by Dr. Rafael Medoff
During the Holocaust, one of the strongest voices in Washington for rescue of refugees was one of the unlikeliest– Elbert D. Thomas, a former Mormon missionary from Utah.
Thomas had little to gain from standing up for the Jews. There were few Jewish voters in Utah, and little public interest in U.S. government action to aid refugees from Hitler. But Thomas chose principles over politics, which is why my organization, The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, has undertaken to seek public recognition for his humanitarianism. As a result, April 8, 2005, has been proclaimed by the governor of Utah as “Elbert Thomas Day.”
To get a better understanding of what motivated Thomas, I recently met with his daughter, Esther Thomas Grover, who has lived on Linden Lane in Silver Spring for more than sixty years.
Esther, 91, vividly recalls her father’s unusual career. Thomas grew up in Salt Lake City in the late 1800s, where his family experienced prejudice because of their Mormon beliefs–which have shaped his sympathy for the Jews. From 1907-1912, Thomas was a leader of the Mormon Church’s Mission in Japan.
On his way home from Japan, Thomas visited Turkish-occupied Palestine. Seeing the biblical holy sites and the efforts of the early Zionist pioneers made him a Zionist. “The idea of the Jews gathering from round the world and creating their homeland is part of our religion,” Mrs. Grover noted. Her daughter Jane, who joined us for the conversation, cherishes a ring her grandfather gave her, which has a stone he brought from the Sea of Galilee.
After completing his Ph.D. and teaching at the University of Utah, Thomas plunged into politics in 1932, winning election to the first of three terms in the U.S. Senate. Esther worked in her father’s Senate office as a typist and file clerk.
She told me about her father’s visit to Germany in 1934, when Thomas “saw first-hand what Hitler was doing to the Jews and when he came back he spoke about it, warning that Hitler was a danger,” she said. “But nobody wanted to believe him.”
When news of the Nazi mass murder of Europe’s Jews was confirmed in 1942, Thomas called for U.S. rescue action. He called the rescue issue and Jewish statehood “the last question on which we can afford to be silent or evasive.” Esther told me that she would often go hear her father speak on the floor of the Senate. “He was a strong and convincing speaker,” she said, recalling with pride how he spoke out about the plight of the Jews.
Thomas became active in the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, a lobbying group led by Jewish activist Peter Bergson. He signed on to newspaper ads criticizing the Allies’ refugee policy, and co-chaired Bergson’s 1943 conference on rescue, which challenged the Roosevelt administration’s claim that nothing could be done to help the Jews except winning the war. Although a loyal Democrat and New Dealer, the Utah Senator boldly broke ranks with FDR over the refugees.
Thomas played a key role in advancing a Bergson-initiated Congressional resolution calling for creation of a government rescue agency. Senator Tom Connally of Texas, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stalled the resolution, but when he took ill one day, Thomas quickly introduced the measure, which passed unanimously.
Meanwhile, senior aides to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. had discovered that State Department officials had been obstructing rescue opportunities. Armed with this information, Morgenthau went to FDR in January 1944, to convince him that “you have either got to move very fast, or the Congress of the United States will do it for you.” FDR responded by establishing the War Refugee Board.
During the final fifteen months of the war, the Board played a major role in saving some 200,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews. Among other things, it helped finance the life-saving work of the famous Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.
In 1945, Senator Thomas visited the Allied-liberated Nazi death camps. There he came face to face with the horrors about which he had spoken so passionately on the Senate floor.
Esther Grover told me about the day her father returned from that trip. “It was the first time I had ever seen my father unshaven,” she recalled. “He was so terribly distressed by what he had seen, that he didn’t follow his regular routine. The camps left an impression on him that he couldn’t shake.”
In high schools in Utah on “Elbert Thomas Day,” students will learn about this extraordinary role model, a man whose humanitarian voice was not stifled by political considerations. But as his daughter in Silver Spring reminded me, Thomas’s good deeds are a model not just for students in Utah, but for young people everywhere who need to learn to “speak their conscience, and do the right thing, no matter what.”
(Published exclusively in the Washington Jewish Week – April 8, 2005)