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Varian Fry

The American Experience
of the Holocaust

Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) 2005 address

by Pierre Sauvage

What follows is the draft of a possible article on America and the Holocaust.  I welcome any comments, corrections, criticism—even praise.

 by Pierre Sauvage (5/5/05)

Yom Hashoah /2005, Temple Israel of Hollywood, Los Angeles 

I am a 61-year-old European-born Jew.  And that means that around the time of my birth, much of my family was humiliated, tortured and murdered—while the world watched.

Those facts, far from receding in importance with every passing year, somehow seem to me to loom ever larger in my consciousness.

Yes, I had a singularly lucky birth, since I was born and protected, along with my parents, in a remarkable haven of refuge: the area of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in the mountains of southcentral France.  Yes, there the peasants and villagers turned no one away, betrayed no one, attempted to convert one.  There was something to be done, and they just did it.  No big deal.  It was who they were.  There, 5,000 Jews were sheltered—by 5,000 Christians.

I hope I will be forgiven if I don’t deal much with Le Chambon this evening.  Oh, there’s a lot to be said about the reunion the Chambon Foundation organized last summer in the village, with the municipal council, about the visit by President Chirac shortly thereafter, about the major address he gave there hailing Le Chambon as “the soul” of France, “the conscience” of his country—and the embodiment of the values of the French Republic, which it was not.

Given the current French obsession with secularity and with the dangers of ethnocentrism, the story of Le Chambon, if remembered and told truthfully, represents a major challenge to France today.  Stay tuned.

But it must also be said that France in fact—and President Chirac deserves some credit for this—has done quite a bit to face up to its past during the Nazi occupation, to its failures, to its lies, to its crimes, to its sins of omission and commission.

And the Holocaust, after all, also happened on our watch, on our parents’ and grand-parents’ watch.  I have spoken before at this temple, in 1993 and again in 1996, about my belief that there was an American experience of the Holocaust too.  I wish to speak about it yet again tonight, prodded by some recent developments.

I know that this is not the most popular of subjects for Americans, Jewish or non-Jewish.  But that doesn’t mean that that experience didn’t occur, possibly still affecting us in ways we don’t understand.

Some of you probably remember the response that Elie Wiesel once gave when pressed as to what was the most important thing the world had learned from the Holocaust.  His answer: that you can get away with it.

If that is so, then do we not have a responsibility, especially on Yom Hashoah, to keep asking ourselves how, in what ways, to what extent, we let them get away it with it?

The best teachers as to what went wrong will always be the righteous voices from that time—righteous Christians and righteous Jews.  But the challenge to us is not to pay tribute to them with cheap, feel-good moments.  It is to have the courage to seek to view the experience through their eyes, to go back to the testimony and the many forgotten  and unread documents that survive from that time, to learn what it was possible to feel or think, to puncture the taboos that linger unrecognized and that damage us.

That’s what I sought to do in my documentary about Le Chambon, Weapons of the Spirit, which underscored France’s responsibilities in the tragedy.

That’s what I will be doing in a new documentary And Crown Thy Good: Varian Fry in Marseille, that I’ve long been working on and that will chronicle the rescue mission led in France in 1940-41 by a non-Jewish New York intellectual named Varian Fry.

Viewed within the context of its times, that mission seems to me not “merely” an attempt to save some threatened writers, artists and political figures.  (My parents, incidentally, were among those turned down by Fry’s committee.)  This uniquely successful mission looms in hindsight, like a doomed final quest to reverse the very direction in which the world—and not merely the Nazis—was heading.

As it happens, today’s Yom Hashoah commemoration marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust.  I thought, frankly, that more attention would have been paid in the U.S. to this anniversary than has been the case.  Quite a bit of attention has been paid in Europe.

