by Ronald Bleier
From time to time I get into conversations which allow me to tell the story of my family’s immigration to the U.S. when I was an infant during WWII. Late in the war, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt agreed to accept about 1000 mostly Jewish refugees into the U.S. for temporary asylum. My parents, my brother and I were among these refugees. We traveled to the U.S. by ship from Italy to New York in August 1944. Upon arrival we were interned at an old army barracks in Oswego, N.Y. for almost two years. (After the war, Congress passed, and President Truman signed legislation that allowed us to remain in the U.S.)
A special hero of this story was a woman called Ruth Gruber, who had been working in the Interior Dept under Harold Ickes. As she relates in her book on the subject, Haven (1983) (later made into an undistinguished TV movie), she bravely volunteered to be our liaison with the government, to join us in Italy and accompany us to the U.S. Wonderfully capable and compassionate, she was loved and revered by all for her untiring and invaluable efforts on our behalf.
It so happens that Ms Gruber, now about 95 years old, is a New Yorker and my family and I met her in the late 1980s in connection with a reunion of the Oswego refugees. We met one evening at her apartment on the West Side of Manhattan and then we went to dinner together. She had written several books, among them a novel called Rebecca, that I happened to browse while at her apartment. I read the first page which described an Arab raid on a terrified Zionist kibbutz in Palestine in the pre-1948 period. It was clear that the story was written from the Jewish settler’s point of view.
Some time after our dinner evening together, I telephoned Ms. Gruber and raised the question of Zionism’s record when it came to the human and national rights of the Palestinians. The tone of our conversation remained friendly, but she was very clear that there was little I could say that would cause her to change her strong pro-Israeli and pro-Zionist views.
In Haven, she tells the story of how she volunteered to join our refugee group in wartime Italy, and she gives some background as to how FDR made the decision to shelter 1,000 refugees. Upon receiving permission to join the mission as our liaison, she did some research in State Department files.
According to Gruber (Haven, Ch.2), President Roosevelt was forced into making some kind of demonstration on behalf of European, especially Jewish, refugees because of the embarrassing publication of war time cables from the U.S. Embassy in Switzerland to Washington relating to what later became known as the Holocaust. According to Gruber, in these documents, the State Department in Washington, D.C. revealed its disinterest if not outright anti-Semitic hostility toward the mostly Jewish victims of Nazi persecution by ordering their colleagues in Switzerland to discontinue sending Washington such news.
In Gruber’s version, the shocking disclosure of these communications empowered members of the Jewish community to apply to a reluctant (and she implies, anti-Semitic) President Roosevelt, with a proposal to save hundreds of thousands of European Jews. In Gruber’s version, FDR finally agreed that the U.S. provide temporary haven for 1,000 refugees.
I believed Gruber’s story and repeated it often to friends. Only later did I learn that the very opposite was the truth. The real FDR was very much aware of and troubled by the plight of the wartime refugees and he proposed a plan to save half a million or more. He envisioned an agreement with such countries as the UK, Canada, Australia, and others with the U.S. and the U.K. leading the way by each taking in 150,000 “displaced persons” as they were then called. FDR’s emissary for this plan managed to get agreement in principle from the British but in the end the plan was vetoed by the Zionists. The Jewish leadership were afraid that providing haven for European Jewish refugees anywhere but Palestine would be at cross purposes with their plan for a Jewish state there.
Noted anti-Zionist author Alfred Lilienthal tells this story in his important and effectively buried book What Price Israel.
Here’s Lilienthal’s version
President Roosevelt was deeply concerned with the plight of the European refugees and thought that all the free nations of the world ought to accept a certain number of immigrants, irrespective of race, creed, color or political belief. The President hoped that the rescue of 500,000 Displaced Persons could be achieved by such a generous grant of a worldwide political asylum. In line with this humanitarian idea, Morris Ernst, New York attorney and close friend of the President went to London in the middle of the war to see if the British would take in 100,000 or 200,000 uprooted people. The President had reasons to assume that Canada, Australia and the South American countries would gladly open their doors. And if such good examples were set by other nations, Mr. Roosevelt felt that the American Congress could be "educated to go back to our traditional position of asylum." The key was in London. Would Morris Ernst succeed there? Mr. Ernst came home to report, and this is what took place in the White House (as related by Mr. Ernst to a Cincinnati audience in 1950):
Ernst: "We are at home plate. That little island [and it was during the second Blitz that he visited England] on a properly representative program of a World Immigration Budget, will match the United States up to 150,000.
Roosevelt: "150,000 to England—150,000 to match that in the United States—pick up 200,000 or 300,000 elsewhere, and we can start with half a million of these oppressed people."
A week later, or so, Mr. Ernst and his wife again visited the President.
Roosevelt (turning to Mrs. Ernst): "Margaret, can't you get me a Jewish Pope? I cannot stand it any more. I have got to be careful that when Stevie Wise leaves the White House he doesn't see Joe Proskauer on the way in." Then, to Mr. Ernst: "Nothing doing on the program. We can't put it over because the dominant vocal Jewish leadership of America won't stand for it."
"It's impossible! Why?" asked Ernst.
Roosevelt: "They are right from their point of view. The Zionist movement knows that Palestine is, and will be for some time, a remittance society. They know that they can raise vast sums for Palestine by saying to donors, 'There is no other place this poor Jew can go.' But if there is a world political asylum for all people irrespective of race, creed or color, they cannot raise their money. Then the people who do not want to give the money will have an excuse to say 'What do you mean, there is no place they can go but Palestine? They are the preferred wards of the world."
Morris Ernst, shocked, first refused to believe his leader and friend. He began to lobby among his influential Jewish friends for this world program of rescue, without mentioning the President's or the British reaction. As he himself has put it: "I was thrown out of parlors of friends of mine who very frankly said 'Morris, this is treason. You are undermining the Zionist movement.' " He ran into the same reaction amongst all Jewish groups and their leaders. Everywhere he found "a deep, genuine, often fanatically emotional vested interest in putting over the Palestinian movement" in men "who are little concerned about human blood if it is not their own."
This response of Zionism ended the remarkable Roosevelt effort to rescue Europe's Displaced Persons.