In this letter, we will tell the story of an American hero – a non-Jewish American diplomat who refused to follow the cruel policy of the American government with regard to Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazis. In order to better appreciate his courage, we will begin with a brief description of the government policy that he defied:
The United States, a traditional haven of refuge, refused to accept a boat full of Jewish refugees – the S.S. St. Louis - that arrived at its southern shore a few months before the outbreak of Word War II. The boat was forced to return to Europe, and many of the refugees later perished in the Holocaust. During that year, a bill was introduced by Senator Robert Wagner of New York and Representative Edith Rogers of Massachusetts which provided for the admission of ten thousand refugee children for each of the years 1939 and 1940. The bill was killed in the early stage, and the President refused to endorse the bill, even after his own wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, asked him to endorse it. In addition, the State Department of his administration actively opposed it. (“World of Our Fathers” by Irving Howe)
We previously referred to documented history books such as “The Politics of Rescue” by Henry L. Feingold, and “The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-45,” by David S. Wyman. These books discuss how the American State Department, with the approval of President Roosevelt, opposed the admission of additional Jewish refugees; moreover, the American government did not allow its diplomats in Europe to help Jews escape. In fact, an American diplomat in Europe who defied American policy by helping Jews to escape was eventually transferred out of Europe, and his career was terminated by the State Department in 1945. About a year ago, the American government finally acknowledged that this diplomat was actually a hero, and the government even issued a stamp in his honor. The following information about him can be found on the website of the American State Department:
Hiram Bingham IV (1903-1988) served as a U.S. diplomat in France during World War II. He is remembered for saving the lives of thousands of refugees during the war through his principled opposition to U.S. policy.
Born to a prominent Connecticut family, Bingham graduated from Yale in 1925 and studied international law at Harvard. After he entered the Foreign Service in 1929, his postings included China, Poland and England.
During the late 1930s, Bingham was named vice consul in Marseilles, France, where he was in charge of issuing visas. In 1940 and 1941, against the official policies of the United States, he issued visas and false passports to Jews and other refugees, assisting in their escape and sometimes sheltering them in his own home. He also worked with American journalist/hero Varian Fry to save refugees, and is credited with saving more than 2,000 people from the Nazis. He is also credited with saving such famous figures as artist Marc Chagall, Nobel-winning biochemist Otto Meyerhoff, and historian Hannah Arendt, before being transferred to Portugal and then to Argentina.
Since the posthumous discovery of his humanitarian activities during the 1980s and 1990s, Bingham has been recognized by the United Nations, and in June 2002 he was honored by the American Foreign Service Association with a special award for “constructive dissent.”
The national anthem of the United States refers to America as “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” In this sense, Hiram Bingham was a true American hero – one that can serve as an example for all humanity. This leads to the following painful question: Why, during that tragic period, weren’t there more such heroes in America – “the land of the free and the home of the brave”? The response that I am about to share with you is not the only answer to this complex question, but it is an answer worth discussing, as it can help us to develop a balanced Torah perspective which recognizes the moral greatness of America, as well as its moral failings. In this spirit, we need to remember that while the Prophets of Israel expressed great love for their people and reminded them of their great potential, they also had the courage to point out their moral failings. And as the American Senator, Carl Schurz once said, “My country, right or wrong; if right to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right.”
In his book, “World of Our Fathers, “Professor Irving Howe, a progressive writer, discusses the opposition which defeated the Congressional bill that would have allowed twenty thousand refugee children to enter the United States. He writes:
“It never even reached the floor of either house; such Jewish members of Congress as Emanuel Celler, Sol Bloom, and Samuel Dickstein, though chairmen of important committees, were helpless against the massed weight of opposition from the State Department and widespread indifference and hostility among southern and western members of Congress. Nor was this indifference and hostility confined to Washington. A Gallup poll in early 1939 found that only 16 percent of the population approved of the proposal to rescue twenty thousand children.”
Howe points out that “Anti-Semitism, fanned by demagogues like Father Coughlin (a Catholic priest who would attack Jews on his popular radio program) played its part”; however, he also points out:
“The final responsibility rests on Franklin Roosevelt. As both Wyman and Feingold show in overwhelming detail - it takes strong nerves to read their dispassionate accounts – President Roosevelt never tried to exert moral leadership on the refugee issue, rallying the people on behalf of humane rescue and appealing to the deep if latent sentiments of decency in the American character.”
It is now known that Roosevelt and the State Department even tried to keep the news about the genocide of the Jews from reaching the American public, and Howe adds:
By the time of the Holocaust itself, writes Feingold, “the Administration’s reluctance to publicly acknowledge that a mass murder operation was taking place [in Germany and Eastern Europe] went far in keeping American public opinion ignorant and therefore unaroused, while it helped convince men like Goebbels [the Nazi propaganda chief] that the allies approved or were at least indifferent to the fate of the Jews.”
Nevertheless, the march of the rabbis on Washington, together with other creative publicity efforts by the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, did help to awaken the conscience of America during the Holocaust by letting Americans know the truth about the genocide in Europe. As a result, the mood in Congress changed, and public pressure, as well as pressure behind the scenes, led to the creation of the War Refugee Board towards the end of the war, despite the opposition of Roosevelt and his cronies. This serves as a reminder that the American people can stand up for life and justice, when their conscience is aroused. The comments which appear below discuss the relevance of this message to the threat of another holocaust which faces us today.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (see below)
As we know, the “virus” of anti-Jewish hatred is spreading all over the world, and some recent developments remind us that America is not immune to this virus. In addition, the leadership of Iran, while denying the existence of the Holocaust which murdered six million Jews, has promised to annihilate the six million citizens of Israel through nuclear weapons, God forbid. They have even expressed a fanatical willingness to sacrifice the lives of many of their own people for the sake of their “holy war” against the Jews and the West.
Many of us are concerned about the danger of global warming; however, the danger of global heating as a result of a nuclear holocaust, God forbid, may be more imminent and even more dangerous.
Just as the European nations refused to take meaningful action against Nazi Germany during the 1930’s and allowed Germany to gain the power which would later bring great destruction to the world, so too, the European nations of our era are refusing to take meaningful action against Iran, and are allowing it to continue to develop its nuclear weapons of destruction. Will America choose to follow the path of the European nations, or will it find the wisdom and the courage to take a different path? Only the Creator knows. In the meanwhile, let us pray that the Creator Who is the unifying source of all life save us from the evil messengers of death that are threatening our people and the world.
2. In a future letter, I hope to address the special role of our own people during this crisis.
3. You are invited to visit the updated archive on our website which now has most of the previous letters in this series.