In any event, it seems especially fitting this evening to recall the soldiers from the Soviet Union, from the United States, from Great Britain who sixty years ago liberated the camps—if such a verb can be used for something that was so accidental.  The war was not being fought to save the Jews or to liberate camps.  Indeed, military routes were not adjusted one millimeter in order to hasten the camps’ liberation by one second.

But surely there is much to learn from how the liberators, who had been told nothing about what they would find when a camp happened to be along their route, experienced those moments.  Thinking about this and preparing for this address, I came upon some notes from a long-forgotten phone conversation I had some thirty years ago with one of the men who liberated the concentration camp and extermination camp of Dachau, the late Lt. Gen. William W. “Buffalo Bill” Quinn.

It was sixty years ago last Friday that Dachau was yet another Nazi concentration camp accidentally liberated, by the Americans.  As it happens, it had been the very first Nazi camp and had served as the model for the Nazi concentration camp system.  Though it was aimed mainly at political opponents of the regime, Jews were sent there too, to be murdered.  During the Nazi era, more than 200,000 people found themselves interned in Dachau.  More than 30,000 died there.

Incidentally, among the places where slaves from Dachau were made to work was a BMW factory making aircraft engines.  Who could have imagined that one of the conscripts enrolled in the anti-aircraft units protecting the camp would one day become Pope Benedict XVI?

Then Col. Quinn had been with the 7th U. S. Army that was on its way to nearby Munich and beyond to end the war in Europe, when on that April 29 sixty years ago, units stumbled onto that camp a short distance from the town of Dachau, a town larger than Le Chambon but probably sharing with Le Chambon many of the common characteristics of any small town anywhere.

American soldiers were so horrified by what they saw that thirty or more Nazi guards were rounded up and summarily executed on the spot.  It is remembered that one 19 year-old sobbed uncontrollably as he aimed his machine gun.

In our phone conversation in the ‘70s, Gen. Quinn told me that he hadn’t been there that first day, but had quickly received word about the camp, and had been told that it was impossible to describe.  “Well, I’ll have to go see,” he had said.

What he saw was beyond his imagination, he recalled.  And something immediately flashed in his mind: “Somebody has to make a record of this.”  So he hastily assembled some teams, and gave them each a mission.  He wanted to know about the organization of the camp and he wanted the internees interviewed.  But for some reason, the first thing on his list was to “do the townspeople” of Dachau, as he put it, “to find out what they knew” and what their attitude was.

So the men of this G2 intelligence unit, on their own, wrote this brochure (this is a faithful reproduction of the original document), and printed 10,000 copies which they sought to distribute widely.  I’d like to share with you a little of what they had to say about the residents of Dachau.

When asked whether they realize that in the last three months a minimum of 13,000 men have lost their lives within a stone’s throw of where they live, they claim shocked surprise.  When asked whether they never saw transports of dead and dying pass through the streets along the railway, they refer only to the last one.  They insist that most of the trains came in at night, and that they were sealed cars (…).

[But it] can definitely be stated that anyone in Dachau who now claims to have seen only one train of prospective inmates come in in the day time is telling a flat lie.  There are quite a few such people in Dachau.

In the opinion of a minority of the population, the people are to blame for their cowardice.  Old, gracious and intelligent Eduard Grasal feels very strongly on this point.  He has a right to talk.  He was one of the three men in the entire town who stood up in open meeting and said he would not join the Storm Troops—“Because, my dear Major, I won’t!”—and with this he walked out of the meeting.  Weeks later dozens of people came to him and said, ‘But if we had only known that they wouldn’t do anything to us, we would have stood up too!’

 No citizen of Dachau is without a deep sense that something was wrong, terribly wrong, on the outskirts of their town.

We in America, far away and sixty years later, may seem far removed from all of this, but was something also wrong, even terribly wrong, on the outskirts of Germany, on the outskirts of Europe, and yes, here in America?

Three weeks ago was also the 60th anniversary of the death of President Roosevelt.  My brother-in-law remembers coming home sixty years ago and finding his mother in tears.  That is how he learned that Roosevelt had died.  I suspect that most American Jews then felt the same way.

