A Holocaust Conference That Saved Lives

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

The history of the Holocaust is marked by a number of conferences that scholars regard as turning points.

At the 1938 Evian Conference, the United States and its allies declared their refusal to take in more than a token handful of Jewish refugees, despite the increasing persecution of German Jews. At the 1942 Wannsee Conference, Nazi leaders designed the administrative machinery to carry out genocide. At the 1943 Bermuda Conference, the Allies reviewed the refugee problem and, despite the ongoing annihilation of millions of Jews, again refused to take meaningful steps to aid them.

The one conference that is usually overlooked is the one that actually helped save Jews from the Holocaust.

Sixty years ago this week, more than 1500 delegates gathered at the Hotel Commodore in New York City to attend the week-long Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe.

The conference was the brainchild of a Zionist emissary from Palestine known as Peter Bergson (his real name was Hillel Kook). Bergson’s political action committee sought to arouse America to take action against the Holocaust. He used protest tactics that are familiar today but were less common for Jews in America in the 1940s, such as full-page newspaper ads, public rallies, and lobbying on Capitol Hill.

The Roosevelt administration rejected calls for U.S. intervention on behalf of Europe’s Jews. “Nothing can be done to save these helpless unfortunates except through the invasion of Europe, the defeat of the German army, and the breaking of the German power,” a senior State Department official told American Jews in 1943. “There is no other way.”

But there *were* other ways, and the Bergson group was determined to prove it.

The five-day Emergency Conference, which began on July 20, 1943, featured panel after panel of experts outlining ways to save Jews from Hitler. A panel on transportation focused on specific routes that could be used to take Jews out of Axis territory. Experts on relief outlined ways to organize food shipments to the Jews. The panel on international relations urged U.S. pressure on non-belligerent countries to give temporary shelter to Jewish refugees. Military experts drew up a list of steps that could be taken without impairing the war effort, such as Allied warnings of immediate military reprisals for atrocities against the Jews. A panel of rabbis and Christian clergymen focused on the need for protests by the Vatican and other religious leaders. The panel of journalists, editors, and authors discussed ways to rouse American public opinion.

The conference received widespread coverage in the national press and on radio. This was important, because news of the Holocaust was often relegated to the back pages and Allied statements referring to the victims of oppression frequently failed to acknowledge that the Jews were the Nazis’ primary victims. As Arthur Szyk, the famous artist (and Bergson supporter) put it: “They treat us as a pornographical subject. You cannot discuss it in polite society.”

In addition to gaining wide publicity for the idea that rescue was possible, Bergson’s conference demonstrated that he was building a broad coalition on the rescue issue. “Coalition politics,” a frequently-heard term in our own times, was less well understood in the 1940s, and American Jewish groups often worked only with those groups with which they had the most ideological affinity.

Bergson, by contrast, had put together a coalition of individuals and organizations that all agreed on the need for rescue action, even if they disagreed with him, or with each other, on other issues. The 19 co-chairmen of the conference included conservatives such as former president Herbert Hoover (who addresed the conference by radio) as well as liberals such as American Labor Party leader Dean Alfange; Republican Senator Elbert Thomas as well as Democratic Senator Edwin Johnson; Roosevelt cabinet member Harold Ickes as well as Roosevelt’s arch-critic William Randolph Hearst.

The speakers on the panels represented a broad cross-section of American society, among them prominent journalists, labor leaders, military personnel, Members of Congress, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and the executive secretary of the NAACP. A coalition this broad could not be easily ignored by the White House, especially on the eve of an election year.

The Emergency Conference was a critical component of Bergson’s year-long campaign to persuade the Roosevelt administration to recognize that the slaughter of the Jews was indeed an emergency. Bergson’s efforts 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 public controversy caused by Congressional hearings on the resolution, combined with behind-the-scenes pressure from Treasury Department officials, convinced Roosevelt, in January 1944 to establish the rescue agency the resolution had sought–the War Refugee Board.

The War Refugee Board’s activities, which included financing the rescue work of Raoul Wallenberg, saved the lives of over 200,000 people during the final 18 months of the war. These efforts demonstrated that Bergson had been right all along–rescue was indeed possible. How many more might have been rescued if FDR had heeded their pleas earlier?

July 2003