A Rosh Hashana Controversy in 1944

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Every year, on the eve of Rosh Hashana, American presidents, candidates for office, and assorted other VIPs send the Jewish community their wishes for a happy new year. Under ordinary circumstances, such greetings are welcomed in the spirit of friendliness in which they are offered.

But on Rosh Hashana,1944 (5705), one Jewish organization took a very different approach.

That year, while Jews around the country dipped their apples in honey to symbolize their hopes for a sweet new year, the American public received a vivid reminder that for the Jewish people, it was, in fact, a bitter holiday. Readers of the New York Times, the Philadelphia Record, and other major dailies opened their morning paper to find a large advertisement headlined “What’s So Happy About This New Year?”

In the center of the ad was a riveting illustration of a ragged European Jewish refugee child, drawn by the renowned artist Arthur Szyk.

“As the Jewish New Year approached, greetings and messages of good will” were issued by the various Allied leaders, the ad began. “What’s happy about this New Year for us if one of the foremost democratic allies [Britain]… still blockades the sole practical route of escape [from Hitler Europe]–through the Balkans into Palestine?”

“What’s so happy about a Jewish New Year which mourns millions of our people brutally murdered, burned alive, asphyxiated in gas chambers, thrown, still living, into burial trenches, while the governments of our friendly nations dilly-dallied and split hairs about matters of rescue?… What has happened to us will go down in history as democracy’s greatest disgrace …

“Maybe what we say does not sound very tactful to your ears. But this is no time for tact. It is now time to act–where governments have been remiss in their first human duty to save lives…”

The end of World War II –and Hitler’s war against the Jews– was still months away, and several million Jews were still in danger of becoming the Nazis’ final victims unless a safe haven could be found for them. British Mandatory Palestine was the obvious choice, but England had shut off all but a trickle of Jewish immigration, in order to appease the Arab world.

The ad concluded with a powerful appeal to the American public:

“You have one last chance to do something for a people who will not know happiness this New Year, nor next New Year, nor for generations … Let your government and your Congress know that vague promises and polite good wishes are not enough. Let them know that we can accept New Year’s greetings only in the form of rescue–in the form of a haven–open the gates of Palestine–so that we can live…”

The stunning newspaper ad was sponsored by the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, a group established by Peter Bergson, a young Zionist activist from Jerusalem. During 1943-44, Bergson’s group employed a variety of dramatic tactics to arouse awareness of the Holocaust and pressure the Roosevelt administration to intervene. They staged a dramatic pageant called “We Will Never Die,” sponsored more than 200 full-page newspaper ads, and organized a march of 400 rabbis in Washington, D.C.

Bergson was particularly adept at what we today call “coalition politics.” He brought together Americans from all walks of life who disagreed with each other on many issues, but all shared a common sympathy for the goal of rescuing Jews from Nazi Europe.

The “What’s So Happy About This New Year?” ad, for example, featured a long list of Bergson group supporters, including singer Eddie Cantor; Harvard criminologist Sheldon Glueck; poet and Academy Award winning screenwriter (for “A Star is Born”) Dorothy Parker; Unitarian Church official Rev. Albert Dieffenbach; one of the most prominent Orthodox rabbis in America, Eliezer Silver; Nobel Literature Prize laureate Sigrid Undset; actress Stella Adler; science fiction writer and naval historian Fletcher Pratt; and the governors of Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Rhode Island. A coalition this broad could not be easily ignored.

The Bergson group’s most important initiative was the introduction of a Congressional resolution which helped bring about (in early 1944) the creation of the War Refugee Board, a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees from Hitler. Although understaffed and underfinanced, the Board played a crucial role in saving the lives of more than 200,000 Jews. Among other things, the Board helped finance the work of rescue hero Raoul Wallenberg.

Many more could have been saved if the Roosevelt administration had shown a little interest. On September 13, 1944, just one week before the “What’s So Happy About This New Year?” ad was published, a fleet of 96 American ‘Liberator’ bombers struck German oil factories less than five miles from the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Stray bombs even accidentally hit an SS barracks and the railway line leading into the death camp. There were many other such raids on German industrial sites near Auschwitz in late 1944 and early 1945. But the gas chambers and crematoria remained untouched.

The Roosevelt administration knew very well about the mass murder of Jews in Auschwitz, and in preparation for bombing the factories, U.S. pilots had taken detailed aerial reconnaissance photos which also showed the mass-murder machinery. But U.S. planes were never ordered to bomb the gas chambers–because FDR feared he would be accused of deviating from the war effort, and because saving Jews would have resulted in more pressure to let the refugees come to the United States.

It was indeed the bitterest of all Rosh Hashanas that year, as the inmates of Auschwitz, including 16-year-old Elie Wiesel, watched Allied planes dropping bombs nearby and hoped against hope that the gas chambers were on their list of targets. They were not.

September 2003