I don't challenge the notion that Roosevelt was a great president in many important respects, not least of which was bringing a reluctant United States into the war.  But there is the matter of the Holocaust, which was largely absent from what was frequently a compelling four-hour History Channel documentary broadcast on April 17-18, FDR: A Presidency Revealed.

The presidency may have been revealed but the Holocaust was essentially hidden.  All of two error-crammed minutes were devoted to the Roosevelt’s response to the massacre of the Jews of Europe, a segment placed chronologically after D-Day, as if that was when Americans would have given some thought to the plight of the Jews of Europe.

I don’t have time to parse that whole narration, that even included what must have been a typo that was somehow not spotted and was broadcast nationwide: that the military—the military—“requested that rail lines leading to Auschwitz be bombed,” when in fact that request came, of course, from some Jewish organizations and was dismissed out of hand by the Undersecretary of War.

The documentary’s main characterization of the Roosevelt presidency and the Holocaust was as follows: “Late in the war, anecdotal reports of Nazi death camps were heard in Washington.”  Huh?

It’s been over twenty years since the historian David S. Wyman, a non-Jew, laid out the facts in his staggering book The Abandonment of the Jews.

But tonight I want to draw upon an important new book, Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper, by Laurel Leff.  It fleshes out how the story was covered—or not covered in the New York Times, and gropes with the issue of why.  There’s a lot there for us to ponder.

Let me remind you of one key moment, one particular date, which should be part of any Yom Hashoah liturgy in the United States: November 24, 1942.

It was on that day that the State Department, no friend of the Jews, officially confirmed to Rabbi Stephen Wise, the most prominent Jewish leader of the time, that yes, the Germans were indeed embarked on a campaign to murder the Jews of Europe.  Wise held a press conference, and there were news stories the next day in many newspapers, with a few even playing the story on the front page.

The New York Times hadn’t sent a reporter to Wise’s press conference, but they ran the AP wire service’s dispatch:  Rabbi Wise “learned through sources confirmed by the State Department that about half the estimated 4,000,000 Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe had been slain in an ‘extermination’ campaign.

This AP story was on page 10 of the Times.  Right above it was another one, from Jerusalem, that read: “Information received here of methods by which the Germans in Poland are carrying out the slaughter of Jews includes accounts of trainloads of adults and children taken to great crematoriums at Oswiecim [the Polish name for Auschwitz], near Cracow.”

This was the first reference by the Times to Auschwitz as an extermination center.  November 25, 1942.

So on the same day, November 24, 1942, the U. S. State Department confirmed that the Nazis were in the process of slaughtering the Jews of Europe and the outside world learned specifically that trainloads of Jews were being murdered at Auschwitz.

A few weeks later, on Dec. 17, 1942, there was a joint declaration by the governments of the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union and eight Nazi-occupied countries:

[The] German authorities (…) are now carrying into effect Hitler’s oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people in Europe.  From all the occupied countries Jews are being transported in conditions of appalling horror and brutality to Eastern Europe. In Poland, which has been made the principal Nazi slaughterhouse, the ghettos established by the German invader are being systematically emptied of all Jews.  (…) None of those taken away are ever heard of again.

This also was reported in the New York Times on p. 10, and according to the new book was one of 1,186 stories published in the New York Times from the beginning to the end of the war that touched on some of what was happening to the Jews of Europe.  1,186 stories.  That is an average of 17 stories per month.

The New York Times then typically ran 12 to 15 stories on its front page, about half of which were devoted to foreign news.  Only twenty-six stories dealing in some way with the Holocaust made it during that whole time to the front page, and none to the right-hand column which has the most pressing news.

Of these twenty-six front-page stories, only 6 explicitly identified Jews as the primary victims of the massacres going on.  And the Times covered this story more extensively than other American dailies.

