Passover 1943: A Congressman Who Spoke Out for Rescue

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

On the eve of Passover, 1943, officials of the British and American governments met in Bermuda to discuss the plight of the Jews in Hitler Europe. As Jews the world over gathered for the Passover seder, recalling the miracles that brought about the ancient Jewish exodus from Egypt, they prayed for a miracle in their own time–a decision by the Allies to help bring about an exodus of Jewish refugees from Europe.

It was not to be. Even though the Allies knew that more than two million Jews already had been slaughtered, and that Hitler intended to annihilate all the remaining Jews in Europe, they were not prepared to intervene. At Bermuda, the British reaffirmed that they would not open Palestine to refugees, for fear of angering the Arab world. The Roosevelt administration reaffirmed that it would not take in more refugees–even though the existing U.S. immigration quotas were left 90% unfilled during the war years. Nearly 190,000 quota places sat unused.

A handful of brave individuals did speak out for rescue. One was U.S. Representative Emanuel Celler, Democrat of Brooklyn, who boldly challenged the Roosevelt administration even though he was a staunch New Dealer and represented voters who overwhelmingly supported FDR. Moreover, he served as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee–a position he knew he might be jeopardizing if he angered the president.

Yet on the day after Passover, Celler became the first public figure to denounce the Bermuda farce. The delegates in Bermuda were engaged in “more diplomatic tight-rope walking,” at a time when “thousands of Jews are being killed daily,” he protested.

Throughout 1943, Celler spoke out. At a Jewish War Veterans convention in April, he called FDR’s immigration policy “cold and cruel,” and blasted “the glacier-like attitude of the State Department.” Celler also tried to encourage American Jews to take a more active approach–he urged the war veterans to “speak out, spur on those in high places and low places so that the word may go to those in authority to help to the hilt.”

Challenging Roosevelt’s claim that nothing could be done to aid the Jews except to win the war, Celler declared in one speech: “Victory, the spokesmen say, is the only solution…After victory, the disembodied spirites will not present so difficult a problem; the dead no longer need food, drink and asylum.”

Celler was adept at snappy phrases that went straight to the point–what are now called sound bites. He once described the State Department as having “a heartbeat muffled in protocol.” When the Bermuda meetings ended, he said in a radio address: “The Bermuda Conference has adjourned, but the problem has not adjourned.” On another occasion, he characterized Bermuda as “a bloomin’ fiasco” –a shot at another Jewish Congressman, Sol Bloom (D-NY), who supported the State Department and served on the U.S. delegation to Bermuda. Although his words often stung, Celler never backed down. “I do not measure my words because the hangmen do not tarry,” he explained.

In late 1943, the Jewish activists known as the Bergson group initiated the introduction of a Congressional resolution calling for creation of a U.S. government agency to rescue refugees from Hitler. Rep. Bloom tried to stall the resolution by insisting on hearings and arranging for the State Department’s top immigration policymaker, Breckinridge Long, to testify. But the hearings took a surprising turn when Long presented wildly exaggerated statistics regarding the number of refugees who had been allowed into the United States.

Celler led the charge to expose Long. He leaked incriminating sections of Long’s testimony to the press, and publicly denounced Long in numerous speeches and interviews. Celler said Long’s professions of sympathy for the refugees were nothing more than “crocodile tears,” since he was the one blocking their admission. An editorial in The Nation used Celler’s phrase in its criticism of Long. “If men of the temperament and philosophy of Long continue in control of immigration admission,” Celler said, “we might as well take down that plaque from the Statue of Liberty…”

Unbeknownst to Celler, during the preceding months senior aides to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. had discovered that State Department officials had been secretly obstructing rescue opportunities and blocking transmission of Holocaust-related information to the United States. The controversy on Capitol Hill made it possible for Morgenthau to bring his aides’ disturbing discovery directly to the president. In January 1944, he met with FDR, presented a report about the State Department’s actions, and warned that the rescue issue was becoming “a boiling pot on the Hill.” Anxious to avoid an election-year scandal over the refugee issue, Roosevelt heeded Moregenthau and did what the Congressional resolution sought–he created the War Refugee Board.

During the final fifteen months of the war, the War Refugee Board played a key role in the rescue of some 200,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews, in part by facilitating and financing the life-saving work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest. Congressman Emanuel Celler did not have a direct hand in those rescue operations, but his compassionate heart and sharp tongue clearly played an important part in the events which began on Passover, 1943, and culminated in the saving of hundreds of thousands of lives one year later.

April 2004