the victims of the Final Solution, the Bergson Group, political action committees in the United States during the 1940s that wished to ensure the saving of Jewish lives,  and the Vaad Hatzalah organized to bring the information of what was happening in Europe to the public. The Bergson Group advertised in newspapers and held a major rally in Madison Square Garden on March 9, 1943. 400 rabbis marched to the White House in October, 1943, but the President did not meet with them. Meanwhile, more information was flowing in about what was happening to the Jews of Europe.

The increasing publicity caused embarrassment to the Roosevelt Administration, especially since it was an election year. And so, under pressure from Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr., President Roosevelt signed an executive order that created the War Refugee Board. Most of the funding for the Board came from Jewish organizations. The War Refugee Board accomplished a great deal in 15 months. It had hoped to save hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees by bringing them to the United States temporarily , but the Administration did not like that idea and even though 70% of Americans polled on this question agreed that they should be given temporary haven in the United States, the President allowed only one camp of refugees to be established in Oswego, N. Y. and less than 1000 refugees were housed there.

Sadly, there were steps that could have been taken to save the refugees without interfering with the war effort, including the filling of unfulfilled quotas and the bombing of the rail lines to Auschwitz. But it was not to be. Dr. Medoff concluded his absorbing lecture by discussing President Roosevelt’s attitude toward the Jews. He quoted directly from diaries of those in contact with the President. The statements that were transcribed in them clearly indicated Roosevelt’s prejudices and his fear of having too many Jews and Orientals in the country. Dr. Medoff discussed President Roosevelt’s vision of America—mainly white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian with a few “others” scattered “thinly” throughout the country. This approach clearly colored his determination not to bring in Jewish refugees.

On Wednesday evening, May 13, Dr. Medoff will complete his lectures on this topic by discussing the The Day the Rabbis Marched. This promises to be a riveting presentation as the seldom-heard efforts of the rabbis to rescue their brethren in Europe are brought to light. Registration is required. To register access info@mja.mao.mybluehost.me or call 718-304-5244 extension 244.