I quote author Laurel Leff’s conclusion:

That the New York Times and other newspapers did not consider what was happening to the Jews important is to some extent self-evident.  The Times obviously did not perceive the news to be as important as the other approximately 24,000 stories it put on page one.

And as many of you know, the New York Times was a Jewish-owned newspaper.

I quote Laurel Leff.

In the case of Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, concerns about special pleading and dual loyalties were not purely a pragmatic calculation.  They also reflected a deeply felt religious and philosophical belief that made Sulzberger resistant to changing his view in the light of changing circumstances.  Being Jewish was solely a religion, not a racial or ethnic orientation, he maintained, that carried with it no special obligation to help fellow Jews.  (…) In fact, American Jews who helped other Jews because they were threatened undercut their position as Americans, Sulzberger believed.

The Times publisher thus was philosophically opposed to emphasizing the unique plight of the Jews in occupied Europe, a conviction that at least partially explains the Times’ tendency to place stories about Jews inside the paper, and to universalize their plight in editorials and front-page stories.  [Sulzberger] was adamantly opposed to Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, but he was equally adamant that Jews do nothing special to help other Jews.  He once put it this way: “Certainly there is no common denominator between the poor unfortunate Jew being driven around what was recently Poland and, let us say…myself.”

Please forgive me but how can I omit here the fact that Sulzberger was a Reform Jew, a member in good standing of Temple Emanu-El in New York.  In fact, he was married to the granddaughter of Rabbi Isaac Wise (no relation to Stephen Wise), the renowned founder of what is now known, as I understand it, as Classical Reform Judaism, which rejected the notion of Jews as a people.

The daughter of Rabbi Stephen Wise once recalled to a historian what Eleanor Roosevelt had apparently said to her in 1941.

One of the things that troubles me,” Eleanor Roosevelt had remarked, “is that when people are in trouble, whether it’s the dust bowl or the miners—whatever it is, and I see the need for help, the first people who  come forward and try to offer help are the Jews.  Now in these terrible days, when they need help, why don’t they come?  Or when they come, why do they speak in a lower fashion?

Sure, American Jews then were scared.  In his recent novel, The Plot Against America, Philip Roth imagines what life might have been like if Charles Lindbergh had run for President in 1940 and defeated Roosevelt.  With a novelist’s insight, the novel begins with the words: “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear.”

And what about the rabbis of America?  I’m sure there were some who truly did all they could, and that their sermons will one day be discovered and republished.  But why has there not been one single study in sixty years on the American rabbinical response to the Holocaust?

Some disturbing information can be derived from a book called Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The Tribute of the Synagogue, a compendium of tributes by rabbis to the late president, published in 1946.  With the stench of the liberated camps still in the air, these rabbis make no references to the fact that two thirds of the Jews of Europe are no more, a rich, vibrant culture that had thrived for centuries obliterated.

One Russian-born Chicago rabbi goes so far as to assert that “Among those whose tears for [Roosevelt] are among the most sincere, are the Children of the Household of Israel—not only the Jews of America, but the Jews of the world [emphasis added].  They found in him a friend and a protector.”

Indeed, with only occasional token references to the tragedy that had just befallen the Jewish people under their watch, our rabbis—again and again and again—celebrate Roosevelt as Moses!

A Cleveland rabbi, after asserting that millions of people throughout the world regarded Roosevelt “not as a politician or even as a statesman, but as a Prophet, as a Messiah,” added “This was true also of my own people all over the world and in Palestine.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave proof of his friendship to the Jewish people.”

And this rabbi chose to lovingly report an exchange with Roosevelt.

“To me, [President Roosevelt] said, ‘Don’t worry, Rabbi, I will stand by your people in Europe and Palestine and see that justice is done them at long last, only be patient—arrangements are already in process.”

"Like Moses and every great leader in history, Franklin Roosevelt could only approach the Promised Land,” this rabbi concluded, striking the obligatory note.  "We are standing at the Red Sea.  And God said to Moses, 'Why do the children of Israel cry unto me—tell the children of Israel to go forward!"

