Seeking an Exodus From Hitler's Europe

As Jews the world over gathered for the Passover seder, recalling the miracles that brought about the ancient Jewish exodus from Egypt, they prayed for a miracle in their own time - a decision by the Allies to help bring about an exodus of Jewish refugees from Europe.

Dr. Rafael Medoff,

Dr. Rafael Medoff
Dr. Rafael Medoff
צילום: INN:RM
On the eve of Passover, 1943, officials of the British and American governments met in Bermuda to discuss the plight of the Jews in Hitler's Europe. As Jews the world over gathered for the Passover seder, recalling the miracles that brought about the ancient Jewish exodus from Egypt, they prayed for a miracle in their own time - a decision by the Allies to help bring about an exodus of Jewish refugees from Europe.

It was not to be. Even though the Allies knew that more than two million Jews already had been slaughtered, and that Hitler intended to annihilate all the remaining Jews in Europe, they were not prepared to intervene. At Bermuda, the British reaffirmed that they would not open Palestine to refugees, for fear of angering the Arab world. The Roosevelt administration reaffirmed that it would not take in more refugees - even though the existing US immigration quotas were left 90% unfilled during the war years. Nearly 190,000 quota places sat unused.

One of the few who did speak out for rescue was US Representative Emanuel Celler, Democrat of Brooklyn, who challenged the Roosevelt administration even though he was a staunch New Dealer and represented voters who overwhelmingly supported FDR. Moreover, Celler chaired the House Judiciary Committee - a position he knew might be jeopardized if he angered the president.

On the day after Passover, Celler became the first public figure to denounce the Bermuda farce. The delegates in Bermuda were engaged in "more diplomatic tight-rope walking" at a time when "thousands of Jews are being killed daily," he protested.

Throughout 1943, Celler continued to speak out. At a Jewish War Veterans convention in April, he called FDR's immigration policy "cold and cruel," and blasted "the glacier-like attitude of the State Department." Celler also tried to encourage American Jews to take a more active approach. He urged the Jewish war vets to "speak out, spur on those in high places and low places so that the word may go to those in authority to help to the hilt."

Challenging Roosevelt's claim that nothing could be done to aid the Jews except to win the war, Celler declared in one speech: "Victory, the spokesmen say, is the only solution.... After victory, the disembodied spirits will not present so difficult a problem; the dead no longer need food, drink and asylum."

Celler was adept at snappy phrases that went straight to the point. "I do not measure my words because the hangmen do not tarry," he explained. Celler once described the State Department as having "a heartbeat muffled in protocol." When the Bermuda meetings ended, he said in a radio address: "The Bermuda Conference has adjourned, but the problem has not adjourned." On another occasion, he characterized Bermuda as "a bloomin' fiasco" - a shot at another Jewish Congressman, Sol Bloom (D-NY), who supported the State Department and served on the US delegation to Bermuda.

In late 1943, the Jewish activists known as the Bergson Group initiated the introduction of a Congressional resolution calling for creation of a US government agency to rescue refugees from Hitler. Congressman Bloom tried to stall the resolution by insisting on hearings and arranged for the State Department's top immigration policymaker, Breckinridge Long, to testify. But Bloom's strategy backfired when Long presented wildly exaggerated statistics regarding the number of refugees who had been allowed into the United States.

Celler led the charge to expose Long's lies. He leaked incriminating sections of Long's testimony to the press, and publicly denounced Long in numerous speeches and interviews. "If men of the temperament and philosophy of Long continue in control of immigration admission," Celler said, "we might as well take down that plaque from the Statue of Liberty...." Celler said Long's professions of sympathy for the refugees were nothing more than "crocodile tears," since he was the one blocking their admission. An editorial in The Nation, a prominent political affairs magazine, used Celler's phrase in its criticism of Long.

Unbeknownst to Celler, during the preceding months, senior aides to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. had discovered that State Department officials had been secretly obstructing rescue opportunities and blocking transmission of Holocaust-related information to the United States.

It was the controversy on Capitol Hill that made it possible for Morgenthau to bring his aides' disturbing discovery directly to the president. The Treasury Secretary could point to the protests of Celler and his colleagues, and warn FDR that, as he put it, "you have either got to move very fast, or the Congress of the United States will do it for you." Anxious to avoid an election-year scandal over the refugee issue, Roosevelt heeded Moregenthau's plea and, in January 1944, did what the Congressional resolution sought - he created the War Refugee Board.

During the final fifteen months of the war, the War Refugee Board played a key role in the rescue of some 200,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews, in part by facilitating and financing the life-saving work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest. And that was made possible thanks to the efforts of those activists in the United States, including Congressman Emanuel Celler, who would not be silenced in their campaign for a modern-day Exodus.

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