A Thanksgiving Day When Jews Mourned

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

Sixty years ago this week, just before Thanksgiving Day, 1943, the American Jewish community lost one of the best friends it ever had in Congress. U.S. Senator W. Warren Barbour of New Jersey suddenly passed away at the age of 55, just as he was preparing to lead a fight to save Jewish refugees from Hitler by bringing them to the United States.

Warren Barbour had one of the most unusual backgrounds on Capitol Hill. Five decades before former pro basketball player Bill Bradley became the most famous American athlete to be elected to the United States Senate –also from New Jersey– Barbour rose from the boxing ring to the hallowed halls of the Senate.

Barbour grew up in Monmouth Beach, NJ, attended Princeton University, and then went to work in his father’s thread manufacturing business. But he had other interests as well. Standing six foot-two by the time he was 17, Barbour trained as a boxer in his spare time. And he excelled at it. By 1910, he was the national amateur heavyweight boxing champion of the United States and Canada. He won the title by knocking out an opponent in one of two bouts he fought on the same night–a feat virtually unheard-of in modern times.

Yielding to his parents’ pleas, Barbour spurned the chance to become a professional boxer, and instead devoted himself to his father’s company, eventually taking over as president. At the same time, he took an interest in local politics, and served a term as mayor of Rumson, New Jersey, from 1923-1928. His big break came when U.S. Senator Dwight Morrow died suddenly in 1931, and Barbour, a Republican, was appointed to replace him.

During his years on Capitol Hill, Barbour was not known to have any particular interest in matters of specifically Jewish concern, nor was foreign policy his speciality. Yet the plight of Europe’s Jews aroused his humanitarian sympathies. When 400 rabbis marched in Washington just before Yom Kippur in 1943, to urge U.S. intervention against the Holocaust, Senator Barbour was one of the handful of Members of Congress who came to the steps of the Capitol building to greet the protesters and express solidarity with their rescue campaign. President Roosevelt, by contrast, literally slipped out a rear exit of the White House that afternoon so as to avoid seeing the rabbis.

One week later, Barbour introduced a daring Senate resolution that was intended to bring about the first meaningful U.S. response to the Nazi genocide. (A parallel resolution was introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Samuel Dickstein of New York.) The bill called for the temporary admission to the United States of up to 100,000 people who were victims of “religious or racial persecution” at the hands of the Nazis. They would have been permitted to remain in America until six months after the end of the war.

The bill represented a startling departure from existing U.S. immigration policy, which limited newcomers to just two percent of the number of their countrymen who had been in America since the 1890 census. As the Nazi persecution of Jews intensified during the middle and late 1930s, the U.S. quota system kept out all but a handful of Jews–the annual quota for Germany and Austria, for example, was 27,370, and for Poland, just 6,542. And even those meager quota allotments were almost always under-filled, as the State Department instructed U.S. Consuls abroad to put every bureaucratic obstacle in the way of granting immigration visas.

It took real political courage for Barbour to introduce such a resolution. Public opinion polls showed that most Americans opposed even the temporary admission of more immigrants. And there were many loud voices in Congress who wanted to restrict immigration even further or ban it altogether. Yet instead of going along with the crowd, Warren Barbour provided moral leadership by pressing the Roosevelt administration to aid the refugees.

Six weeks after Barbour introduced his resolution, tragedy struck. Just before Thanksgiving, he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 55.

Warren Barbour’s work was not in vain. His expression of solidarity with the rabbinical protesters provided additional credibility and stature to the rescue march. His introduction of the immigration resolution helped sensitize the public and Congress to the plight of Europe’s Jews and the need for emergency rescue action. These efforts, combined with incessant protests and lobbying by Jewish activists (chiefly the Bergson group), made it possible for Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. to convince FDR, in early 1944, to establish the War Refugee Board, a U.S. government rescue agency along the lines that Members of Congress had been demanding. During the last fifteen months of the war, the WRB sponsored a number of crucial life-saving activities –including the work of rescue hero Raoul Wallenberg– that helped save over 200,000 lives.

As they sat down to their Thanksgiving dinners that year, those American Jews who had followed Warren Barbour’s refugee immigration effort mourned the loss of a true friend, plucked so suddenly and unexpectedly from this world. And they gave thanks that in Jewry’s darkest hour, there were still men of courage who refused to be silent.

November 2003