“It is April 19th, 1944. Thousands of mourners silently march from a service at the Warsaw synagogue on Rivington Street to City Hall. A few carry signs: “Save Those Jews in Poland Who Can Yet Be Saved!” and, “Three Million Polish Jews Have Been Murdered By the Nazis!” When they arrive at the steps of City Hall, Cantor Moishe Oysher sings El Mole Rachamim, a funeral prayer for the the 40,000 Jews who died a year earlier in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.”
As reported by WNYC, the radio station of the City of New York.
I am a native of New York City and still live in its suburbs. Born a few years after the war, the narrative I grew up understanding was that those living in the US didn’t really comprehend the full depth and scope of the Shoah as it was occurring. However, listening to the broadcast of this demonstration, that narrative was destroyed.
Rabbi Rubenstein in his speech mentions how within four months of the uprising more than 200,000 Jews were executed by the Nazis in Poland. So here at a microphone on the steps of City Hall, in a live broadcast it was announced that 200,000 Jews were executed in just four months time. Let’s remember that this was 1944. The gas chambers in the death camps were in full operation as they spoke.
I shouldn’t have been but I was shocked when I listened to this. How was it possible that with everyone knowing what just happened in the past year that there were “only” 30,000 people at the event? Where was the follow-up to this demonstration? How come the US Jewish Community was not banging down the doors of their government to demand action? Where was the outrage?
Mayor LaGuardia, was a very popular Mayor and enjoyed widespread support in the Jewish community. Although he did not consider himself Jewish his mother was Jewish, and he had a sister in Europe who was arrested as a Jew by the Nazis. He spoke eloquently and passionately. With the hindsight of history though, his words ring hollow. He said:
“The American people understand the plight of the people of Jewish faith in Europe particularly in Poland. The need to go to their rescue is high on the list of the military actions that are to take place before long.”
“The world is fortunate that today the President of the US is one who has the full understanding of the conditions in Europe. One who is intensely human and humane.”
These words sparked a tremendous ovation. How wrong we now know he was. Rescuing artwork and horses took priority to rescuing Jews. Our “intensely humane” President allowed his State Department to put roadblocks and barriers to Jewish immigration, and even allowed immigration quotas to go unfilled.
Roosevelt never fought for the Wagner Bill, a bill to allow Jewish refugee children admittance to the US even though his wife Eleanor urged him to. His cousin, Laura Delano Houghteling, the wife of his Commissioner of Immigration summed up her feelings like this,
Twenty-thousand charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.
We will never know what Roosevelt’s reaction to the rally was. What we do know is what he did on April 19, 1944. He spent the day fishing at the estate of the prominent Jewish financier Bernard Baruch.
To me this highlights perfectly the story of FDR and the Jews. There were powerful Jews close to FDR but with the exception of the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morganthau, they were afraid to use their influence. On April 19, 1944 it was now clear as day that millions of Jews were being slaughtered. How ironic that on the day of this rally FDR spent it with a prominent Jew. Did Baruch bring this up with his fishing buddy? One would hope, but I have my doubts. During the Rabbis March on Washington in 1943 FDR was advised by his friend Rabbi Stephen Wise to sneak out the back door of the White House to avoid meeting the marchers as they were “not representative” of the American Jewish Community. Were the 30,000 in the streets of NYC also not “representative?”
I always knew that the US Government knew of the final solution, but what surprised me was that the man (especially the Jew) on the street knew such detail also. It’s always tough to try and judge people in one time frame from the context of another, but it is just so shocking to me that by 1944 with so many Jews murdered, the Jewish community in the US did not rise up stronger to demand more action from their government. I do feel that it was a failure of leadership. Some, like the Bergson group and Ben Hecht did try, but mainstream Jewish leaders did not follow and were too timid. Shame on them. Whatever was tried though, fell on the ears of a tone deaf President.
The itinerary mentions that the President had “poor luck” fishing that day. Tragically, the Jews of Europe had worse luck.