The Allies’ Refugee Conference–A “Cruel Mockery”

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Shortly before Passover, 1940, Jews serving in forced-labor battalions in Nazi-occupied Warsaw were suddenly ordered to begin a new task: dragging sacks of bricks to construction sites around the city where they would begin erecting giant walls to border the planned Jewish ghetto. Like their ancestors in Egypt, who were ordered to supply the bricks to use in their slave labor, the Jews in Warsaw were compelled to provide the bricks with which the walls of the Warsaw Ghetto would be built.

In a macabre parody of the Jewish experience in ancient Egypt, Passover in Warsaw marked the beginning of an important new phase in the Nazis’ enslavement of the Jews. Unlike the original Passover saga, in which slavery was followed by freedom, the enslavement of Warsaw Jewry was to be a prelude to their annihilation.

Two years later, during the summer of 1942, more than 300,000 Jews were rounded up in Warsaw. Lured to the city’s train stations by the offer of a few scraps of food, the starving, demoralized Jewish masses could not know that their destination was the Treblinka death camp. By early 1943, only 35,000 Jews remained alive in Warsaw.

But as the German army prepared to wipe out the remains of the ghetto in April 1943, young Jewish fighters launched an armed revolt with crude weapons made from the sparse materials available. (Jewish fighters in the Vilna ghetto, lacking sand to fill the sandbags needed for their own battle against the Nazis, filled them with the large, leather-bound Talmudic volumes from the city’s famous yeshivas–a dramatic, if unconventional, confirmation of the Talmud’s role as “the central pillar of Jewish life,” as it has been called.)

The Germans regarded Jews as racial weaklings, and had become accustomed to the sight of Jews passively going to their deaths. Now Jewish fighters in Warsaw were setting German tanks aflame with molotov cocktails and engaging the startled Nazi troops in running street battles.

Thousands of miles away, on the very day the Warsaw Ghetto revolt erupted, representatives of the American and British governments were meeting in Bermuda to discuss the refugee problem. But despite twelve days of discussions, the conference which was supposed to help rescue the refugees produced no concrete plans for rescue. The U.S. delegates reaffirmed the Roosevelt administration’s refusal to take in more refugees, while the British delegates would not even discuss the possibility of opening Palestine to Jews fleeing Hitler.

The Bermuda fiasco ignited a firestorm of controversy. “To 5,000,000 Jews in the Nazi Death-Trap, Bermuda Was a Cruel Mockery,” declared the headline of a New York Times advertisement sponsored by the Bergson group, a committee of Jewish activists led by Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook), a militant Zionist emissary from Palestine.

While mainstream Jewish organizations were often at odds with Bergson, they were on the same side in denouncing Bermuda. Dr. Israel Goldstein, president of the Synagogue Council of America, blasted the conference as “not only a failure, but a mockery,” and bluntly added that “the victims are not being rescued because the democracies do not want them.” The Labor Zionist magazine Jewish Frontier charged that the delegates to Bermuda had acted “in the spirit of undertakers.”

On Capitol Hill, too, angry voices were heard. Congressman Emanuel Celler denounced the Bermuda conference as “diplomatic tight-rope walking.” His colleague Samuel Dickstein declared: “Not even the pessimists among us expected such sterility.”

Until the Bermuda conference, most American Jews and most Members of Congress had accepted FDR’s “rescue through victory” approach–the claim that the only way to aid the Jews of Europe was to defeat the Nazis on the battlefield. But in the wake of Bermuda, there was a growing conviction that by the time the war was won, there might be no European Jews left to save.

Galvanized by Bermuda, the Bergson activists dramatically intensified their efforts to bring about an American response to the Holocaust. Bergson’s Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe, held in New York City in July 1943, brought together dozens of diplomatic and military experts to publicize specific, concrete ways to aid European Jewry. The Bergson group’s advertisements, with headlines such as “Action–Not Pity–Can Save Millions Now” and “How Well Are You Sleeping? Is There Something You Could Have Done to Save Millions of Innocent People from Torture and Death?”, appeared in newspapers from coast to coast. A dramatic march on Washington by 400 Orthodox rabbis, just before Yom Kippur, brought the rescue issue to the gates of the White House. And a full-scale lobbying effort by the Bergsonites on Capitol Hill culminated, in October 1943, in the introduction of a Congressional resolution urging the creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue Jewish refugees.

The Congressional hearings on the rescue resolution set off a firestorm of controversy when a State Department official presented testimony that wildly exaggerated the number of refugees who had already been permitted to enter the United States. Meanwhile, Treasury Department officials had uncovered a pattern of attempts by the State Department to obstruct rescue opportunities and block the flow of Holocaust information to the U.S.

Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., armed with this information, went to Roosevelt in January 1944 and warned him that Congress was likely to pass the rescue resolution unless the White House acted. Roosevelt pre-empted Congress by establishing the new agency that the resolution had sought–the War Refugee Board.

The Board’s activities, which included sponsoring the rescue work of Raoul Wallenberg, saved the lives of over 200,000 people during the final 18 months of the war. Of course, it was too little, too late–but those were 200,000 more lives than would have been saved if the spirit of the Bermuda Conference had continued to guide American policy.

April 2003