A Poet’s Plea to U.S. Jews About the Holocaust

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Sixty years ago this week, a poet from Jerusalem tried desperately to stir American Jewish leaders to respond more energetically to the ongoing slaughter of European Jewry. But his anguished cry of conscience faced a formidable wall of opposition.

Leib Jaffe was a widely-respected Hebrew poet as well as a one-time editor of the newspaper Ha’aretz and a tireless fundraiser for the Zionist movement. In December 1942, he arrived in New York on a fundraising mission, just as the news of the Nazi genocide was being confirmed by the Allies.

Despite the realization that at least two million Jews had been massacred, American Jewish leaders responded hesitantly. Some assumed that nothing could be done to help European Jewry until the Allied armies defeated the Nazis. Others feared that pushing for U.S. action to rescue refugees would arouse antisemitism. In addition, Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress, were strong supporters of President Roosevelt and the New Deal, and opposed criticizing any aspect of FDR’s policies.

In a letter that he sent to Rabbi Wise in early 1943, the poet minced no words: “The last cry of agony of our people comes to us. The flower of our people–the bearers of Jewish culture–is destroyed…We cannot be silent. Jewish history will never forgive it. The blood of our brethren cries out to us.” Jaffe pleaded with Wise to mobilize “hundreds of thousands of Jews into the streets to express their grief and indignation.” Wise did not reply.

As the summer wore on and the news of Nazi atrocities multiplied, Jaffe decided to go where poets did not normally tread–a meeting of the Joint Emergency Committee on European Jewish Affairs, the umbrella group set up by mainstream Jewish organizations to discuss how to respond to the Nazi genocide.

Sixty years ago this week, Leib Jaffe rose before the assembled Jewish leadership and, with a poet’s passion, tried to stir their souls:

“[I] cannot understand how American Jewry can keep quiet upon their hearing the last dying groans of European Jewry … We have to do something that goes beyond the norm, an event as great as the tragedy that has befallen us, an event that will waken the spirit of the quiet Jews and will shock the cold and cruel world … God shall never forgive us if we do not raise our voices at this time.”

Jaffe urged the Jewish leaders to organize “mass demonstrations” by Jews and Christians, and to “get hundreds of rabbis out of their houses so that they march in the demonstration with Torah scrolls in their hands. From every synagogue in the nation of Israel, there should be a voice crying out in protest.”

Jaffe’s plea did not have the desired effect. Rabbi Wise’s close ally, World Jewish Congress co-chairman Nahum Goldmann, derided Jaffe’s call for demonstrations, asserting (according to Jaffe’s account) that “in Washington they would not like such a demonstration, that they are already tired of us, and that some Senators have expressed their displeasure.”

Jaffe would have to look elsewhere for Jewish activism–and soon he found it. In letters to friends later that summer, Jaffe reported that the Bergson Group –led by former followers of Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky– had organized an “Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe.” The event featured “some of the greatest writers in the United States, leaders of American public opinion, and American political leaders of both parties,” and had attracted widespread publicity for the idea that rescue was still possible.

Although himself a lifelong Labor Zionist, Jaffe praised the rival Jabotinskyites for pushing the rescue issue. “This action was a revolt of young energetic men against the inactivity of the old men who cannot get out of their routine,” he wrote. Indeed, before long the Bergson group was doing what Jaffe had envisioned: just before Yom Kippur in 1943, Bergson organized a march of over 400 rabbis to the White House to plead for U.S. rescue action–the only such Jewish demonstration in the nation’s capitol during the Holocaust.

Nahum Goldmann’s prediction that such a demonstration would trigger a bad reaction in Washington proved erroneous. President Roosevelt did give the rabbis a cold shoulder, slipping out a rear exit of the White House in order to avoid seeing the protesters. But many prominent Members of Congress responded to the march with heartfelt sympathy, and they soon introduced a Bergson-inspired resolution calling for creation of a government agency to rescue refugees. Ultimately the resolution would ignite a controversy that would compel Roosevelt to establish that agency, the War Refugee Board. And in the final 18 months of the war, the Board’s activities –including financing the rescue work of Raoul Wallenberg– would save over 200,000 lives.

Poets do not often dabble in political strategizing, but Leib Jaffe’s instincts proved far sounder than those of many of his contemporaries. The Bergson group’s success demonstrated that Jaffe’s vision of mobilizing the masses to influence U.S. government policy was right on the mark. If mainstream Jewish leaders had heeded Jaffe and Bergson instead of dismissing them, who knows how much sooner the War Refugee Board might have been created, and how many more lives might have been saved…?

July 2003