Even after the event, when there was no longer any need to be scared or to grovel, many of our rabbis were comfortable deluding themselves that the Children of Israel had survived Pharaoh once again, when in fact this time Pharaoh had successfully divided the Jews, and this time God had sent no Moses, Jewish or non-Jewish, to avert the greatest tragedy in Jewish history.

Indeed, it has always struck me as painfully ironic that Yom Hashoah follows Passover on the Jewish calendar.  How can one not wonder how Passover was celebrated, say, in 1943 in the U.S., when it was increasingly clear that there was going to be no Exodus this time, no parting of the Atlantic.

And there is one more twist to the story of Roosevelt and the Holocaust to which I want to allude briefly, because it has gotten remarkably little attention.

President Roosevelt, because of his particular physical circumstances, because of the polio that had made him a paraplegic at 39, might have been expected to be particularly responsive to the plight of victims of the Nazis.

After all, first they came for the “cripples.”

But if the press played down what was happening to the Jews of Europe to such an extent, if Roosevelt almost never alluded to it, just how aware of it could most Americans have been, at least most American non-Jews?

There were few relevant polls then, but there was one, taken by Gallup in January 1943, right after that crucial period of November-December 1942, and long before the end of the Holocaust more than two years later.

The question was phrased in a somewhat peculiar way.  It was as follows: “It is said  that 2 million Jews have been killed in Europe since the war began.  Do you think that is true or just a rumor?”

It shouldn’t have been difficult to respond, “Just a rumor,” particularly if you were antisemitic (David Wyman’s estimate is that maybe one third of the American population was).  A rumor isn’t even necessarily false.

Well, 28 percent in January 1943 said that it was just a rumor, while 24 percent said they had no opinion.  But 48 percent of those asked said they thought it was true that at that point 2 million Jews had been killed in Europe since the beginning of the war.

We knew.

This is what it boils down to: Yes, Roosevelt was good for the Jews—the American Jews.

As we continue, hopefully, to develop a suitable liturgy for Yom Hashoah, I hope that we will draw on Yom Kippur more than on Tisha B'Av, that we will make it a time for introspection rather than lamentation.

Values cannot be taught if the teacher considers that he or she is not accountable as well.  Moral distinctions are most effectively made about others when there is willingness to face one's own responsibilities.

In closing, I want to leave you with some words I’ve quoted here before.  They are valuable because they are irrefutable testimony from that time.  We don’t have to agree with it, but we have no choice but to take it into consideration: it suggests, at the very least, an experience.

Moved by the suicide in London in May 1943 of a Polish Jew, Shmuel Ziegelboim—whose brother some of us knew and who appeared in my documentary Yiddish: the Mame-Loshn—the young book editor of the magazine The New Republic, who became the eminent literary critic Alfred Kazin, wrote an article the magazine published on January 10, 1944.

Not long before his death in 1999, I interviewed Kazin, and he recalled this article well, and especially how little reaction it had elicited at the time.

This what one eye-witness to the American scene, a man who later entitled his memoirs New York Jew, thought at the time.

Shmuel Ziegelboim died because he was finally unable to withstand the real despair of our time—which arises not out of the burning and the killing and the endless political betrayals, but out of a humiliation which some of us can still feel before so terrible a break in human solidarity.

(…) I honestly believe that he was thinking not only of his own people at the end, but of the hollowness of a world in which such a massacre could have so little meaning.

Something has been done—and not by the Nazis—which can never be undone, except as we seek to understand it and to grow human again.  (...)

Something has been set forth in Europe that is subtle, and suspended, and destructive.  That something is all our silent complicity in the massacre of the Jews (and surely not of them alone, it is merely that their deaths were so peculiarly hopeless).

For it means that men are not ashamed of what they have been in this time.


Chambon Foundation, 2005


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