The Darkest anti-Semitic Period in U.S. History

Prof. David Wyman thought about writing his doctorate on local policy in New Hampshire during the Progressive era. But during the course of his work, there echoed in him - the grandson of two Protestant ministers and a very religious person himself - "an inner voice" that asked, what did America do during the Holocaust? He felt that was a question to work on. "I didn't choose the subject. It chose me," he says.

He has devoted his life to the subject: He wrote his doctorate on the United States and the issue of war refugees in general. He devoted another 14 years to his seminal work, "The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945" (published in the U.S. in 1984 and in Israel in 1993), the first study of its kind on this sensitive subject. His research was so thorough that eventually Wyman published 13 more volumes of documents he had collected for the book.

Six years ago, he published another book, "A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America and the Holocaust," in which he published the transcript of a 12-hour interview with Hillel Kook, aka Peter Bergson, the Revisionist Etzel leader who went to the U.S. during the Holocaust and headed a rescue group that attacked the apathy of both the American administration and the Jewish establishment. Wyman, now 79, is visiting Israel this week for the first conference on Kook's work during the Holocaust, which will take place next Monday at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque (see box). As surprising as it may sound, this is his first interview with an Israeli paper.

Wyman has decided opinions regarding the U.S.' responsibility for the abandonment of Europe's Jews. In conversation, he places the responsibility first of all on the State Department: "They didn't want an emigration at all, especially not of Jewish refugees. The Jews were the most desperate to leave [Europe], and there were 9 million Jews in Europe. He does not absolve President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of responsibility: "He acquiesced to the policy of the State Department, and the fairest thing I can say about him is that he was indifferent to the subject."

Focus on the war effort

The administration's main argument was that rescue activity would detract from the war effort and in the end, Germany's defeat would lead to the biggest rescue.

Wyman does not buy it: "There was a lot to do without hurting the military effort. Britain could open the gates of Palestine and that could help the Jews who succeeded in escaping from Europe to find a relatively close shelter. There was an option to press on the German satellites - Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria - in which the deportations started much later. It was possible to promise their rulers to save them from Soviet control after the war if they cooperate on rescue or threaten them with war crime trials if they help the Germans. And, of course, there was an option to bomb Auschwitz."

Wyman does not spare the American press, especially The New York Times. "Because the owners were Jews, they did everything not to be seen as a Jewish paper, so they buried the issue. The Holocaust almost didn't appear on their front page," he says.

He does not spare any criticism for the Jewish establishment either: "The Jews did, but not enough. The main reason is they thought they don't have [much] chance, so they concentrated on the struggle for the Jewish state after the war. But they gave up too easy. There was much to do, and Hillel Kook proved it."

Another factor that deterred the Jews was the anti-Semitism that was already spreading then in the U.S., and Jews feared charges they are diverting the effort from saving the world to saving their people.

Wyman adds: "It was the darkest anti-Semitic era in America's history. During the 1930s, the anti-Semitism spread because of the deep economic crisis and the fear of refugees, of increasing the competition over jobs. A survey that was done at that time found that a third of Americans held anti-Semitic views."

His positive hero is, of course, Kook and his group, whose prominent members included Etzel figure Shmuel Merlin and playwright Ben Hecht. They worked tirelessly, firstly to provide information on the destruction of European Jewry, and to organize rescue operations. When the press failed to show interest in the story, they simply bought whole pages of advertisement and publicized the information there; they circulated among congressmen and senators, enlisting support; and they organized mass events to publicize the destruction. Their efforts irritated the Jewish establishment. Wyman found a quote from Dr. Nahum Goldmann, the president of the World Jewish Congress, who said: "Kook is more dangerous to American Jewry than Hitler, because he is bringing anti-Semitism here as well."

Several Jewish leaders even worked to get Kook expelled from the U.S. Wyman credits Kook with several accomplishments: "The publicity they brought was crucial, because people simply didn't know," he says. In his assessment, Bergson's group were the key factor in the process that prompted Roosevelt to set up the Committee for War Refugees; although formed toward the end of the war, it still managed to save around 200,000 Jews.

Is it possible to compare the American reaction to the Holocaust and Western reaction today to Iran's threatened destruction of Israel and to Muslim fundamentalism in general?

Wyman says there is a "certain" basis for comparison, mainly with regard to isolationism: "I was used to being a Democrat all of my life, but the Democrats have become so isolationist, that I can't support them anymore. In Western Europe it's really hopeless. They don't do anything. Even when they thought Saddam Hussein has a weapon of mass destruction, and it was seen [to be so], they refused to cooperate, except Britain.